No voices of caution or reason were invited to a $500-a-head meeting of government and energy industry leaders licking their chops and gripping their forks as they gaze out over the beautiful British Columbia coastline
The most startling comment heard at a two-day powwow of local oil and gas industry men in Victoria this week was offered by Guy Jarvis, a vice president at Enbridge Energy Management, a pipeline company in Calgary. In describing his company’s plans in the next few years, he said Enbridge will be reversing the direction of flow in a pipeline that once delivered oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to Chicago. The pipeline system will now take oil delivered from the tar sands of Alberta through Chicago to Cushing. The news was greeted by nary a gasp, as though it meant nothing.
Not long ago, the Cushing oil field produced 17% of oil sold in the United States and accounted for a whopping 3% of total world oil production. Cushing was the site of the famous Wild Mary Sudik well blowout in 1930, a wildcatter’s hole that blew into a huge uncontrollable gusher for 11 days spraying 3,000 barrels of oil an hour high into the sky and drenching city hall and most of downtown in the sticky black gold.
The pipeline from Cushing to Chicago made Oklahoma the top oil producing state in the top oil producing country in the world. The first commercial oil well on the planet may have been sunk at Oil City, Pennsylvania, but the age of oil started at Cushing, Oklahoma. And now, 85 years later, we learn that Cushing will now be importing oil. For oil company men with eyes to see, there could be no more ominous a sign. But this room on this day was blindfolded to it.
One can argue about how much longer industrial nations around the world will find oil and gas to burn to keep their factories and transportation systems running, but it’s all a question of when, not if. Credible scientists range in their opinions from 10 years to 75 years. Some of the wide disparity is accounted for by how the question is posed.
The world currently burns about 80 million barrels of oil a day. At that rate, there is probably hundreds if not thousands of years worth of oil in reserves underground around the planet. But the vast majority of that oil is unreachable with current drilling and pumping technology, or is too expensive to pump because of where it is. As the price that oil fetches on the market goes up, some of those places where it is currently uneconomical to explore and pump become profitable. Thus, if scientists are asked to estimate how much oil is left for us to use, their answer is that it depends on the price. At $100 per barrel, there is far more oil that can profitably be pumped to market than there is when oil is at $40 per barrel. This is the basis for the higher estimates.
But there is a limit: it takes a great deal of oil-burning energy to pump oil up from underground wells, to transport oil to refineries, to crack the heavy crude into usable smaller molecules, and to bring it to places where the resulting oil products are used, like at gas stations in cities. The energy required to bring oil to market increases as we search deeper and in more remote places for new reserves of lower, heavier quality crude.
Once we get to the point where it takes one unit of oil energy to bring the next unit of oil energy to market, the oil industry is effectively dead, no matter how high the price goes or how much oil there remains underground. Even if customers are willing to pay $1,000 per barrel, if a barrel is required to bring the next barrel of oil to market, the cost of producing that next barrel is also inflated to $1,000, which means no one can long remain in that business.
The situation with natural gas is similar, if not worse due to chronic over-estimating of the size of reserves.
What this ultimately means is that the price of fossil fuels will continually go up making marginal, unsafe, or barely economic reserves more tempting. But no new production will offset the rising trend as old oil fields run dry (like in Oklahoma) faster than new fields can be found and exploited. Prices must always rise rapidly, making the industry and those who depend on it, like governments, more desperate and reckless to exploit more unsafe and marginal reserves.
Every new dollar of investment in fossil fuel exploitation only hastens us faster toward the day when it takes a complete unit of energy to market the next unit of energy. The day before that happens will be the day of highest investment in the oil and gas industry as the whole machinery gushes to the last drop of now hugely expensive oil—and then the next day, there will be sudden silence, when the drop after the last one takes a whole drop to produce, which no one will do.
Thus it is that three of the major pipeline companies operating in BC and Alberta can in one day together announce over $5.5 billion worth of new pipelines to market the notoriously difficult-to-work-with sticky tar of north Alberta. It is also why a room full of men who should know better can applaud British Columbia minister of energy Richard Neufeld when he complains to them that the federal government is merely playing politics by maintaining the moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the famously unstable, highly ecologically fragile Queen Charlotte basin. When oil hits $100 per barrel, they’ll be ready to burn down the Parliament in Ottawa.
The posh room full of energy company executives and mayors and provincial politicians gathered to hear about opportunities in the oil and gas industry in British Columbia against this backdrop of looming catastrophe, did not once all day hear the following terms: “Kyoto Accord,” “Peak oil,” “global warming,” “environmental stress,” “alternative energy,” “resource wars,” “Iraq,” “Afghanistan,” or even the words “future” or “reality.” What they did hear all day were words like “opportunity,” “billions” and “market.”
Eventually the price of oil will rise to the point where it will be profitable to rip out Stanley Park and drill for it there. Those who meekly protest will be accused of blocking business from providing government with the revenue to treat the sick in hospitals, as John Hunter, president and CEO of Hunter and Associates in Vancouver did, regarding five Western Canada Wilderness Committee protesters who campaigned against drilling in the Queen Charlotte basin outside the meeting at Victoria’s Delta Point hotel.
Or, as Neufeld, apparently the representative of the people of British Columbia, said to this gathering of capitalists, “When we see 10 billion barrels of oil offshore, why shouldn’t we go get it?” It may not be the sentiment of the people, but it was certainly the sentiment in that room. Market economics can be very charming in its blindness and enthusiasm, but aren’t some of these people ever tempted to cautiously peek out from under their blindfolds at the road directly ahead?