Fracking Language: Between the Lines with Oil Reserves

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Sometimes it is not one news story or headline that suggests the state of affairs but several concurrent articles that tell us what is happening. While I may always try to provide useful links here, “hell [may be] more than half of paradise.”

Recently we have several intersection events: high gasoline prices, a Presidential election, and a resulting discussion of oil reserves. We have had high oil prices before, and I expect that, as before, we will complain about the prices as they increase. They will reach a high point that we begin to accept. And that peak will be followed by a recession and a price decline for months or a year before they once again begin their upward trend. It is as if we are being tested and slowly being acclimated to the new price. This is not to suggest that this is a conscious process or someone is manipulating prices. But in a world where only a handful of major oil companies control almost all the market share, some cooperation is possible and, to some extent, might be expected. My concern is that this cyclical trend will come to an end suddenly by one war, one embargo, or one well placed natural event. It may happen before any serious attempt is made to diversify our transportation fuels, and our strategic petroleum reserve will offer little cushion.

Americans seem to be somewhat insulated from foreign gasoline prices. In most non-oil-producing countries, fuel prices are higher than they are in the US, but here we may have developed an art of not questioning “good fortune.” Prosperity theology says good fortune is a sign of being “blessed by God.” Who are we to question “God’s will” … especially when it seems to be favorable. It is when we begin to feel the pinch that we insist upon our insular perspectives, not comparing our situation to other countries, and wonder “what has gone wrong” and “who is to blame?”

This is also the year for a Presidential election. Whatever else, energy and emphasis is placed upon some ideas which may not otherwise receive the same attention. Former governors who once advocated policies very similar to incumbents now speak out against a measured policy in hopes of capturing the center stage. While this clearly reveals political posturing, it nevertheless is something we should be happy to see. What may have been more of a “ho-hum” issue becomes relevant not just for its own sake, but because it may be a pivotal issue for the election. Blaming a rival for something they may not have within their control may seem like a good tactic. It may also backfire and appear shallow and disingenuous if the public is a bit more astute than expected by political advisers.

One way to start an understanding is with definitions. Robert Rapier did an excellent job in a recent article that defines some of the various supplies of oil and may help to clarify several possible meanings of the word “reserves.” I have also read articles that tend to lump natural gas reserves along with oil reserves in an attempt to suggest that unrestricted drilling will lower gasoline prices. Tom Murphy has written an excellent series called “Do the Math.” In an interview, he states categorically that “natural gas is not a direct answer to a liquid fuels shortage.” We can run cars on natural gas, but in the US the EPA adds a regulatory review on top of a costly conversion. In contrast to what Tom Murphy calculates, Geoffrey Styles suggests that North America could be the new Middle East. This is where we need to apply our knowledge of “what is a reserve.” Deep sea oil, tar sands, and shale oil seem to be lumped together and compared to Middle East Conventional Oil. That is not a deal most would want to buy into.

Relating to these issues can seem somewhat distant to our daily activities. In perhaps an overly long article, Maggie Koerth-Baker gives us a walk through a peak oil/climate change future in Merriam, Kansas. Petrochemicals — their refining, production and use — are like a poison we have grown somewhat used to over decades. We have modeled our communities around the prospect of the availability of this poison. A governor once wanted and our president now wants to slowly reduce our dependence upon it. The GOP thinks it is good policy to offer supplying it more cheaply. Where is the leadership? Why can’t we seem to say that this thing we want is poisoning our environment, costing us a fortune, and putting our country and way of life at risk. It is killing us and we want it to be cheaper?

Photo Credit: Refinery Libelul

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