The good news is that planet Earth will never run out of oil (The Atlantic, May 2013). The bad news is that planet Earth will never run out of oil (same reference).
The rationale for the good news is that experts once predicted the world’s oil would give out by the end of this young century, so we should be working fast to develop alternative, naturally occurring sources of energy. But now Japan, which has never had control over a petroleum source of its own, is testing methods for extracting all the energy it needs from the earth’s inexhaustible supply of methane hydrate, a petroleum product that stretches down to a great depth below the ocean floor. The U.S. is making plans to follow suit.
The rationale for the bad news comes from the belief that burning petroleum products sends so-called “greenhouse gases” (mainly carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere and that this is causing climate change, the onslaught of droughts, floods and higher/lower temperatures we are beginning to experience, which threaten eventually to make at least parts of our earth unlivable for the vegetation and animals that thrive here now. (A tiny local example: It is rare, now, to see the chipmunks that used to hang out searching for food near cabins in the Sierra; they seem to have moved to higher locations.)
Harvesting oil, this wonderful but apparently destructive natural resource, has three phases:
1) Extracting: Initially, oil was pumped from underground wells. Now, less accessible “shale oil” is recovered by “fracking,” whereby chemicals and water are injected deep into the earth to tease out the oil or gas trapped there. But fracking is a controversial process. In Pennsylvania, communities near fracking sites allege that the process has dried up nearby streams and contaminated local water systems to the point where flames spew out with the water in some household faucets. In California, which has more than 200 extraction sites, economists praise fracking for providing a cheap source of oil. Apparently, there are no glaring records here of accompanying damage; however, opponents are lobbying for state oversight and regulation.
2) Transporting: Moving petroleum by train or truck carries the risk of air pollution and spillage, so it is often transported underground 1,000 miles and more by very long pipelines. But these are vulnerable to corrosion and leakage. Canada is seeking approval for such a pipeline to carry tar sands oil — a particularly polluting form of petroleum — 2,000 miles south from Alberta to the Texas coast. This request is under consideration by the U.S., which apparently is favorably inclined. However, it may be put in question by a recent rupture in a 20-year-old pipeline already running from Alberta that has caused significant damage to roadbeds and landscaping in the community of Mayflower, Ark.
3) Using: A big hitch is that many experts now believe burning petroleum products sends “greenhouse gases,” primarily carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere, causing the onslaught of droughts, floods and higher temperatures that may eventually make at least parts of the world unlivable for the vegetation and animals that thrive there now.
This May, for the first time in human history, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million, a “symbolic milestone” that climate scientists warn should make us acutely aware we must begin to take action against the dangerous conditions that could lie ahead.
Is our massive tapping into earth’s long-buried oil supply what brought us to this point? Despite being the possible source of these threatening extremes of climate, oil has gifted us with mobility and comforts we’d hate to lose. It is also the source of enormous wealth and power to the countries, organizations and persons who control it.
Unless, or until, we find a workable replacement, it will linger in our esteem like coffee in the old Maxwell House slogan: “Good to the last drop.”
Sherrill Brooks is a member of the communications committee for the Nevada County Democrats.