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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