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How the Big Energy Companies Plan to Turn the United States into a Third-World Petro-State

Will North America become not just the next boom continent for energy bonanzas, but a new energy Third World?

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Fracking Our Way to a Toxic Planet

Such pressures in the Third World have forced the major U.S. and European firms -- BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total of France -- to look elsewhere for new sources of oil and natural gas.  Unfortunately for them, there aren’t many places left in the world that possess promising hydrocarbon reserves and also welcome investment by private energy giants. That’s why some of the most attractive new energy markets now lie in Canada and the United States, or in the waters off their shores.  As a result, both are experiencing a remarkable uptick in fresh investment from the major international firms.

Both countries still possess substantial oil and gas deposits, but not of the “easy” variety (deposits close to the surface, close to shore, or easily accessible for extraction).  All that remains are “tough” energy reserves (deep underground, far offshore, hard to extract and process). To exploit these, the energy companies must deploy aggressive technologies likely to cause extensive damage to the environment and in many cases human health as well.  They must also find ways to gain government approval to enter environmentally protected areas now off limits.

The formula for making Canada and the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century is grim but relatively simple: environmental protections will have to be eviscerated and those who stand in the way of intensified drilling, from landowners to local environmental protection groups, bulldozed out of the way.  Put another way, North America will have to be Third-Worldified.

Consider the extraction of shale oil and gas, widely considered the most crucial aspect of Big Oil’s current push back into the North American market. Shale formations in Canada and the U.S. are believed to house massive quantities of oil and natural gas, and their accelerated extraction is already helping reduce the region’s reliance on imported petroleum.

Both energy sources, however, can only be extracted through a process known as hydraulic fracturing (“hydro-fracking,” or just plain “fracking”) that uses powerful jets of water in massive quantities to shatter underground shale formations, creating fissures through which the hydrocarbons can escape. In addition, to widen these fissures and ease the escape of the oil and gas they hold, the fracking water has to be mixed with a variety of often poisonous solvents and acids. This technique produces massive quantities of toxic wastewater, which can neither be returned to the environment without endangering drinking water supplies nor easily stored and decontaminated.

The rapid expansion of hydro-fracking would be problematic under the best of circumstances, which these aren’t.  Many of the richest sources of shale oil and gas, for instance, are located in populated areas of Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. In fact, one of the most promising sites, the Marcellus formation, abuts New York City’s upstate watershed area.  Under such circumstances, concern over the safety of drinking water should be paramount, and federal legislation, especially the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, should theoretically give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to oversee (and potentially ban) any procedures that endanger water supplies.

However, oil companies seeking to increase profits by maximizing the utilization of hydro-fracking banded together, put pressure on Congress, and managed to get itself exempted from the 1974 law’s provisions. In 2005, under heavy lobbying from then Vice President Dick Cheney -- formerly the CEO of oil services contractor Halliburton -- Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which prohibited the EPA from regulating hydro-fracking via the Safe Drinking Water Act, thereby eliminating a significant impediment to wider use of the technique.

 
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