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Ignorance and Know-How Conn Nugent fuels and prophecy In order to demonstrate ignorance, of course, we have to proceed from what we think we know. After thirty years of ingesting books, papers, and presentations, plus general observation, I think I know some things about carbon fuels and their consequences. I know that modern societies rely—utterly, transformatively—on carbon fuels. I also believe that the consumption of those fuels will continue to increase for decades to come, that their prices and costs will increase more or less steadily, and that those prices and costs will eventually preclude the operation of economies as vast or as productive as the ones we have today. I believe that people do not know, and will not know within this century, how to maintain multibillion human populations with the purchasing power to which we are now accustomed. We are too ignorant. So I offer some flat predictions. These are not bold predictions, but they are trustworthy. In fact, I would wager large sums on them. To each of these predictions is appended a statement that is, I believe, more likely true than not. I would entertain side bets on these. Sure Thing. Global demand for petroleum will increase until it costs at least twice as much as it does today. Good Bet. Petroleum will cost perhaps three or four times as much, adjusted for inflation. We will not develop alternative fuels nearly so efficient or convenient as gasoline or diesel, nor will we develop attractive alternatives to petroleum as a feedstock for plastics. Increased demand from Asia will outweigh conservation in Europe and North America. 68 Conn Nugent Sure Thing. Global demand for oil will dependably exceed supply —year in, year out—no later than 2025. By the end of the century, more than 90 percent of all recoverable oil deposits will have been consumed . The price of petroleum will rise so high that gasoline, diesel, and other oil fuels will be sold as elite niche products, not so different from what they were in 1900. Good Bet. The time required for the transition from cheap petroleum to expensive petroleum will take longer than predicted in some recent extrapolations about peak oil. As prices climb, they spur the discovery of new reserves (mostly deepwater), render economical oilshale deposits hitherto regarded as not worth the bother (Alberta and the Orinoco Basin), and spread new extraction technologies that rejuvenate wells thought to have been tapped out (Russia and Mexico). But petroleum is finite. Oil supplies may not have reached their peak yet, but you can certainly see the peak from here. When will oil become irrevocably expensive, that is, four times as costly as today? I’ll take even money on 2040–2060. Sure Thing. Natural gas will follow the same general trajectory as oil, but at a markedly slower pace. Good Bet. That pace will be slower by about thirty years. Since agriculture is the most gas-intensive sector of the economy, and since governments are likely to subsidize food production, there will be strong upward price pressures for gas used in other sectors. Gas burned to generate electricity will stay in high demand in those nations committed to antipollution standards and the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Sure Thing. The global demand for coal will increase for the next hundred years. Good Bet. As it was in the period 1800–1920, coal will again be the world’s dominant fuel, largely because of growing demand for electricity in developing countries. Sure Thing. Much more coal will be liquefied and gasified. Good Bet. As oil and gas become expensive, coal will be transmuted to do their work. The substitution process will not happen quickly, however, given the inefficiencies and higher emission levels of liquefied and gasified coal compared to oil and gas. Coal and coal-based liquids and gases will themselves become expensive if toxic emissions Ignorance and Know-How 69 are scrubbed and carbon dioxide is “sequestered” so as to mitigate the impact of coal burning on atmospheric warming. Keep coal cheap, and you speed the ruination of the natural world. Make it behave politely, and it gets expensive. Sure Thing. Nonfossil sources of energy—primarily nuclear power and solar power—will increase their shares of global energy supply, but none will take over completely. Good Bet. Many rich countries will follow the French model of using nuclear power as the primary source for generating electricity. Wind turbines and photovoltaic arrays will make significant...


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