A few years ago, in the run up to the climate negotiations at Copenhagen, the fossil fuel industry seemed on the defensive, with pressure to cut carbon emissions mounting. With energy prices rising and doubts being raised about the industry’s ability to increase oil production, it seemed like a dinosaur struggling to survive. Today that same industry is on the offensive and, far from facing constraints, is actively driving a massive expansion of fossil fuel extraction into new areas of the globe.
There is no better barometer for this sea change than ExxonMobil, the largest privately-owned oil company in the world. In 2008 Exxon was aggressively funding climate change denial and intensively lobbying against potential constraints on its business. Fast forward to last summer, in the wake of the farcical Rio+20 conference, when Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was giving a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he not only acknowledged climate change but embraced it as an ‘engineering problem’ and a business opportunity.
With oil prices still sky high and the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration surpassing 400 parts per million for the first time in human history this year, the facts on the ground remain grim. What has altered radically is the level of spin deployed to counter this reality, as even the pretence of action has all but evaporated. Now the focus is on the appearance of plans for action, principally through the promise of techno-fixes, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or geo-engineering, in the far future.
Behind all this smoke and mirrors, there is a real world not amenable to such trickery. On one side increasingly extreme weather hints at what climate change has to offer, while on the other rising energy costs mark the ongoing depletion of fossil fuels.
But fossil fuels are not like a petrol tank of a fixed size, which we are burning up and will eventually simply run out. Tar sands, Arctic drilling and fracking demonstrate that as easy-to-extract resources are depleted there is always some more difficult-to-extract resource to take their place, if you are desperate enough. These harder-to-extract fossil fuels come with additional costs beyond their carbon emissions, however.
Extraction effort is almost always strongly correlated with environment destruction. This is well understood for the devastation wreaked, for example, on the boreal forests of Alberta by tar sands extraction, but is true of most energy extraction. Whether it is the shift to opencast mining as coal has become less readily available, or the push out into deeper water for oil, the result has been mounting pressure on the environment. Ever larger areas of the globe must be trashed for continuously diminishing returns.
The social impacts of these more extreme methods are equally troubling. More effort going into energy extraction means more labour and resources consumed. In the past decade the size of the energy sector has more than doubled, from under five per cent to more than 10 per cent of the world economy. Complex market and political mechanisms have obscured the truth behind the headlines: as the energy sector grows the rest of the economy must be squeezed, and those with the least political power are the first to suffer.
Shift to the extreme
The shift towards ever more extreme methods, as easier-to-get resources are exhausted, merits careful consideration. Where will it end? When the energy used in extraction exceeds that produced, at what point do you no longer have an energy source? In reality, severe problems arise long before that point is reached. Imagine a world in which the main energy source requires half the energy produced to run the extraction process. Not only will half of the whole economy be devoted to energy extraction but the level of environmental destruction will be terrifying.
The UK is fairly typical in that, at present, the major new threat is unconventional gas and oil (colloquially known as fracking): shale gas, tight (shale) oil, coal bed methane (CBM) and underground coal gasification (UCG). These methods are highly synergistic, requiring the same large fleets of advanced drilling rigs to be constructed. The common features include dense drilling of horizontal wells, some sort of intense stimulation (hydraulic fracturing or dewatering) and relatively small quantities of energy produced from each well, for only short periods of time.
Underground coal gasification, the most extreme method we face at present, involves setting fire to coal seams underground and bringing the toxic cocktail produced to the surface. The UK is ground zero with 21 UCG licences already sold, just off the coast, including next to major cities such as Swansea, Liverpool and Edinburgh. Unprecedentedly, the newest licence for sale is onshore, in the middle of the Warwickshire countryside, near Leamington Spa. One company, Five-Quarter Energy, plans to start drilling on the coast of Northumberland this summer.
The scale of all this is rarely appreciated. The most fundamental property of unconventional gas (and oil) is its distributed nature. Any one well will produce little gas and only for a short time. It requires thousands of wells to be constantly drilled, coating the landscape in well pads, to produce even moderate amounts of energy. The largest onshore conventional gas field in the UK was Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, which had eight wells, but to produce the same amount of unconventional gas hundreds of wells would be needed.
Major impacts of fracking include leaking methane, toxic and radioactive water pollution and waste, severe air pollution, wholesale industrialisation of the countryside and accelerating climate change. However, the public discourse in the UK has largely revolved around one non-issue: whether fracking-induced earthquakes could cause surface damage. In the US the straw man is whether there is a provable link between water contamination and the specific step of hydraulic fracturing, regardless of the strong link to shale gas extraction as a whole.
This spin has effectively diverted attention from the massive issue of the cumulative impact on our society and environment. Even the academic system must be corrupted to serve the industry, with pro-fracking academic studies being published that have turned out to be covertly funded by the industry itself.
The fight heats up
Meanwhile, the fight against extreme energy is heating up. The rural village of Balcombe is next in the firing line, as Cuadrilla Resources looks to extend its reach from shale gas in Lancashire to include shale oil in Sussex. Threatened communities are getting organised to resist, following the lead of communities in Australia, which have had considerable success in halting the industry’s advance. While the forces arrayed against them are formidable, these efforts embody Dr James Hansen’s recent call to leave unconventionals in the ground.
While the impacts in rich countries may seem bad, they pale in comparison to what people in the global South face, who cannot afford to drink bottled water and are less insulated from the environmental consequences. The recent announcement that Essar Oil has obtained permission to drill 650 CBM wells in West Bengal, to the north of Kolkata, is just the tip of a looming iceberg. The area has close to the highest population density in India, similar to nearby Bangladesh, and is already highly water stressed.
Exxon’s CEO was recently quoted as saying, ‘What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?’, as if the future of humanity could be separated from the ecosystems on which we depend. In this looking-glass world, Exxon is the people’s saviour, finding us creative new ways to maintain unsustainable levels of energy consumption. In the real world, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of humanity and the planet depends on keeping fossil fuels in the ground – which will require a complete transformation of the economic and social systems that are driving extreme energy extraction.