On the Fossil Fuel Front

A flurry of news comes across my feeds this morning about the fossil fuel industry.

The Atlantic has a cover article by Charles Mann entitled “What if we never run out of oil?

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, also at The Atlantic, summarizes:

In his piece, “What if we never run out of oil?” Charles Mann examines the possibility that new technologies and new sources of petroleum, like methane hydrate, could mean that we never run out of oil. The conclusion? As long as there is some kind of oil, somewhere, we will never make the transition to clean energy–and as a result, we won’t be able to do anything about climate change.

and makes what we would call the obvious objection:

It’s true that for years, many in the environmental movement have quietly, eagerly anticipated the end of oil. You can’t blame them. There’s no question that running out of oil would hasten the switch to healthier forms of energy like wind and solar.

But that doesn’t mean that running out of oil is the only way we can shift our economy–any more than running out of beer is the only way to solve alcoholism. It may be radically optimistic, but I believe that, armed with an understanding of the high cost of our current energy economy, we are capable of accelerating movement to a more sustainable path.

The Atlantic itself refers to the piece as “Charles Mann’s complex, dark story about energy in the 21st century”.

Despite this spin, James Howard Kunstler is outraged.

Wishful thinking now runs so thick and deep across the USA that our hopes for a credible future are being drowned in a tidal wave of yellow smiley-face stories recklessly issued by institutions that ought to know better. A case in point is the Charles C. Mann’s tragically dumb cover story in the current Atlantic magazine — “WE WILL NEVER RUN OUT OF OIL” * — setting out in great detail the entire panoply of techno-narcissistic “solutions” to our energy predicament. Another case in point was senior financial writer Joe Nocera’s moronic op-ed in last week’s New York Times beating the drum for American “energy independence.”

You could call these two examples mendacious if it weren’t so predictable that a desperate society would do everything possible to defend its sunk costs, including the making up of fairy tales to justify its wishes.

Kate Galbraith at the Texas Tribune has some details about the oil boom, which may spread to parts of Texas that have never pumped a drop of oil, including Austin itself. (Now that would be a mess in more ways than one!)

But with oil prices relatively high, around $90 a barrel, the quest for new shales is under way, often in regions where drillers had found oil (as they had in the Cline Shale area) in the pre-fracking era. Nearly every month brings reports of promising explorations, from New Mexico to Alaska, though some reports may deserve to be taken with “a grain of salt,” cautioned Icon’s Small. Within Texas, shales besides the Cline that are not household names include the Midway Shale, which is closer to the coast than the Eagle Ford in South Texas, and deeper layers beneath well-known formations in the Permian Basin. There is also shale under Austin, geologists say.

In Texas, shales are especially abundant. That is partly because hundreds of millions of years ago, sediment from much of what is now North America washed down toward modern-day Texas, according to Don Van Nieuwenhuise, director of professional geosciences programs at the University of Houston. Marine organisms, from the days when Texas was covered by a shallow sea, were buried and cooked by the earth’s heat and eventually became oil.

“We have one of the thickest sedimentary wedges in the world,” Van Nieuwenhuise said.

Meanwhile, InsideClimate News continues its Pulitzer-award winning efforts on the dilbit pipeline menace.

Kathrine Begley writes:

One month after a 65-year-old ExxonMobil pipeline burst without warning and dumped Canadian tar sands oil in the town of Mayflower, Ark., government investigators and residents are still looking for answers to basic questions about the spill.

When did the pipeline begin leaking? When and how did the oil company find out about it? How quickly did the company act? How much oil spilled from the pipeline’s 22-foot-long gash? And what condition was the line in before it ruptured?

Last week InsideClimate News sent transcripts of the 911 police reports it obtained from the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office to Rep. Markey’s office upon its request. The transcripts are also being released publicly here.

They tell a different story than what Exxon reported to the federal government in the initial days of the spill, which was also different from what the company told the public in subsequent weeks.

Also at InsideClimate, Lisa Song discusses the tremendous pressures in the pipelines and the daunting distances between shutoff valves.

At the time of the rupture, the pipeline was operating at 708 psig (pound-force per square inch gauge), about 14 percent below its maximum operating pressure of 820 psig. That’s more than twice the pressure of a fire hose, which can spray water 30 floors into the air. But a fire hose is a few inches in diameter, and the Pegasus is 20 inches wide.

Also of interest:

According to preliminary findings from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Exxon closed two valves that were 18 miles apart in order to isolate the section of pipe that had ruptured. If the line was full when the break occurred, that 18-mile section of would have contained more than 1.5 million gallons of oil.

Most of this oil would probably stay in the pipe in most circumstances, (presuming the fluid is essentially incompressible) but this information helps quantify the risks of pipelines.

While on the subject, we have been remiss in providing a link to Bill McKibben’s latest article at Rolling Stone, where he covers the dire cornucopia as well.

Right now, the fossil-fuel industry is mostly winning. In the past few years, they’ve proved “peak-oil” theorists wrong – as the price rose for hydrocarbons, companies found lots of new sources, though mostly by scraping the bottom of the barrel, spending even more money to get even-cruddier energy. They’ve learned to frack (in essence, explode a pipe bomb a few thousand feet beneath the surface, fracturing the surrounding rock). They’ve figured out how to take the sludgy tar sands and heat them with natural gas till the oil flows. They’ve managed to drill miles beneath the ocean’s surface. And the hyperbolic enthusiasm has gushed even higher than the oil. The Wall Street Journal has declared North Dakota a new Saudi Arabia. The New York Times described a new shale-oil find in California as more than four times as large as North Dakota’s. “We could make OPEC ‘NOPEC’ if we really put our minds to it,” said Charles Drevna of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. “We’re talking decades, if not into the hundreds of years, of supply in North America.”

But all that fossil fuel will only get pumped and mined and burned if we decide to ignore the climate issue; were we to ever take it seriously, the math would quickly change. As I pointed out in these pages last summer, the world’s fossil-fuel companies, even before these new finds, had five times more carbon in their reserves than we could burn if we hope to stay below a two-degree­ Celsius rise in global temperatures.

Let me add that I agree am convinced by those who argue that the fracking cornucopia is overstated. But that isn’t anywhere severe enough to get us past the “carbon bubble” problem.

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