Michael Murphy is a regular columnist on BoomerWarrior.Org.
A few years ago, environmental activists like me hoped that increasing oil prices would lead to greater conservation and extreme efforts to build alternative energy. Tough luck. Technological wizardry – breakthroughs in horizontal and undersea drilling, tar sands oil plus of course hydraulic fracturing, has opened new bonanzas of hydrocarbons to exploit, and pushed the day of reckoning off into the future.
To careful observers, that day of reckoning is already here. Increasingly chaotic, destructive weather events are on the rise all over the world, and largely-ignored scientists continue warning about feedbacks and tipping points. We yawn, and if we think about this at all, it is to wonder about the impact on gasoline prices.
Based on recent events, it would be a good time to wake up to all this right about now. Media were blocked initially from getting footage of the tar oil pipeline rupture in Arkansas. Watch a half-minute video. Commentator John Sutter speculates (includes slides and more video) that this incident could create that critical mass of support needed to halt the tar sands oil juggernaut. If it’s going to happen, we have to hope the shift comes soon. Check the astounding results of this recent poll. Maybe this should not be surprising, since a crowd of web sites encourages penny-wise, greenhouse-foolish motorists to drive to the other side of town to save a nickel on petrol. Spills are just a cost of doing business in the modern, fast-paced world – or so Big Oil would like us to believe.
The Arkansas incident is important for many reasons. First, I found it amusing that the initial reports talked of “barrels” of oil released. With 80 gallons in a barrel, 1000 barrels doesn’t sound so bad, does it? But the EPA estimates 84,000 gallons, and it may be higher. And of course this is not your grandfather’s crude oil, but the dirtier tar sands oil, whose very nature makes spills more likely. Once those spills occur, they are much harder to clean than the already difficult traditional crude. Read more here. And lest anyone think that the Arkansas rupture is an isolated incident, read this.
I have long contended that concerns about transport were a sideshow in the tar sands battle, but maybe I am wrong on this one. After all, it is one thing to be concerned about destruction many miles away in Alberta, or to worry about the greenhouse intensity of producing oil from tar, compared to the sweeter varieties of crude that are steadily depleting. It is quite another to have the oil bubbling up in your yard. Now that is something to get worked up about, eh? The question of course is – how many backyards, neighborhoods, parks and lakes must turn into toxic pools to move public opinion against the all-powerful oil lobby?
You have to find humor where you can. Try this – it’s not really oil, you see. And this panel from Bill Maher’s show has a few laughs when the guests are not shouting each other down. But irony and dark humor aside, those fighting the tar sands project and what it represents to the climate change struggle are weighing in. Watch a seven-minute Democracy Now segment that features an interview with Bill McKibben. And also this week – news that one of the earliest and most vocal climate change messengers, James Hansen, is retiring from his post at NASA. This will no doubt allow him to work ever more energetically to fight greenhouse madness. And who knew that the recently deceased film critic Roger Ebert had spoken up about the madness of climate change? Not me.
For a final call to action on this issue, watch this clever, fast-paced video. It very effectively puts this whole tarry affair into its insane context.
Sands of Another Sort
Aside from tar sands oil, easily the most prominent new, high-tech addition to our hydrocarbon access toolkit is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This practice offers a whole range of benefits and risks. The benefits are pretty clear – access to a large storehouse of natural gas deposits, and lower gas prices. The risks are another matter – groundwater pollution, earthquakes anyone? But right here in the upper Midwest, another extreme cost is controversial right now. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota are rich in a key component of the fracking system – silica sand. Wisconsin has already embraced this new system, not without environmental battles of course. Will Minnesota follow down the path? A new documentary looks to educate. Here is a TC Daily Planet article on The Price of Sand, and here is the trailer.