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Beyond “peak oil” - dirty oil

tar sandsIt is widely held that the world has reached or possibly passed “peak oil” – the point beyond which oil production is expected to decline. Some suggest that “peak gas” is likely to follow within a few years, while two recent reports claim that even “peak coal” too might be reached by 2025. If so, 20 years from now all three hydrocarbons may be in decline.

This is good news, isn’t it? Doesn’t it force the capitalists to switch to cleaner and less harmful sources of energy?

Yes, market forces will push things in this direction, but not very fast. It is projected that even in 2040 oil production will have fallen only to half its current level. The normal functioning of capitalism will take several decades to complete the transition – much too late to prevent climatic catastrophe.

But there is worse. The main near-term prospect is rapid expansion in “non-conventional” oil extraction from oil sand (or tar sand), oil shale and deep-water offshore deposits. These forms of “dirty” oil are far more damaging to the environment even than the ordinary kind.

A barren moonscape

Oil sand is a thick mixture consisting of 10% bitumen (crude oil), 85% sand, clay and silt, and 5% water. Its first commercial exploitation is proceeding in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta, Canada. This entails removing it from the ground and delivering it to initial processing plants. The output of these “upgraders” is pumped through pipelines to refineries in various parts of the US for further processing. The US already imports more oil from Canada than from any other country.

As Antonia Juhasz says in The Tyranny of Oil (Harper 2008, pp. 291-2), “millions of acres of boreal [subarctic] forest have been transformed into a barren moonscape. Mammoth, lumbering creatures of steel have replaced the wildlife. The machines work 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ripping vast open pits into the earth, up to 3 miles wide and 200 feet deep. Among the machinery is the world’s biggest dump truck, which stands three stories high.” (See also: Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, Greystone Books 2008; National Geographic, March 2009 for photos; onearth.org/node/2243.)

Fort McMurray, the centre of the industry, attracts workers from Canada’s depressed Maritime Provinces and from as far away as India and China. The pay is high, but so is the cost of living. And so is the level of pollution – even higher than in China’s cities. Many die before their time of cancer or lung disease.

Cooking rocks

Oil shale is a type of rock that when crushed and heated to 430˚ C. releases a solid material called kerogen that yields a heavy oil. There are vast deposits of oil shale in the Green River Formation (GRF), which mostly lies under public lands in the western American states of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. The rock is mined from deep below the surface, hauled, crushed, and then “cooked” in huge furnaces or “retorts”. However, Shell is working on a new technology to cook the shale in the ground, using electric resistor heaters like those in your toaster, so that the oil can be extracted in liquid form (Juhasz, pp. 296--318).  

Oil sand and oil shale still account for under 10 percent of global oil extraction, but this proportion will increase as new deposits are opened to exploitation and conventional oil production declines. The Orinoco oil sands in Venezuela contain at least as much oil as those in Alberta; other countries, such as Trinidad and Madagascar, have smaller deposits. Australia has a substantial amount of oil shale and a processing facility in Queensland.

Being very costly, extraction from oil sand and oil shale is only profitable when oil prices are sufficiently high. This is why operations in the GRF in the 1960s and 1970s were abandoned, only to be resumed in recent years. Unfortunately, continuing high demand for oil and its declining supply is likely to keep prices high.

Impact on global warming

We all know that hydrocarbons are the worst energy source in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. And yet the production and consumption of oil from these non-conventional sources has a much greater total impact on atmospheric greenhouse gas levels even than the use of conventional hydrocarbon sources. Producing a barrel of oil from oil sand is estimated to emit about three times as much greenhouse gas as producing the same barrel by conventional means, largely due to the massive amounts of energy needed to mine, transport, upgrade and refine the oil sand. Another factor is the loss of carbon sink from permanent stripping of the boreal forest. Despite claims to the contrary, the forest is not and cannot be reclaimed after the oil sand is extracted.

Offshore drilling for oil or gas in water deeper than 150 meters – and many rigs drill in much greater depths than this – also adds to global warming, because it releases methane into the atmosphere from methane hydrates (ice-methane compounds) on the seabed. Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Despite all the talk about the need to do something about global warming, despite all the policy strategies, emissions targets and ingenious incentive schemes, governments have failed to constrain the extraction of dirty oil. If even this energy source, the most harmful of all, cannot be ruled off limits, then what can be the purpose of those strategies, targets and schemes? Presumably only to conceal the helpless complicity of governments in face of the blind and relentless drive of capital to expand.

The Socialist Standard, no. 1276, December 2010


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