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A Tough-Oil World

Posted on Mar 14, 2012
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By Michael T. Klare, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

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Oil prices are now higher than they have ever been—except for a few frenzied moments before the global economic meltdown of 2008. Many immediate factors are contributing to this surge, including Iran’s threats to block oil shipping in the Persian Gulf, fears of a new Middle Eastern war, and turmoil in energy-rich Nigeria. Some of these pressures could ease in the months ahead, providing temporary relief at the gas pump.  But the principal cause of higher prices—a fundamental shift in the structure of the oil industry—cannot be reversed, and so oil prices are destined to remain high for a long time to come.

In energy terms, we are now entering a world whose grim nature has yet to be fully grasped.  This pivotal shift has been brought about by the disappearance of relatively accessible and inexpensive petroleum—“easy oil,” in the parlance of industry analysts; in other words, the kind of oil that powered a staggering expansion of global wealth over the past 65 years and the creation of endless car-oriented suburban communities. This oil is now nearly gone.

The world still harbors large reserves of petroleum, but these are of the hard-to-reach, hard-to-refine, “tough oil” variety. From now on, every barrel we consume will be more costly to extract, more costly to refine—and so more expensive at the gas pump.

Those who claim that the world remains “awash” in oil are technically correct: the planet still harbors vast reserves of petroleum. But propagandists for the oil industry usually fail to emphasize that not all oil reservoirs are alike: some are located close to the surface or near to shore, and are contained in soft, porous rock; others are located deep underground, far offshore, or trapped in unyielding rock formations. The former sites are relatively easy to exploit and yield a liquid fuel that can readily be refined into usable liquids; the latter can only be exploited through costly, environmentally hazardous techniques, and often result in a product which must be heavily processed before refining can even begin.


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The simple truth of the matter is this: most of the world’s easy reserves have already been depleted—except for those in war-torn countries like Iraq.  Virtually all of the oil that’s left is contained in harder-to-reach, tougher reserves. These include deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil, and shale oil, along with Canadian “oil sands”—which are not composed of oil at all, but of mud, sand, and tar-like bitumen. So-called unconventional reserves of these types can be exploited, but often at a staggering price, not just in dollars but also in damage to the environment.

In the oil business, this reality was first acknowledged by the chairman and CEO of Chevron, David O’Reilly, in a 2005 letter published in many American newspapers. “One thing is clear,” he wrote, “the era of easy oil is over.” Not only were many existing oil fields in decline, he noted, but “new energy discoveries are mainly occurring in places where resources are difficult to extract, physically, economically, and even politically.”

Further evidence for this shift was provided by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in a 2010 review of world oil prospects. In preparation for its report, the agency examined historic yields at the world’s largest producing fields—the “easy oil” on which the world still relies for the overwhelming bulk of its energy. The results were astonishing: those fields were expected to lose three-quarters of their productive capacity over the next 25 years, eliminating 52 million barrels per day from the world’s oil supplies, or about 75% of current world crude oil output. The implications were staggering: either find new oil to replace those 52 million barrels or the Age of Petroleum will soon draw to a close and the world economy would collapse.

Of course, as the IEA made clear back in 2010, there will be new oil, but only of the tough variety that will exact a price from us all—and from the planet, too.  To grasp the implications of our growing reliance on tough oil, it’s worth taking a whirlwind tour of some of the more hair-raising and easily damaged spots on Earth.  So fasten your seatbelts: first we’re heading out to sea—way, way out—to survey the “promising” new world of twenty-first-century oil.

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By prosefights, April 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm Link to this comment

Readers may benefit from

Toward Energy Literacy

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By Jozef Oud, April 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To quote the last line of this excellent article: Who would want it? Indeed! I certainly don’t. But we are all being forced into this even as clean, sustainable energy is abundant! I’m talking about HYDROGEN, the most common element on the planet. But the technology to use it is being suppressed by the fossil fuel companies. Wake up, people, defend our Earth against the evil greed. Demand we switch to clean energy by investing all that money it will cost to get the oil into renewables. Refuse to pay fuel taxes, break free, we’ve all been held hostage for far too long! Now is the time!

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By diman, March 16, 2012 at 12:02 pm Link to this comment

For those of you interested in the problem, watch the documentary “Collapse” with Michael C. Ruppert.

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By prosefights, March 15, 2012 at 6:54 am Link to this comment




Case No. 11-00369-UT


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By Clash, March 14, 2012 at 9:18 pm Link to this comment

Yup slim Picken’s buying up as much of the water in the Ogallala Aquifer as he can, so he can sell it back to?

I don’t no about spearing the Earth, and pumping toxic chemicals to cool drills, and hydraulically fracture rock for the gas, but the additives in the water sure taste great, probably good for you to?

Sorta like the Hanford plume.

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By Clash, March 14, 2012 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment

March 11, passed by and I didn’t see any articles here about the emperors plans to back the building of 2 more machines from hell, happy Fukushima day.

I know they say it will all be cleaned up in 30 years, but I think they left some 0’s out of their number.

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By Clash, March 14, 2012 at 5:02 pm Link to this comment

The end of the age of oil, finally? That easy, I don’t think so, not till those who control the resources make the earth a grave.

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