Barring the collapse of expectations for shale gas and oil, the new technologies will affect all the most important issues we face.
The energy transition: The first impact is to put off the transition to a post-fossil energy world (see above). In so far as gas and oil are available at competitive prices, it will tend to hold back the development of alternative energy on which we will eventually have to depend. Renewable energy cannot compete with fossil energy at present or foreseeable prices. We have hardly begun the transition to renewables, and it will be further delayed by the advent of shale gas and oil.
Climate: Shale oil and gas will increase the introduction of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) and methane into the atmosphere, and do it longer. Recent evidence has already raised the estimates of the rate at which climate warming is changing the weather. We are witnessing melting glaciers, more erratic stream flows, more intense storms, more torrents and fewer gentle rains, the loss of lowlands to the sea, desertification, droughts and hotter temperatures. These changes are already measurable, and they are reducing the Earth’s ability to support us and other species. Those patterns will become more painful and less deniable as the process continues and as more forests are lost to climate change.15
Water: Fresh water shortages are caused both by rising demand and climate change, and fracking competes for that water. Prolonging the fossil energy era may momentarily benefit urban water users, particularly near the coasts, by holding down the cost of desalination, which is energy-intensive (and is already suffering from rising energy costs). That is small consolation in the face of climate warming, which is disrupting natural fresh water supplies. About 70% of the human use of fresh water is for irrigation. It takes about 1000 tons of water to raise a ton of corn. Desalination and water recycling in greenhouses are possible for specialty crops, but not for most agriculture.
Food supply and population: This is where it all comes together. The prospect of more fossil energy from shale cuts both ways. Fossil fuels are central to modern food yields, particularly because they are used to capture nitrogen and make nitrogen fertilizers. World and U.S. populations have grown to their present levels only because agriculture produced enough food to feed them. In other papers, I have offered rough calculations of the populations that can be supported if we have to revert to earlier ways of capturing nitrogen.16
Here are the numbers: half or less of the present U.S. population; 25% to 40% of world population, varying by country. The exact numbers are not important. The important thing is that we will need to adjust population numbers to fit the reduced food production that we may expect in the coming era of diminishing fossil fuels, climate change and freshwater disruptions. Some progress has been made (though not in the United States) but not enough. (See p.6.)
And here is where we still have a choice. We can simply use the shale discoveries to support present consumption patterns and the consequent damage. That choice – which is the one we are now taking – will mean more people overloading an already overloaded and deteriorating system, when eventually fossil energy does wind down. Or we can use the prolongation of the fossil fuel window to give us more time to bring human populations into better alignment with resources.
Biodiversity and the interdependent Earth: That choice will be made against a broader backdrop that most people seldom think of. We live in an interdependent world, from microorganisms to the climate. We may later come to realize that the major consequence of the capitalist era and of fossil energy has been to dramatically accelerate the rate at which mankind has taken minerals from the deep lithosphere and injected them into the biosphere and atmosphere. This causes a fundamental reordering of life processes. Human intervention in Earth processes is not simply limited to the climate. It affects the entire biosphere of which we are a part. Fossil fuels are themselves among the offending minerals, and they are the tools that we use to put other minerals into the biosphere and the atmosphere. Exploiting the gas and oil shales will prolong that disruptive activity by an amount presently unpredictable.