About the SA Blog Network

Plugged In

Plugged In

More than wires - exploring the connections between energy, environment, and our lives
Plugged In HomeAboutContact

What unconventional fuels tell us about the global energy system

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

The Japanese vessel Chikyu is part of research efforts to extract methane hydrates from the sea floor. Credit: IODP/JAMSTEC

Several days ago I finished reading Charles C. Mann’s article in The Atlantic titled “What If We Never Run Out Of Oil?”, a long-form discussion of the history and technology of established sources of energy like oil and natural gas, as well as relative newcomers from hydraulic fracturing or methane hydrates.

If you haven’t read it yet, please do so. It’s hard to sum up the article (which is quite lengthy – in the good way), but here are several main takeaways:

  • Fossil fuels will continue to be an important and dominant fuel source for the foreseeable future.
  • As history shows,  previously unattainable sources (oil in shale layers) or new sources (like methane hydrates) become more economical to extract and use or new technologies are developed allowing for extraction (which affect the economics).
  • Unconventional fuels are a Big Deal. The influx of relatively inexpensive shale oil and gas is influencing the global dynamics of energy supply, and we should expect more unconventional hydrocarbons.

The third point above deserves more attention.

In reading the criticism of Mann’s post, I get the sense of well-intentioned folks confronting an inconvenient truth: we are an energy-hungry society and there will be demand for more and more energy and we’ll find new ways of meeting that demand, likely with unconventional hydrocarbon resources. Technological advances and economics will make previously untapped resources available, as we have seen with hydraulic fracturing and (as Mann believes) we will see with methane hydrates (methane frozen in ice).

What really complicates matters is that energy sources are not isolated to one country or another. The criticisms I have read seem to downplay the global systems aspect of energy. Similar to a game of whack-a-mole, one cannot simply stomp out a carbon-intensive fuel in one part of the planet without having it appear halfway around the world.

This is apparent in Mann’s discussion of coal in light of cheap natural gas:

The U.S. coal industry has taken to complaining of a “war on coal.” But the economic hit has been less than one would expect; U.S. coal exports, mainly to Europe, almost doubled from 2009 to 2011. In the sort of development that irresistibly attracts descriptors like ironic, Germany, often touted as an environmental model for its commitment to solar and wind power, has expanded its use of coal, and as a result is steadily increasing its carbon-dioxide output.

I wrote about this in November 2012. The coal that the United States is not burning is not staying in the country. More and more of it is destined for Europe and Asia for both thermal power generation and metallurgical processes. Both are carbon-intensive (you are still burning coal). To say that “it doesn’t matter if we run out of oil, we won’t want to burn it anymore”, as one criticism of Mann’s article says (the same can be said for coal), misses the global systems aspect: the United States might not want to burn it, but someone else will.

To further emphasize the global energy system, I direct your attention to a recent article in Foreign Policy about the reversal of Russia’s “gas weapon”.

After years of bullying and strong-arming its neighbors, the Russian-controlled gas monopoly is now on the receiving end of the “gas weapon”. The gas weapon refers to Russia’s ability as an “energy superpower” to bend foes to its will by cutting off supplies of natural gas. Gazprom flexed its muscles in 2006, 2008 and again 2009, when it shut of natural gas to millions of Europeans during winter to make a point to middlemen in Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, and Moldova.

But Russia’s gas weapon is weakening, or even being turned on Russia with the influx of cheap, North American shale gas. Alexandros Petersen writes:

But in just the last two years, the tide has started to turn. Low energy prices across the globe are allowing consumers to use Russia’s “reverse dependence” on European markets against Gazprom. Russia’s export options outside Europe are increasingly limited, allowing European consumer to demand better terms. Meanwhile, Central Asia is no longer Moscow’s vassal, but has finally emerged as competition for cheap energy, with producers such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan not only willing to give consumers (still largely in East and South Asia) a better deal, but without treating them as former colonies to be manipulated.

The point is: unconventional energy sources are affecting the global energy system.

Mann is inclined to believe that methane hydrates will be a Big Deal in the coming years, and I agree. The pace of research and development, and what we know from the history of hydraulic fracturing, suggests that methane hydrates and other unconventional fuels warrant our attention. In an article for this blog, Melissa Lott wrote about the potential methane hydrate reserves – by some estimates about “15 times the amount of gas as the world’s shale deposits”. Throw in oil sands in Alberta, shale oil in Utah, and other unconventional sources all over the world, and the potential to disrupt global energy systems is a possibility. Many more years of carbon emissions is also a strong possibility.

Transitions to low-carbon fuels will likely need a global approach to externalities associated with burning the fuels. If carbon is the rationale, then a price on carbon (through a fee or an emissions trading scheme) is the most straightforward way to address this. That is one way to account for the economics of producers and consumers, technology investments, and global trade all in one go.


David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 24 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. RSchmidt 8:46 pm 05/21/2013

    CO2 hit 400ppm and we are developing new carbon fuel sources. But some of these sources contribute less CO2, at least on paper so it’s more like shooting ourselves with one bullet instead of two. A global CO2 credit trading market would help but we need to have solid sequester plans. Unfortunately, by the time the effects of AGW are so impactful that deniers have become as marginalized as Apollo landings deniers and flat earthers, the momentum will be too great for us to avert catastrophe. I think we are setting the value of L in the drake equation very low. Hopefully we represent an abysmal outlier.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Carlyle 9:41 pm 05/21/2013

    Once again you have provided us with a fact studded article. No floss, dross or spin. Thanks.

    Link to this
  3. 3. jimmybo 9:43 pm 05/21/2013

    During the second age of the dinosaurs the temps were much higher then now. According to latest findings so was the CO2 levels higher then they are today. During that time the bio-sphere was in a sort of run away. Will it be so bad?

    Link to this
  4. 4. SigmaEyes 9:45 pm 05/21/2013

    The BBC has been reporting on protests that are “shamming” large companies who farm international laws to legally avoid paying taxes.

    When major world powers such as the US, Britain, the EU, etc. fail to collect the basics such as income tax, the value added tax, or the corporation tax, then it does not bode well for a carbon tax; but I agree, something effective should internalize pollution and health care costs for fossil fuels- and it would make sense to significantly reduce subsidies.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Chryses 9:59 pm 05/21/2013


    The problem is a global problem. The “we” is the planet, not the U.S., or Europe, or … from the article above, “Similar to a game of whack-a-mole, one cannot simply stomp out a carbon-intensive fuel in one part of the planet without having it appear halfway around the world.”

    You, I, and those who find AGW persuasive may be frustrated by that fact, but you’ll not persuade the Chinese, Indians, or the billions of those emerging from grinding poverty that they’re better off without that electric generating plant or blast furnace. It simply won’t happen.

    Link to this
  6. 6. kebil 10:41 pm 05/21/2013

    Jimmybo: I don’t know what the temps and CO2 levels were during the age of dinosaurs, but natural climate change happens much slower than the current anthropogenic changes we see today. These slower changes gave the ecosystem some time to adapt and evolve, and so the result was not as traumatic as what the world we live in today is going to experience over the next few hundred years.

    Link to this
  7. 7. doug 1 11:55 pm 05/21/2013

    Conspicuously absent: Small Modular Reactors and other next generation nuclear technologies.

    Link to this
  8. 8. david123 7:34 am 05/22/2013

    There are two categories of GW deniers in my mind:
    1. Category One Deniers say that there is no global warming and/or that human activity is not responsible for any increase in global temperatures.
    2. Category Two Deniers are harder to detect because they aren’t proclaiming their denial overtly, but engaging in “denial by omission”. What they are omitting is the FACT that the ONLY solution to the GW problem is in MITIGATION, not legislation, and that if you really care about GW as a phenomenon (and not as some kind of weapon to be used against your own mental construct of “the evils of civilization”), then you would be focusing all your attention on mitigation, not control of economic activity.

    The very FACT of GW is inescapable. There are 2 ways to deny it:
    1. Say it doesn’t exist.
    2. Say it shouldn’t exist.

    It exists. Get over it. Let’s proceed with step 3: mitigation.

    Link to this
  9. 9. sault 11:35 am 05/22/2013

    Gosh, if we really want to test the Clathrate Gun Hypothesis and recreate the End Permian Mass Extinction, I guess I’d better get one of those one-way tickets to Mars before they’re all bought up! All joking aside, if we can’t even get a handle on methane leaks from hydraulic fracturing (fracking), then what makes us think we can keep them under control when extracting methane hydrates? What if we create massive anoxic conditions in the water column and start seeing runaway H2S-forming bacteria blooms?

    It just blows my mind that people are so eager to make a quick buck that they don’t think of the countless future generations that will have to deal with their short-sightedness.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Leroy 11:39 am 05/22/2013

    “What they are omitting is the FACT that the ONLY solution to the GW problem is in MITIGATION, not legislation…”

    I think that’s a bit of a false dichotomy. Helpful legislation would be… well, helpful. What do you mean by mitigation? It would seem to me that some mitigation will occur naturally as some areas become less suitable for certain crops and other areas (hopefully) become more suitable. Any additional mitigation… say mass relocation of populations for example… would likely require legislation anyway.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Sisko 2:10 pm 05/22/2013

    David Wogan- My compliments on a balanced article. Imo, the real bottom line on the issue is that developing countries will utilize the lowest cost method to provide electricity to their citizens. Unless developed countries are willing to subsidize the developing countries the use of substantially more fossil fuels is unavoidable worldwide for several decades.

    Link to this
  12. 12. david123 2:43 pm 05/22/2013

    Sisko, it’s not just developing countries. As the article states GERMANY (the Queen of Green) is importing US coal. Pardon me if I ROTFLMAO. It’s ridiculous to try to address this problem by penalizing consumption. That’s the Leninist mindset and I hate to break it to all you Leninists out there, but Lenin and his way of thinking are gone and ain’t comin’ back, no matter how much you yearn for them.

    The only way to set the global thermostat to a value we want is to upgrade our technology (which is happening as we speak) to a level that will give us that kind of control.

    I know that many of you (along with Barbara Streisand and Al Gore) want the stupid worthless middle class of the West to ride in donkey carts, eat turnips and live in caves, but I hate to be the one to break it to you: it ain’t gonna happen. So suck it up and get ready for some real solutions. Because they are on the way.

    Link to this
  13. 13. sethdayal 3:38 pm 05/22/2013

    What the author misses is the entire fossil fuel infrastructure is based on Big Oil’s 100% ownership of corrupt politicians and media. Note that the word nuclear is omitted from this Big Oil infomercial.

    Dirt cheap clean and green zero environmental cost nuke power now costs less than gas for electricity production, less than gas for heat with ground source heat pumps, and 30% the cost of oil per barrel for nuke synfuels in Shell’s Qatar process.

    Not a single gas power plant would be built if owners had to guarantee the input price of fuel for 60 years like nukes in effect do. With the current crop of Big Oil corrupted regulators these sharks just build the dirt cheap gas plant and pass the gas price costs on to the rate paying sucker while tacking on a 15% gratuity needed to satisfy the graft.

    Keep in mind that the price of gas will shortly be doubling to its cost at $10/mcf having recently hit $33 in New York.

    New opportunity presents with Canada’s University of Ottawa nuclear physicist David LeBlanc’s proposal for his best in the world Gen IV DMSR nuke.With a paltry $two billion in investment diverted $10B’s in wacky ethanol and carbon capture nonsense, within 5 years these would be Canada’s major energy and industrial export.

    Google “terrestrial-energy-will-make-integral”

    The latest Chinese hydro dam project is now coming in at their cost of new coal plant – close to 8 cents a kwh while their nukes are less than 3 cents and with modular production heading to a penny.

    With the rapid nuke development of nukes in BRIC countries, by 2020 they will be well on their way to a complete switch to zero carbon zero environmental cost nuclear fuel at a penny a kwh while the way it’s going Western economies will be sweltering under filthy wind/solar/gas backup economies spewing GHG’s at 40/90/15 cents a kwh.

    Big Oil hates and fears nukes – its only real competition – and pays the odious corrupt politicians and media well to make sure no nukes/lotsa gas stays the course. Perhaps theses malodorous leaders can be shamed into honoring their oaths to serve the people over the interests of their Big Oil benefactor

    Link to this
  14. 14. sault 4:37 pm 05/22/2013

    seth, if you’re telling people to google your pie-in-the-sky ideas, why don’t you use google yourself and provide us links that back up all these nonsensical claims too! And all the loaded words in your comment make it abundantly clear you are wirting with a lot of strong emotions instead of calm logic.

    Link to this
  15. 15. sault 4:45 pm 05/22/2013


    Aside from all your political rambling, your post is heavy on accusations and glaringly light on facts. I guess the political vitriol is to be expected. Conservatives have been shown to have illogical, almost reflexive actions against people and ideas that have been branded as “enemies” by members of their own tribe. In one experiment, the proportion of conservatives agreeing to buy energy efficient light bulbs dropped considerably when an “environmental” label was placed on the bulb’s packaging even though nothing else had changed. It’s all about appearances, affiliations and percieved labels for many of these people and logic gets thrown to the wind. Calm down, read a scientific paper or two, and then think for yourself instead of relying on others to form your opinions for you.

    Link to this
  16. 16. M Tucker 5:01 pm 05/22/2013

    “Throw in oil sands in Alberta, shale oil in Utah, and other unconventional sources all over the world, and the potential to disrupt global energy systems is a possibility. Many more years of carbon emissions is also a strong possibility.”

    Sorry David but I don’t see how Alberta is disruptive to “global energy systems.” It meshes very well. The oil industry wants it. Wall Street wants it. Alberta wants to export it to India and China. Everyone is happy about tar sand oil. I don’t see the disruption to energy systems or markets. “Many more years of carbon emissions” is not just a “strong possibility,” it is going to happen; we have nothing to stop it or even slow it down.

    Europe has a “price on carbon” and that is not slowing Germany’s increased use of coal. We will use it until something cheaper and easy to use comes along. Natural gas is being used to produce electricity and to a much lesser extent for transportation. It is much cheaper than gasoline but that is where the ‘easy to use’ issue comes in. If you have a gasoline vehicle you will not go out of your way to transition to n. gas. Natural gas is the only “low-carbon” fuel we have. Everything else is essentially experimental or very limited in its utility.

    Link to this
  17. 17. sethdayal 6:04 pm 05/22/2013

    Actually I did Sault – a lovely reference to a dirt cheap MSR. Sad but your illiteracy makes it impossible for you to do even Grade 3 level web searches, much less understand the content.

    Note to folks here, Sault has claimed he has a MSEE but has yet to provide a single reference to his laughable claim of wind farms being built unsubsidized at 4 cents a kwh. I’ve asked him to stop commenting until he can, but as Big Oil pays him to comment here he just can’t stop.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Shoshin 9:49 am 05/23/2013

    “The Stone Age did not end because of a lack of stone. Likewise the Oil Age will not end because of a lack of oil” – unknown

    The over-riding issue is cheap energy. With cheap energy, lifespan increases, quality of life increases and oddly, birthrate drops. Things like Gen IV nuclear and thorium reactors pose the potential to wean us off oil and provide energy sources that are distributed relatively evenly around the globe. Sorry, but old school “green energy” like solar and wind will not cut it. They will be bypassed.

    My vision of the future is that “unconventional” fuels are just a bridge to these new power sources and a new age of prosperity for billions. Tough to be an optimist while the Alarmists are all praying for Armageddon, but hey, that’s just me.

    Link to this
  19. 19. jtdwyer 11:02 am 05/23/2013

    I have to agree that the products of technological developments, enabling extraction of difficult to obtain residual natural gas and, especially, methane hydrates, are subject to greater risks of large scale failures and severe environmental impacts.

    Overall, though, if fossil fuels ‘never run out’, the still increasing population (~9 billion in 30 years – a 30% increase) and continued extension of economic benefits to increasing numbers of the existing population mean that humanity’s environmental impact will continue its exponential growth. There won’t likely be anything else left if we continue to increase our oxidation of carbon…

    Link to this
  20. 20. pinetree 1:39 pm 05/23/2013

    Irony is the word that comes to mind. The disaster is not that we are running out of hydrocarbons but rather there is an effectively infinite supply of them on this planet.

    Effectively infinite because long before we exhaust the last of them given sufficient economic incentive, we will have poisoned the place to be unsuitable for human life. There will always be an environment, just not necessarily one that supports human life.

    As the lawyers like to say, this includes, but is not limited to, global climate disruption which in time can push the earth into extreme “hot earth” or super ice age earth. In terms of green house effect that methane is over twenty times as deadly as CO2. Mess things up sufficiently, and global climate in time (decades, centuries, millenarian) to either extreme. Weather and climate, which after all are the same thing with different time scales, are highly dynamic non-linear (“chaotic”) systems.

    The disaster of unlimited hydrocarbon consumption also includes toxic effects on human health and survival. Most Asian cities today are already pretty horrible places that way. For several decades there has been a toxic brown cloud stretching over South Asia from India to past Indonesia. Not hard to see it will come to circle the planet before too long given an ever increasing supply of hydrocarbons. Add to that all the toxic products made from or enabled by hydrocarbons. The planet’s ability to carry a toxic load before mass human die off is not effectively infinite. As mentioned, that is why the supply of hydrocarbons is effectively infinite.

    But there is a worse problem still. Suppose somebody invents a total clean, zero cost source of energy. Even given the impossibility of such a thing, wouldn’t that be wonderful? No, it would be an even worse disaster. The more energy available, the faster we deplete everything else. The IEEE Spectrum had a wonderful article on how long natural resources can be expected to last and noted that cheap energy is the biggest threat to prematurely depleting the rest.

    This kind of civilization is not sustainable. It is only a matter how fast we rush to collapse, decades or centuries. It need not be so but the will to change in time is unlikely. At any rate true sustainability will not look like anything today. Very likely we will see the mass die off, humans and other life forms, before we see a smaller, slower, and wiser turn around. Cheering for what accelerates that fate does seem a tad ironic.

    Link to this
  21. 21. sault 1:55 pm 05/23/2013


    So let me get this straight, you are COMPLETELY INCAPABLE of backing up your claims yet you DEMAND I provide proof to refute your unfounded, unsupported arguments? WOW! Pot, meet kettle…

    I’ve posted this several times, but you just ignore it and continue on with your rants. I know I’m not going to get through that thorium-plated skull of yours, but I WILL NOT let you fool others on this board:

    ““Austin Energy officials say those wind contracts are among the cheapest deals available, when the cost of building power plants is taken into account, and comparable to what the historically volatile natural gas market has been offering recently.” ( article)

    “Our contract with NextEra Energy Resources is one of the lowest we’ve ever seen and results in a savings of nearly 40 percent for our customers,” said David Eves, president and CEO of Public Service Company of Colorado. “The addition of this 200-megawatt wind farm demonstrates that renewable energy can compete on an economic basis with more traditional forms of generation fuel, like natural gas, and allows us to meet the state’s Renewable Energy Standard at a very reasonable cost to our customers.” (Reuters article)

    “Consumers Energy, Michigan: “Lower wind power costs mean $54m saving for Consumers

    “Westar, Kansas: Signed more wind contract than needed “…because pricing is so attractive now
    and to minimize tax risk to our investors” (Westar Q4 earnings call)”

    The results start on slide 27 if you can handle looking through the presentation…

    Link to this
  22. 22. sault 1:57 pm 05/23/2013


    Why don’t you look at the link I just posted about wind power prices too and get back to me on whether you still think this “old school” clean energy doesn’t “cut it”?

    Link to this
  23. 23. sethdayal 6:08 pm 05/23/2013

    Once again Sault, without a doubt the stupidest commenter on SCIAM, demonstrating his illiteracy and innumeracy with links to sale contracts that he didn’t even read himself.

    It is not my place to teach Sault how to read. He should call up a Grade 3 teacher at a local elementary school who can help with basic web searches and reading comprehension.

    The price of a sale of subsidized wind power is not the cost of providing the wind power in the first, just as inventory on sale at a bankruptcy auction was not the cost of purchasing the inventory in the first place,

    Once again spelling it out for the oh so stupid Sault. Provide us with an example of a wind farm whose LCOE unsubsidized (no loan guarantees, no tax credits) was 4 cents a kwh. Note that that number for the latest and largest wind farm in the US at Shepherds Flat is 15 cents a kwh.

    Please stay off this site, bothering readers with your stupid comments until you can do so.

    Link to this
  24. 24. jadamone 9:35 pm 05/23/2013

    When we have developed ECONOMIC batteries for electric vehicles we can start replacing the hundreds of millions of internal combustion engines that we depend on in the USA.

    Until then I think we should develop the 3 trillion barrels of shale oil that the USGS told congress is in the Green River Formation in Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado and sell to our allies to deprive our OPEC enemies of funds for their Jihad against us. We can also use the money from this to develop electric vehicles.

    Then we can use the huge amount of thorium to fuel Modern versions of the Molten Salt Nuclear Reactor (MSR) that was tested for five years over 50 years ago in this country. It was found to be much more efficient at producing electricity and MUCH SAFER TO OPERATE. The reason water cooled and moderated reactors were chosen and built instead was to produce PLUTONIUM for Nuclear Weapons.

    A large amount of the so called “Nuclear Waste” produced by these reactors is Plutonium 239 which can still be used for bombs or fuel. The Plutonium could be EFFICIENTLY burned in MSRs until completely disposed of and replaced by Thorium which becomes fissile U233 which is not suitable for weapons production.

    The USA has enough thorium to produce all the Earth’s power to many thousands of years while generating no greenhouse gasses and only a small amount of short lived mildly radioactive fission fragments as waste.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article