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Pact With the Devil: A New Fossil Fuel Energy Boom May Be Our Ultimate Undoing

As domestic U.S. pools of conventional oil and gas dwindle, energy companies are increasingly turning to 'unconventional' fossil fuel reserves and that's going to be disastrous.
 
 
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The most direct path to America’s newest big oil and gas fields is U.S. Highway 12, two lanes of blacktop that unfold from Grays Harbor in Washington State and head east across the top of the country to Detroit.

The 2,500-mile route has quickly become an essential supply line for the energy industry. With astonishing speed, U.S. oil companies, Canadian pipeline builders, and investors from all over the globe are spending huge sums in an economically promising and ecologically risky race to open the next era of hydrocarbon development. As domestic U.S. pools of conventional oil and gas dwindle, energy companies are increasingly turning to “unconventional” fossil fuel reserves contained in the carbon rich-sands and deep shales of Canada, the Great Plains, and the Rocky Mountain West.

Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming hold oil shale reserves estimated to contain 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, half of which the department says is recoverable. Eastern Utah alone holds tar sands oil reserves estimated at 12 billion to 19 billion barrels. The tar sands region of northern Alberta, Canada contains recoverable oil reserves conservatively estimated at 175 billion barrels, and with new technology could reach 400 billion barrels. Deep gas-bearing shales of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain West, Great Lakes, Northeast, and Gulf Coast contain countless trillions of feet of natural gas. If current projections turn out to be accurate, there would be enough oil and gas to power the United States for at least another century.

But even as one of the largest energy booms in history has erupted along a great arc of the continent, the consequences are prompting civic discontent, lawsuits, and political battles in state capitals. The boom is producing fresh scars on the land and new threats to scarce water supplies. Government studies show that exploiting unconventional fossil-fuel reserves generates more C02 emissions than drilling for conventional oil and gas and uses three to five times more water. “It’s a pact with the devil,” says Randy Udall, a consulting energy analyst from Colorado. “The tar sands and shale oil and shale gas require a lot of water. It sets up a collision course for the West.”

In communities from Wyoming to Texas, thousands of trucks now rumble down rural roads, carrying the huge amounts of water — 2 million to 4 million gallons per well — needed to free oil and natural gas from shales by blasting them with high-pressure fluids. In places such as North Dakota, which receives modest amounts of rainfall, local residents and conservationists worry that the energy boom will deplete aquifers.

And the explosion in development of these unconventional fossil fuels raises a troubling question at the national level: At a time when the country should be embracing a renewable energy revolution, it is hurtling in the opposite direction, developing on a massive scale sources of energy that cause considerably more environmental harm than conventional oil and gas drilling.

Highway 12 is a crucial supply route for this burgeoning industry, with fossil fuel companies using the road to reach a good portion of the West’s new oil and gas domain that lies to the north and south of the highway. The companies transport equipment 900 miles north to Alberta, Canada, where they are spending $15 billion annually to develop the region’s tar sands, now the single largest source of oil imports to the U.S. and the fastest-growing source of CO2 emissions in Canada, according to the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank.

In North Dakota — which has become the fourth-largest oil-producing state in the country, with an estimated 100 million barrels being pulled out of deep shales this year and where 1,000 wells will be drilled in 2010 — Highway 12 crosses the $5 billion, 2,151-mile Keystone Pipeline. It is the centerpiece of a $31 billion network of major transport lines either planned or under construction to carry oil from the middle part of the continent to refineries in Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois that are being modernized and expanded at a cost of more than $20 billion. In all, according to company reports and state economic development offices, the oil industry is spending nearly $100 billion annually in the U.S. to perpetuate the fossil fuel era.

 
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