Hopeful Signs and Scary Schemes
As I sit here at my slow computer, I am wondering whether one is blessed by being technologically ignorant, as I am-or would it be better to be fully aware of the potential hazards associated with various projects aimed at developing new sources of energy. Many of these projects involve the diversion of, or tapping into, volatile substances deep within the earth to satisfy the voracious energy needs of countries, corporations, and consumers. Pardon me, but some projects fuel my paranoia, which was, I might add, created from the experience of having lived quite a few decades, rather than from rigorous training in the sciences.
For example, I know that boiling water is bad for the skin, having fallen into a galvanized tub of bubbling H²O when I was a small child. I also know that certain gases are highly explosive, this due to the unfortunate experiences of two close friends. One had completely refurbished a century old brick house, only to have it blown to smithereens when a contractor operating a backhoe severed a gas line. The other friend had a lovely home in the country built on a spread of roughly a hundred acres. While he was lighting the pilot light on a gas appliance in a utility room, the apparently unscented gas that had accumulated around the appliance ignited and blew him out through the back wall of his house. Having been evacuated during a huge wildfire, witnessed tiny tree frogs raining down on the pavement while I was driving into a hurricane, and crouching under a table during a cyclone, I know something abut how things can go terribly wrong for a poor, stupid human being who only manages to survive because of pure dumb luck.
I depend on the experts to save me from my folly, to give me good advice on how to manage my wellbeing and thus provide me with save passage to one hundred years and beyond. Sometimes, however, various experts offer differing advice, and other experts, employed by mega-corporations, conceive and undertake monumental projects that are supposedly designed to benefit the proliferating human herd, millions and millions of witless boobs like me. These projects are often underwritten by governments in league with the multinational corporations and great universities. What if a particular mega-project depends on the precise calculations of scientists and technicians, so that, if they have erred, earth and its inhabitants could be adversely affected on a massive scale? What if that were to happen? Again, my paranoid tendencies lead me to wonder whether all of the possible consequences have been considered before the drill punctures the earth.
There is, so I have read, a huge repository of trapped carbon on our planet, trapped under oceans, trapped in clusters of methane hydrate, a compound created when methane encounters low temperatures and high pressure. Japan has already started drilling operations to liberate this gas for use as a source of fuel and energy, a worrisome prospect to an ignorant person like me, considering the explosive properties of methane, not to mention the prospect of more methane leaking into the atmosphere, methane being a far more potent substance than carbon dioxide. One hopes that the experts have taken into account the risks of this enterprise and are developing safeguards. Whether or not they have, the U. S. Department of Energy is reported to be on the methane band wagon, and is apparently paying oil companies to drill into the permafrost and capture the methane. Entrepreneurs are also drilling into coal seams in advance of the initiation of mining operations in an effort to recover the methane and perhaps divert it to natural gas pipelines.
Hopeful Signs and Scary Schemes
A more successful venture, so far, and certainly what seems to be a less hazardous venture, has been the effort of other companies to extract crude oil from Canada’s oil sands. However, it also seems that a consortium of oil companies and geologists have successfully transformed hydrates from beneath Canada’s permafrost into gas, and have captured and contained that gas. Don’t ask me if there has been leakage into the atmosphere. Busy creatures, human beings.
This fervor to supplement the declining supply of fossil fuel is further exemplified by the ambitious goal of capturing the carbon dioxide emitted from the chimneys of power stations and safely storing it underground, thus reducing the noxious emissions when plants convert to coal for a power source. Coal is apparently an abundant resource and is widely dispersed around the planet. But where would the captured carbon dioxide be stored? In the reservoirs of depleted oil wells, so say the experts. This, anyway, seems to be the plan in Britain, according to a recent article in The Economist. They have been considering the inevitable emptying of their oil wells in the North Sea, and are evaluating those sites as storage facilities for the captured gas. However, it seems to me that gas has a great deal of motility. If not absolutely contained, it will drift willy-nilly into any crack or crevice. What if it drifts via an undetected fissure in the underground strata and eventually finds its way into the water supply of a neighboring country, say Scotland? Could that perhaps taint the famous whiskey? Don’t ask me. I’m just an ignorant writer.
A more hopeful scheme, but very expensive, is the process of extracting oil from shale beds. Exxon was investigating this possibility in the seventies and eighties with their Colony Shale Project, but abandoned the endeavor because at the time it seemed not at all practical and very costly. Apparently, they, Exxon, erected huge structures called retorts on a mesa in the western United States. These tall retorts were used to separate the liquid from the shale, and the liquid had to be subsequently further refined to produce a form of crude oil. Part of the problem and the extraordinary expense of the operation resulted from having to build roads to the site of the retorts. Another problem was that the process of extracting a crude oil product from the shale requires a tremendous amount of water, and the retort was in desert territory. Exxon was going to divert water from rivers in the area, but that must have riled the locals, particularly the farmers. At any rate, the word is that Exxon plans to revive its shale project. Don’t ask me where.
What does all of this mean? It means that the dwindling availability of fossil fuels has already resulted in higher prices at the gas pump. The aforementioned projects all require enormous expenditures of capital, whether or not successful and safe, so that that the expense of developing alternative fuels will ultimately be passed on to the consumer, be it directly at the gas pump, or indirectly in the form of higher taxes resulting from subsidies paid to the energy companies. The good news is that perhaps the high fuel prices will clear many of the metal leviathans from the highways.