Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stupid To The Last Drop

When I first learned about Stupid to The Last Drop, by William Marsden, I knew that I had to read it. Not only did it relate to the oil and gas industry, it specifically focused on part of Canada. And even better, it was about Alberta, a province where I work every summer. In fact, I work in the oil fields (although I work for forestry companies, not for the energy industry). And saying that I work in “the oil fields” is probably misleading or non-instructive, since just about the entire province qualifies for this descriptor.

The product description for this book gives you a good idea of what it’s all about: “In its desperate search for oil and gas riches, Alberta is destroying itself. As the world teeters on the edge of catastrophic climate change, Alberta plunges ahead with uncontrolled development of its fossil fuels, levelling its northern Boreal forest to get at the oil sands, and carpet-bombing its southern half with tens of thousands of gas wells. In so doing, it is running out of water, destroying its range land, wiping out its forests and wildlife and spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, adding to global warming at a rate that is unrivalled in Canada or almost anywhere else in the world. It’s digging, drilling and blasting its way to oblivion, becoming the ultimate symbol of Canada’s – and the world’s – pathological will to self-destruct.” Well, at least there is no misunderstanding of the author’s opinion about what’s happening in Alberta.

This book is not really focused on peak oil issues, although it touches on them. Rather, it is more written as a hard look at the current state of the industry, and mismanagement of the existing resources. The book has several separate sections which didn’t necessarily flow into one another, but which rather should be looked at as separate aspects of Alberta’s past and current history:

Thermonuclear Oil Extraction – believe it or not, in the late 1950’s, geologist Manley Natland proposed a plan to extract oil from the sands by detonating nuclear bombs under the sands, allowing them to collapse and collect into a spherical reservoirs, for easier extraction. Ironically, the science behind the plan was quite sound, although Natland was fairly dismissive of the consequences of radiation. The proposal was almost carried through, with the US government selling a test nuclear device to a Canadian company, and the federal and provincial government appeare to endorse the experiment until Diefenbaker’s Conservative government turned the tables by banning nuclear testing on Canadian soil.

The Importance Of The Oil Sands – the Canadian/US energy relationship is discussed, and a number of external international implications are brought into light, in an effort to explain the importance of Canada’s supplies of oil and natural gas. The book makes clear the value of oil to the United States, and talks about NAFTA and GATT implications.

Provincial Politics In Oil – a few chapters are devoted to Jeff Tonkin and a slew of Alberta O&G industry scandals including Stampeder Energy, Westar Petroleum, and Big Bear Exploration. I generally found these chapters to be pretty irrelevant and boring.

Reserve Depletion – everyone knows that fossil fuels will run out someday. Former Geological Survey of Canada geologist has speculated that Canada’s natural gas reserves could run out by 2014, if not earlier. “We have to drill an increasing number of gas wells just to keep up with demand. In 1996 we drilled four thousand productive wells to get 15.7 billion cubic feet per day of gas. By 2001 we were drilling 10,757 wells to get 17.4 billion cubic feet per day. These drilling figures have continued to rise. In 2005 we drilled fifteen thousand wells to get 17 billion cubic feet per day. Coal Bed Methane, which is another form of natural gas, was supposed to be the savior … [Hughes] came out with figures that showed recoverable gas was … enough to replenish our reserves for maybe another eight years at most.” This section made me want to re-read “High Noon For Natural Gas.”

Fort McMurray – there is all sorts of discussion about “Fort Mac” and the municipality of Wood Buffalo. Fort McMurray has suffered immensely with the problems that face any boom town with a rapidly expanding population and an inability to develop supporting infrastructure in a timely manner. What surprised me was the relatively low financial support levels that O&G companies in the area provide to the municipality. I would have thought that they would want to contribute a lot more funding to improving the city, because of the dividends that it would pay off in managing their work forces more effectively.

Contamination Of The Environment – there are several chapters devoted to groundwater contamination, the deleterious effects of drilling and “frac’ing” wells, and the general environmental destruction that the O&G industry is causing. Specific references have been made to the Rosebud River Valley’s water well contamination problems (water so saturated in combustible chemicals and gases that it will support combustion, right out of household taps), and Wiebo Ludwig, the “oil patch terrorist” who bombed sour gas wells in 1998 due to his belief that they were harming his family.

All in all, the subjects are fairly disjointed, but appropriately, the book has been segmented somewhat into different sections. Being able to identify with a large number of the locations discussed, and the “grass roots” implications of the problems identified, I found this book to be a pretty interesting personal read. However, the book doesn’t seem to have any real editorial “conclusion” to it. At the end of the day, I got less of a sense of “so much for a sustainable future” and more of a sense that “you can’t mess with oil & gas.” I think the book would have benefited from a final chapter that discussed how readers or Albertans could take specific steps to improve the future of the province. Nonetheless, I was glad that I took the time to read it, and I did learn quite a bit in doing so.