The rush for new oil and gas sources is pushing us towards extreme actions


Current energy strategies include expanding fracking and putting oil rigs in the Arctic. But these are extreme measures and there are few opportunities to hedge the risks

For almost all our lives, many in North America have lived in a culture that affirmed a belief in the limitless and uncomplicated production of oil and gas.

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In the US, the land of plenty, and Canada, the land of vast reserves, oil lay under the ground waiting to be discovered. Network television shows such as The Beverly Hillbillies reinforced a naive confidence that our birthright as North Americans included ready access to cheap, plentiful oil and gas. Like Jed Clampett, the hillbilly who got rich on oil, someone would always find new supplies bubbling up from the ground.

In North America, we don’t have much experience of fuel shortages. During the energy crisis of 1973-74, a dearth of imported oil and gas drove massive cultural and purchasing changes. Americans dumped their big domestic cars, renovated and insulated their homes, and even bought more sweaters. On this side of the Atlantic, the shrinking number of people who lived through the second world war remember fuel rationing, but the coming of peace meant that large suburban homes and big cars happily replaced the constraints of wartime. We burned oil and gas without a care.

This was not the case in Britain. In the UK, coal rationing lasted until 1958. Wartime automobile use was heavily restricted. Unlike Americans and Canadians, the British rode in trains, not cars, and they heated rooms, not houses. In the UK, central heating became popular only in the 1970’s, likely as a result of the arrival of North Sea oil.

On neither side of the Atlantic did we maintain the use of hobs, small rooms with doors, warm clothing or trams that afforded a reasonably high standard of living when fuel was scarce. We didn’t keep wearing woollen vests or taking public transport once the supplies flowed and the crisis was over. When demand has outstripped supply, we reduced demand only as long as it takes to find a new supply of gas or oil, the two easiest energy substitutes. In fact, even as we design and market more energy efficient products, we use up to 20% of our efficiency gains to increase our driving, lighting or heat. Energy demand is inelastic: it can only be managed with a civil commitment seen most often in war.

There is a remarkably one-sided approach to managing energy supply and demand. Our appetites can only be sated by finding new sources of supply. Though domestic production falls, consumption rises, forcing us to look for new plays, new deposits, and new extraction technologies with increased urgency. “Unconventional” oil and gas are our preferred substitutes.

As a result, we are willing to go to far greater extremes to source oil and gas. There may soon be oil rigs in the Arctic, and there are plans to license shale gas exploration across virtually all of the UK by the summer. We are looking for carbon close by, where it can harm our cities, businesses and people, and in remote areas, where it can damage pristine environments.


Article prepared by Klaus Cooper

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