Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Going after ‘extreme oil’ is extremely irresponsible

The emerging information on the quest for what is referred to as “extreme oil” is worrying in the extreme. And it is very bad news for other creatures on the planet, especially those who live in the oceans, judging by the information clip sent to me by the Care2 petition site, to which I subscribe (and to which my friend Maria alerted me). This is what it says:

“The use of deep water sonar is likely causing the mass dolphin deaths along the Peruvian and US Gulf Coasts.

After speculating too long over what caused 3000 dead dolphins to wash up on Peru’s coast, researchers at a marine animal organisation in Peru (ORCA) finally concluded that seismic surveying for petroleum is to blame. They said the dolphins suffered violent deaths due to decompression hemorrhaging caused by the acoustic booms.

The US has responded by curbing exploration during the calving season, but Natural Resource Defense Council’s Michael Jasny says that’s not enough. What dolphins face, he says, is like “dynamite going off in your neighborhood for days, months on end”.

It was first thought that pollution from the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill caused the killings, but anyway you look at it, offshore oil drilling is at root of the problem.”

One might think that, with this event – the BP oil spill – still fresh in people’s minds, offshore drilling in extremely deep waters would be shunned, but the contrary is true. Oil operations counting as “extreme” are taking place in much deeper waters than where this accident, apparently caused by negligence, happened. About 300 kilometres off the coast of Brazil, for example, under 2000 metres of water and another 1500 metres of salt rock, there are huge oil quantities, equalling those in Kuwait, but accessible only at the cost of very risky oil extraction operations, under circumstances that require the most complex engineering work imaginable in this kind of industry.

The reason for the ongoing exploration for new oil resources is well summarised in the recent TIME magazine article on “extreme oil” (April 9 2012: Oil’s Messy Frontier: The Future of Oil), from which I got the information referred to above, where Bryan Walsh points out that, contrary to the utter depletion of oil – the “peak oil” phenomenon – what we are witnessing is the depletion of easily accessible, relatively cheap oil. Plenty of new sites for the extraction of oil have been found of late, but they are usually both difficult to access and exploit, and, connected to this, expensive to produce.

These instances of “extreme oil” (which are elaborated on in Walsh’s article) include so-called “Tight Oil”, which is, like the gas targeted by “fracking”, caught in “permeable shale”, and can be accesses only by using fracking technology, requiring the pumping of millions of litres of water and chemicals into the shale to release the oil. Needless to stress, this entails huge environmental risks such as the contamination of groundwater and air pollution.

Then there is what oil companies undoubtedly regard as a bonus accompanying the melting of Arctic sea ice as a result of global warming, namely “Arctic Offshore” – the possibility of offshore oil-drilling in the Arctic, regardless of the risks posed by these treacherous waters. Any oil spills resulting from accidents would pose a major challenge for cleaning up operations.

The third novel oil source is labelled “Presalt Deepwater” – including the oil fields off the Brazil coast mentioned above – and presents oil production engineering with formidable challenges regarding the safe exploitation of the stuff. Any blowout similar to the recent BP fiasco would be far more problematical to fix.

“Oil Shale” – named “kerogen” – is a solid kind of bituminous matter which contains oil, and which can only be separated from the rock at very high temperatures, making it too costly to produce “economically” at present. Its environmental impact is also considerable. (Not that this would prevent oil companies to tackle it when the rest of the new oil sources appear to be waning.)

Lastly, Walsh lists the “Oil Sands” (of Alberta, Canada), which contain oil in a viscous, bituminous form, and the exploitation of which is accompanied by the creation of large quantities of “toxic pilings” threatening water resources, as well as higher than usual greenhouse gas emissions (given the energy required to extract the oil from sand, and for refining it).

All of these sources of oil are much more costly to access for production purposes that the oil which has been used so far in the history of oil production. In a nutshell: the time of cheap, easily produced oil is rapidly drawing to a close. But this is not giving energy companies the incentive, as one might hope it would, to look at alternative sources of energy production on a large scale.

The logic driving the global energy industry seems to be: extract whatever profit may still be had from the remaining oil reserves in the world, no matter how hard it is to come by, because it will always be sold at a massive profit to consumers who, at present, don’t have much of an alternative. Such an alternative will, moreover, not be provided any time soon on a large scale, lest it bedevil the profit-opportunity vested in oil. In other words, consumers are facing the prospect of inexorably rising oil – that is, petrol and diesel – prices.

But the most important consideration, in light of these extremely worrying indications that oil production has just become costlier than ever before in the history of the oil economy, is the fact that it has also, concomitantly, become “dirtier” than ever before. Thomas Princen puts this in perspective in his book Treading Softly (p. 2):

“…over some 150 years we have grown accustomed to cheap, abundant oil, but now only hard-to-get, energy-intensive, costly sources are left. If we turn to other fossil fuels, we are likely to bake the planet: so far we have burned the equivalent of roughly a trillion barrels of oil, enough to disrupt the climate; there is the equivalent of at least 4 or 5 trillion barrels still in the ground. Ethically, an order that bequeaths to future generations materials that present generations do not want and cannot handle – for example, nuclear waste and hormone-mimicking toxic substances – is…living beyond its means…The four E’s – ecology, economy, energy, and ethics – point to an order that cannot last. The next era will be one of living within our means, one way or another. The only question is what kind of order it will be.”

Hence, whatever way one looks at it, the turn to “extreme oil” is bad for everyone on the planet – for some (like the dolphins) right now, but for every living creature on the planet in the long run. The people benefiting from it right now are mainly the executives of the oil companies, as well as those of the many companies that are parasitic upon oil. Our world runs on an oil economy. This appears to be required at present for economies to work, but the time is overdue for switching to a more life- and planet-friendly economy.

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    • The Creator

      Absolutely, Incidentally, there’s also gas hydrates, which could be extremely dangerous because they could lead to catastrophically large releases of methane — with potentially very bad greenhouse effects.

      We need to be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, not digging deeper holes.

    • HD

      Damage to dolphins (and other marine animals) is not limited to the oil industry. In the past various naval sonar projects have come under scrutiny. Any industry that uses sonar could potentially damage/harm marine animals that are sensitive to loud sonar booms at certain depths.

      It raises some interesting questions about animal rights (even property rights in general) and how you can protect animals like dolphins/whales – which are probably the closest to being eligible for any form of “rights”. Negative rights for certain animals might not be that far away…

      That being said, “extreme oil” will only remain “profitable” whilst there are no better alternatives.

      A rise in oil prices over a long period might very well lead to alternatives being developed (more efficient oil extraction techniques, more efficient energy application etc…) and/or substitutes (wind, solar, platinum etc) becoming more viable.

      Just as we moved away from wood and are moving away from coal/oil we will probably end up with a mixture of different energy sources in the future.

      So, therefore, in many respects we should hope for the pricing mechanism and economics to play its part. If we had more freer energy markets we might have seen some of these changes/alternatives more quickly – instead of industries and sub-industries being propped up by…

    • HD

      “The people benefiting from it right now are mainly the executives of the oil companies, as well as those of the many companies that are parasitic upon oil. Our world runs on an oil economy. This appears to be required at present for economies to work, but the time is overdue for switching to a more life- and planet-friendly economy”

      This is an oversimplification. Sit down a minute and think about the services, products and goods that you use. How many of them are directly depended on oil and how many more indirectly? Is you correctly point out our world for now runs on oil. So everyone benefits not just your favourite political targets.

      Unless you don’t use any “oil products” (blogging pretty much rules that out), you are part of the billions of consumers that are asking for oil products and paying these oil companies for the goods, services and products that they make possible by extracting oil…

    • Brent

      Anti capitalist Bert only lists oil execs as the badies. The Brazil field is being drilled by the state oil company, Pertrobras, with full backing by the ruling poiticians. Marxist China has to date spent over $15 billion, with plenty more to come, on the Canadian ‘Alberta oil sands’ plus logistics to ship the oil/gas to China. The Saudi state oil company (does that mean they are ‘protected/immune’ from your moral fury) is about the size of the 6 biggest ‘western’ oil companies combined?

      The oil industry, 100% of it, not just the execs of big oil need to be held to account and ALL of us (includes cosseted university intellectuals) weaned off our oil dependence. It is balanced reporting/writing that is one of the ways to this required state of affairs.


    • Maria

      C’mon, Brent, Bert did say “mainly” the oil company execs; but whether it’s state-run capitalism or the neoliberal variety, it’s all for the money…you capitalist types would rather see the planet destroyed than your deified neoliberal capitalist economy. What would money be worth then? That is ultimately what Princen is hinting at in the excerpt that Bert quoted above: “The next era will be one of living within our means, one way or another. The only question is what kind of order it will be.” Which is to say that, one possibility is that ecological collapse would force us to live within our means, unless we pursue the other possibility, to take evasive action now, and (as The Creator wisely points out above) “wean ourselves” from the oil economy. Chances are, however, that such wisdom will not be forthcoming from the worshippers of Mammon…

    • Deirdre Kohler

      I have to agree with @Brent & @HD on this one… Humans in general just don’t know how to minimise their usage on resources. willing buyer – willing seller! My pet hate is that people love to point out how bad the world is without changing the way they live in it. Be the change, make an effort or acknowledge you are a supporter of the current ways.

      Surely we can some how come up with a positive change solution instead of pointing fingers?

    • Garg Unzola

      So once we run out of oil, the big bad capitalists – of the state run capitalism (probably the most glaring contradiction in terms ever) and the Neoliberal kind – will not be making $$$ out of oil any longer. Also, the dolphins would be safe because there would be no more oil left.

      What’s the problem?

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      There are no such risks with either oil or coal. The rubbish written about coal power is sponsored by the multi national oil companies.

      I repeat – the French Revolution was caused by a famine, and the famine was caused by the eruption of one volcano, Mount St Helens, which threw so much dust into the sky that it clouded the sun and there was no summer harvest that year in the northern hemisphere. And this was BEFORE the industrial age.

      Yes, we have climate change – and the planet has ALWAYS had climate change!

      “Adapt or Die” – which was the real motto of “The Origin of the Species” by Darwin.

    • Garg Unzola

      We’d be forced to ween ourselves off oil in South Africa anyway, thanks to the er, capitalists of the state capitalist variety at SANRAL and the wonderful not-so-Neoliberals of the ANC. Coal is another issue, there are too many state-run businesses and cousins who benefit from the coal supply chain to ESKOM.

      More on topic, this is a blog run by a physicist with an interest in energy:

      Also the fact that big oil companies are looking for alternate sources of oil of course has absolutely nothing to do with the oil cartel run by governments and their er.. state capitalists, right?

    • beachcomber

      @ Lyndall Beddy – the French Revolution was in part caused by property speculation in Louisiana. The aristocracy invested heavily and lost out when the bubble burst and almost bankrupted the treasury.

      “The French treasury in 1720 was almost bankrupt and the Duke of Orléans gave a new charter for the whole of Louisiana to a corporation headed by Scotsman John Law. Law’s Company of the Indies assumed the charter of the Company of the West. Law and Orléans saw the new venture as a way to bring colonists to Louisiana through generous land concessions, to increase trade, and to make Louisiana profitable for France at last.”

      @ Garg Unzola # By this logic we should no longer have warfare because theoretically there are enough resources to enable every human to live in comfort on the planet.

      The human condition only shifts when kicked solidly up the backside. Until then, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

    • Policat

      Our dependency on oil is an addiction that we cannot and will not be kick easily. The magic fluid and its cousin’s coal and gas rule the earth. But the question is, is this right? Our oily evolutionary pathway might have been terrific over the last couple of centuries but there is a saturation point for everything and maybe we should review our dependence in terms of the acceptability of harvesting and increasingly scarce product in relationship to the natural environment we are to pass on to our descendants. It will be a disgrace if our lack of respect for our environment is superseded by the conscious neglect for our future generations as we continue to allow the quest for wealth to obliterate our morality.
      There are other options.

    • MLH

      If I remember correctly, beachcomber #, the land in Louisiana that the French invested in and hoped to colonise, was (and still is) a swamp: uninhabitable. And we are hell-bent on turning the rest of the planet into a similar state

    • HD

      Mammon and money is rather besides the point. Companies make profit by giving consumer what they want in terms of goods & services.

      Clearly a lot of the good & services we want are in someway connected to oil. Now should oil become more expensive (supply/due to more expensive extraction techniques for harder to get extreme oil), it will impact on the prices of all these products and their underlying capital goods, The capitalist producers will have to reconsider the lower order capital goods that they use (oil, capital good made from oil, alternatives, related capital goods etc) and how it impacts on the production process. High oil prices for a sustained period will lead to changes.

      The price mechanism and supply/demand coordinates resources in a free market economy to its most desired needs (as reflected in consumer choice) and “prices” in such a system does nothing more than reflect economic conditions on the ground.

      A fixation with money, misses the actual economics at play…

    • Garg Unzola

      Warfare isn’t always about scarcity of resources, it’s about controlling resource supply chains too. Of which weaponry is one product with a tightly controlled supply chain. Same with oil, which is not as scarce as we are led to believe by the OPEC countries (see the TIME article to which Bert refers).

      By contrast, we do not generally have warfare in nations with economic and political freedom – they literally cannot afford it. Most wars today are between nations whose economic life depends on a certain resource like oil, or for political and economic freedom of the citizens, such as the uprisings in Egypt and Venezuela and in various African dictatorships. Point being warfare is not only about resources.

      Similarly, if I had a choice, I would not buy a vehicle driven by fossil fuels, or purchase electricity produced with fossil fuels. Since those industries are not capitalist but run or regulated by government bureaucrats, I have no alternative products nor a way in which to start my own business that competes with the same. The barriers to entry are too large.

      The human condition continually shifts when people are left to their own devices. The problems start when we try to make decisions on behalf of other people, which is inevitable when we suffer from the hubris of finetuning our resources.

    • Aragorn Eloff

      It’s threads like this that make me cheer for black blocs.

    • Rory Short

      It is not only the sea creatures that are and will suffer through the greedy activities of some of us, it is also us human creatures who are suffering and the greed of some if not curbed will ultimately see us all off this planet for good.

    • Garg Unzola

      That’s the kind of savagery that puts people off anarchism, you know. Whatever gives you the right to damage people’s property, makes it an imperitive for them to defend it with the same brute, intellectually vacuous force.

    • Brent

      Maria, my point is that Bert, stuck in the Cold War battles of 20 years ago, is tilting at the wrong windmills. National Oil companies control 94% of the world’s reserves, yes 94 % and huge Exxon Mobil comes 14th on the list. Chinese plus Norwegian and now Russian state companies are pouring billions into the N American gas/shale fields and Bert at his irrelevant best moans about big oil execs making big money. N. Dakota’s Bakken oil pool holds ± 24 billion barrels of what is called ‘sweet light crude’ which with the other huge fields in N. America will be exploited, full stop. Our role is to make sure it is done environmentally properly and that a tax is put on this industry that is used, exclusively and only, for research and development of green power for the future. The oil world will dominate for at least another 20/30 years until technology in ‘green energy’ has progressed to the point that this alternate energy can take over, it cannot now or in the forseeable future.
      Where i part very much from Bert is that i fear ‘Big Govt’ much much more than ‘Big Business’. Read this article and weep at how Govt/officialdom runs/ruins our lives: One question who fights all the wars? Answer Governments.


    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Speculation in Louisiana had nothing to do with the harvest failing in France and causing famine – that was a volcanic eruption which equally affected the North American Indians that year.

      The reason that SA developed SASOL was to protect SA against Peak Oil – and SASOL was the first state asset Mandela and the ANC forced to be sold (with much of the shares sold to themselves).

    • Aragorn Eloff

      @Garg: “That’s the kind of savagery that puts people off anarchism, you know. Whatever gives you the right to damage people’s property, makes it an imperitive for them to defend it with the same brute, intellectually vacuous force.”

      Not people’s property, the property of large corporations. Yes, I know, shareholders are people too…

      Frankly, anything that challenges the hegemony of corporate capitalism and private property is fine by me. I would invoke some historical examples of the effectiveness of blackbloc-style tactics,but I’m sure they’re pretty well-known to most.

      My point, btw, was that this thread predictably dragged out all the same tired old free market cliches about how freer markets will fix everything, how anthropogenic climate change is a myth, how consumer demand drives the fossil fuel industry, how all that is bad with capitalism is actually a result of state intervention, how everything is best understood through the ‘science’ of economics, etc….

    • Rene

      Deirdre, what is there you don’t understand about Bert’s post? He is suggesting, just like Princen, that time is running out to change from oil-dependence to alternative energy sources. And we all know that there are alternatives, but that, given all that money that can still be made out of oil, such change will be indefinitely postponed. It is a matter of what one really cares about. Dyed-in-the-wool capitalists like Garg, Brent and HD will, as Aragorn rightly points out, never admit that there are other, earth-friendly sources. As if consumerism can save the earth – read Princen’s book, “The logic of sufficiency”, in which he shows so clearly that at present we live according to a logic of excess, which is taking far more out of the earth than we are putting back – a logic which is leading us to ruin. Unfortunately most people are governed by an addiction to the market, and cannot possibly imagine an alternative.

    • Garg Unzola

      Where did we dyed-in-the-wool capitalists deny that there are alternatives? If you’ve read my posts, you’d notice that I would very much like to switch to an alternative. There is a huge consumer demand for an alternative to fossil fuels. Oil in particular is a resource whose supply and demand is not reliant on market conditions. This is what happens when you do not have a price mechanism that determines the allocation of a resource.

      I agree with all the criticisms mentioned above. I just disagree that we can lay the blame at the door of capitalism. Per definition, oil is not distributed or produced by means of a capitalist system. Most of the supply chain is owned and run by governments. Denying that capitalism is the culprit is not denying that we have a problem.

      Also please do follow my previous link, you’d notice that we’re going to run into trouble regardless of which alternative technology we choose for our energy supply.

      Here’s another one. While the caricature of the economist is not accurate, it does acknowledge some of your concerns:

    • Garg Unzola

      You’d be pleased to know then that our current hegemony is not one of capitalism or private property, but one of attenuating unfettered capitalism with state capitalism, mercentilism, mixed economy – in fact, anything but capitalism.

      Labour and oil are two resources whose prices are not determined by competition on a free market, which is one requirement for a hegemony of capitalism to be a realistic concern for you. Therefore, not capitalism. It doesn’t matter how many stinky socks you pull over your head or how many run-ins you have with shatterproof glass at Starbucks, the fact remains that we live in a mixed economy whereby most of our property is publicly owned.

      I still fail to see how behaving like a savage lends any weight to your arguments. If a black bloc party seems like a working solution to you, you must literally be at your wit’s end. Then all I can say is may the biggest club win

    • Brent

      Rene I am not a dyed in the wool capilalist my day job happens to be all about alternate fuels/ethanol from environmentally friendly renewable biomass but we work with reality not ‘intellectual wish lists’ and in the field of liquid fuels alternates to oil in terms of taking over are at best 20/30 years down the track. All day we study/research/innovate alternate sources of energy so know a bit about what i am talking about. That is the hard reality/truth that name calling and slanging at each other just simply will not change. Use the huge supply of oil/gas now by means of taxing at source and end use to build up a R&D alternate fund as the problem is the huge shortage of funds to push alternates through to economic success – too much wishful hot air and not enough funds.


    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      If you are going to accuse each other of being, or not being, capitalists – then first define what you mean by the word “Capitalist”? Someone with money that he is not goinfg to throw away on deadbeats and losers, and only invest in schemes which make a profit?

    • Aragorn23

      @Lyndall: I think you’ll find that ‘capitalism’ means whatever each of us want it to mean, i.e., all the good stuff is capitalism and all the bad stuff is something else OR all the bad stuff is capitalism and all the good stuff is something else.

      ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

      ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

      ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

    • Garg Unzola

      Given that we each have our own dictionary, how do you justify having bloc party beatings for those who use a different dictionary than yourself?

      I think you’ll find that Lyndall and many others have given you plenty of opportunity to rectify our mistaken dictionaries, not to mention that this platform lends itself well to coming up with the goods.

      To be more succinct, if your brand of anarchism had any leg to stand on, you’d be able to express it clearly. Not to mention offer a plausible critique of our current system, or a more or less convincing tirade of why your brand of capitalism is the cause of all your terrible burden of a life whereby you have so many options that you can choose a vegan lifestyle over a myriad of others.