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Following the disaster, the Obama administration imposed a temporary ban on deep-offshore drilling. Barely two years later, drilling in the Gulf's deep waters is back to pre-disaster levels. President Obama has also signed an agreement with Mexico allowing drilling in the deepest part of the Gulf, along the U.S.-Mexican maritime boundary.

Meanwhile, deepwater drilling is picking up speed elsewhere. Brazil, for example, is moving to exploit its "pre-salt" fields (so-called because they lie below a layer of shifting salt) in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean far off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. New offshore fields are similarly being developed in deep waters off Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

By 2020, says energy analyst John Westwood, such deepwater fields will supply 10% of the world's oil, up from only 1% in 1995. But that added production will not come cheaply: most of these new fields will cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars to develop, and will only prove profitable as long as oil continues to sell for $90 or more per barrel.

Brazil's offshore fields, considered by some experts the most promising new oil discovery of this century, will prove especially pricey, because they lie beneath one and a half miles of water and two and a half miles of sand, rock, and salt. The world's most advanced, costly drilling equipment -- some of it still being developed -- will be needed. Petrobras, the state-controlled energy firm, has already committed $53 billion to the project for 2011-2015, and most analysts believe that will be only a modest down payment on a staggering final price tag.

Arctic Oil

The Arctic is expected to provide a significant share of the world's future oil supply. Until recently, production in the far north has been very limited. Other than in the Prudhoe Bay area of Alaska and a number of fields in Siberia, the major companies have largely shunned the region. But now, seeing few other options, they are preparing for major forays into a melting Arctic.

From any perspective, the Arctic is the last place you want to go to drill for oil. Storms are frequent, and winter temperatures plunge far below freezing. Most ordinary equipment will not operate under these conditions. Specialized (and costly) replacements are necessary. Working crews cannot live in the region for long. Most basic supplies -- food, fuel, construction materials -- must be brought in from thousands of miles away at phenomenal cost.

But the Arctic has its attractions: billions of barrels of untapped oil, to be exact. According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the area north of the Arctic Circle, with just 6% of the planet's surface, contains an estimated 13% of its remaining oil (and an even larger share of its undeveloped natural gas) -- numbers no other region can match.

With few other places left to go, the major energy firms are now gearing up for an energy rush to exploit the Arctic's riches. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell is expected to begin test drilling in portions of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas adjacent to northern Alaska. (The Obama administration must still award final operating permits for these activities, but approval is expected.) At the same time, Statoil and other firms are planning extended drilling in the Barents Sea, north of Norway.

As with all such extreme energy scenarios, increased production in the Arctic will significantly boost oil company operating costs. Shell, for example, has already spent $4 billion alone on preparations for test drilling in offshore Alaska, without producing a single barrel of oil. Full-scale development in this ecologically fragile region, fiercely opposed by environmentalists and local Native peoples, will multiply this figure many times over.

Tar Sands and Heavy Oil

Another significant share of the world's future petroleum supply is expected to come from Canadian tar sands (also called "oil sands") and the extra-heavy oil of Venezuela. Neither of these is oil as normally understood. Not being liquid in their natural state, they cannot be extracted by traditional drilling materials, but they do exist in great abundance. According to the USGS, Canada's tar sands contain the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of conventional (liquid) oil, while Venezuela's heavy oil deposits are said to harbor another trillion barrels of oil equivalent -- although not all of this material is considered "recoverable" with existing technology.

Those who claim that the Petroleum Age is far from over often point to these reserves as evidence that the world can still draw on immense supplies of untapped fossil fuels. And it is certainly conceivable that, with the application of advanced technologies and a total indifference to environmental consequences, these resources will indeed be harvested. But easy oil this is not.

Until now, Canada's tar sands have been obtained through a process akin to strip mining, utilizing monster shovels to pry a mixture of sand and bitumen out of the ground. But most of the near-surface bitumen in the tar-sands-rich province of Alberta has now been exhausted, which means all future extraction will require a far more complex and costly process. Steam will have to be injected into deeper concentrations to melt the bitumen and allow its recovery by massive pumps. This requires a colossal investment of infrastructure and energy, as well as the construction of treatment facilities for all the resulting toxic wastes. According to the Canadian Energy Research Institute, the full development of Alberta's oil sands would require a minimum investment of $218 billion over the next 25 years, not including the cost of building pipelines to the United States (such as the proposed Keystone XL) for processing in U.S. refineries.

The development of Venezuela's heavy oil will require investment on a comparable scale. The Orinoco belt, an especially dense concentration of heavy oil adjoining the Orinoco River, is believed to contain recoverable reserves of 513 billion barrels of oil -- perhaps the largest source of untapped petroleum on the planet. But converting this molasses-like form of bitumen into a useable liquid fuel far exceeds the technical capacity or financial resources of the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Accordingly, it is now seeking foreign partners willing to invest the $10-$20 billion needed just to build the necessary facilities.

The Hidden Costs

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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