Tar sands projects, fracking and gasification are part of a quest for ‘extreme energy’ puts both workers and the planet at risk
Whatever happened to peak oil? Only a few years ago it was common to hear speculation that global oil production had peaked and would slowly peter out—forcing capitalism to adapt its energy use. But by last year oil production was increasing again, especially in North America.
Now the International Energy Agency’s latest outlook report projects that the continent will be a net exporter of oil by 2035, and the US a net exporter of gas. This will free up 90 percent of the oil from the Middle East towards growing economies in Asia.
Most of the growth is in “unconventional” fossil fuels that have previously been too hard to reach. These include shale gas buried underground to be blasted out with water—known as fracking.
And in the US this includes deep water oil reserves such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig which exploded in 2010 killing 11 workers. Last month another oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded killing two workers and injuring another 11.
But three quarters of the continent’s oil reserves are in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada. The tarry sand underground is extracted by strip mining—destroying everything on the surface to get it.
Oil only makes up a small proportion of this mass, so after processing with chemicals there is a vast amount of waste. Other extraction methods use blasting steam, solvents or heat underground to melt or separate the oil.
This has been an ecological catastrophe in Canada. Already hundreds of square kilometres of forest have been destroyed to get at the oil.
“A lot of the land is dead,” said Vanessa Gray, a youth activist of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation—descendants of indigenous people in Canada.
“There’s a big part of the tar sands where it’s just sand, and just nothing alive. There’s a strong smell of oil in the air. It was almost hard to breathe.”
Canada’s indigenous people have been in the front line of the resistance to tar sands oil development, much of it in land that their ancestors fought hard to defend from settlers.
Ruby Montour, an activist from the Haudenosaunee people, said, “We are paying attention to what they’re doing and we don’t like it. If you think we can’t do anything about it, you’re badly mistaken.”
Tar sands projects put the planet at risk. It is widely accepted that a rise in temperatures of more than 2 degrees celsius will lead to catastrophic climate change. But existing and planned tar sands projects could generate enough carbon emissions to push global warming above that.
To keep rises below 2 degrees, at least two thirds of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves would have to be still in the ground by 2050. The undiscovered ones still being chased by energy companies would have to be in the ground too.
Oil firm Enbridge wants to use an old pipeline to take tar sands oil to Toronto. But the oil sand mixture would be far more abrasive than anything the pipeline was designed for.
It could seriously damage the pipe and endanger new regions of Canada. It would dramatically expand tar sands oil production. The biggest inland oil spill in US history was tar sands oil from an Enbridge pipeline in 2010.
Over 350 activists came to a conference in Toronto this month to organise opposition to the pipeline—including trade unions, environmental campaigns and especially indigenous groups.
“The pipelines are the bloodlines of the tar sands,” said Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians. “If we can stop these arteries they can’t expand. This is a fight against all the 14,000 kilometres of new pipelines.”
There have been major protests in the US against the Keystone XL pipeline. This would take tar sands oil to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
Tory chancellor George Osborne wants to bring more fracking to Britain. He’s cut the carbon emissions targets from the government’s new energy bill for a new “dash for gas”.
Britain has up to £1.5 trillion worth of shale gas reserves. Almost 100 test fracking rigs have been authorised. But the only rig to start fracking was suspended last year, when it caused earthquakes in Blackpool.
Other techniques to get coal that’s too deep to mine include over 60 coal bed methane CBM wells. More experimental is the gasification plan for Swansea Bay. It involves igniting the coal seam to harvest the gas.
Such fire can last for a very long time. The US town of Centralia was abandoned to a fire that’s been burning for over 50 years.
All of these methods can release lethal chemicals into groundwater and ultimately into drinking water supplies.
Campaigns against extreme energy in Britain were set to unite on Saturday of this week for a day of action. This includes a national demonstration in central London.
Politicians and lobbyists met in London’s Canada House last week for the Canada Europe energy summit. The aim was to promote the tar sands industry in Europe, where it has been classed as a highly polluting fuel.
Britain has been Canada’s main ally in resisting any restrictions on tar sands oil in Europe. Campaigners from the UK Tar Sands Network protested outside.
The International Energy Agency predicts that energy efficiency will also increase supply. But this doesn’t mean that less energy will be used.
It could lead to an increase in total energy consumption as companies find cheaper ways to use energy. The economy will continue to be inefficient as long as it is driven by competition.
The Tory right is lobbying against the expansion of renewables. Junior energy minister John Hayes has said “enough is enough” of windfarms. Britain only uses a tiny fraction of its wind resource.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there is potential to generate more from wind power than the current total global electricity production. And that’s not including offshore windfarms.
National Climate March: assemble 12 noon, Saturday 1 December, Grosvenor Square, central London. Called by the Campaign Against Climate Change. Go to www.campaigncc.org