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 that make such reckless forays deep into the earth’s crust profitable, are new. 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—at least none that we could yet recognize. But, like the meth-head whose body was rotting from the inside out, our addiction was poisoning our atmosphere, our oceans and in places, our land and fresh water. Now we’re seeing the results of that five generation-long binge. We’re also 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. Energy-wise, it represents an addict’s self-destructive drive to score—in this case, to risk even our drinking water 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. The most famous of these shadowy fracking magnates, an avid hockey fan from Pennsylvania, recently put himself in the limelight by buying himself his favorite team – the Buffalo Sabres. He did this around the same time that, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, he sold his company to Royal Dutch Shell, “pocketing a $3 billion check.” He also paved the way for fracking to continue in Pennsylvania by buying himself a governor—then he moved to Florida (In 2010, he was the largest contributor to the successful gubernatorial campaign of the pro-fracking Republican, Tom Corbett). It’s a feedback loop. Environmentally reckless greed enriches frackers, whose wealth clears the political path for more fracking. The 2010 Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court cleared the way for energy magnates and even energy corporations to buy politicians on the auction block.
As China and India develop as oil hungry consumer cultures, and as hydrocarbon addiction grows amid a growing global population, energy prices will continue to rise, opening the door of economic opportunity to a plethora of fracking-like 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. Think of this as taking fracking to the next level so that we can continue to speed along on our highway to hell—peak oil, and the earth, be damned.
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. In the US, the largest current threat is to Eastern Montana, Western North Dakota, and aquifers in South-East Texas. 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.
This technology is too new for its extraction industry to agree on 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. According the organizers of “Pre-Salt Tech 2012,” an upcoming industry conference in Brazil, 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.
Add ten bucks a barrel to the cost of PSO and you can extract oil from a sandy mix reachable through massive surface-destroying open mines and sand-pumping wells. Currently exploitable Oil Sand reserves are primarily in Alberta, Canada. Global Warming scientists and activists argue that extracting this brown gooey stuff is an end-game scenario for the climate, as the energy intensive extraction and refining processes adds up to 15 percent more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than we get from exploiting traditional oil reserves. The actual oil that is harvested is bitumen, which is risky to transport since when it spills into water, it sinks rather than floats, making 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 construction of a pipeline across the US to bring this oil from Canada to ports in Texas, and onto the global market. Oil-connected media conglomerates are backing this play with oil PR-tainted “news” reports downplaying the risks while promising decades more of carefree motoring, if only we drink the brown Kool-Aid.
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. This is the ultimate climate feedback loop, with human greed and addiction proving as dependable as thawing bogs releasing methane. In this insanity, melting polar ice, while flooding coastal population centers, changing the salinity of the seas, and skewing climate patterns, also creates opportunities for end time oil plays. Yeah, try capping or cleaning up after a spill in this inaccessible inhospitable frigid wilderness. This is a move that only an addict would make—like smoking crack from a vile you find sticking out of a puddle of vomit. This threat circles the North Pole.
Not to be confused with LTO, this “oil” is solid, and it’s embedded in shale, which is technically a rock. Think mining for gold. Only in this case, the riches embedded in rock come in the form of kerogen, which is converted to synthetic oil after the rock is mined and brought to a processing plant where it is cooked to almost 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The extraction process is extraordinarily destructive and dirty, like coal mining on steroids, producing unfathomable quantities of toxic tailings while often destroying vast tracks of forest and pasture lands where it is mined. Proposed Shale Oil operations in northern Michigan pose a direct threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem. 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 again, working off of the addiction metaphor, let’s not fall for more of the same insanity. There’s no use trading crystal meth for heroin—but that’s essentially the nuclear argument. 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, whose wastes are easily spread in the atmosphere and are persistently toxic for millions of years, 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.
Let’s 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, nuclear power ain’t that dangerous after all. But, while we amuse ourselves discussing the season opener of MadMen, 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 while we license the construction of new Fukushimas and relicense aging old plants such as Vermont’s 40 year old Yankee reactor. Public relations industry texts often outline the importance of making bad stories go away, citing the tactic of convincing journalists “that bad news is old news and has already been covered.” The hope is that journalists, according to the text I just cited, “lose interest.” That certainly has been the case here.
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 threatening to breathe new life, or more accurately, death, into this “old: story,” 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 knowhow to deal with this, a year after the catastrophe began, yet we are relicensing identical plants, and building new plants. And, according to CBS, 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.
Junichi Matsumoto, spokesman for Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the Fukushima plant, told CBS that in order to properly see into the reactor cores and locate and remove radioactive material, “We have to develop equipment that can tolerate high radiation.” Meanwhile, according to University of California Berkeley Department of Nuclear Engineering, radioactive Cesium levels in California’s milk has continued to rise since the disaster, and now exceed the EPA limit. 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. Very bad. But the problem isn’t just fracking. Yes, we’ve got to fight against hydraulic fracturing because it threatens our most valuable resource—water. And, in the best case scenario, when we win, we need to understand that we won just one skirmish. The real battle, for sane sustainable safe energy policies, is just beginning, and it will never ever end. We can’t allow sociopaths to take the future of the planet and bet it on a roulette table. There are sustainable pathways. They are blocked, however, by vested interests that one way or another will have to get out of the way.
Each of the individual threats that I delineate above represents an industry—billions of dollars of investment and potentially trillions of dollars of profit. This profit, however, will come at an exponentially higher cost to the commons, with the ensuing environmental destruction occurring at a level the earth has not seen since before the advent of the age of human existence. 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. We need to speak truth to this power. We need to do it with great volume, and we must be prepared never to let up, as the stakes are too high. 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. But there are also great threats—those delineated above, and many more, including nightmares that haven’t yet been dreamed. So let’s be inspired by our hope and gain the strength to detox from our hydrocarbon addiction.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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