A book review by Alice Friedemann of Michael Klare’s “The Race For What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources”
We’re about to invade the last areas on earth to drill for oil and mine ore essential to the survival of modern industrial civilization. The rate of exploitation has sped up to a blur as more nations compete for the same resources. What’s left could mostly be gone in less than a generation, unless war erupts as nations fight over the scraps. Certainly more oil spills, explosions, pollution, chemical leaks, biodiversity loss, and other environmental disasters will grow in frequency and severity as the race gets increasingly desperate.
Klare writes “And this is only the beginning. As the race for what’s left gains momentum, it will intrude with greater force into world affairs, threatening the survival of animal species, local communities, giant corporations, and entire nations. The global economy as it currently stands cannot grow and prosper without an increasing supply of numerous critical resources—but acquiring these materials will pose an ever greater threat to the safety and stability of human society and the natural world” (p210).
Klare’s understanding of what we need to do is spot on — he warns that what we should be doing is racing to adapt, not racing to plunder what’s left. In the long run, the nations that adapt will come out ahead.
Klare thinks that governments will use increasing force and deployment of combat troops in nations with resources. As countries increasingly try to secure resources by military means, the risk of war increases. Klare and many others believe war is most likely to break out in the East and South China seas, which have a lot of oil and natural gas reserves (p 223). But Klare mentions plenty of other regions where war could start.
When I saw the chart on page 24 of the enormous amount of resources consumed between 1950 and 2000 — at an increasingly exponential rate — I was amazed anything was left, no wonder the time left is so short. For example, between 1950 and 2000, the production of Bauxite went up 1,513%, Natural gas 1,082%, Crude oil 618%, and copper 399%.
Oil is the master resource that unlocks all of the others, since 97% of transportation runs on oil, yet we rely for a quarter of our oil on only 20 large fields discovered decades ago (p 22). Two-thirds of world oil comes from these and other large fields. The production from the largest 10 has already declined 30%.
Decline rate of large oil fields is 9.7% and it’s accelerating
The average rate of decline for these large fields after peak production was 9% and this rate increased – in 2003 the rate was 8.7% but by 2007 it was 9.7% per year. Yikes, exponential decline. How much would your paycheck be in 10 years if every year the amount subtracted kept growing?
The rate of oil flow is going down too
Have you ever tried to force a frozen milk shake up a straw? Desperate as you might be,, you have to wait for it to melt a bit. We’ve used up the easy, shallow, light, sweet oil and we’re left with mainly nasty, gunky, tar sands, heavy oil, and extra heavy oil that refuses to flow without a lot of extra cost and energy, leaving less energy and money to run the rest of society at a much slower rate. It’s like having a million dollars in your bank account, but you can only take out a hundred dollars a month.
What’s left is in smaller reservoirs and deeper areas that deplete faster than the old giant fields. Much of the last oil is offshore, where oil rigs are subject to hurricanes and storms, or icebergs, and far from where it’s needed. Much is also in failed states where violence makes getting at the remaining resources tricky, or fragile ecosystems, such as the arctic.
Deepwater oil (depth of water over 1,000 feet)
Drilling and extracting oil in the deep ocean is so difficult and expensive it’s often compared to space exploration. Oil companies are expected to spend $387 Billion dollars drilling offshore between 2010 and 2014. By 2020 10% of our oil will come from deepwater and ultra-deep wells. By then onshore and shallow-water oil wells will be in decline, so deepwater oil will be quite important.
Ultra-deep wells are drilled in 3,500 feet to 7,000 feet deep water and then another 30,000 feet beneath the ocean floor. Shell is drilling a well in 8,000 feet of water — picture 6 Empire State Buildings stacked on one another.
About a quarter of the remaining oil is in the arctic region – perhaps 90 billion barrels, a 3 year supply for the world. The chunk within American territory is 26.7 billion barrels, as much as in Prudhoe Bay and several times more than what might be in ANWR.
Russia is the big winner with the potential of 219 billion barrels of oil equivalent (much of this is natural gas, not oil) from both Siberia and the Arctic.
Getting this oil out wont’ be easy:
- In winter the waters are covered with thick pack ice
- The rest of the year ice floes pose a threat for drilling platforms and ships
- Temperatures often drop below minus 40 Fahrenheit
- Severe storms with gale-force winds sweep through
- Most of the year the drilling rigs could easily be taken out by ice floes
Drilling could have these effects
- Accelerated global warming
- Harm to ocean wildlife and fisheries
- If the pipeline from the well to the shore corrodes and leaks, catastrophic oil leak
If a blowout happens, that would be a true disaster in this fragile ecosystem. The arctic is too remote for quick help, there aren’t service vessels, skimmers, or booms stockpiled, and nothing could be done if it happened in the winter.
Canada has the potential to be able to get at 170 billion barrels (out of 1.7 trillion) from the Alberta tar sands (5.6 years worth of world-wide oil consumption). These sands are closer to coal than oil and need to be mined, and then a very energy intensive process is required to strip the oil from the sand using natural gas. This uses clean natural gas to make a dirty fuel, which has been compared to “using caviar to make fake crabmeat”.
Klare never ventures into Energy Returned on Energy Invested in his book, but many systems ecologists believe that the EROEI or tarsands is at best 3 to 1, so this is not an energy resource that can outlast oil. The head of the nuclear engineering department at U.C. Berkeley, Per Peterson, said there are plans to build nuclear reactors to split off hydrogen to refine the oil sands with as well as provide the energy to do so, but given the tremendous EROEI of nuclear power plants, the ten years it takes to build one, and the increased risk of a disaster in such a harsh climate, this may be a pipe dream (the first pilot project is decades away). As climate change forces Homo sapiens toward the poles to survive, it would be a shame to have long-term nuclear waste to cope with.
Heavy and Extra Heavy Oil
Not only is that nastier and difficult to extract and process than conventional oil, as mentioned above, there are also more toxic wastes from the high sulfur content and other pollutants. Just like tar sands, it has to be heated and mixed with natural gas to get it to flow through pipelines.
Venezuela has about a trillion barrels of this glop, of which 652 billion barrels (22 years) might be recoverable, making this one of the largest reservoirs of unconventional petroleum in the world.
Don’t confuse this with shale oil. It’s not really oil, it’s a precursor called kerogen. Companies have been trying to figure out how to convert it for decades. In 2013 Royal Dutch Shell, which has been trying to get the shale oil out since 1982, gave up on it. Exxon Mobil gave up long ago too, after spending $5 billion trying.
Easy coal is gone
It’s getting more difficult and dangerous to mine the remaining coal, because it’s very deep underground. The shallow coal has been mined out. Going after the deeper coal increases cave-ins, and jolts from collapsing walls that can’t hold the mountain above up anymore.
Mexico will start importing oil as soon as 2015
Mexico had the 2nd largest oil field ever discovered (after Ghawar in Saudi Arabia), but it’s been declining rapidly, throwing Mexico into an economic crisis. Production has dropped 33% from 3.71 million barrels per day in 2006 to 2.48 million barrels per day (in 2013). The Mexican population is growing, so their own demand for oil is rising while production falls. By 2015 Mexico will stop exporting, and start importing oil, bad news for the USA because other oil will come from more distant and less reliable countries.
Metals and Minerals
Some of the best wild places on earth are about to be ruined by mining
There are many examples of this in the book, I think the worst is the Pebble Project at Iliamna Lake in Alaska which couldn’t possibly be guaranteed not to release the arsenic, mercury, and other toxic chemicals used to leach gold and copper from the ore. This would ruin the world’s largest salmon fishery, which employs 12,500 people and which the Native Americans depend on for food, as well as much of the rest of this fragile arctic ecosystem.
Another of many areas to be ruined by mining is Ivindo National Park in Gabon where there’s iron ore (p 132). Niger has large deposits of uranium, where about 10% of world output comes from (4,000 metric tons) and soon, perhaps, another 10% more if another mine opens up.
The Race for the last Uranium, copper, iron, bauxite, etc.
Even common minerals are growing scarce. Ores have less metal so the cost and energy to get it out increases. Some random facts from the book:
- China is eager to find uranium abroad for their 11 nuclear power plants and 16 under construction, since they don’t have large deposits themselves.
- Afghanistan has lots of copper, iron, bauxite, gold, lead, tungsten, zinc, niobium and other minerals worth more than $1 trillion.
- Mongolia has a lot of copper and gold, but it’s so remote that building transportation and other infrastructure to get at it will cost $4.5 billion.
- Mongolia also has coking-coal (to make steel), a higher grade than that used to generate electricity. They have the largest untapped reserves in the world, about 7.5 billion metric tons (how much will that raise the Earth’s temperature?)
Rare Earth Elements, Platinum Group Metals (PGM), and other Essential metals
Clean energy applications are now using about 20% of the rare earth elements, much of them in advanced electromagnets and lightweight batteries (p 155). The Toyota Prius is especially dependent on rare earths, with each electric motor requiring 2 pounds of neodymium, and each battery 22 to 33 pounds of lanthanum. Other high-tech applications:
Scandium. Aluminum alloys, semiconductors, stadium lights
Yttrium. Lasers, fiber optics, energy-efficient light bulbs
Lanthanum. Hybrid electric motors and electric car batteries
Cerium. Lens polishers
Praseodymium Searchlights, aircraft parts, portable electronics
Neodymium. High-strength magnets, hybrid electric motors, portable electronics
Promethium. Portable X-ray units
Samarium. Glass manufacture, high-strength magnets
Europium. Energy-efficient light bulbs, fiber optics
Gadolinium. Neutron radiography
Terbium. high-strength magnets, hybrid electric motors, portable electronics
Dysprosium. High-strength magnets, hybrid electric motors, portable electronics
Holmium. Glass tint
Erbium. Metal alloys
Ytterbium. Stainless steel
Lutetium. None currently
Niobium. high-performance alloys for oil and gas pipelines
Manganese and vanadium. corrosion-resistant high-strength steels
Titanium. alloys used in air and space vehicles, lightweight armor
Gallium and indium. photovoltaic solar cells
Gallium. electronic devices, high-speed semiconductors, light-emitting diodes,
Indium. coatings for flat-panel displays, infrared detectors, high-speed transistors
Lithium. advanced motor-vehicle batteries, rechargeable batteries, wind turbines
Tantalum. automotive electronics, pagers, personal computers, portable telephones, cell phone capacitors and other compact electronic devices, as well as steel used in jet engines and nuclear reactors.
Platinum (PGM). automotive catalytic converters, hydrogen fuel cells
Palladium, iridium, rhodium, ruthenium, osmium (PGM). All have exceptionally high melting points, superb electrical conductivity, outstanding catalytic capabilities, excellent resistance to corrosion. Ideal for catalytic converters, in jet engines, and in portable electric devices. 25% of all manufactured goods either have these metals or were made on equipment that used them. For some key industrial applications no substitutes exist.
Essential Metals are Vulnerable to Supply Chain & single source failure
China started restricting export of rare earth metals, which alarmed other nations, since they’re vital to high-tech products. The Department of energy estimates that China accounts for 95% of total worldwide rare earths production, other experts say it’s even higher, 97%. Natural concentrations of rare earths are uncommon so they have to be pulled out of composite ores with lots of other minerals, including often radioactive ones, and that makes it both expensive and dangerous. To get the metals out requires acids that produce highly toxic wastes that can poison water and farmland. China is infamous for ignoring the environment to save money at a low cost, which drove other rare earth mining companies out of business.
Platinum group metals are exceptionally rare. They’re found in very small amounts in just a few locations – 90% comes mainly from South Africa and Russia.
Tantalum comes from coltan, a columbite-tantalite mineral. Its key chemical properties are hard to find substitutes for. Most if the deposits are in the failed state the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by civilians forced at gunpoint to dig for tantalum, tin, tungsten, gold, and other minerals and carried out on foot to collection sites.
Many of these metals are essential, have no substitutes, and yet are subject to supply risks because only a few countries or companies mine them.
Peak food: Land Grabs for the last Arable Soil
Many countries are far beyond their ability to feed themselves, and would be devastated if for some reason they were outbid for food on the open market, that they’ve taken to buying land all over the world to be sure they can feed their people.
Private investors also see fertile farmland as a great new asset class, so banks, hedge funds and other wealthy investors are buying vast tracts of land.
Arable land is getting to be as scarce as oil or minerals as 7 billion people continue to reproduce exponentially with few areas left that can be made into farmland.
Topsoil is eroding faster than new soil can form on about a third of the world’s cropland (it takes up to 500 years for soil to recover from human civilization after a crash, which happens roughly every 1,500 years according to Montgomery’s “Dirt: the erosion of civilizations”).
Climate change is also expected to render a third of the planet uninhabitable at worst, and crop production much lower from desertification and extreme weather at best, making arable farmland even more valuable. Klare mentions ‘peak soil’ on page 194, a term I first coined back in 2007 in Monbiot’s Guardian article “A new generation of biofuels turns out to be another environmental disaster”. My energyskeptic paper, “Peak Soil: Why Cellulosic and other Biofuels are Not Sustainable and a Threat to America’s National Security” has a section called “Do you want to Eat, Drink, or Drive” because growing biofuels crops competes with edible crops, which will also drive up the price of farmland.
Two-thirds of the land being grabbed is in Africa. Other countries include Russia, and South America (Patagonia, Brazil, the Amazon). The countries buying this land are Saudi Arabia, China, India, South Korea and many others. Much of this is going on secretly, but Klare mentions several deals that total millions of acres, for example, both Saudi Arabia and South Korea have bought millions of acres in Ethiopia.
Wild lands are about to lose massive amounts of biodiversity, such as Kenya, where enormous sugarcane and jatropha plantations in the Tana River delta are taking over.
Two-thirds of China’s land is arid grassland or desert, and what little arable land they have continues to be paved over or lost to desertification and other damage that goes back to Chairman Mao’s insane assault on nature (see Shapiro’s book “Mao’s War Against Nature”). China is investing heavily in Brazil, Africa (Mozmbiuque, Zimbabwe, Benin, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Senegal, Cameroon, Mali, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo), Venezuela, Australia, Argentina, Russia, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Russia).
Klare’s vision of the future
Klare predicts that only the largest companies will be able to lay claim to what little is left and thrive, driving all others into bankruptcy at worst or being bought out at best. Likewise, only the strongest nations will succeed at gaining access to what’s left, and nations’ left behind will fall into hardship and decline. The competition between the remaining countries is likely to be ruthless (pp 213-214).
The risk of war increases as nations use their militaries to secure resource areas. The United States is very active in Nigeria, the Republic of Georgia, and the Persian Gulf kingdoms; China is heavily involved in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Central Asian republics (p 221). Russia appears to be getting more aggressive in trying to kick Western companies out of former areas they controlled before the Soviet Union broke up.
China is especially clever at cutting very long-term deals for food, land, oil, and minerals in exchange for massive loans (p219), and builds good-will as well as the ability to make off with these goods by building infrastructure in foreign countries.
Klare notes that all of this can only end with natural resources vanishing, wilderness areas destroyed, most corporations going bankrupt, massive unemployment, and war. The local people in these remote areas will suffer the most, but in the end, we all will.
Much of the land being grabbed is stolen from local people, who will someday take their land back, especially as hunger grows and infrastructure falls apart – distant countries won’t be able to fly or truck food to their homelands from the foreign land they “own”.
His solution is that we should stop trying to get the last resources and begin a race to adapt. I disagree with him that this can be done with alternative energy, but he’s right that efficiency is important – besides consuming less, that’s really all we can do.
I think Klare’s “race to adapt” may become the new mantra as we reach the point where there’s no other choice, but if we wait that long, it may be too late to try to adapt.
The race needs to be to adapt to a way of life we once had. The age of wood. We know what that lifestyle is. Billions of people are living that way now, from remote tribes and the desperately poor to those who’ve chosen this lifestyle, such as the Amish and back-to-the-landers. What’s difficult is figuring out how to reconfigure our infrastructure now while we still have the energy to do so to make the future as pleasant as we can for future generations. Don’t we owe the grandchildren that?
Before fossil fuels, it took 9 out of 10 people to grow food for the lucky 10% who were craftsmen, merchants, or in religious orders. We ought to be adapting now by figuring out how to get half of our population back to farming over the next 20-30 years, ideally small family farms that grow and make artisan food and other such products. If there’s no planning, then the survivors of unplanned collapse will end up being peasants on large farms.
To get there, we’d have to find incentives for women to have just one child. I’d welcome hearing other kind ways to get back to our pre-fossil-fuel carrying capacity of 100 million people (meat and a glass of wine once a week, up to 250 million people eating oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
Already the economy has stopped growing, and because of the net energy cliff, at most we can only hope to maintain slow-to-no-growth a decade or so by scavenging every last morsel of oil and minerals.
A shortage of any of energy resources or minerals will hasten collapse. Each depends on the other. Computers use over 66 minerals – if one or more are missing and computer chips and high-tech products can’t be made, drilling and other energy resources can’t be extracted either, because chip-driven computers, vehicles, satellites, and even toasters depend on high-tech products. So does the grid. Too bad high-tech products are built to fail, not just from planned obsolescence, but in many other ways.
Conversely, extracting metals from ore requires tremendous amounts of energy, so it’s more likely an energy shortage will limit mineral resources than the other way around.
Decreasing energy also means less food can be grown and distributed, since trucks, tractors, harvesters, granaries, fertilizers, pesticides, and every other component of the agricultural supply chain depends on oil and natural gas.
The longer we wait to start the race to adapt, the fewer the people who will reach the finish-line.