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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Son of Frackenstein

In a few short years the term “fracking” went from obscurity, mostly mistaken for an obscenity, to a household word, now often associated with flammable tap water. The technology is not new, but the market conditions that make such reckless forays deep into the earth’s crust profitable, are new. Welcome to the post peak oil energy economy. What’s online to follow fracking is even scarier.
The problem is we’re addicted to oil, and like most addicts, we can’t take that first step and admit our addiction. For over a century, we mostly glided, enjoying the high that cheap oil gave our economy and consumptive lifestyles, while not facing many consequences—at least none that we could yet recognize. But, like the meth-head whose body was rotting from the inside out, our addiction was poisoning our atmosphere, our oceans and in places, our land and fresh water. Now we’re seeing the results of that five generation-long binge. We’re also coming into a period that energy economists call “peak oil.”
As more and more people compete for the last reserves of cheap easy to get sweet crude oil, energy prices are rising. Rising prices mean that more expensive extraction technologies, not feasible in the days of $40 barrels of oil, are now profitable. With natural gas easily able to replace oil in most applications, with minimal adaptation (it can be used for heating, electric generation and even transportation), we’re seeing a new rush to tap this “clean energy” as well. But like oil, most of the easy to get natural gas is also already tapped out. Higher energy prices, however, allow aggressive technologies into this market. The result is fracking. Energy-wise, it represents an addict’s self-destructive drive to score—in this case, to risk even our drinking water in the quest to maintain our hydrocarbon dependent economy and lifestyles
Fracking could be the beginning of the end—the triumph of pathological greed over reason. But it’s also made some folks very rich, relatively quickly. The most famous of these shadowy fracking magnates, an avid hockey fan from Pennsylvania, recently put himself in the limelight by buying himself his favorite team – the Buffalo Sabres. He did this around the same time that, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, he sold his company to Royal Dutch Shell, “pocketing a $3 billion check.” He also paved the way for fracking to continue in Pennsylvania by buying himself a governor—then he moved to Florida (In 2010, he was the largest contributor to the successful gubernatorial campaign of the pro-fracking Republican, Tom Corbett). It’s a feedback loop. Environmentally reckless greed enriches frackers, whose wealth clears the political path for more fracking. The 2010 Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court cleared the way for energy magnates and even energy corporations to buy politicians on the auction block.
As China and India develop as oil hungry consumer cultures, and as hydrocarbon addiction grows amid a growing global population, energy prices will continue to rise, opening the door of economic opportunity to a plethora of fracking-like energy extraction technologies. These are wildly irresponsible, terribly dangerous processes that only an addiction-maddened mind would contemplate, and only a greed-addled sociopath would execute. Think of this as taking fracking to the next level so that we can continue to speed along on our highway to hell—peak oil, and the earth, be damned.
Light Tight Oil
The next frack-like rush is for “Light Tight Oil” (LTO), also known as “Tight Light Oil” and “Tight Shale Oil.” The extraction technology and the environmental problems it causes, are much the same as those we see with natural gas fracking. It is produced by the same hydraulic fracturing method employing horizontal bores at the ends of deep vertical wells that inject a plethora of toxic fluids and sand into deep shale formations, breaking up that shale and releasing embedded oil. Today’s high oil prices make this technology immediately profitable. In the US, the largest current threat is to Eastern Montana, Western North Dakota, and aquifers in South-East Texas. Like with natural gas fracking, the process, by design, also produces billions of gallons of toxic waste water. The race to tap LTO has made the US the number one oil driller in the world, by some estimates, drilling more wells this year than the rest of the planet combined. As global oil prices rise, expect the drilling to move east into the Utica shale formations, starting in Ohio.
Ultra Deepwater Pre-Salt Oil
This technology is too new for its extraction industry to agree on a name for itself, so I’ll go with the easy to use, “Pre-Salt Oil,” or PSO. Costing slightly more than Light Tight, PSO is only now just entering the market, buoyed by the promise of continually rising oil prices. According the organizers of “Pre-Salt Tech 2012,” an upcoming industry conference in Brazil, PSO is currently “the most technically challenging ultra-deepwater oil recovery” process. It involves drilling in water that is over 8,000 feet deep, through another 5,000 or so feet of salt deposits at the bottom of the ocean, to finally hit oil. The only reserves currently tapped are off the cost of Brazil. Plugging a well blowout under these conditions would make dealing with the Deepwater Horizon disaster look like child’s play. According to Rio de Janeiro’s The Rio Times, the first PSO leak occurred in January of this year. Luck held out this time, preventing the pipe rupture from evolving into a full scale blowout. With perhaps 100 billion barrels of PSO off the coast of Brazil, expect rapid expansion of this gamble.
Oil Sands
Add ten bucks a barrel to the cost of PSO and you can extract oil from a sandy mix reachable through massive surface-destroying open mines and sand-pumping wells. Currently exploitable Oil Sand reserves are primarily in Alberta, Canada. Global Warming scientists and activists argue that extracting this brown gooey stuff is an end-game scenario for the climate, as the energy intensive extraction and refining processes adds up to 15 percent more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than we get from exploiting traditional oil reserves. The actual oil that is harvested is bitumen, which is risky to transport since when it spills into water, it sinks rather than floats, making clean-up and decontamination of water resources difficult or impossible. Oil-industry funded members of the US Congress are currently lobbying aggressively to fast-track construction of a pipeline across the US to bring this oil from Canada to ports in Texas, and onto the global market. Oil-connected media conglomerates are backing this play with oil PR-tainted “news” reports downplaying the risks while promising decades more of carefree motoring, if only we drink the brown Kool-Aid.