Shale oil, for instance, is oil trapped in shale rock. It can only be liberated through the application
of concentrated force in a process known as hydraulic fracturing that requires millions of gallons of chemically laced water per “frack,” plus the subsequent disposal of vast quantities of toxic wastewater once the fracking has been completed. Oil shale, or kerogen, is a primitive form of petroleum that must be melted to be useful, a process that itself consumes vast amounts of energy. Tar sands (or “oil sands,” as the industry prefers to call them) must be gouged from the earth using open-pit mining technology or pumped up after first being melted in place by underground steam jets, then treated with various chemicals. Only then can the material be transported to refineries via, for example, the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Similarly, deepwater and Arctic drilling requires the deployment of specialized multimillion-dollar rigs along with enormously costly backup safety systems under the most dangerous of conditions.
All these processes have at least one thing in common: each pushes the envelope of what is technically possible in extracting oil (or natural gas) from geologically and geographically forbidding environments. They are all, that is, versions of “extreme energy.” To produce them, energy companies will have to drill in extreme temperatures or extreme weather, or use extreme pressures, or operate under extreme danger -- or some combination of all of these. In each, accidents, mishaps, and setbacks are guaranteed to be more frequent and their consequences more serious than in conventional drilling operations. The apocalyptic poster child for these processes already played out in 2010 with BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and this summer we saw intimations of how it will happen again as a range of major unconventional drilling initiatives -- all promising that “golden age” -- ran into serious trouble.
Perhaps the most notable example of this was Shell Oil’s costly failure to commence test drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. After investing $4.5 billion and years of preparation, Shell was poised to drill five test wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska’s northern and northwestern coasts. However, on September 17th, a series of accidents and mishaps forced the company to announce that it would suspend operations until next summer -- the only time when those waters are largely free of pack ice and so it is safer to drill.
Shell’s problems began early and picked up pace as the summer wore on. On September 10th, its Noble Discoverer drill ship was forced to abandon operations at the Burger Prospect, about 70 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea, when floating sea ice threatened the safety of the ship. A more serious setback occurred later in the month when a containment dome designed to cover any leak that developed at an undersea well malfunctioned during tests in Puget Sound in Washington State. As Clifford Krauss noted in the New York Times, “Shell’s inability to control its containment equipment in calm waters under predictable test conditions suggested that the company would not be able to effectively stop a sudden leak in treacherous Arctic waters, where powerful ice floes and gusty winds would complicate any spill response.” Modified from Tomdispatch