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High Gas Prices Are Here to Stay: Why 21st Century Oil Will Break the Bank -- and the Planet

In energy terms, we are now entering a world whose grim nature has yet to be fully grasped.

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The development of Venezuela’s heavy oil will require investment on a comparable scale. The Orinoco belt, an especially dense concentration of heavy oil adjoining the Orinoco River, is believed to contain recoverable reserves of  513 billion barrels of oil -- perhaps the largest source of untapped petroleum on the planet. But converting this molasses-like form of bitumen into a useable liquid fuel far exceeds the technical capacity or financial resources of the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Accordingly, it is  now seeking foreign partners willing to invest the $10-$20 billion needed just to build the necessary facilities.

The Hidden Costs

Tough-oil reserves like these will provide most of the world’s new oil in the years ahead. One thing is clear: even if they can replace easy oil in our lives, the cost of everything oil-related -- whether at the gas pump, in oil-based products, in fertilizers, in just about every nook and cranny of our lives -- is going to rise.  Get used to it.  If things proceed as presently planned, we will be in hock to big oil for decades to come.

And those are only the most obvious costs in a situation in which hidden costs abound, especially to the environment. As with the Deepwater Horizondisaster, oil extraction in deep-offshore areas and other extreme geographical locations will ensure ever greater environmental risks. After all, approximately five million gallons of oil were discharged into the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to BP’s negligence, causing extensive damage to marine animals and coastal habitats.

Keep in mind that, as catastrophic as it was, it occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, where vast cleanup forces could be mobilized and the ecosystem’s natural recovery capacity was relatively robust. The Arctic and Greenland represent a different story altogether, given their distance from established recovery capabilities and the extreme vulnerability of their ecosystems. Efforts to restore such areas in the wake of massive oil spills would cost many times the $30-$40 billion BP is expected to pay for the Deepwater Horizon damage and be  far less effective.

In addition to all this, many of the most promising tough-oil fields lie in Russia, the Caspian Sea basin, and conflict-prone areas of Africa. To operate in these areas, oil companies will be faced not only with the predictably high costs of extraction, but also additional costs involving local systems of bribery and extortion, sabotage by guerrilla groups, and the consequences of civil conflict.

And don’t forget the final cost: If all these barrels of oil and oil-like substances are truly produced from the least inviting of places on this planet, then for decades to come we will continue to massively burn fossil fuels, creating ever more greenhouse gases as if there were no tomorrow.  And here’s the sad truth: if we proceed down the tough-oil path instead of investing as massively in alternative energies, we may foreclose any hope of averting the most catastrophic consequences of a hotter and  more turbulent planet.

So yes, there is oil out there. But no, it won’t get cheaper, no matter how much there is. And yes, the oil companies can get it, but looked at realistically, who would want it?

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and author of the just publishedThe Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources (Metropolitan Books).  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

 
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