Crude Investments

And all of us know perfectly well that our fossil-fueled civilization isn’t built to last; we also know that we need to effect a deliberate and graceful transition to another energy regime or suffer a chaotic and violent interregnum. The ignorant as well as the informed know this. You could write a Walt Whitman-style poem about this obvious thing that everybody knows.

We might consider whether beyond coal and natural gas there lies a third choice.

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This article is a response to Gary Sernovitz’s review of Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. Read the review.


Gary Sernovitz’s review of a recent book about Exxon ends with a discussion of the morality of drilling for oil. Sernovitz, who invests in the oil business, gives an uncommonly honest account of his relationship to what is at once the most destructive of contemporary industries and among the most vital. Sernovitz ponders his situation: Is he complicit in wrecking the climate or, by putting his money on fracking, is he making the world a slightly better place? Natural gas, after all, burns cleaner than coal. And increased American energy production keeps prices down. Cheap energy is good for the economy, especially in the developing world. In any case, Sernovitz concludes, there isn’t really any other choice.

The self-justification is of interest because, while Sernovitz is involved in the oil business on “the investment side,” all of us, as he points out, are involved on the consumption side. Any thoughtful person knows a version of his dilemma. If Sernovitz is, like many intelligent and conscionable people before him, complicit in a great historical crime, he’s only a bit more culpable than the rest of us. And if, instead, he’s right, after weighing the pros and cons of the intensified extraction of hydrocarbons entailed by “the tight oil and gas revolution,” to conclude with a studious shrug—”Whether this is good or bad is hard to say”—then we can all shrug with him.

In his ambivalent peroration, Sernovitz raises and ducks a few big issues.

The first concerns whether a historical trend of the increasing production of liquid fuels will continue indefinitely. “The aggressive use of fracking, horizontal drilling, and other techniques will almost certainly extend the period in which hydrocarbons will be physically available and affordable,” Sernovitz writes. This is beyond dispute. But it avoids the very question raised a few sentences later, where “peak oil”—in obligatory scare quotes—is dismissed as a “fringe” bogeyman. The theory of peak oil was developed in 1956 by M. King Hubbert, an oil-industry petroleum geologist, who proposed that the rate of extraction from any oil field, and by extension from all oil fields together, would resemble a bell curve: more and more oil would flow, in a secular trend, up to a certain point, and past that point the trend would be for less and less oil. Hubbert predicted, correctly, that oil extraction in the US (for many decades the world’s biggest producer) would peak around 1970. Predictions of a global peak can only ever have been approximate, dependent as extraction rates are on economics and politics and on improvements in recovery techniques. Nevertheless most researchers who have considered the question have forecast a peak of conventional oil production between 2005 and 2020.

The production of conventional oil has been basically flat since 2005, in spite of greater demand and higher prices. If the world has still been able to increase its liquid fuel consumption, this owes to increased availability of unconventional oil, a category that includes “tight oil” as well as liquids from coal, natural gas, and biomass. The main questions about peak (conventional) oil, are: When will it happen, if it hasn’t already? How steep a decline in production will ensue? To what extent can this decline be compensated by unconventionals? And what would be the consequences of any peak in all liquid fuels, given a growing world population with expectations of an increasingly energy-intensive lifestyle? (The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Natural Gas places an “all-liquids peak” in 2016.)

These complex and important questions are by no means exclusive to “the deep ecology left and the survivalist right.” The International Energy Administration began to take peak oil seriously in 2008, and the Economist sympathetically discussed Chris Skrebowki’s research as recently as April: Skrebowski foresees the exhaustion of spare capacity in oil production by 2015. Maybe it’s possible, all the same, to look into peak oil and conclude there’s no problem—that increasing demand can be met by increased supply indefinitely. But that would require argumentation rather than trend-spotting. Sernovitz contents himself with the observation that peak-oil theory, more mainstream five years ago, is once again marginal. Until the latest heat wave, fewer Americans believed in global warming than in 2007. Did that prove it wasn’t happening?

So much for petroleum, far and away our main transportation fuel. Sernovitz next considers natural gas, “a relatively clean hydrocarbon” that a few paragraphs later has become simply “clean.” The (initially) merely relative character of natural gas’s cleanliness has to do with “a risk of localized industrial pollution,” as Sernovitz calls it, in what seems a rather summary dismissal of fears of groundwater contamination. This ignores credible concerns that fracking has already polluted groundwater and that cement casings will fail in future decades, long after wells have been abandoned, and cause water-table pollution on a much vaster scale.

A genuine virtue of natural gas is to burn more cleanly than coal, the principal source of electricity generation in the US and elsewhere, now being displaced by natural gas. But gas is by no means an immaculate hydrocarbon. Burning natural gas still releases about 55 per cent as much CO2 as an equivalent amount of coal—and that’s only when it burns. Inevitably, between extraction and combustion, there are leaks. Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology at Cornell, has calculated in work with colleagues that between four and eight percent of the natural gas released by fracking escapes into the atmosphere. Natural gas or methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, albeit one that disintegrates more quickly. Howarth concludes that, over a twenty year cycle, electricity generation by natural gas is, in global warming terms, worse than coal, with an effect perhaps twice as great. Howarth may be wrong; other scientists at Cornell have claimed in rebuttal that the greenhouse effects of natural gas are “only” one-third or one-half those of coal. Either way, a person or society genuinely worried about global warming would note such research, and eschew terms like “clean hydrocarbon” as industry propaganda.

Then we might consider whether beyond coal and natural gas there lies a third choice. In 2007, Scientific American published a long article demonstrating the feasibility of generating more than two thirds of US electricity through solar power: a project of decades, even a generation. If we were serious about minimizing global warming, we would discuss such projects. We are not serious.

Like many people, Sernovitz sees two sides to global warming. On the one hand, it may render large parts of the planet uninhabitable. On the other hand, thanks to a prosperity made possible by cheaper and more abundant fossil energy, there is the “Chinese farmer, now buying a truck, to lift his family further out of subsistence.” What about him?

Well, what about him? Serious proposals for the mitigation of global warming have not advocated confining humanity to subsistence as of tomorrow. They have instead suggested that atmospheric concentrations of carbon could be kept at tolerable levels at a cost of a percentage point or two of global GDP. That price in immediate income would be offset by economic benefits for future generations (and older and more decrepit versions of ourselves), since global warming promises to be expensive. Crop failures and flooded cities, wildfires and hurricanes: all have price tags. Snowmelt from the Himalayas irrigates the farms of the two most populous countries; seasonal snowpack and sempiternal glaciers are fast disappearing. Who does this threaten more than the Chinese farmer?

More troubling, in the end, than Sernovitz’s refusal to draw any genuine conclusions from what he obviously knows is his treatment of hydrocarbons as a problem for private morality rather than common politics. Sernovitz wants to feel OK about himself, and, in a way, he should feel fine. He’s failed to join a mass movement for the creation of a sustainable civilization, one not simultaneously squandering its resource base and ruining its climate—but there is no such movement to join. There are only some activists and actions. Is Sernovitz a bad guy for working in oil? Well, I judge him a lot guiltier of the crimes of planetary ecocide and treasonous civilization-sapping than Bill McKibben, for example, but not much more guilty than myself.

But this isn’t to let him off the hook. Frankly, he should feel like shit for what he’s doing, and so should you and I, for what we’re doing. And then, once we’ve spent a three-day weekend of the soul considering the enormity we’re involved in, we should set aside our precious consciences. Conscience without politics is only masochism. Yet knowledge without conscience—that’s nihilism. And all of us know perfectly well that our fossil-fueled civilization isn’t built to last; we also know that we need to effect a deliberate and graceful transition to another energy regime or suffer a chaotic and violent interregnum. The ignorant as well as the informed know this. The honest scientist knows, and the ostensibly self-deceived denialist knows. The finance guy knows, and the laid-off event planner, and the football coach, and the anarchist. Democrat and Republican know. Even the particular idiots known as swing-voters know. You could write a Walt Whitman-style poem about this obvious thing that everybody knows.

Fundamentally we have three possible attitudes toward hydrocarbons: masochism (“I feel bad about myself”), nihilism (“Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em”), or politics. Because there is always a third choice, even if usually you’re offered just two: Coal or natural gas? The environment or the economy? Thomas Malthus or Willy Wonka? You can choose, or you can shrug: the results are the same. Because two choices is no choice. The point of a third choice—the point of any energy politics worthy of the name—would be to have a choice at all.

To hazard a slogan: Fuck your conscience. Organize!

This article has been corrected to reflect the greenhouse effects of burning natural gas, and to disguise the author’s deplorable ignorance of basic chemistry.

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