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Our Oil Addiction Is About to Make Life a Lot Nastier

The great age of renewable energy is in our distant future. Before then, energy prices will rise, environmental perils will multiply and conflict will grow. Buckle your seatbelts.

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A similar picture prevails in the case of Brazil's Tupi field, the other giant discovery of recent years. Located about 200 miles east of Rio de Janeiro in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Tupi has regularly been described as the biggest field to be found in 40 years. Thought to contain some five to eight billion barrels of recoverable oil, it will surely push Brazil into the front ranks of major oil producers once the Brazilians have overcome their own series of staggering hurdles: the Tupi field is located below one-and-a-half miles of ocean water and another two-and-a-half miles of rock, sand, and salt and so accessible only to cutting edge, super-sophisticated drilling technologies. It will cost an estimated $70-$120 billion to develop the field and require many years of dedicated effort.

Xtreme Acts of Energy Recovery

Given the potentially soaring costs involved in recovering these last tough-oil reserves, it's no wonder that Canadian oil sands, also called tar sands, are the other big "play" in the oil business these days. Not oil as conventionally understood, the oil sands are a mixture of rock, sand, and bitumen (a very heavy, dense form of petroleum) that must be extracted from the ground using mining, rather than oil-drilling, techniques. They must also be extensively processed before being converted into a usable liquid fuel. Only because the big energy firms have themselves become convinced that we are running out of conventional oil of an easily accessible sort have they been tripping over each other in the race to buy up leases to mine bitumen in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta.

The mining of oil sands and their conversion into useful liquids is a costly and difficult process, and so the urge to do so tells us a great deal about our particular state of energy dependency. Deposits near the surface can be strip-mined, but those deeper underground can only be exploited by pumping in steam to separate the bitumen from the sand and then pumping the bitumen to the surface -- a process that consumes vast amounts of water and energy in the form of natural gas (to heat that water into steam). Much of the water used to produce steam is collected at the site and used over again, but some is returned to the local water supply in northern Alberta, causing environmentalists to worry about the risk of large-scale contamination.

The clearing of enormous tracts of virgin forest to allow strip-mining and the consumption of valuable natural gas to extract the bitumen are other sources of concern. Nevertheless, such is the need of our civilization for petroleum products that Canadian oil sands are expected to generate 4.2 million barrels of fuel per day in 2030 -- three times the amount being produced today -- even as they devastate huge parts of Alberta, consume staggering amounts of natural gas, cause potentially extensive pollution, and sabotage Canada's efforts to curb its greenhouse-gas emissions.

North of Alberta lies another source of Xtreme energy: Arctic oil and gas. Once largely neglected because of the difficulty of simply surviving, no less producing energy, in the region, the Arctic is now the site of a major "oil rush" as global warming makes it easier for energy firms to operate in northern latitudes. Norway's state-owned energy company, StatoilHydro, is now running the world's first natural gas facility above the Arctic Circle, and companies from around the world are making plans to develop oil and gas fields in the Artic territories of Canada, Greenland (administered by Denmark), Russia, and the United States, where offshore drilling in northern Alaskan waters may soon be the order of the day.

 
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