Prize-Winning Author Says Fossil Fuels Not Going Away Soon

Comments from a recent interview with Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and member of President Obama’s energy subcommittee examining shale gas (see MDN’s previous article about Yergin).

Mr. Yergin was interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer and had these observations:

"On a worldwide basis, about 80 percent of energy today is oil, gas, and coal. You say, what’s it going to be in 2030? Most studies say somewhere about 75 percent of the bigger pot."

So after taking five years to write an 800-page book that explores everything from wind turbines to electric vehicles, is Mr. Yergin convinced we’re stuck with greenhouse-gas-producing fuels?

"I’m convinced there will be major changes," he said. "But given how massive the energy system is, how complex it is, things just don’t happen overnight."

Existing energy systems contain an enormous amount of embedded capital. New technologies have long lead times. Automobile fleets take a decade to turn over. And world energy demand is expected to grow 35 to 40 percent by 2030.

Wind turbines, after decades of development, are only now cost-competitive, he said. Photovoltaic cells, first used in spacecraft in 1958, still require subsidies.

"It’s not a light switch where you can go from one to another," he said.

He is a skeptic of "peak oil" theorists, who believe the world is heading toward a catastrophic plunge in petroleum production. He said that the world has survived four previous pronouncements of the end of oil, starting with the 1886 prediction by the Pennsylvania state geologist that oil was "a temporary and vanishing phenomenon."

Mr. Yergin says that peak oil advocates don’t take into account improvements in extraction technologies and efficiencies in consumption that often arise during periods of rising prices and shortages.

Likewise, exploration companies using hydraulic fracturing techniques have discovered oil in shale in Texas and North Dakota, adding new reserves into the mix.

"I don’t know why [peak oil advocates] are so emotional about this issue," he said. "It’s just an analytic question. … U.S. oil supply is up 10 percent since 2008. We’re not necessarily low-cost oil, but new sources of oil are coming in."

Mr. Yergin is a member of a Department of Energy panel that examined the production of natural gas from deep formations like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. The committee in August called for improvements to hydraulic fracturing, but disappointed anti-drilling activists by endorsing shale-gas development.

"Shale gas has come on really fast," said Mr. Yergin. "But people don’t realize it’s 30 percent of our gas production. It’s not a question of whether to do it or not. It’s happened."*

Yergin presents devastating arguments and facts against the “we must all convert to renewables now” crowd. The facts? Fossil fuels are not going away any time soon. We all might as well embrace the cleanest burning fossil fuel—natural gas.

*Philadelphia Inquirer (Oct 4, 2011) – Author sees oil and gas sticking around for a while as new technologies develop