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Peak Opportunity! Earth Liberation and the Oil Endgame
Earth Liberation and the Oil Endgame Published in Earth First! Journal, Eostar (March-April) 2006
and online at
By now, all radical environmentalists—if not all humans—should be aware of the fatal ecological effects of civilization’s unsustainable energy binge. Yet many of us have been slow to grasp the true gravity of what our rapid depletion of non-renewable fossil fuels portends.
We must recognize three essential points about civilization’s imminent energy future: First, the unfolding “energy crisis” is real and will soon manifest as chronic oil scarcity. Second, industry is seeking to quickly and quietly implement a nightmarish swarm of ultra-dirty oil “substitutes,” ranging from coal-to-oil “liquefaction” in Appalachia to nuclear-powered “heavy oil” mining in northern Canada and biofuel plantations in South America. Rather than presenting feasible solutions, these “alternatives” are unsustainable and ecologically destructive. Third, we cannot cling to the hope that scientists will unveil a magical cocktail of clean, oil-free “alternative” technologies that will power a benign “new civilization.”
Unless societies learn to sharply reduce their ecological footprints, any large-scale energy alternatives will ultimately prove ineffective because they would prolong and intensify destructive practices. It is time to seriously consider that our best hope for a biodiverse Earth and a biocentric future for humanity would be civilization’s collapse. Let’s dream our post-petroleum utopias unapologetically wild.
To liberate the Earth and ourselves from the carnage that oil elicits, we need to clarify where civilization is going, as well as where our movements are coming from. Attempts at environmental legislative reform through emissions standards, “smart growth” regulations and the Kyoto Protocol have failed to deter oil’s speeding devastation. Grassroots struggles to restrain the petroleum economy’s spread and to spur lifestyle shifts toward renewable energies have been far too weak, late and limited to halt overarching ecocidal trends. Despite countless small-scale victories won by indigenous and eco-activist resistance, hydrocarbon hunger has metastasized globally, placing civilization on a collision course with its own decimation of the Earth.
But it is our very gluttony for fossil fuels that presents the single greatest threat to our unsustainable civilization. A startling body of evidence is now foretelling the beginning of the end of oil’s heyday.
This unique geological opportunity is called “peak oil,” the moment of global maximum oil production, when approximately half of the Earth’s total oil supply has been pumped and remaining reserves offer decreasing yields. Extraction at any individual oil field follows a bell curve; production increases, plateaus and then declines irreversibly as the supply is exhausted. Peak oil is merely the extrapolation of the behavior of individual oil fields to the global supply.
In any field, the purest oil is always the most accessible and, thus, the first to be extracted. As oil disappears, the crude becomes increasingly difficult to refine. Production costs escalate and more energy must be used to bring lower-grade oil to market. When this happens to the global supply, consumer prices will skyrocket to offset the costs. Finally, oil production will require the expenditure of more energy than it yields and will become prohibitively expensive. Collapse will result not from the disappearance of oil, but from the vanishing of cheap oil.
Although we won’t recognize the moment of peak oil until it has already passed, many clues signal that it is near. In November, Kuwaiti officials announced that output from the world’s second-largest oil field was “exhausted” and declining. Shortly after, speakers at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil’s annual conference all agreed that global oil decline would certainly begin before 2010. Some argued that we are peaking now. More than 50 oil-producing countries have already peaked. Global discovery of oil reserves peaked in the 1960s, and big finds are now rare. The average find is 50 million barrels. This sounds huge until you consider that humans consume 84 million barrels every day. US oil production peaked in 1970 and continues to decline, even as Americans devour 25 percent of the global supply. Only the vast oil fields of Saudi Arabia sustain the illusion that petroleum-based civilization can grow forever. But this is not so. Ninety-five percent of Saudi
output comes from only six fields, which all show signs of petering out.
False Hope on the Depletion Slope
Opinions differ widely about what peak oil means for humanity. Some permaculture enthusiasts are advocating boldly optimistic visions of graceful “energy descent” down the oil-depletion slope. They hope that geologically imposed limits to reckless consumption will compel societies to adopt ecofriendly alternatives. At the other extreme, many capitalist intellectuals are confident that civilization, led by fresh waves of technological innovation, will seamlessly adapt to oil decline. They predict that oil depletion will be a “non-event” due to the implementation of other unconventional fuel sources that will significantly offset dwindling oil reserves.
One such “solution” is the exploitation of tar sands in arctic Canada’s Mackenzie Valley. Approximately two tons of tar sands are required to produce a single barrel of oil, with more than one million barrels being extracted every day. This process strips soil and rock from forests, boils oil out of sand with hot water and leaves behind giant cesspools of wastewater. Since the 1960s, the extraction of tar sands has damaged more than 80,000 acres of forest and wetlands, and plans call for production to triple by 2015. Moreover, the tar sands industry is extremely inefficient, necessitating huge energy inputs to produce comparatively modest yields. To supply the industry’s voracious energy needs, a new infrastructure of massive natural gas pipelines and nuclear plants has been proposed.
A similar, even dirtier process is the mining of oil shale. Located on about 16,000 square miles of land in remote parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, oil shale represents an estimated 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil—enough to meet US oil demand for nearly 100 years. The extraction process is so obscenely heat- and water-intensive that it has only been attempted experimentally. Nevertheless, the Department of Energy projects yields of “200,000 barrels a day from oil shale by 2011, two million barrels a day by 2020 and ultimately 10 million barrels a day.” In January, the Bureau of Land Management awarded six new 160-acre leases to oil companies for the development of oil shale extraction on federal lands in Colorado and Utah. Currently, the corporation most deeply invested in oil shale is Shell.
In the US, coal-to-oil refineries are now on the drawing board in Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming. But eastern Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County—an economically depressed region dependant on waste dumping, coal mining, waste coal burning and prisons—is likely to become the site of the first such plant. Construction on the refinery is scheduled to begin this Spring and could be complete by as early as 2008. This facility will be a heavily subsidized pilot project that could pave the way for larger and more numerous coal-to-oil plants throughout the US.
Another proposed option is the harvesting of methane hydrates, which are frozen methane crystals found on the ocean floor and in arctic permafrost. Methane hydrates are extremely plentiful—estimates suggest that the global supply may be double that of all other fossil fuels combined. For this reason, methane hydrates seem like a great energy source capable of fueling unlimited growth for centuries to come. Predictably, it’s not that simple. Just as methane hydrates represent a tremendous source of potential energy, they also present a huge quantity of stored greenhouse gases. (Methane is more than 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.) A level of methane hydrate extraction capable of supporting the world’s energy needs would leak staggering quantities of the gas into the atmosphere, exacerbating the existing threat of global warming. Additionally, there is evidence suggesting that the extraction process could make seabeds unstable,
resulting in habitat destruction and even giant tsunamis. Nevertheless, the US has earmarked $47 million for research into methane hydrate energy.
As for biofuels, we should look skeptically at any “solution” that Monsanto officially favors. Small-scale organic biofuels might be worthy of eco-activist support, but the biggest beneficiaries of industrial biodiesel are sellers of genetically modified corn and soybean seeds. Plus, those enriched by the establishment of biofuel markets in the wealthy global North are rarely local farmers but rather foreign mega-growers of palm and soya oils. In 2006, a Florida-based importer called—no joke—EarthFirst Americas, Inc. plans to ship more than 100 million gallons of palm oil-derived biofuel into the US from Ecuador. That’s more than the US biodiesel industry’s entire 2005 yield! In Malaysia, Indonesia and South America, where labor is cheaper, water more abundant and crop yields higher, the spread of soy and palm plantations is a leading agent of rainforest destruction.
Citing these and other untapped sources of energy, cornucopian capitalists adhere to the unwavering belief that scientific innovation and private enterprise will generate a solution to oil depletion. The public follows their lead, believing that—at the very worst—peak oil will mean buying a hybrid car or a new furnace. But many who have seriously researched this issue are confident that peak oil spells doom for modern metropolitan, growth-oriented economies. Fossil fuels are essential ingredients in the production of plastics, pesticides and herbicides, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, electronics, computers, and even components of high-tech “renewable” energies like wind and solar power. During oil decline, mass-produced items that consumers now take for granted could quickly become luxuries, then relics. The entire capitalist framework—defined by global mass production and dependent upon a resource-hungry infrastructure—would likely collapse.
We don’t have to panic or lose hope in the face of this scenario. What might oil decline mean for anti-capitalist unrest and Earth First! agitation? Be imaginative! The heightened vulnerability of dominant institutions offers extraordinary potential for social insurrections, ecological uprisings and tactical ecotage. The advent of oil decline should embolden us to step up action to stop our culture’s worst oil-enabled abuses against the Earth, from mountaintop removal mining and forest clearcutting to industrial agriculture, suburban sprawl and resource wars.
In order to take full advantage of this opportunity to bring down oil-based civilization, we must work to minimize the ability of Earth-destroying industries to adapt to fossil fuel scarcity. This means defending wilderness and undeveloped areas—the Arctic Wildlife Refuge; coastal and offshore marine zones; highland hotspots like the Green River Valley and Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming, Colorado’s Roan Plateau, Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front and the Otero Mesa in New Mexico—from new oil and natural gas speculation and extraction. Globally, it means doing more to collaborate with and support allies—from Colombia to Nigeria to Iraq—who are at the frontlines of physical struggles against neocolonialist oil exploiters and the militaries that shield them.
But our foremost task is to fight the ultra-dirty oil substitutes that industries are gearing up to implement. All of these will require huge investments of capital before they become economically viable. All will demand the creation of a completely new infrastructure before production and delivery can begin. Many will necessitate extensive legislative and diplomatic attention before they can be implemented in accordance with state, national and international law. And some depend upon significant adaptation on the part of consumers.
Every one of these new sources of energy is vulnerable at some crucial point. By studying the economic, political, legal, technological and even social requirements that these new industries will have to meet, we can proactively target them where they are weakest and prevent them from establishing a firm foothold.
By fighting to minimize civilization’s ability to weather the peak oil storm through the use of unsustainable “alternatives,” we can hopefully accelerate civilization’s collapse and preserve what remains of our planet’s ecological integrity. In the ashes of industrial monoculture, thousands of neotribal nomadic communities, autonomous ecovillages and bioregional confederations uniting them could bloom amid rewilded landscapes. The oil endgame might be our last opportunity for full-fledged Earth liberation. Will we seize it or let it slip by?
This critter can be found dropping nuts and bolts of (purely poetic) resistance all over squirrel country this Spring and Summer. Despite favoring a “no civ” over a “new civ” outcome, Acornista believes that both sides should collaborate strategically together to take down oil civilization.