High-Risk Fossil Fuel Boom

The most direct path to
America’s newest big oil and gas fields is U.S. Highway 12, two
lanes of blacktop that unfold from Grays Harbor in Washington State
and head east across the top of the country to Detroit.

The 2,500-mile route has quickly become an essential supply line
for the energy industry. With astonishing speed, U.S. oil
companies, Canadian pipeline builders, and investors from all over
the globe are spending huge sums in an economically promising and
ecologically risky race to open the next era of hydrocarbon
development. As domestic U.S. pools of conventional oil and gas
dwindle, energy companies are increasingly turning to
“unconventional” fossil fuel reserves contained in the carbon
rich-sands and deep shales of Canada, the Great Plains, and the
Rocky Mountain West.

Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming hold oil shale reserves estimated to
contain 1.2 trillion to 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, according to
the U.S. Department of Energy, half of which the department says is
recoverable. Eastern Utah alone holds tar sands oil reserves
estimated at 12 billion to 19 billion barrels. The tar sands region
of northern Alberta, Canada contains recoverable oil reserves
conservatively estimated at 175 billion barrels, and with new
technology could reach 400 billion barrels.

In North Dakota and other states,
residents worry that the energy boom will deplete

Deep gas-bearing shales of the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain
West, Great Lakes, Northeast, and Gulf Coast contain countless
trillions of feet of natural gas. If current projections turn out
to be accurate, there would be enough oil and gas to power the
United States for at least another century.

But even as one of the largest energy booms in history has erupted
along a great arc of the continent, the consequences are prompting
civic discontent, lawsuits, and political battles in state
capitals. The boom is producing fresh scars on the land and new
threats to scarce water supplies. Government studies show that
exploiting unconventional fossil-fuel reserves generates more C02
emissions than drilling for conventional oil and gas and uses three
to five times more water. “It’s a pact with the devil,” says Randy
Udall, a consulting energy analyst from Colorado. “The tar sands
and shale oil and shale gas require a lot of water. It sets up a
collision course for the West.”

In communities from Wyoming to Texas, thousands of trucks now
rumble down rural roads, carrying the huge amounts of water - 2
million to 4 million gallons per well - needed to free oil and
natural gas from shales by blasting them with high-pressure fluids.
In places such as North Dakota, which receives modest amounts of
rainfall, local residents and conservationists worry that the
energy boom will deplete aquifers.

And the explosion in development of these unconventional fossil
fuels raises a troubling question at the national level: At a time
when the country should be embracing a renewable energy revolution,
it is hurtling in the opposite direction, developing on a massive
scale sources of energy that cause considerably more environmental
harm than conventional oil and gas drilling.

Highway 12 is a crucial supply route for this burgeoning
industry, with fossil fuel companies using the road to reach a good
portion of the West’s new oil and gas domain that lies to the north
and south of the highway. The companies transport equipment 900
miles north to Alberta, Canada, where they are spending $15 billion
annually to develop the region’s tar sands, now the single largest
source of oil imports to the U.S. and the fastest-growing source of
CO2 emissions in Canada, according to the href=”http://www.pembina.org/” target=”_blank”>Pembina
Institute, a Canadian environmental think tank.

In North Dakota - which has become the fourth-largest oil-producing
state in the country, with an estimated 100 million barrels being
pulled out of deep shales this year and where 1,000 wells will be
drilled in 2010 - Highway 12 crosses the $5 billion, 2,151-mile
Keystone Pipeline. It is the centerpiece of a $31 billion network
of major transport lines either planned or under construction to
carry oil from the middle part of the continent to refineries in
Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois that are being modernized and
expanded at a cost of more than $20 billion. In all, according to
company reports and state economic development offices, the oil
industry is spending nearly $100 billion annually in the U.S. to
perpetuate the fossil fuel era.

Oil industry executives say their investments are consistent with
the national goal of producing more energy to increase security.
Oil companies are also profiting handsomely from the exploitation
of these unconventional sources of oil and natural gas. The stakes
became clear earlier this year, when ExxonMobil paid $41 billion to
buy XTO Energy, a major player in unconventional fuels production,
especially natural gas.

Last year, in a much-disputed draft environmental impact statement
that summarized the need for the new Keystone-XL pipeline - which
will transport oil from Alberta’s tar sands to U.S. refineries -
the U.S. Department of State tacitly backed the new energy boom.
“The increasing demand for crude oil in the U.S. cannot be entirely
met by efforts to conserve use of refined petroleum products or the
increased use of renewable energy,” the department said. “As crude
oil demand increases, the overall domestic supplies of crude oil
are declining.” The department’s analysts added that without the
pipeline and the new supplies of oil it would carry, the country
“would remain dependent upon unstable foreign oil supplies from the
Mideast, Africa, Mexico, and South America.”

One of the flashpoints is occurring in northern Idaho and eastern
Montana, where oil companies want to use Highway 12 to dispatch the
largest convoy of oversized trucks ever assembled to Alberta’s tar
sands and elsewhere. The trucks, nearly as long as football fields
and so wide they cover both lanes of the highway, haul refining and
processing equipment that weighs hundreds of tons and is as tall as
a mansion.

The Bakken Shale may contain 4
billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural

ConocoPhilips was granted a road permit in Idaho last month to
haul four Korean-built oversized oil-processing units from
Lewiston, Idaho, where

they were offloaded from Columbia River barges, to the company’s
expanding refinery in Billings, Montana. Earlier this month, Idaho
Second District Judge John Bradbury revoked the permit, asserting
that the state did not adequately assess the hazards of the
shipment, particularly the consequences of an accident involving
one of the immense processing units blocking the highway. Local
officials in Montana are considering similar legal action.

The court judgment in Idaho, which is set for an appeal on Oct. 1,
could have significant ramifications for ExxonMobil Canada, which
wants to make 207 oversize hauls next year along Highway 12.
Exxon’s trucks will carry even larger Korean-built units to be
assembled into a new tar sands oil processing plant in Alberta. The
company says it must use Highway 12 because the loads are too big
to fit under bridges along interstate highways or rail lines.

Despite opposition, the oil and gas industry is undeterred. The
Bakken Shale that lies 10,000 feet beneath a 200,000 square mile
expanse of North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan is said by the
U.S. Geological Survey to contain more than 4 billion barrels of
oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Oil industry
geologists say there is much more than that in the Bakken, and in a
second oil-rich shale reserve, the Three Forks, that lies below

Spurred by the Bakken riches, energy companies are now spending
tens of millions of dollars to lease mineral rights in Wyoming and
Colorado and are drilling exploratory wells in the Niobrara Shale,
which sprawls beneath both states.

“It just almost boggles the mind,” Lynn Helms, director of the
North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, told a veterans group
in Minot on Sept. 2. “It is not like the traditional oil and gas

‘The oil industry can find water
elsewhere,’ said one North Dakota wildlife

target=”_blank”>A 2006 study by the Department of Energy that
looked at rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater supplies
found that the collision between the two was occurring most
violently in the fastest-growing parts of the country that also
happened to have the scarcest water resources - California, the
Southwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and the Upper Great

It takes four to six gallons of water to produce one barrel of tar
sands oil, which is four times more water than it takes to produce
oil from conventional reserves, according to a 2009 study by
Argonne National Laboratory.

Moreover, producing tar sands oil, according to the Natural
Resources Defense Council, generates as much as three times as many
greenhouse gases per barrel as conventional oil production.

Extracting unconventional fossil fuel reserves like the Bakken
formation uses a lot of water because getting to the oil and
natural gas requires rupturing the deep shale to create open spaces
and crevices through which the oil and gas can flow. The
pulverizing process, called href=”http://e360.yale.edu/content/feature.msp?id=2256”
target=”_blank”>hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” involves
sinking drill bits two miles deep and then turning them to move
horizontally through the shale. An armada of tank trucks hauls
several million gallons of water to each well site, where pumps
shoot it down the well at such super high pressure - 8,000 pounds
per square inch - that the rock splits.

The practice is risky. Earlier this month, an oil well undergoing
fracking near Kildeer, N.D. ruptured. The blowout leaked 100,000
gallons of fracturing fluid and crude oil before being plugged two
days later.

Fracking has caused contamination of surface and groundwater in
other states and harmed drinking water in some communities,
according to a number of reports from local environmental

Earlier this year, a supervisor with the North Dakota Game and
Fish Department formally opposed a farmer’s plan to sell a third of
the water in eight-foot-deep Trenton Lake to a Texas energy
developer. “Trenton Lake just doesn’t have the depth and capacity
without seriously impacting the lake,” said the supervisor, Fred
Ryckman. “The oil industry can find water elsewhere.”

Almost 150 oil and gas drilling rigs are operating in North Dakota
this month, nearly tying a state record, and more than all but two
other states, Texas and Pennsylvania. The oil and gas rush has been
an economic boon to North Dakota, with more than 7,000 laborers
migrating into the state; North Dakota’s unemployment rate has
dropped to 3.6 percent, the nation’s lowest. The energy boom has
also filled state coffers. When North Dakota’s budget cycle ended
in June, state Budget Director Pam Sharp proudly reported an $800
million surplus.

Clearly, most North Dakota officials are not worrying - yet - about
the environmental consequences.

Source: e360.yale.edu

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