Here's a simple rule of thumb when it comes to energy disasters: if it's the nuclear industry and something begins to go wrong -- from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 to Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 tsunami -- whatever news is first released, always relatively reassuring, will be a lie, pure and simple. And as the disaster unrolls, it's not likely to get much better. The nuclear industry is incapable of telling the truth about the harm it does. So when the early stories appear about the next nuclear plant in trouble, whatever you hear or read, just assume that you don't know the half, not even the quarter, of it.
When it comes to the oil and gas industry and disasters, a similar rule of thumb follows: however bad it first sounds, the odds are it's going to sound a lot worse before it's over. (See BP, Deepwater Horizon.) So when you first hear about an oil leak from a Chevron well off the coast of Brazil or from a natural gas well in the North Sea operated by the French oil giant Total and you get those expectable reassurances, they, too, are likely to be nothing but gas.
And here's the sad thing, you're going to get all too many chances to test out these simple rules when it comes to bad energy news. After all, as Michael Klare has been writing at this site for years, we're entering the "tough energy" era. The big energy companies are going to be extracting hydrocarbons in ever more hazardous, difficult-to-reach places like the Arctic and they're going to be using ever uglier methods to do so.
It's a guarantee that, however bad the environmental damage we've seen so far, it's only going to get worse as the energy industry despoils various regions to give us our fossil-fuel fix and their mega-profits. As Klare points out, one of those regions is slated to be not in distant Africa, the Persian Gulf, or the Caspian Sea, but right here in the U.S. Klare has been ahead of the energy curve ever since, in the late 1990s, he suggested that we would soon be on a planet embroiled in "resource wars." His new book, The Race for What's Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources, catches the nightmarish nature of the planet's last energy boom in a way no one else has. And don't be surprised if that nightmare lands squarely in your backyard. Tom
A New Energy Third World in North America?
How the Big Energy Companies Plan to Turn the United States into a Third-World Petro-State
By Michael T. Klare
The "curse" of oil wealth is a well-known phenomenon in Third World petro-states where millions of lives are wasted in poverty and the environment is ravaged, while tiny elites rake in the energy dollars and corruption rules the land. Recently, North America has been repeatedly hailed as the planet's twenty-first-century "new Saudi Arabia" for "tough energy" -- deep-sea oil, Canadian tar sands, and fracked oil and natural gas. But here's a question no one considers: Will the oil curse become as familiar on this continent in the wake of a new American energy rush as it is in Africa and elsewhere? Will North America, that is, become not just the next boom continent for energy bonanzas, but a new energy Third World?
Once upon a time, the giant U.S. oil companies -- Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco -- got their start in North America, launching an oil boom that lasted a century and made the U.S. the planet's dominant energy producer. But most of those companies have long since turned elsewhere for new sources of oil.
Eager to escape ever-stronger environmental restrictions and dying oil fields at home, the energy giants were naturally drawn to the economically and environmentally wide-open producing areas of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America -- the Third World -- where oil deposits were plentiful, governments compliant, and environmental regulations few or nonexistent.
Here, then, is the energy surprise of the twenty-first century: with operating conditions growing increasingly difficult in the global South, the major firms are now flocking back to North America. To exploit previously neglected reserves on this continent, however, Big Oil will have to overcome a host of regulatory and environmental obstacles. It will, in other words, have to use its version of deep-pocket persuasion to convert the United States into the functional equivalent of a Third World petro-state.
Knowledgeable observers are already noting the first telltale signs of the oil industry's "Third-Worldification" of the United States. Wilderness areas from which the oil companies were once barred are being opened to energy exploitation and other restraints on invasive drilling operations are being dismantled. Expectations are that, in the wake of the 2012 election season, environmental regulations will be rolled back even further and other protected areas made available for development. In the process, as has so often been the case with Third World petro-states, the rights and wellbeing of local citizens will be trampled underfoot.
Welcome to the Third World of Energy
Up until 1950, the United States was the world's leading oil producer, the Saudi Arabia of its day. In that year, the U.S. produced approximately 270 million metric tons of oil, or about 55% of the world's entire output. But with a postwar recovery then in full swing, the world needed a lot more energy while America's most accessible oil fields -- though still capable of growth -- were approaching their maximum sustainable production levels. Net U.S. crude oil output reached a peak of about 9.2 million barrels per day in 1970 and then went into decline (until very recently).
This prompted the giant oil firms, which had already developed significant footholds in Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, to scour the global South in search of new reserves to exploit -- a saga told with great gusto in Daniel Yergin's epic history of the oil industry, The Prize. Particular attention was devoted to the Persian Gulf region, where in 1948 a consortium of American companies -- Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco -- discovered the world's largest oil field, Ghawar, in Saudi Arabia. By 1975, Third World countries were producing 58% of the world's oil supply, while the U.S. share had dropped to 18%.
Environmental concerns also drove this search for new reserves in the global South. On January 28, 1969, a blowout at Platform A of a Union Oil Company offshore field in California's Santa Barbara Channel produced a massive oil leak that covered much of the area and laid waste to local wildlife. Coming at a time of growing environmental consciousness, the spill provoked an outpouring of public outrage, helping to inspire the establishment of Earth Day, first observed one year later. Equally important, it helped spur passage of various legislative restraints on drilling activities, including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. In addition, Congress banned new drilling in waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida.
During these years, Washington also expanded areas designated as wilderness or wildlife preserves, protecting them from resource extraction. In 1952, for example, President Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Range and, in 1980, this remote area of northeastern Alaska was redesignated by Congress as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Ever since the discovery of oil in the adjacent Prudhoe Bay area, energy firms have been clamoring for the right to drill in ANWR, only to be blocked by one or another president or house of Congress.