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Charged Up

The Post Carbon Institute's Richard Heinberg on the so-called petro-boom, the folly of fracking and the ways we can get back on track

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Richard Heinberg is surprisingly chipper for a man who, if projections by the U.S. government and global-energy analysts are to be believed, might just have seen the basis for his career virtually debunked.

The Post Carbon Institute senior fellow smiles easily in the art- and book-filled living room of the Santa Rosa home he shares with his wife, Janet, even as he talks about the implications of a fracking-fueled petro-boom from North Dakota to Pennsylvania that's got U.S. energy executives crowing about abundant fossil-fuel-derived energy to last the next century or two.

It's a claim that directly flouts the concept of peak oil—the point at which global petroleum production goes into terminal decline—and Heinberg's assertion that growth (as we know it) is headed into irreversible decline.

Wearing a blue-checked Oxford shirt, jeans and house slippers, Heinberg's relaxed demeanor could be due to time spent among the fruit trees and chickens in his backyard permaculture paradise. Maybe it's the two hours of violin the self-described "violin junkie" plays each day. Or it could be the possible ace in his pocket—a February 2013 report by retired geo-scientist J. David Hughes and published by the Post Carbon Institute which claims to debunk the possibility that unconventional fuels might turn the United States into an energy-independent petro-state.

The report forms the foundation for Heinberg's new book, Snake Oil: How the Fracking Industry's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future, out on July 1.

"We're really being sold a bill of goods," Heinberg says, handing over a copy of the Hughes report, "Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?" Using data provided by a Texas company called DI Desktop, which analyzed production data for 65,000 fracked wells from 31 shale plays, the report examines natural gas as a commodity. According to their findings, production rates at many of these sites are already in decline. Operators then must drill more and more to keep overall production steady, and with that comes increased energy needs, making the whole endeavor more expensive.

Aside from fracking, methane hydrates—the trapped natural gas molecules currently being scouted by Japanese research vessels and found in abundance on the sea floor—have been heralded as the next frontier. The speculative fossil-fuel goldmine forms the basis for Charles C. Mann's May 2013 cover story for The Atlantic with the headline that declared, with the impact of a lightning storm in summer, "We Will Never Run Out of Oil."

But then there's the problem of net energy, Heinberg points out. "The vast majority of those resources we won't burn for economic reasons," Heinberg says, "because it just costs too much—not only investment capital, but it costs too much energy to get the stuff out of the ground to use it." It's a concept defined as EROEI—energy return on energy invested.

Heinberg's previous seven books, including The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality and Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines, came out on traditional publishers. But for Snake Oil, the Post Carbon Institute turned to Kickstarter, raising $15,000 for self-publishing costs.

"The subject is so hot we just wanted to get it out as soon as we could," Heinberg says. Snake Oil takes on what he calls dangerous oil-industry claims that the U.S. has enough tight oil to provide a decade's worth of cheap, abundant gas. "Now, suddenly, with a bump in production of U.S. oil and gas, everyone is talking about, well, gee, isn't this great?" Heinberg says. "And so the conversation about how to get off fossil fuels has just been put on the back burner."

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