An Inconvenient Talk
Dave Hughes’s guide to the end of the fossil fuel age
By Chris Turner
Dave Hughes is driving north on Highway 2. Headed out of Calgary, where he worked for thirty-two years at the Geological Survey of Canada, mapping the nation’s coal reserves. Bound for Edmonton, where he grew up and earned two degrees in geology. It’s not yet dawn, the sky deep black and the windows of his pickup truck like mirrors, the southbound lanes a line of smeared headlights as long-haul commuters make the trek the other way into the capital of the oil patch. Hughes sips coffee from a reusable mug, fighting back sleepiness. Just another commuter trailing a cloud of burnt dinosaur bones on his way to work.
Dave had to start out fifteen minutes earlier than the requisite ungodly hour so he could pick you up at your house. So you wouldn’t drive yourself. Save a few hydrocarbons, he’d joked. He’s a coal man, a geologist, and he always refers to the holy trinity of fossil fuels whose flames have stoked the past 200 years of industrial growth — coal, natural gas, and especially oil — in that same semi-technical way: hydrocarbons. Dave Hughes has a lot to say about hydrocarbons, mainly how there’s no possible way to keep running the engine of a modern global economy for much longer at the pace we’re burning them. Which is why you felt compelled to join him in the black chill of this late-autumn morning. Because that seems like a pretty big deal.
Dave came right to the curb out in front of your house, your personal chauffeur, because you said you were interested in hearing his talk a second time, and he’ll do his level best to bring his talk to just about anyone who asks. The Talk, he usually calls it, and you can tell it has been a proper noun in his head for a good long while now. Somewhere between that first lecture back in 2002 at the University of Calgary and the 155th, the one he’ll give later today at a Natural Resources Canada research facility outside Edmonton, it became his passion, his quiet crusade, his data-freighted inconvenient truth. The Talk. One hundred fifty-four times. Geoscience symposia and energy industry summits and sustainability conferences. The Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Nova Scotia chambers of commerce. A petroleum trade show in Inuvik and a renewable energy confab in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Canadian Institute’s Coalbed Methane Symposium and the annual conference of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. The audiences vary, but The Talk only tightens, takes on layers, attains a porous firmness like sedimentary stone. It is crowded with hard facts, and it is intended to overwhelm audiences with its certainty. It’s a reality check, a doozy of a reality check, and Dave doesn’t have much time these days for anyone who won’t face this reality.
Talk No. 147 took place at an urban sustainability forum at the Westin Hotel in Calgary. That’s where you first saw it. The title slide read “The Energy Sustainability Dilemma: Powering the Future in a Finite World,” and identified its presenter as J. David Hughes. Since then, you, too, have come to think of it as The Talk, and its author simply as Dave. Dave was on the bill that day with such dignitaries as the mayor of Calgary and the premier of Alberta. The officials talked about how to turn this boom town into a place that was “all things energy,” but nothing they said had any real resonance after The Talk. When the provincial sustainable resources minister came up to congratulate himself for setting aside some new provincial parkland on the edge of the city, it was as if he’d just awakened from cryogenic freezing, blipped in from some ancient time long before the existence of the world described in The Talk.
The Talk is in essence a constantly updated survey of the state of the planet through a hydrocarbon geologist’s eyes. It plows methodically through reams of energy-geek data. World Conventional Oil and Oil Sands Reserves, 1980–2007. Energy Profit Ratio for Liquid Hydrocarbons. Canadian Gas Deliverability Scenarios from All Sources. The small-font notes at the bottom of each PowerPoint slide enumerate sources that read like a general anaesthetic in print form: BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, EIA International Energy Outlook. Pie charts and bar graphs with several rainbows’ worth of colour and an overabundance of italicized and all-capped words: “The absolute first priority,” that kind of thing. (By the way, it should be “to reduce energy consumption as soon as possible.”)
The Talk is all kinds of policy-wonky. Your eyes could glaze over. You could even miss the two slides Dave always says are the only ones you must remember. The first is a single-line graph depicting “World Per Capita Annual Primary Energy Consumption by Fuel 1850–2007,” which climbs by 761 percent over its 157-year timeline and flips from 82 percent renewable biomass (mostly wood) at the 1850 end to 89 percent non-renewables (almost entirely fossil fuels) at the 2007 end. The second critical slide has three line graphs in horizontal sequence, all tracking curves that begin in 1850, around the time humanity started drilling for oil in a serious way, and then spiking impossibly high at the right-hand, 2007 termini of their X axes. Global population today: 5.3 times global population in 1850. Per capita energy consumption today: 8.6 times that of 1850. Total energy consumption today: 45 times 1850’s.
You could also miss the way these figures resonate with The Talk’s voluminous data on oil and natural gas and coal reserves. You could miss how our current trajectory obliges us to rely on hydrocarbons for 86 percent of our projected primary energy needs in 2030, and how that fits with the strong case Hughes makes that the global hydrocarbon peak (the point at which global energy supply will begin an irrevocable decline, making the energy price shocks of the past couple of years start to look like the good old days) is estimated to occur nine years before that date.
Here’s the upshot: if you plan to drive a car or heat a house or light a room in 2030, The Talk is telling you your options will be limited, to say the least. Even if you’re convinced climate change is UN-sponsored hysteria or every last puff of greenhouse gas will soon be buried forever a mile underground or ducks look their best choking on tar sands tailings, Dave Hughes is saying your way of life is over. Not because of the clouds of smoke, you understand, but because we’re running out of what makes them.