In a recent article Our Energy Problems Are Over! I gave Amy Jaffe of the Baker Institute (at Rice University) a very hard time. In Shale Gas Will Rock The World, Jaffe claimed that abundant unconventional natural gas from shale formations was a game-changer. This gas would supply the world with all energy we will ever need for decades to come. I gave her grief for saying things like this—
But the skeptics aren't just overstating the obstacles. They're missing two much bigger points. For one thing, they're ignoring history: The reserves and production of new energy resources tend to increase over time, not decrease. They're also not taking into account how quickly public opinion can change. The country can turn on a dime and embrace a cheaper energy source, casting aside political or environmental reservations. This has happened before, with the rapid spread of liquefied-natural-gas terminals over the past few years.
In short, the skeptics are missing the bigger picture—the picture I think is the much more likely one.
Amy's thesis about unconventional natural gas, and indeed all Cornucopian (wildly optimistic) views of our energy future, depend on what I call the Assumption of Technological Progress. I stated this usually unstated assumption in a long, technical article called Economic Growth And Climate Change — No Way Out? When I wrote it, I thought I was preparing the way for a groundbreaking article to be published in Scientific American. That didn't turn out to be the case. Here's the Assumption—
Technological progress marches on. Improvements are always sufficient to meet the requirements of economic expansion, or drive that expansion. These improvements include, most importantly, civilization's need for energy to fuel growth. For example, net energy returns on investment (EROI) for currently inefficient processes (e.g. biomass to cellulosic ethanol conversions) do not matter because they are based on current science & technology.
The Assumption of Technological Progress. Source.
In other words, we standardly assume that technology solves all problems. I concluded that this usually implicit assumption should be tossed out—
The mere assumption that technological progress will be sufficient to achieve the desired stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere does not guarantee success. This assumption, like the future economic growth that depends on it, is incontrovertible only because of the faith placed in it, i.e. it must be accepted without proof or verification. It is all well & good to say with great conviction that "failure is not an option" but in the real world, failure is definitely a possibility, so risks grow. Worse yet, unquestioning faith in the impossibility of failure retards efforts achieve the necessary (but still unrealized) technologies required to reduce emissions, for if technological progress—Pielke, et. al call this "spontaneous" innovation—is guaranteed (i.e. comes "for free"), we need not try very hard to make technological progress happen. What I have called The Assumption of Technological Progress should be tossed out in so far as it is no longer in humanity's best interests to maintain it.
Last evening I was watching a discussion of the oil leak on the PBS Newshour. Amy Jaffe was one of the participants—she is on the PBS approved "experts" list. Margaret Warner of PBS leads the discussion, and Paul Saffo is another participant.
Bear in mind that the science & technology that allowed us drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico deepwater has also failed so far to stop the oil leak.
MARGARET WARNER — Amy Jaffe, how does it look to you in in Houston? What do you think this — this event is tapping into in the American public?
AMY JAFFE, Rice University — Well, you know, we, in the American public, we are a big believer that there's a science and technology solution to everything — everything.
So — and it was really amazing that the industry — we were sort of running out of oil onshore, and the industry was able to go out to the depths of the earth, under the sea, and keep us driving around in our cars. So, to sit here night after night and watch all these scientists unable to close a simple pipeline, even though it's a very complex engineering problem, as a layperson, when you sit here and watch the oil just spewing out of this pipeline, it is. It's just this horror movie, like we cannot believe that there isn't a technology to close this pipeline.
And we, as Americans, believe there's a technological solution to everything. And the idea that we're going to have to wait until August for the technological solution, I think it's just got people just gripped in terror.
MARGARET WARNER — Paul Saffo...
AMY JAFFE — And it gets to our fundamental core.
MARGARET WARNER — So, Paul Saffo, do you — do you agree that it's shaking our faith in technology and in Americans' ability? I mean, usually, we think — part of our whole ethos is, if there's a problem, Americans can fix it.
PAUL SAFFO — Well, we have had an uneasy accommodation with our faith in technology for the last 10 years. It was shattered first with the popping of the dot-com bubble. And the whole climate debate circles around us right now.
In fact, you see two camps in the climate debate. There are the druids who say we need to turn the clock back because we can't solve it, and the engineers who say we need to accelerate because we can solve this with heroic engineering.
This oil well has done more to discredit heroic engineering than anything that has happened in the last 10 years
There's a lot of room for maneuver between so-called Druids and Engineers (Techno-Fixers). One needn't be one or the other, this issue is not Black Or White. That said, a reevaluation of "heroic engineering" and the assumption that technology solves all problems is long overdue.
Amy Jaffe has now been forced to rethink her view that technological know-how solves all problems. Her quasi-religious faith in technology has been shaken—it gets to our fundamental core she said, and indeed it does. And the longer the oil leak goes on, the more reason there will be to call the Assumption of Technological Progress into question.
I wonder now whether, given a few years to think about it, Amy Jaffe might hesitate to claim that extracting natural gas from shales is a game-changing technology that solves all of our energy problems for decades to come. Here's the PBS Newshour video. (If you can't watch it because of Flash issues, go here.)