Thursday, November 10, 2005

JOHN CRISP: Oil sands no magic bullet

Modesto Bee

By John Crisp
November 10, 2005

(SH) - Michael Fumento, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service, recently offered an optimistic picture of our petroleum supply, based primarily on the potential for Canadian oil sands to produce bitumen, a "tar-like goo" that can be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products.

The Canadian deposits are enormous - more than a trillion barrels. Fumento reassures us that the petroleum doomsayers are wrong: At current rates of use, the oil sands could supply us with energy for another 500 years.

This bright prospect - an enormous reserve of non-OPEC petroleum just across a friendly border - sounds almost too good to be true. Unfortunately, it probably is.

Petroleum extraction from oil sands is expensive, energy intensive and dirty. Deposits often lie beneath a hundred feet or more of earth, and about two tons of sand has to be mined to produce a barrel of oil. The result of the mining process isn't the light sweet crude that comes from Saudi Arabia; it's an extra-heavy oil that requires considerable further processing to yield gasoline and other products. Finally, each barrel of oil leaves behind about 2.5 barrels of murky wastewater, which is retained in vast contaminated ponds near the production site.

In short, Fumento presents an overly simplified and optimistic perspective on the future of petroleum. A more realistic view can be found in "The End of Oil" by Paul Roberts, who begins with the obvious fact that someday we'll run out of petroleum. Like Fumento, Roberts believes that the world's petroleum reserves could last a long time. However, he contends that the real petroleum crisis will occur, not when we finally pump and burn the last barrel of oil, but at the point when worldwide production begins to decline.

The science of the prediction of oil production owes a lot to geologist M. King Hubbert, who said in 1956 that production in the United States would begin to decline in 1970; he was right. Using his principles, others have predicted the peak of worldwide production, as well: The optimists say that it will peak in 25 to 30 years; the pessimists say that it's peaking right now or has already started downhill.

What will happen when worldwide production peaks? Roberts paints a chaotic picture of world powers, heavily invested in an oil infrastructure, in competition for the last of the "easy oil," the cheap, accessible crude found mostly in the Middle East. Since most of the military conflicts of the 20th century developed out of competition for oil (WWII is the best example), it's not hard to imagine a series of "oil wars" fought over declining production. In fact, history may look back on our current war in Iraq as the first of the post-peak oil wars. In spite of our rhetoric about bringing democracy to Iraq, it's clear that we wouldn't be very interested in that part of the world if it didn't reside atop some of the world's best petroleum reserves.

Of course, the worst prospect of all may be that Fumento is right. More efficient methods of petroleum extraction could extend the hydrocarbon age. But if the global warming alarmists are half right, could the earth withstand 500 more years of the greenhouse gas assault on its atmosphere?

At best, Fumento's perspective encourages an unfortunate sense of complacency that distracts us from preparing for the post-hydrocarbon age with efficiency, conservation, and the development of alternative sources of energy like wind, solar, and hydrogen. Counting on the development of safe and abundant petroleum resources nearby is whistling past the graveyard and wearing rose-colored glasses at the same time.

John Crisp is a professor in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email is


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