Strategic Oil

The post-World War II global industrial expansion has been based primarily on technology and the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources. These two forces have driven our consumption-based growth, measured as gross domestic production, expanded our ability to fertilize and protect our crops from disease, and created new products and processes that have transformed our traditional occupations.

Expanded oil and gas extraction, exponential increase in demand, and worldwide distribution systems and controls have been at the center of global economics and geo-political cooperation and conflict. Behind market fluctuations, nationalistic aspirations, territorial occupations, and war lies the apparently insatiable need to discover, recover, and expend the earth's natural resources -- its fossil remains, rare earths, forests, and water -- in an unsustainable, worldwide collaboration, indeed conspiracy, to grow at an ever-increasing rate in the name of progress.

Nowhere is immune from strategic oil: not the desert, coastal waters, the deep sea, the rainforests, or the polar regions. Despite the appearance of environmental concern, action, regulation, and treaty, this imperative to grow has defined our national interests, our economies, and our strategic objectives. Technology has enhanced this phenomenon through new engineering, capacity for globalized trade, speed and extent of financial transaction, worldwide communications, and much more. Thus, the extraction required to feed this exponential consumption has led us beyond a manageable condition to where now we approach the limits of supply, of unsustainable demand, of corruption, of continuing disparity between rich and poor, and of uncertain security for nations, tribes, and communities.

Oil as a national geopolitical weapon is very much in evidence: price control and embargo by the OPEC nations, the two wars in Iraq, and today the leverage behind Russia's Ukrainian incursion, where European reliance on imported oil and gas may compromise reaction to an overt breach of international law.

The ocean is unfortunately a key element in this situation. As the United States has consumed much of its conventionally recovered oil and gas, it has turned to fracking as a technology to extract every last bit of these resources from its still finite supply, miraculously transforming us from an import nation to an export nation--a delusional short-term tactic that postpones the inevitable and, without care and concern, leaves behind further devastated land, water, and community. Not too long ago, we looked to the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea, and other ocean places around the world for the same reasons, and now too, those supplies diminished, we will begin to frack those deposits below the ocean floor, extending the consequences with no apparent will to look beyond toward an end in sight.

The high latitudes are next. Despite political and environmental efforts to protect the Arctic region from the oil and gas industry, there is enormous pressure to break that resolve. Shell Oil, poised to be the first, endured an embarrassing technical failure off the Alaskan coast towing its first Arctic rig into position. The operational safety and unpreparedness factors of an hostile environment caused at least a one year postponement to reassess the technology, but not the intent of this effort. Gazprom, Russia's state oil company, however, has continued its Arctic activities in the Pechora Sea off the island of Novaya Zemlya, an unprecedented incursion with unproven technology, and a construction cost of $800 million. The Marine Technology Reporter (MTR), an industry news service, describes the project as follows, "Drilling plans envisage up to 40 directional wells (19 producing, 16 injection, five reserve.) All wells will be drilled from the single rig on the platform, with simultaneous drilling and production. Perimeter water flooding of horizontal injection wells will occur at near-fracturing injection pressures. Production is expected to last for 25 years." The MTR article continues: "Gazprom maintains that the...platform was designed to exclude the possibility of discharging oil, formation fluid, contaminated industrial and storm waters as well as other harmful substances into the sea. Obviously, how robust and safe the rig really is, only time will tell." All oversight will be Russian with no independent audit of the project's safety standards.

This risk is huge: unproven technology, extreme dynamic forces of persistent extreme weather, wave, wind, current, earthquake, sub-zero temperature, high ice loads, complicated oil storage systems to prevent corrosion, leaks in, leaks out, consequent explosions, unprecedented off-loading demands, disposal of drilling and production waste, severe working/living/rescue conditions, fire protection, spill prevention, cleanup and mitigation challenges never before required in never before known environmental conditions.

What are the odds in this desperate gamble in the name of strategic oil? What price for growth?