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Big stories and little details: what Charles Mann misses

Charles Mann offers a big story in the latest issue of the Atlantic. It’s 11,000 words, and it’s based around an audacious premise: the end of energy scarcity. The peg for the story is Japan’s ongoing research on methane hydrate, an amalgam of natural gas trapped in water ice that occurs in oceans around the world. If methane hydrate can be harvested, Mann tell us, the global supply of hydrocarbon fuels are virtually unlimited. This, he argues, would have massive geopolitical and strategic implications, as the history of the twentieth century can be read in part through the lens of wealthy nations without oil seeking the black stuff in less developed lands. New forms of power might center on who can extract ice that burns like natural gas.

The bulk of the Mann piece is a debate over “peak oil”, an idea put forward by M. King Hubbert in the 1950s, when he correctly predicted that US oil production would slow. Mann’s piece pits Hubbert against Vincent E. McKelvey, his boss at the US Geological Survey for years, who argued that energy supplies are virtually inexhaustible, though the costs to extract them increase as we use up the “easy” oil ready to burst above the surface. While Hubbert’s predictions about US oil production were initially right, Mann argues, the rise of techniques like horizontal drilling and hydrofracking means McKelvey is right in the long run. If we need methane hydrate – and Japan does, as it lacks other hydrocarbon resources – we’ll find a way to pay for it. The argument only looks like a contradiction, Mann argues, because it’s an argument between geologists on one side and social scientists on the other, and from the social scientists’ point of view, so long as there’s economic demands for hydrocarbons and the means to extract it, we should expect these fuels to keep flowing.

There’s something very attractive about Mann’s argument. He writes as an insider who’s going to let you in on what the smart guys know that poor, dumb saps like me would never imagine. It’s a tone you hear a lot in Washington policy circles, a realpolitik view of the world that suggests you can entertain yourself with solar panels as long as you’d like, but the adults in the room are deciding who gets invaded for their petrochemical wealth and whose civilizations will collapse into a new Medieval period.

Fortunately, there are some smart responses to Mann’s article, some vitriolic, some patient and thoughtful. (To the Atlantic’s credit, they published both Mann’s piece and Chris Nelder’s excellent response.) The essence of the responses is this: yes, there’s a whole lot of methane trapped in ice. Yes, if we could extract it, we’d have a whole lot of fuel that burns with half the carbon emissions of coal. But it’s unclear we can ever extract this at an affordable cost. (Canada just dropped out of the methane hydrate race, perhaps because they see extracting oil from tar sands as a more plausible source of hydrocarbons.)

And even if we can, then what? Methane burns cleaner than coal, but we’d be still emitting massive amounts of CO2 in a methane-based economy.

Mann’s not wholly unaware of the environmental implications of methane hydrate for global CO2 levels, but he frames his argument simply: natural gas may be bad, but coal’s worse. He acknowledges that we’ll need to move to renewables, but worries that we won’t be able to store power during periods of low solar or wind intensity. (These are real problems, but ones where a great deal of innovation are taking place, from high tech solutions like power-storing flywheels to effective low-tech solutions like pumped storage.)

In his cursory consideration of how a near-infinite supply of methane might have negative environmental implications, Mann dedicates 2 paragraphs of his love-song to natural gas to a minor problem: methane is a potent greenhouse gas. When a gas well leaks more than 3%, it’s worse from a climate change perspective than burning coal. And it’s not just the wells – America has a long system of pipelines that carry natural gas, and no one is sure just how leaky those pipes are.

Mann assures us that repairing the holes in natural gas pipelines (3,356 in Boston’s pipelines alone!), is “a task that developed nations can accomplish”. It’s not as hard as changing the laws of economics, Mann asserts, which ensure that cheap natural gas will help America recover its geopolitical might.

So let’s talk for a moment about those laws of economics. If you’re a natural gas pipeline operator, losing 3% of your supplies in transit is a rounding error, so long as the gas dissipates and doesn’t present an explosion risk. My friend at the Department of Energy who made me aware of natural gas leakage noted that current requirements for pipeline inspection largely involve flying over vast lengths of cast-iron pipe and looking for browning of vegetation from leaking gas, a method that would be humorously inexact if the environmental consequences weren’t so serious.

The laws of economics Mann is so focused on won’t force pipeline operators to replace their leaky infrastructure. Markets don’t do a very good job of correcting for “externalities” like climate impact, unless governments force them to. The modest success of cap and trade in the northeastern US under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative required nine states to spend political capital and impose new requirements on industry, requirements that were politically unpopular, especially with Republican governors, like Mitt Romney who pulled Massachusetts out of the compact. (Deval Patrick pulled us back in, thankfully.)

The ultimate point of Mann’s essay, I think, is that environmentalists have hoped that peak oil and the threat of losing our energy supplies would push developed economies to embrace zero-emissions power. That’s not going to happen, Mann argues – so long as we’re willing to pay for it, hydrocarbon energies are inexhaustible for the foreseeable future. What Mann doesn’t say is this: if we are worried about climate change, the market won’t solve things for us – we need governments to help us.

That’s a deeply unsexy position to hold these days. Authors like Mann are fascinated by ways in which new technologies can save us from ourselves, discovering energy sources where none existed before, and developing even more profound technological solutions to handle the waste, like sequestering CO2 deep into the ocean, where it becomes trapped in water ice much as methane is trapped in methane hydrate. The problem is that these technologies cost billions to develop, and there are always cheaper alternatives that have externalities not calculated in market equations. The market for CO2 sequestration exists only if meaningful, widespread controls on greenhouse gas emissions come into play and create “artificial” incentives to invest in these technologies.

My friend Ivan Krastev has a smart essay – a short TED ebook – called “In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don’t Trust Our Leaders?” Of the several problems he identifies with contemporary democracies, one of the most challenging is this: “Economic decision-making is methodically being taken out of democratic politics as the spectrum of acceptable policy choices has been dramatically narrowed. Politics has been reduced to the art of adjusting to the imperatives of the market.”

Krastev is largely focused on the ways European economies are wrestling with austerity, trying to provide social services to their populations but facing market pressures to be globally competitive. Voters become systematically disenfranchised because their popular will is held in check by what markets “want”.

We face similar disenfranchisement in the US. A large majority of Americans see climate change as a serious problem. But carbon taxes remain largely off the table in the US, due to fears of reducing American competitiveness in a global market.

Mann and the Atlantic missed a great opportunity here to celebrate what’s actually working: a slow conversion towards solar and wind in parts of the world where cap and trade and other emissions controls have been put into place. It’s not as sexy as burning ice, but it’s a future far more livable than the one Mann posits.