Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Gulf Spill and Peak Oil

Elizabeth Kolbert has an important article in the New Yorker about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the concept of peak oil and why it is so important that we redouble our efforts to develop viable, cost-effective and renewable sources of energy for our cars and homes.

As she points out, the reason this disaster happened is because we’re having to extract oil in an environment where it’s very difficult and dangerous to do so, precisely because we’ve already used so much of the world’s easy to get oil.

But the real causes of the disaster go, as it were, much deeper. Having consumed most of the world’s readily accessible oil, we are now compelled to look for fuel in ever more remote places, and to extract it in ever riskier and more damaging ways. The Deepwater Horizon well was being drilled in five thousand feet of water, to a total depth of eighteen thousand feet…

While the point of “peak oil” may or may not have been reached, what Michael Klare, a professor at Hampshire College, has dubbed the Age of Tough Oil has clearly begun. This year, the United States’ largest single source of imported oil is expected to be the Canadian tar sands. Oil from the tar sands comes in what is essentially a solid form: it has to be either strip-mined, a process that leaves behind a devastated landscape, or melted out of the earth using vast quantities of natural gas.

Exactly why we need to put all our resources into finding better, cleaner, safer alternatives to fuel our lives. Oil doesn’t have to run out before we do that. The fact that it is becoming less abundant and more difficult — and thus far more likely to lead to such costly disasters — to get will increase its cost and make other forms of energy more cost-effective in comparison.