Friday, May 7, 2010

Mining for Mithril

During the past two weeks, we have watched another environmental tragedy unfold. The sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform and the subsequent oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico gives those of us old enough to remember the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska and the oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, twenty years earlier a clear sense of déjà vu. It’s also a grim reminder that Congress had a reason, back in 1981, for banning offshore drilling.

But times have changed. We seem no longer able to afford the luxury of keeping oil wells out of our continental shelves. The Deepwater Horizon disaster comes on the heels of the president’s decision to open our shorelines to oil exploration and drilling. And despite the presidential moratorium on new drilling leases imposed since the spill, and despite renewed calls for a more permanent offshore drilling ban, it’s unlikely that any new ban will be nearly as long lasting as the 1981 restrictions. What has changed?

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterwork The Lord of the Rings, we learn about a precious metal called mithril. Found only in the dwarf mines of Moria, this metal had almost magical properties. It was stronger than tempered steel but very light in weight. It had the beauty and the sheen of ordinary silver, but it never tarnished. It was easy to work and could be made into many beautiful and useful objects. While it was still mined, it fetched ten times as much as its weight in gold. It was no wonder that the dwarves in Moria sought new sources for mithril ore. According to Gandalf, the dwarves dug deeper and further underground to seek for and to retrieve the ore, until one day they dug too deeply and unleashed a horrific evil from the dim, forgotten past: a fire-and-shadow, demon-like monster called a Balrog. This monster drove the dwarves out of their historic dwelling place, Moria; thus they paid a huge price for their mithril lust.

Petroleum, although it is not a metallic substance, has many qualities in common with mithril. We take it so much for granted that most of us have never contemplated what a wondrous material it really is. But like mithril, it too has almost magical properties. It can be burned, releasing almost unimaginable amounts of energy. It can be made into many useful (though perhaps not beautiful) substances: plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, medicines. It has become indispensable to our way of life. And in our seeking for it, and in our burning of it, we have released our own Balrogs. This and earlier oil spills are an example. Air and water pollution, chemical contamination, solid waste contamination, cancers, and climate instability are others.

It’s almost impossible to overstate our dependence on petroleum. It is behind almost everything we do, and it (along with other fossil fuels) has powered and sustained the industrial and technological revolutions that our civilization depends upon.

But the last and possibly the most fearful and powerful Balrog that will emerge is the one that was easiest to foresee; indeed it had been foreseen as early as the early twentieth century. This is the fact that petroleum is a finite resource found on a finite planet, and that eventually, someday, the petroleum party would end. And long before we actually run out of the stuff, we would run out of easily accessible sources. We would no longer be able to increase supply to meet any increased demand. But for most of the twentieth century, we put these thoughts out of our minds. We were having too much fun, after all.

In recent years, however, we’ve witnessed evidence that our lust for petroleum is beginning to butt heads with its finite nature. In every year since 1981, for example, geologists have found less petroleum in newly discovered deposits than we have burned. Since 2005, world production has not increased, despite higher prices that would earlier have encouraged producers to pump more out. And despite the lowering of demand caused by the current recession and the crash in oil prices in September 2008, prices have once again been creeping upward again.

During the last few months, a couple of reports have surfaced that should make all of us concerned. This past February, the United States Joint Forces Command issued its Joint Operating Environment 2010 report. This report, issued about every two years, deals with strategic and national security trends. As the nation’s guardians, the US military forces need to be prepared for all probable and possible future threats to the nation’s security. While this report is somewhat speculative and deals with possibilities and contingencies, and while it does not represent official government policy, it does discuss trends that the military believes needs to be taken into account as they plan for future defense needs. This February report contains some sobering information about near-term petroleum supply. It predicts a possible end to surplus production capacity in 2012 and a severe oil shortage of as much as 10 million barrels per day by 2015. (One can access the report here; the discussion of energy security begins on p. 24.)

This is very sobering news; indeed it truly is news in every sense of the word. An end to surplus petroleum capacity by 2012—that’s only 19 months away. The curious thing, then, is why this report, dealing with something that will directly affect all of us, and possibly soon, has been largely ignored by the domestic media. The United Kingdom’s Guardian reported it (, but that’s about it.

Another report surfaced recently. Near the end of March, a Department of Energy official named Glen Sweetnam, who advises the president on petroleum issues, gave an interview to a French journalist. This interview was published online, in French. Here’s a translation: In the interview, Sweetnam predicts worldwide production declines, beginning next year, if investment in new production doesn’t materialize. Again, this report was not picked up by the domestic media. One wonders why.

Is the last Balrog, petroleum depletion, loose? We can’t know for sure until after it actually happens. But the Deepwater Horizon disaster indicates that access to the easy-to-get-to oil is disappearing. New drilling projects are going to be increasingly risky and increasingly expensive. This can only mean higher prices for all of us, and there may come a point of diminishing returns where attempting to pump out the petroleum might simply cost too much—both in dollars and in environmental threat—to be worth doing. Like the dwarves of Moria, we have painted ourselves into a corner by building a civilization that is so dependent on a finite, limited resource. Yes, there’s plenty of petroleum left out there. But it’s going to cost us more and more to retrieve it.

One final thought about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I don’t think it does us much good to blame British Petroleum, lax government regulation, or “Big Oil,” for this disaster. As President George W. Bush said in his 2006 State of the Union address, “America is addicted to oil.” The nation that contains six percent of the world’s population burns 25 percent of its petroleum production. And our addiction is complicated by our sense of entitlement. We’re all implicated in the fouling of the Gulf of Mexico. We contribute to the dead wildlife every time we get into our cars and drive when we could have walked, bicycled, or taken public transport. We help contaminate the Gulf’s beaches by buying and wearing clothing made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers. We add to the oil slick every time we buy bottled water, milk, or soda in plastic jugs. Our lifestyles are inextricably linked to this disaster. So long as this oil addiction continues, we can count on more disasters of this kind.

Fighting a real Balrog might have been easier than untangling ourselves from our oil fix.

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