Jason Barton

Professional Information and Energy News

The Coming Era of Extreme Energy?

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I am not an alarmist who believes we need an immediate, radical shift in our nation’s energy matrix. The compendium of tragedies in the article below presents another perspective containing several sound points, but also some impractical emotional appeals not based in fact nor reason.

Were it published in February, Klare’s article would raise few eyebrows. Now, because of a single terrible disaster, it sparks ample discussion, including an article by Daniel Gross today in Slate Magazine called “The Dangerous New Era of ‘Extreme Energy.'” In the second paragraph of that article, Gross claims that “When the land-based oil was exhausted, American prospectors went to sea. And when the shallow-water oil was exhausted, they went farther out.” Even if one didn’t immediately know that these claims were inaccurate, Gross graciously contradicts himself just a few sentences later to confirm that he’s simply engaging in yellow journalism: “Today, deep-water Gulf wells account for about one-quarter of the oil the United States sucks from the earth.” The other 75% come from the places Gross just said were exhausted.

I like Slate Magazine, but come on, Mr. Gross, we don’t need to lie to make the important points about changing our practices when it comes to our energy resources. Such dishonesty or carelessness only undermines your point.

When we see a car accident, even a massive one involving several vehicles and loss of multiple lives, do we say we should no longer drive? Do we argue that cars and roads need to be completely redesigned? No. We learn from the details, such as the dangers of drinking or texting while driving, the importance of seat belts, etc. The Deepwater Horizon rig may have been a bad idea from the start, or there may have been clear mistakes as the companies involved were trying to close the well, and these problems should be examined and learned from so they do not happen again. But there is little evidence to suggest that the problems that occurred should lead to the elimination of the thousands of rigs in shallower water that have been operating safely for decades.

Klare is correct to argue that government oversight of health and safety regulations in oil and gas drilling has been woefully inadequate. But as I pointed out in an earlier post, given the poor track record of these government bureaucracies, expanding their size or giving them more power may not be the best option. As citizens and consumers, as well as energy executives, politicians, and bureaucrats, paying greater attention to our sources of energy and their impacts is as fundamental to a safe energy matrix as energy is fundamental to our way of life, to all life.

If it’s true that sunlight is the best disinfectant, then the disaster in the Gulf should expose the many problems that led to the explosion, and even to the poorly planned implementation of the Deepwater Horizon rig in the first place. We should learn from these mistakes and move forward.

Yes, we need to pay greater attention to health and safety considerations as energy resources become more difficult to locate and extract. Let us be pragmatic in this pursuit, and not fall victim to alarmist calls for unrealistic or unnecessary measures. One market based solution is simply to make companies liable for most or all damages from accidents such as the one occurring now in the Gulf, rather than capping their liability and forcing taxpayers to cough up the rest.  Consider the current estimates that put clean up costs around $1 billion. BP recorded first quarter profits of just over $6 billion. They can afford to foot the bill, and if they try to pass the costs of their negligence on to the consumer, competition from other companies will inhibit this effort.

Most importantly, as readily available resources become more scarce, we need to examine our energy use more carefully. Increasing energy efficiency saves money while reducing our exposure to risk. Long term planning needs to include increased efficiency as well as development of technologies that can gradually enter our energy matrix in the coming decades as oil and gas become more scarce, more difficult to extract, and more expensive.

The next few decades could have us witnessing more problems like the one in the Gulf; but thoughtful, measured, gradual changes in our energy practices are possible, and necessary.

Michael T. Klare

Michael T. Klare

Author and Professor of Peace and World-Security Studies at Hampshire College

The Relentless Pursuit of Extreme Energy: A New Oil Rush Endangers the Gulf of Mexico and the Planet

Yes, the oil spewing up from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico in staggering quantities could prove one of the great ecological disasters of human history.  Think of it, though, as just the prelude to the Age of Tough Oil, a time of ever increasing reliance on problematic, hard-to-reach energy sources.  Make no mistake: we’re entering the danger zone.  And brace yourself, the fate of the planet could be at stake.

It may never be possible to pin down the precise cause of the massive explosion that destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig on April 20th, killing 11 of its 126 workers.  Possible culprits include a faulty cement plug in the undersea oil bore and a disabled cutoff device known as a blow-out preventer.  Inadequate governmental oversight of safety procedures undoubtedly also contributed to the disaster, which may have been set off by a combination of defective equipment and human error.  But whether or not the immediate trigger of the explosion is ever fully determined, there can be no mistaking the underlying cause: a government-backed corporate drive to exploit oil and natural gas reserves in extreme environments under increasingly hazardous operating conditions.

Read the entire article here.