Perhaps the most notable example of this was Shell Oil’s costly failure to commence test drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. After investing $4.5 billion and years of preparation, Shell was poised to drill five test wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska’s northern and northwestern coasts. However, on September 17th, a series of accidents and mishaps forced the company to announce that it would suspend operations until next summer — the only time when those waters are largely free of pack ice and so it is safer to drill.
Shell’s problems began early and picked up pace as the summer wore on. On September 10th, its Noble Discoverer drill ship was forced to abandon operations at the Burger Prospect, about 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea, when floating sea ice threatened the safety of the ship. A more serious setback occurred later in the month when a containment dome designed to cover any leak that developed at an undersea well malfunctioned during tests in Puget Sound in Washington State. As Clifford Krauss noted in the New York Times, “Shell’s inability to control its containment equipment in calm waters under predictable test conditions suggested that the company would not be able to effectively stop a sudden leak in treacherous Arctic waters, where powerful ice floes and gusty winds would complicate any spill response.”
Shell’s effort was also impeded by persistent opposition from environmentalists and native groups. They have repeatedly brought suit to block its operations on the grounds that Arctic drilling will threaten the survival of marine life essential to native livelihoods and culture. Only after promising to take immensely costly protective measures and winning the support of the Obama administration — fearful of appearing to block “job creation” or “energy independence” during a presidential campaign — did the company obtain the necessary permits to proceed. But some lawsuits remain in play and, with this latest delay, Shell’s opponents will have added time and ammunition.
Officials from Shell insist that the company will overcome all these hurdles and be ready to drill next summer. But many observers view its experience as a deterrent to future drilling in the Arctic. “As long as Shell has not been able to show that they can get the permits and start to drill, we’re a bit skeptical about moving forward,” said Tim Dodson of Norway’s Statoil. That company also owns licenses for drilling in the Chukchi Sea, but has now decided to postpone operations until 2015 at the earliest.
Another unexpected impediment to the arrival of energy’s next “golden age” in North America emerged even more unexpectedly from this summer’s record-breaking drought, which still has 80% of U.S. agricultural land in its grip. The energy angle on all this was, however, a surprise.
Any increase in U.S. hydrocarbon output will require greater extraction of oil and gas from shale rock, which can only be accomplished via hydro-fracking. More fracking, in turn, means more water consumption. With the planet warming thanks to climate change, such intensive droughts are expected to intensify in many regions, which means rising agricultural demand for less water, including potentially in prime fracking locations like the Bakken formation of North Dakota, the Eagle Ford area of West Texas, and the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania.
The drought’s impact on hydro-fracking became strikingly evident when, in June and July, wells and streams started drying up in many drought-stricken areas and drillers suddenly found themselves competing with hard-pressed food-producers for whatever water was available. “The amount of water needed for drilling is a double whammy,” Chris Faulkner, the president and chief executive officer of Breitling Oil & Gas, told Oil & Gas Journal in July. “We’re getting pushback from farmers, and my fear is that it’s going to get worse.” In July, in fact, the situation became so dire in Pennsylvania that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission suspended permits for water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, forcing some drillers to suspend operations.
If this year’s “endless summer” of unrelenting drought were just a fluke, and we could expect abundant water in the future, the golden age scenario might still be viable. But most climate scientists suggest that severe drought is likely to become the “new normal” in many parts of the United States, putting the fracking boom very much into question. “Bakken and Eagle Ford are our big keys to energy independence,” Faulkner noted. “Without water, drilling shale gas and oil wells is not possible. A continuing drought could cause our domestic production to decline and derail our road to energy independence in a hurry.”
And then there are those Canadian tar sands. Turning them into “oil” also requires vast amounts of water, and climate-change-related shortages of that vital commodity are also likely in Alberta, Canada, their heartland. In addition, tar sands production releases far more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional oil production, which has sparked its own fiercely determined opposition in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
In the U.S., opposition to tar sands has until now largely focused on the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a $7 billion, 2,000-mile conduit that would carry diluted tar sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, thousands of miles away. Parts of the Keystone system are already in place. If completed, the pipeline is designed to carry 1.1 million barrels a day of unrefined liquid across the United States.
Keystone XL opponents charge that the project will contribute to the acceleration of climate change. It also exposes crucial underground water supplies in the Midwest to severe risk of contamination by the highly corrosive tar-sands fluid (and pipeline leaks are commonplace). Citing the closeness of its proposed route to the critical Ogallala Aquifer, President Obama denied permission for its construction last January. (Because it will cross an international boundary, the president gets to make the call.) He is, however, expected to grant post-election approval to a new, less aquifer-threatening route; Mitt Romney has vowed to give it his approval on his first day in office.
Even if Keystone XL were in place, the golden age of Canada’s tar sands won’t be in sight — not without yet more pipelines as the bitumen producers face mounting opposition to their extreme operations. As a result of fierce resistance to Keystone XL, led in large part by TomDispatch contributor Bill McKibben, — the public has become far more aware of the perils of tar sands production. Resistance to it, for example, could stymie plans to deliver tar sands oil to Portland, Maine (for transshipment by ship to refineries elsewhere), via an existing pipeline that runs from Montreal through Vermont and New Hampshire to the Maine coast. Environmentalists in New England are already gearing up to oppose the plan.
If the U.S. proves too tough a nut to crack, Alberta has a backup plan: construction of the Northern Gateway, a proposed pipeline through British Columbia for the export of tar sands oil to Asia. However, it, too, is running into trouble. Environmentalists and native communities in that province are implacably opposed and have threatened civil disobedience to prevent its construction (with major protests already set for October 22nd outside the Parliament Building in Victoria).
Sending tar sands oil across the Atlantic is likely to have its own set of problems. The European Union is considering adopting rules that would label it a dirtier form of energy, subjecting it to various penalties when imported into the European Union. All of this is, in turn, has forced Albertan authorities to consider tough new environmental regulations that would make it more difficult and costly to extract bitumen, potentially dampening the enthusiasm of investors and so diminishing the future output of tar sands.
In a sense, while the dreams of the boosters of these new forms of energy may thrill journalists and pundits, their reality could be expressed this way: extreme energy = extreme methods = extreme disasters = extreme opposition.