Going to Extremes
Gross, Daniel, Newsweek
Byline: Daniel Gross
Our unbridled pursuit of untapped energy is taking us into treacherous new territory.
The ongoing debacle in the Gulf of Mexico is a sign of many things--the incompetence of BP, poor oversight, and an industry that places too much emphasis on production technology and too little on safety technology. But it also highlights a larger truth. We've entered an age in North America where the production of energy, especially from fossil fuels, comes with ever-more-expensive environmental tradeoffs. We've entered what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, calls the era of "extreme energy."
Consider how oil production in the U.S. has evolved. In Texas in 1901, wildcatters didn't have to work very hard to tap into the great Beaumont gusher. The oil was essentially at the surface, all but seeping out of the earth's crust. When the land-based oil was exhausted, American prospectors went to sea. And when the shallow-water oil was exhausted, they went farther out. In 1985 only 21 million barrels, or 6 percent of the oil produced in the Gulf of Mexico, came from wells drilled in water more than 1,000 feet deep. In 2009 such wells produced 456 million barrels, or 80 percent of total gulf production. Today, deepwater gulf wells account for about one quarter of the oil the U.S. sucks from the earth. The Webcams broadcasting images from the spill provide a real-time measure of the environmental cost of this effort.
The Gulf of Mexico isn't the only place where such so-called tough oil is to be found in North America. The environmental hazards of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are so obvious that even the Bush-era Congress and White House wouldn't go there. Analysts have enthused about the rapid development of the Alberta tar sands in Canada--friendly, nearby, democratic, non-terrorist-promoting Canada. An Alberta government Web site notes that the oil sands are "the second largest source of oil in the world after Saudi Arabia." The reserves there--171.8 billion barrels--amount to 13 percent of the global total and are about what Iraq and Russia have, combined. But the gunk in the tar sands isn't really oil. …