Even earthquakes don’t kill the dream of extreme oil


The last decade — ever since it became clear in the mid-2000s that conventional oil fields around the planet were running low — has been the era of “extreme oil.” Big Oil promised the world that the wonder of new technologies — most notably hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as well as other advances in drilling capabilities — would make it possible to tap rich oil fields that were once unattainable. By 2010, the energy industry was pulling up crude all over the world — buried in the shale rock under North Dakota, in the frigid waters off Alaska, and in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, we all know what happened that year off Louisiana, with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. We also now know some of the other risks — most of which should have been obvious — with extreme drilling. These include the air and water pollution associated with fracking and the folly of safely exploring for oil in the icy, windswept waters off Alaska. In addition, some of the other benefits of fracking may have been overhyped. In some of the earlier unconventional drilling fields, production rates dropped off more rapidly than most experts predicted. Not to worry, say the technological gurus of Big Oil — the same folks who brought us this mess in the first place. Today, the experts are already working on new fixes that are really, really going to suck the last drop of oil from Mother Earth:

Halliburton and Schlumberger are trying to salvage the American shale revolution, making rival bets they can use re-fracking to squeeze more oil and gas from the old wells that sparked a domestic energy surge a few years ago.

Executives at the world’s two biggest oil field service companies recently told investors U.S. energy producers are increasingly willing to take up technology used to re-stimulate shale oil and gas wells with a second round of hydraulic fracturing, a process used to free hydrocarbons from shale rock by cracking it open with blasts of water, chemicals and sand deep underground.

In recent years when crude prices were high only a small portion of U.S. wells were fractured a second time, as the process was considered more of a science experiment. But oil field service companies are talking it up at a time when the petroleum industry is trying to navigate through a one of the worst downturns in decades, arguing it would be more affordable and more profitable than drilling up new wells.

Widespread re-fracking would put U.S. oil field crews back to work – benefitting Houston, U.S. headquarters to Halliburton, Schlumberger and many service firms – but it would also add crude supplies to a global oil glut that has crushed prices in the past year. Although the re-fracking activity would likely put out what would amount to a drop of oil on the worldwide market, it would slow the rapid, natural production decline rates in U.S. shale plays from Texas to North Dakota, said Rob Desai, an analyst at Edward Jones.

This is a classic case of fool-me-twice, shame-on-me. On the very same week that the energy giants rolled out their latest scheme, a surge of new evidence emerged about the connection between fracking and earthquakes, from Alberta to Oklahoma. Indeed, the situation in the Sooner State, which was one of the first fields developed with unconventional drilling methods technique, has truly become a matter of alarm:

The rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma has increased by about 50 percent since 2013, greatly increasing the chance for a damaging quake, according to the USGS.

Noticeable quakes – above magnitude 3.0 – now hit the state at a rate of two per day or more, compared with two or so per year prior to 2009. During the past seven days, Oklahoma has experienced about 40 earthquakes, according to the USGS.

Scientists say the seismic activity is triggered by the injection of wastewater from booming oil and gas drilling operations into deep geological formations.

The state’s oil and gas regulator released a directive this month expanding “Areas of Interest”, parts of the state that have been worst-hit by the quakes, and adding restrictions for 211 disposal wells.

The sheer folly boggles the mind. The regulators are just now, belated, catching up with the massive flaws of the first fracking wave, including these swarms of earthquakes. But the American oil industry, much like a crack dealer in a declining neighborhood, is already peddling its newest drug to the citizenry. We need to break the fossil fuel habit, instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel for our next fix.

Read more about the oil industry’s newest oil-drilling schemes from the Houston Chronicle: http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/energy/article/Service-giants-promise-oil-field-resurrection-6409922.php

Here’s the latest on the earthquakes plaguing Oklahoma: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/28/us-usa-oklahoma-quakes-idUSKCN0Q20MQ20150728

For my more on how America can have a smarter energy policy, check out my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved


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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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