What Price Extra Oil?

It has been very interesting to watch over the past few years the shift in public understanding of international oil and gas supply for the future. Not too long ago, the rush to renewable and alternative energy sources was strong, with public subsidies and private funds in full support of solar, wind, bio-fuels, and other new technologies and approaches. There was much talk of “peak oil,” the tipping point when future supply cannot meet future demand. There was talk of carbon taxes, offsets, and trading as viable means to nurture what would be a painful but necessary shift in consumption and response.

But suddenly all that went away. Climate, as a reflection of the emission consequence of fossil fuels dependence, was aggressively denied by companies, lobbyists, politicians, and investors. New oil deposits, from the tar-sands in Canada for example, were suddenly available, extending the perceived viability of established supply and existing corporate agendas. In addition, natural gas became the new source, a revision that changed the United States from a natural gas importer to an exporter, the result of new and dramatic supplies accumulated through a rapid expansion of fracking technology, the infusion of a water and chemical mix under pressure that enabled wells previously thought exhausted to renew yields and new leases to be purchased, particularly in what were historically agricultural areas. Farmers sold their mineral rights for high prices, abandoning their farms to energy exploitation, many leaving their traditional homeland. The result of this fracking technology is much debated: on one side the energy companies and their supporters, on the other environmentalists and community activists radicalized by the obvious degradation to their towns and surrounding environment. While the estimates of resultant future supply are seductive and diverting, they mask the serious questions about the true nature of this technology and its impact on land and sea.

One major question is the chemical composition of the water used in the process. The companies refuse to reveal the actual recipe; the water left behind however shows serious toxic effect, so much so that it must be stored, isolated, and restricted from entering the healthy water cycle around it. The usual cautions and disclaimers are given the public, but the devastation to the landscape, the ever-increasing reports of toxic water and waste from the process, and the ever-expanding health impacts on the people nearby are truly disturbing counters to corporate blandishments and apologists. Why can’t we know the chemical mix used? Is proprietary exclusivity so important that it can excuse such physical and financial destruction? Do we have to poison our already limited water supply, and our neighbors, and do it in secret?

A recent article in Reuters points to another, depressingly familiar, equally dangerous situation – an off-shore well in the North Sea, one of many operated by Total, the French energy company, that had to be shut down due to the corrosive effect of a chemically-enhanced drilling fluid that under pressure, and heated to over 280 degrees Fahrenheit, had weakened and cracked the piping and leaked for over a month and a half a cloud of flammable gas that caused the platform to be evacuated from the area lest a spark ignite a devastating explosion and fire. The corrosive chemical is reported to be calcium bromide, one of a number of halide fluids, known as “brines,” that, as discovered after the fact, are corrosive to steel! After an internal investigation, still not officially concluded, Total closed “a minimum” of ten wells and felt compelled to notify Shell with its neighboring field off the Scotland coast, operating similarly as a method to extend the productivity of wells thought exhausted. According to the news report, similar technology is being used extensively in wells off the coast of Brazil and the Gulf of Mexico.

What are we doing here? What are we doing to ourselves? To the ocean and earth? Why are we standing by and letting this travesty continue? When even the beneficiary company admits the problem and warns its competitor of the danger, why can not the regulators and authorities put an end to the foolishness once and for all? According to the Reuters article, the process of abandonment will take three years and cost Total over $200 million dollars, as if this loss matters at all when compared to the already inflicted loss to the environment, not to mention the future loss implicit in any failure to restrict this dangerous technology, not to mention the loss of time and investment in the alternatives. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be gained from this short-term avoidance and denial of the terminal reality of reliance on fossil fuels. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be gained, so why do we continue to pay this price?