An Extreme Energy Roadtrip's Postcard from the Edge: Blowing the Tops off of Mountains, Fracturing Communities, Digging for Tar Sands in the Dessert

Article excerpt


THE VIEW FROM A CESSNA reveals some dirty secrets. Flying at 2,000 feet above the forests of Appalachia I can see what the steep, tree-fringed roads fail to show: unnatural flat tops, seams of coal exposed like black-topped runways, impoundments of foul water perched above homes and schools. A naked honesty is revealed. This is what we have done, what we continue to do. We deface the mountains, denature ecosystems.

This is probably not news to you. Appalachia has long been one of the centers of American energy extraction, a place whose history is almost synonymous with coal. Since the 1830s the region has shoveled 35 billion tons of coal into the furnace of our economy. This is often called "cheap" energy and, at $100/megawatt-hour, it is--as long as you don't look too closely.

But when you get down on the ground (or up in the air, as the case may be), the costs come into focus. Mountaintop removal coal mining is just what it sounds like: Entire mountaintops are obliterated to reach thin seams of coal. The "overburden"--the mining industry's term for rocks and soil--is dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams, covering forests.

In a way; it makes perfect sense. First we go after the resources that are easiest to extract. And then, to maintain our wolfish appetite for energy, we have to seek out the stuff that's harder to reach. Mountaintop removal coal mining is a classic example. Another would be the strip mining used to extract bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. Additional cases include hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to get at shale gas and shale oil deposits.

Michael T. Klare, author of the book The Race for What's Left, calls these kinds of extraction techniques "extreme energy:" He has written: "To ensure a continued supply of hydrocarbons--and the continued prosperity of the giant energy companies--successive administrations have promoted the exploitation of these extreme energy options with a striking disregard for the resulting dangers. By their very nature, such efforts involve an ever-increasing risk of human and environmental catastrophe--something that has been far too little acknowledged."

I, for one, want to acknowledge those risks.

THIS SUMMER MY PARTNER and I took a three-month roadtrip across North America. We didn't head for the national parks or wild and scenic areas, though we did pass through some beautiful scenery. Instead, our itinerary focused on the places that have been the most impacted by extreme energy extraction. We wanted to see the communities "sacrifice zones," they're sometimes called--that have been scarred and scored by the 'dozers and drill rigs. We wanted to learn about the people who live there.

You might remember that it wasn't too long ago that "Peak Oil" was the buzz. We were warned that oil, as well as gas, were finite, and that we would soon reach a point beyond which global demand would exceed supply. This was supposed to be both a curse and a blessing. We would have to make a wrenching transition to renewable sources of energy, but we would be better off for it. Geology would save us from our own gluttony.

But now here we are, in 2013, and we remain firmly entrenched in fossil fuels. The peak has turned out to be more like a long, tortuous plateau, sustained by the steady production of harder to reach energy resources. In the United States and Canada, oil and gas production have actually increased since 2008, even as consumption has decreased and then flat-fined. What has allowed business as usual to continue? It's not that we've "discovered" new- oil and gas. Rather, technological breakthroughs and changes in the market have suddenly made extreme energy ("unconventional energy," is the industry's preferred term) economically viable.

Peak or no peak, extreme oil or conventional oil--it's simply more of the same to a largely degraded planet and an atmosphere already burdened with greenhouse gases. …