When I first wrote this piece in early May 2010 an environmental disaster of unprecedented magnitude was unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico; the explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. A month later “BP..appear powerless to bring the disaster to heal”1. Six months ago a strikingly similar disaster occurred to Australia’s north when the Montara oil rig burst into flames in the Timor Sea. The blame will probably land on Halliburton’s desk, they cemented the drill casing to the rock wall on both rigs and it’s this cementing that failed in both instances, but there is a more compelling underlying cause, Peak Oil2. As the name suggests this is when global oil production peaks, determining the day, week or month the peak occurs is academic however the concept is crucial.
As supplies of oil dry up exploration moves into ever riskier territories. The Deepwater Horizon was drilling 4km into rock in 1.6km of water off the continental shelf (this combination is the same distance as the train ride from Fremantle to Mosman Park), such is the hubris, or desperation of the oil industry to fill ‘demand’. The deeper the oil reserves means higher pressures and temperatures and higher risks, by anyone’s standards Deepwater Horizon was a very high risk venture, so you must conclude the stakes were very high. The field offered between 50 and 100 million barrels, sounds like a lot of oil3? Global consumption is 85 million barrels a day, so this high risk venture was to supply little more than one day’s global consumption.4
At the top end of America the Canadians are extracting tar sands, which “are the most destructive project on earth”5. Extraction devastates the environment and production emits three times the CO2 of conventional oil. Greenpeace revealed that oil companies are breaking international covenants by adding tar sand oil to that sold on global markets. Peak oil is not only devastating our environment, the ever increasing and volatile oil prices were a crucial factor in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC)6. As lower paid workers and their families buy cheaper homes on the fringes of our ever expanding cities they become totally reliant on their cars with fuel becoming an ever increasing portion of their family budget. With spikes in oil prices comes mortgage default, the same mortgage defaults which brought about the GFC.
Oil is an essential part of our lives, not only for transport but for plastics, fabrics, medicines, clothing, paint, chemicals etc, we need to decide what uses are essential (irreplaceable) and stop wasting it on luxury (frivolous) use. If you wish your children to have access to manufactured goods or medications and many of the things we take for granted YOU must stop wasting oil on jaunts in gas guzzling cars and SUV and YOU must demand that Governments control urban sprawl by legislating green belts around our cities whilst providing essential public transport infrastructure to all suburbs to eliminate car dependency. The alternative is more Gulf Wars to secure ever decreasing supplies of oil and more environmental disasters like those we are currently witnessing in the Gulf of Mexico and Canada.
Published in Fremantle Herald 5th June 2010
1 Alan Kirk, The West Australian 31 May 2010
2 Paul Cleary, The Australian 10 May 2010
3 Joel Achenback, The Washington Post 11 May 2010
4 US Energy Information Administration.
5 Jess Worth, The New Internationalist April 2010
6 Peter Newman in his Resilient Cities lecture.