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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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It will not, however, be easy to obtain oil and natural gas from the Arctic. Even if global warming raises average temperatures and reduces the extent of the polar ice cap, winter conditions will still make oil production extremely difficult and hazardous. Fierce storms and plunging temperatures will remain common, posing great risk to any humans not hunkered down in secure facilities and making the transport of energy a major undertaking.

Given fears of dwindling oil supplies, none of this has been enough to deter energy-craving companies from plunging into the icy waters. "Despite grueling conditions, interest in oil and gas reserves in the far north is heating up," Brian Baskin reported in the Wall Street Journal . "Virtually every major producer is looking to the Arctic sea floor as the next -- some say last -- great resource play."

What is true of oil generally is also true of natural gas and coal: most easy-to-reach conventional deposits are quickly being depleted. What remains are largely the "unconventional" supplies.

U.S. producers of natural gas, for example, are reporting a significant increase in domestic output, producing a dramatic reduction in prices. According to the DoE, U.S. gas production is projected to increase from about 20 trillion cubic feet in 2009 to 24 trillion in 2030, a real boon for U.S. consumers, who rely to a significant degree on natural gas for home heating and electricity generation. As noted by the Energy Department however, "Unconventional natural gas is the largest contributor to the growth in U.S. natural gas production, as rising prices and improvements in drilling technology provide the economic incentives necessary for exploitation of more costly resources."

Most of the unconventional gas in the United States is currently obtained from tight-sand formations (or sandstone), but a growing percentage is acquired from shale rock through a process known as hydraulic fracturing. In this method, water is forced into the underground shale formations to crack the rock open and release the gas. Huge amounts of water are employed in the process, and environmentalists fear that some of this water, laced with pollutants, will find its ways into the nation's drinking supply. In many areas, moreover, water itself is a scarce resource, and the diversion of crucial supplies to gas extraction may diminish the amounts available for farming, habitat preservation, and human consumption. Nonetheless, production of shale gas is projected to jump from two trillion cubic feet per year in 2009 to four trillion in 2030.

Coal presents a somewhat similar picture. Although many environmentalists object to the burning of coal because it releases far more climate-altering greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels for each BTU produced, the nation's electric-power industry continues to rely on coal because it remains relatively cheap and plentiful. Yet many of the country's most productive sources of anthracite and bituminous coal -- the types with the greatest energy potential -- have been depleted, leaving (as with oil) less productive sources of these types, along with large deposits of less desirable, more heavily polluting sub-bituminous coal, much of it located in Wyoming.

To get at what remains of the more valuable bituminous coal in Appalachia, mining companies increasingly rely on a technique known as mountaintop removal, described by John M. Broder of the New York Times as "blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams." Long opposed by environmentalists and residents of rural Kentucky and West Virginia, whose water supplies are endangered by the dumping of excess rock, dirt, and a variety of contaminants, mountaintop removal received a strong endorsement from the Bush administration, which in December 2008 approved a regulation allowing for a vast expansion of the practice. President Obama has vowed to reverse this regulation, but he favors the use of "clean coal" as part of a transitional energy strategy. It remains to be seen how far he will go in reining in the coal industry.

 
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