Last gasps of our oil addiction?

NPR's Morning Edition featured a lengthy report this morning on the small but booming town of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta, Canada. Martin Kaste's story begins, as so many stories these days do, with Google.

If you go to Google Maps, you can call up the satellite view of Fort McMurray, Alberta. You'll get a view from space of a small Canadian city surrounded by forests and some very big holes in the ground. Now if you were to zoom in to that view ... zoom all the way in ... you'd end up here at a 200-foot-deep pit mine run by Shell Oil near Fort McMurray. Shell has been digging here for about two years and already this hole is about three miles wide.
That's a three mile wide pit. The point of such a monstrosity of ecological destruction? Bitumen. A "tarry relative to petroleum" in Kaste's words. Canada is rich in these oily sands, which companies like Shell can turn into synthetic petroleum.

The trouble is, and this is where the sheer ridiculousness of our situation comes in, not only is this process intensely destructive (three mile wide pit, anyone?), but also intensely wasteful.

Converting bitumen to oil takes about two tons of sand to make a single barrel of oil. And the conversion process also releases two or three times as many greenhouse gases as producing conventional oil from crude petroleum.

This is one of those issues that makes me scratch my head in befuddled awe. How did we get to the point as a species that such extreme measures are justified in our pursuit of "cheap" energy?

And when -- and I've asked myself this question so many times that it has long since ceased to mean anything -- will we hit the "too much" point? When will we realize that we need to make a serious, concerted effort to change our ways and live in a more sustainable way?

Given our government's ongoing denial of and contributing to global warming, even as I write this, and given the continual breaking of weather records for everything from hottest year ever recorded to record number of hurricanes, the sad and often depressing truth is that I can't even imagine any kind of fundamental shift in our national priorities anymore.


On a completely unrelated note, I saw The Wrens last night at Bottom of the Hill here in San Francisco last night. These guys have been playing together for more than 11 years, but the energy and passion they put into their show last night was awe-inspiring. If you have a chance, catch them on their short West Coast tour, or at the very least avail yourself of The Meadowlands, their latest album.

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