The Risks of Moving to the Frontier for Hydrocarbons

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Published on May 10th, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

In addition to writing blog posts for Cool Green Science, I am an occasional contributor to the National Journal’s Energy & Environment Experts Blog. It’s an interesting forum where members of the environmental community carry on a robust dialogue with members of the energy industry, lawmakers, academics and analysts. You can visit the blog here.

Recently I weighed in on the ramifications the Gulf Coast oil spill will have on our quest to develop clean energy sources and on the prospects of passing climate change legislation as early as possible. You can see the question and all of the responses here. Here was my response:

As other domestic supplies are exhausted and as oil prices increase, oil exploration and production will move toward the frontier, that is, toward more difficult and expensive places from which to extract hydrocarbons. (“Deepwater Horizon,” the name of the now sunken oil rig, conveys this very idea).

In the Gulf of Mexico, this push for the frontier means drilling in deeper water for oil that is still deeper below the surface of the seabed. But it also could mean drilling in harsh and remote arctic environments. As is now apparent, wells in deeper water carry greater risk.

I can picture a simple graph plotting the price of oil (a surrogate for scarcity) and potential risk to the environment (and to the lives of the men and women doing this difficult work). As the price goes up, the increased income supports drilling in more dangerous places.

I expect this is not a purely linear relationship. At some point the price and scarcity of oil drives exploration and drilling such that the risk curve steepens perhaps beyond what is manageable. Whether technology can reasonably lessen these risks is now not clear.

This relationship extends to America’s overall dependence on oil. As so many others have written, oil dependence is a risk to our economy, our national security, our climate and, as has been demonstrated in the Gulf this last week, our environment and even our food supplies.

While we are obviously not going to do without oil anytime soon, the steepening risk curve for oil and other fossil fuels should be telling us both to move as quickly as possible toward more diversified and lower-carbon energy sources and to ensure that our country’s regulatory framework is sufficient to protect our environment in the interim.

Some people may suggest that strict financial liability for cleanup and restoration of spills can mitigate the risk of offshore drilling. But our on-the-scene observation of the Gulf spill in the last week suggests that once a large spill happens, coping with it is a daunting task.

Even if BP pays for the current crisis, if we don’t diversify our energy supplies, we will pay for a lot of other bad things — like the costs of sea level rise, flooding, crop failures, wars to protect oil supplies, and constantly attempting to clean up an increasingly damaged environment.

There are better things on which to spend our children’s money, so we should proceed with energy and climate legislation with even greater urgency in light of the Gulf oil spill, and we should use the best science to make what oil extraction that does take place safer in the meantime.

(image: Windmills at Middelgrunden, outside of Copenhagen, Denmark. Image Credit: andjohan/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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