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Michael Klare: Extreme Energy Means an Extreme Planet

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

If you want a particularly hard-headed assessment of how successfully Barack Obama, the most vulnerable president in memory, is pursuing his reelection campaign, don't bother to check the polls; just read "Bibi" Netanyahu's U.N. speech of last week.  The Israeli Prime Minister had, until then, all but campaigned for Mitt Romney, his old Boston Consulting Group pal, who claims Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus."

Suddenly, he essentially switched sides.  Having pounded the Obama administration for weeks on its Iran nuclear policy and its need to set "red lines" before the election, having implicitly threatened an Israeli air force "October surprise," he turned out to have a September surprise of his own. He hoisted a bizarre and confusing drawing of a cartoon bomb in front of the General Assembly and essentially announced that his red-line demands had just pinked-out, and that 2013 was time enough to worry about red-lining Iran.  ("By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage," he explained.)

Though it's not been treated this way, this calculated change of geopolitical heart, undoubtedly driven by a faltering Romney campaign and the fear of totally alienating an Obama heading into a second term, was also an election story about energy.  After all, whatever the talk about future U.S. "energy independence," what happens to Middle Eastern oil is crucial to the price at the gas station nearest you (which has been on the rise all fall).  So when Netanyahu ratchets down the threats to Iran (that is, the promise of even greater chaos in the oil heartlands of the planet), he potentially does the same with oil prices.  If the Saudis suddenly decide to pump more oil into the global economy and so depress the price of oil -- assumedly to similar effect before November 6th -- you get another vote for the reality of Obama's reelection.

Consider it the strangest election-season alliance of convenience around: Obama, Netanyahu, and Saudi King Abdullah.  And to this there's a grim corollary, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of The Race for What's Left, makes clear today.  Despite a spate of proclamations that North America is heading for future energy independence, you can count on one thing energy-wise: presidential candidates in the years to come aren't going to be worrying about the Canadian prime minister or the Brazilian president in the way they'll continue to fret about the Israelis, Saudis, and Iranians. Tom

The New "Golden Age of Oil" That Wasn't
Forecasts of Abundance Collide with Planetary Realities
By Michael T. Klare

Last winter, fossil-fuel enthusiasts began trumpeting the dawn of a new "golden age of oil" that would kick-start the American economy, generate millions of new jobs, and free this country from its dependence on imported petroleum.  Ed Morse, head commodities analyst at Citibank, was typical.  In the Wall Street Journal he crowed, "The United States has become the fastest-growing oil and gas producer in the world, and is likely to remain so for the rest of this decade and into the 2020s."

Once this surge in U.S. energy production was linked to a predicted boom in energy from Canada's tar sands reserves, the results seemed obvious and uncontestable.  "North America," he announced, "is becoming the new Middle East."  Many other analysts have elaborated similarly on this rosy scenario, which now provides the foundation for Mitt Romney's plan to achieve "energy independence" by 2020.

By employing impressive new technologies -- notably deepwater drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking) -- energy companies were said to be on the verge of unlocking vast new stores of oil in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, and shale formations across the United States.  "A "Great Revival' in U.S. oil production is taking shape -- a major break from the near 40-year trend of falling output," James Burkhard of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January 2012.

Increased output was also predicted elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, especially Canada and Brazil.  "The outline of a new world oil map is emerging, and it is centered not on the Middle East but on the Western Hemisphere," Daniel Yergin, chairman of CERA, wrote in the Washington Post.  "The new energy axis runs from Alberta, Canada, down through North Dakota and South Texas... to huge offshore oil deposits found near Brazil."

Extreme Oil

It turns out, however, that the future may prove far more recalcitrant than these prophets of an American energy cornucopia imagine.  To reach their ambitious targets, energy firms will have to overcome severe geological and environmental barriers -- and recent developments suggest that they are going to have a tough time doing so.

Consider this: while many analysts and pundits joined in the premature celebration of the new "golden age," few emphasized that it would rest almost entirely on the exploitation of "unconventional" petroleum resources -- shale oil, oil shale, Arctic oil, deep offshore oil, and tar sands (bitumen).  As for conventional oil (petroleum substances that emerge from the ground in liquid form and can be extracted using familiar, standardized technology), no one doubts that it will continue its historic decline in North America.

The "unconventional" oil that is to liberate the U.S. and its neighbors from the unreliable producers of the Middle East involves substances too hard or viscous to be extracted using standard technology or embedded in forbidding locations that require highly specialized equipment for extraction.  Think of it as "tough oil."

Shale oil, for instance, is oil trapped in shale rock.  It can only be liberated through the application of concentrated force in a process known as hydraulic fracturing that requires millions of gallons of chemically laced water per "frack," plus the subsequent disposal of vast quantities of toxic wastewater once the fracking has been completed. Oil shale, or kerogen, is a primitive form of petroleum that must be melted to be useful, a process that itself consumes vast amounts of energy. Tar sands (or "oil sands," as the industry prefers to call them) must be gouged from the earth using open-pit mining technology or pumped up after first being melted in place by underground steam jets, then treated with various chemicals.  Only then can the material be transported to refineries via, for example, the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline.  Similarly, deepwater and Arctic drilling requires the deployment of specialized multimillion-dollar rigs along with enormously costly backup safety systems under the most dangerous of conditions.

All these processes have at least one thing in common: each pushes the envelope of what is technically possible in extracting oil (or natural gas) from geologically and geographically forbidding environments.  They are all, that is, versions of "extreme energy."  To produce them, energy companies will have to drill in extreme temperatures or extreme weather, or use extreme pressures, or operate under extreme danger -- or some combination of all of these.  In each, accidents, mishaps, and setbacks are guaranteed to be more frequent and their consequences more serious than in conventional drilling operations.  The apocalyptic poster child for these processes already played out in 2010 with BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and this summer we saw intimations of how it will happen again as a range of major unconventional drilling initiatives -- all promising that "golden age" -- ran into serious trouble.

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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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This is a well expressed essay on the nature of ex... by Jim Miles on Thursday, Oct 4, 2012 at 1:14:39 PM