“If we want to avoid extreme energy, we need extreme efficiency.” –Daniel Gross, “Moneybox” column and senior editor at Newsweek.
I think most of us our still trying wrap our heads around the implications of the continuing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico (aka, “The BP Oil Spill”), and specifically how we might change the way we look at energy sources and consumption.
This week, in Slate.com’s column, “Moneybox,” Daniel Gross writes about a new era of “extreme energy.” Paraphrasing the originator of the phrase—Michael T. Klare (Professor of Peace and World-Security Studies at Hampshire College) —Gross succinctly sums up the situation, “We’ve entered an age in which the production of energy, especially from fossil fuels, demands ever-more-expensive environmental trade-offs.”
What does “extreme energy” look like?
1) Canada’s Tar Sands: In Alberta, bituminous sands have propelled Canada to the number one spot, in terms of oil supplier—the country is now “the largest supplier of oil and refined products to the United States, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Mexico”. But all that oil—at least 1.7 trillion barrels in the Athabasca Oil Sands alone—comes at a steep price. A thick, viscous substance, bitumen, is extracted via strip mining or other “in situ” techniques. The bitumen must then be pre-treated before being sent to refineries, an additional step that requires large amounts of water and energy, and results in carbon emissions that dwarf the GHGs that stream out of conventional power plants.
2) Natural gas: There are concerns that “fracking”—the process used to extract natural gas—could lead to contamination of local water supplies and perhaps even trigger an earthquake or two.
3) Fuel Ethanol: Although ethanol is considered a renewable energy source, bear in mind that converting corn stalks to fuel stock requires a large number of trade offs, including: increased food prices, large amounts of arable land set aside for ethanol crops, large amounts of water required for the cultivation and processing of ethanol crops, and the potential for deforestation and increased erosion in cultivation areas.
But, of course, the biggest example of extreme energy is oil drilling. As easy-to-reach oil supplies dry up and more “extreme” locations are sought out, the stakes get higher and higher. Just take a look at current webcam images of the current oil spill in the Gulf or aerial shots of the damage so far. The situation is pretty clear—we gambled on extreme energy, and we lost … big time.
So what’s the solution? I made the case last week that onsite renewable energy provides us with the ability to reliably and efficiently reduce our dependence on “extreme energy”. But reconfiguring our energy sources is only one part of the equation. We must also employ what Gross described as “extreme efficiency.” It’s only by reducing demand that we can really begin to make inroads into our dependence on fossil-based fuels and their extreme energy cousins.
What do you think? Does the moniker “extreme energy” unfairly demonize the oil industry? Is it constructive to lump together different energy sources under twin umbrellas of “risky” and “extreme? Or are we not going nearly far enough?