April 15, 2012 | ~ Dr. Michael I. Niman [Edited. ~R]
Professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College.
In a few short years the term “fracking” went from obscurity, mostly mistaken for an obscenity, to a household word, now often associated with flammable tap water. The technology is not new, but the market conditions are. Welcome to the post peak oil energy economy. What’s online to follow fracking is even scarier.
The problem is we’re addicted to oil, and like most addicts, we can’t take that first step and admit our addiction. For over a century, we mostly glided, enjoying the high that cheap oil gave our economy and consumptive lifestyles, while not facing many consequences. But, now we’re seeing the results of that five generation-long binge, we’re coming into a period that energy economists call “peak oil.”
As more and more people compete for the last reserves of cheap easy to get sweet crude oil, energy prices are rising. Rising prices mean that more expensive extraction technologies, not feasible in the days of $40 barrels of oil, are now profitable. With natural gas easily able to replace oil in most applications, with minimal adaptation (it can be used for heating, electric generation and even transportation), we’re seeing a new rush to tap this “clean energy” as well. But like oil, most of the easy to get natural gas is also already tapped out.
Higher energy prices, however, allow aggressive technologies into this market. The result is fracking, it represents an addict’s self-destructive drive, in the quest to maintain our hydrocarbon dependent economy and lifestyles. Fracking could be the beginning of the end – the triumph of pathological greed over reason. But it’s also made some folks very rich, relatively quickly. It’s a feedback loop. Environmentally reckless greed enriches frackers, whose wealth clears the political path for more fracking.
Energy prices will continue to rise, opening the door of economic opportunity to a plethora of energy extraction technologies. These are wildly irresponsible, terribly dangerous processes that only an addiction-maddened mind would contemplate, and only a greed-addled sociopath would execute.
1. Light Tight Oil
The next frack-like rush is for “Light Tight Oil” (LTO), also known as “Tight Light Oil” and “Tight Shale Oil.” The extraction technology and the environmental problems it causes, are much the same as those we see with natural gas fracking. It is produced by the same hydraulic fracturing method employing horizontal bores at the ends of deep vertical wells that inject a plethora of toxic fluids and sand into deep shale formations, breaking up that shale and releasing embedded oil. Today’s high oil prices make this technology immediately profitable.
Like with natural gas fracking, the process, by design, also produces billions of gallons of toxic waste water. The race to tap LTO has made the US the number one oil driller in the world, by some estimates, drilling more wells this year than the rest of the planet combined. As global oil prices rise, expect the drilling to move east into the Utica shale formations, starting in Ohio.
2. Utlra Deepwater Pre-Salt Oil
This technology is too new for a name for itself, so I’ll go with the easy to use, “Pre-Salt Oil,” or PSO. Costing slightly more than Light Tight, PSO is only now just entering the market, buoyed by the promise of continually rising oil prices. PSO is currently “the most technically challenging ultra-deepwater oil recovery” process. It involves drilling in water that is over 8,000 feet deep, through another 5,000 or so feet of salt deposits at the bottom of the ocean, to finally hit oil. The only reserves currently tapped are off the cost of Brazil. Plugging a well blowout under these conditions would make dealing with the Deepwater Horizon disaster look like child’s play. According to Rio de Janeiro’s The Rio Times, the first PSO leak occurred in January of this year. Luck held out this time, preventing the pipe rupture from evolving into a full scale blowout. With perhaps 100 billion barrels of PSO off the coast of Brazil, expect rapid expansion of this gamble.
3. Oil Sands
Add ten bucks a barrel to the cost of PSO and you can extract oil from a sandy mix scraped from massive open cast mines. Currently exploitable Oil Sand reserves are primarily in Alberta, Canada. The actual oil that is harvested is bitumen, which is risky to transport since it makes clean-up and decontamination of water resources difficult or impossible. Oil-industry funded members of the US Congress are currently lobbying aggressively to fast-track transport of this oil from Canada onto the global market. Downplaying the risks while promising decades more of carefree motoring, if only we drink the brown Kool-Aid.
4. Offshore Arctic OIl
As both oil prices and global temperatures continue to rise over the next decade, expect to see a push for drilling in newly thawed areas of the Arctic Ocean. Try capping or cleaning up after a spill in this inaccessible inhospitable frigid wilderness. This is a move that only an addict would make.
5. Shale Oil
Not to be confused with LTO, this “oil” is solid, and it’s embedded in shale, which is technically a rock. Think mining, only in this case, the oil embedded in rock come in the form of kerogen, which is only converted to synthetic oil after the rock is processed by cooking to almost 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The extraction process is extraordinarily destructive and dirty, like coal mining on steroids. The processing, essentially melting rock, requires a remarkable amount of the fuel being harvested, making this one of the most greenhouse gas producing energy schemes ever devised. Again, this is an end-game scenario. An addict’s last hit before overdosing.
There are vested energy interests out there that would like all of this oily doomsday talk to lead us to the dreamy la la land of a “clean green carbon-free” nuclear future. But let’s not fall for more of the same insanity.
The Nissan Leaf and plug-in Prius are now hitting the market all enshrined in Greenieness. The fantasy is that we can drive our cars and do all sorts of previously oily things with clean electricity. Of course, our clean electricity is only as clean as our toilets, which magically take our wastes to the enchanted land of “away”. Waste has to go somewhere. And energy has to come from somewhere. And that nice green electric car is more often than not powered by a dirty coal-fired electric plant. So why not a nice new nuclear plant?
Lost in this story is the reality that of all of the dirty energy technologies that we are addicted to, nuclear power, is the dirtiest. The very existence of this industry represents a reverse socialism, whereby only profit is privatized, with governments and publics assuming almost all of the risk. That’s because the risk is unfathomable, and hence, uninsurable.
Look at the Fukushima disaster, one year later. Most folks think this is over, last year’s news, cleaned up, the scientists took care of it. But the meltdown is continuing in all three General Electric-built Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors apparently unabated, as we don’t seem to have the technology to contain it – only the technology to temporarily distract ourselves from it.
Conditions, however, have recently gotten so bad at the plant, that the environment inside is too hot for even robots to operate in. With the growing possibility of a comprehensive containment breach at the Fukushima plant, CBS News reported last week that damage to the #2 reactor is so severe that “the plant operator will have to develop special equipment and technology to tolerate the harsh environment and decommission the plant, a process expected to last decades.”
Get it? We don’t have the know-how to deal with this, a year after the catastrophe began, yet the other two Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors “could be in even worse shape”, but no one has been able to find out as our current technology limits our ability to easily see into a melting nuclear core. Meanwhile in Japan, the government keeps raising the supposed “safe” level for radiation exposure, as the true level of radiation contamination comes to light.
This story continues to unfold, as the nuclear industry continues to sell us dreams.
So yeah, Fracking is bad. But the problem isn’t just fracking. The real battle is for sane sustainable safe energy policies. We can’t allow sociopaths to take the future of the planet and bet it on a roulette table, there are sustainable pathways.
However vested interests will have to get out of the way first – industries that represent billions of dollars of investment and profit. This profit, however, would come at an exponentially higher cost to the commons, and ensuing environmental destruction. Each of these industries has an extremely well-financed public relations machine, specifically tasked to spin lies into truths—to make the unpalatable appear inevitable.
There is hope, however. More than twice as many Americans now work green jobs in the solar and wind industries, as in the coal industry. So let’s be inspired by our hope and gain the strength to detox from our hydrocarbon addiction.