I probably owe social media platforms some sort of apology, for cursing and mocking them for their relentless flow of stupidity and/or paid muckraking, the combination of which is paralyzing public discourse on any topic of substance. While that is no doubt happening, to rave against social media is, at the end of the day, like howling at the moon.
For all the destructive power of these platforms, they also provide a service that humanity clearly values highly. Those platforms aren’t going anywhere; usage continues to rise, and big tech is now at the heart of all relevant topics as a result of their penchant for snooping and censorship. I promise to be a good little monkey, big tech; please don’t mess with my thermostat in the middle of the night.
And, there are some high points. I have streamlined Twitter so that the feed is generally intelligent. I’ve blocked belligerent buffoons that want to debate but bring nothing of interest to the table. I have met some very interesting people. And, even more importantly (sorry interesting people), I have been exposed to viewpoints from around the world that help kick me out of my own ethnocentric orbit, that of a fat and contented westerner that views a ten-minute traffic stoppage as an outrage, and a delay in getting my bags at the airport as an almost indescribable hardship.
Can’t the world grasp how drained I am when I get off that plane? Why must my first-world angst always translate so perfectly into a meme?
I have received several excellent antidotes to such idiocy via social media contacts from around the globe. People looking to connect with westerners to tap into the ludicrously bountiful lives we live. A young reader from the other side of the world asking about life in Canada, because her and her fiance would ‘end up in body bags around the lake’ if their mixed-religion romance became public knowledge.
As gut-wrenching as that is, an equally powerful standout connection happened this summer from an African gentleman named NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman of the African Energy Chamber, who read my book, enjoyed it, and reviewed it on social media: “He [Etam] gets it. Understands the needs of emerging economies and even when he disagrees, he is not calling us names.” Imagine that for a world lens. I can’t, and I came from the ragged fringes of Canadian civilization.
Beyond fine people like this, some seem confused about energy messaging here, because it doesn’t fit into a convenient bucket. Now, when a certain group of low-grade ‘energy transition experts’ doesn’t get what I’m talking about, that is a badge of honour. But many have been conditioned by the reflexive defaults in the media – are you massively concerned about climate change, or are you a fossil fuel shill? Because you must be one or the other. It’s stupid, but that’s what it’s come to. So here are some fresh thoughts for new connections.
I have no particular allegiance to hydrocarbons; my vote is for the fuel that works best to keep 8 billion people alive. One day, hydrogen might rule the world and I will enjoy every molecule. Today, we have a system, built over the last century. It is a bizarrely complex and comprehensive system that performs the unimaginably large task of bringing to its constituents – billions of them – the fuel they require every day. It runs primarily on hydrocarbons, and it will be unbelievably difficult to transition to anything else in any rapid time frame.
It is not a perfect system, by any stretch. It has a significant environmental footprint. It has spills and incidents and failures. But it does do the job for the world’s citizens incredibly well. We cannot live without it, not this year, not next year, not for many, many years. Everything is built around, and on, it.
Make no mistake about how critical the hydrocarbon supply chain is. We can see this by comparing to other supply chains. When the world runs short of semiconductor chips, there is great inconvenience – because there is a shortage of new vehicles. When the world runs short of toilet paper, there is great inconvenience – and, well, if you say there isn’t, I don’t want to hear about it.
Compare either of those to what a shortage of natural gas would look like. That is hard to do, but then go a step further and imagine the idea of getting rid of it entirely. Some think this will happen shortly.
The argument goes, in some circles, that we have to stop burning hydrocarbons immediately, not just because they are ‘bad’ but because renewables are now able to replace them (“we don’t need [natural] gas anymore as a bridge fuel,” activist field marshal Tzeporah Berman told me earlier this year in a flamboyantly condescending email that pulsed with high-voltage cluelessness. More on this topic in a second).
Metrics about the falling cost of wind, solar and battery storage are put forth to support the argument that renewables are now cheaper and therefore not just inevitable but right around the corner.
It is interesting, and disturbing, to think that policy is being drafted on the notion that because wind and solar costs have fallen substantially, we can replace natural gas (and other hydrocarbons) with them. To adopt this position is to place a sticker on one’s forehead saying, “I have no idea how the global energy system works.”
I could go on for pages about how and why I disagree with the notion that ‘we no longer need natural gas’. I could do that, but I won’t, because I don’t have to.
Mother Nature is going to make this very clear, if not this winter, then one soon. Presently, those who participate in providing energy to the world are tuning in to the fact that there is the potential for a wide-scale natural gas shortage this winter. While consumers could not care less, yet, they will when they see this winter’s bill, and they will howl like demons if the supply is disrupted. As they should. Because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Prices are skyrocketing around the world as traders look to secure supplies. North American inventories are well below the 5 year average, as are Europe’s. Europe and Asia will “fight for LNG supply this winter,” according to a Rystad VP. Propane is similarly short, particularly in the US, and if a real shortage does materialize we will rapidly find out how many homes and health care institutions rely on that hydrocarbon for heat in winter.
Normally, these price actions stimulate a supply response; in almost all past commodity price cycles, high prices induce more supply until the market is balanced.
But this cycle is unlike any other, because activists have convinced the world to divest from fossil fuels, to hinder development of new reserves, to prevent construction of needed pipelines. The hydrocarbon industry, meanwhile, is turning its focus to carbon capture/storage, ESG initiatives, etc. These are not bad things, and are part of the future. But the world will not be able to stuff ESG reports into the furnace this winter.
Some would then argue that well, we don’t mean that quickly, it will take a few years to not need natural gas. Tzeporah was being fanciful. But the point is that there is no trajectory that indicates demand for the stuff is even moderating. Trillions of dollars and several decades into the ‘energy transition’ and both oil and natural gas are setting new consumption records. Even coal is on a tear. We need to work with this existing energy system, clearly, because the ‘attack-it-as-a-villain’ schtick clearly is going nowhere.
So, newcomers, that is the crux of this column. At some point the world will turn away from hydrocarbons, but only at a pace that the system can accommodate. That pace will be excruciatingly slow. The comparisons often put forth – that the world converted from horse-to-auto quickly, or that the landlines-to-cellphones conversion was rapid – are invalid. There is no precedent short of a global war to force the sort of rapid changed being envisioned by those who think we ‘need to’ in order to limit temperature increases. Sure, it sounds easy, but so would a government directive to move every major global highway 100 meters to the east. How hard can it be? It fits in one sentence. Just go do it.
In addition to the logistics of ripping up and replacing trillions worth of infrastructure are the myriad ways in which governments are sidetracked by more pressing realities. Debt levels around the world are off the charts. Global trade is being hamstrung by supply chain issues and labour shortages. Costs of everything are skyrocketing (and just wait until energy costs rise due to hydrocarbon shortages). Governments have their hands full with tangible-to-voter issues like housing costs, inflation, health care, etc.
Further, the developing world wants to develop. Africa wants to develop economically first, using its hydrocarbons, and will deal with environmental concerns only within that context. India has 1.2 billion people to feed, China has even more, and they want to live like we do, and do not take kindly to lectures from gluttonous and guilty westerners that can afford Teslas and holidays and Patagonia feel-good clothes and Lush luxury/guilt free cosmetics and sky-high power prices.
The whole world notices when California governor Gavin Newsom, one of the most strident climate activists, dines with a lobbyist at one of the most expensive restaurants on earth, where meals cost upwards of $400/plate and racks up a purported $12,000 wine bill – in one meal. Africans and Indians and Chinese get the news too, you know, and messages that they will have to join the rest of the world in cutting emissions from the likes of Newsom don’t really land too well.
This column is a warning sign on the energy transition super highway that is being built at incalculable expense, a warning that those who are building the highway have no idea how to build upcoming bridges that will be required to get to the final destination. Not only is there construction ahead; there is no road ahead, and there is no concrete plan to build one because no one knows how. Development of the highway can and should proceed, but don’t assume the ten percent you’ve seen bears any resemblance to the ninety percent yet to come.
If it seems like energy social media has devolved into two camps, one shouting “Climate change is going to destroy everything and fossil fuels are causing it” and the other shouting “Stop attacking fossil fuels because you use/need them every day”, well, you would be right – that is the divide these days. Unfortunately, this divide has become political, so you may find yourself in one bucket and unable to think your way out even if you want to, because politics has become binary. You might think both positions are true, but are unreconcilable.
They are not. Think of it this way. Nearly 8 billion voracious humans exist/consume on this globe at the same time. Their presence and standard of living places a huge load on the environment, under any system (mining, resource extraction, manufacturing, distribution), a load that must be managed.
The system that we have built to feed/clothe/heat/secure those 8 billion must be first maintained, then improved. There is no other way. When someone tells you the system will change rapidly because ‘it has to’, you can be dead certain that you are hearing from someone that does not understand energy systems at all.