The silver lining for those worried about the global storm of negative environmental impacts from fossil fuel production and use has been the idea that oil and gas reserves are running low. As reserves run out, the thinking goes, we will turn to safer, renewable sources of energy and all will be right with the world.

While it is true cheap, conventional oil and gas is becoming scarce, the energy industry is not going green. It's turning to unconventional sources that may have even worse environmental impacts. And Saskatchewan may well be in the think of this new fossil-fuel energy boom.

To get the lowdown read Keith Schneider's article A High-Risk Energy Boom Sweeps Across North America, available at Yale University's environmental web site (e360.yale.edu). Schneider reports that investment is flooding into the deep shale areas in Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Western U.S., particularly North Dakota's Bakken Shale.

North Dakota, it seems, has suddenly become the fourth-largest oil producing state in the U.S. and consequently has the country's lowest unemployment rate, at under four per cent.

According to Schneider, company reports and state economic development offices estimate the oil industry is spending nearly $100 billion annually in the U.S. to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era. More billions are also being thrown at the carbon-rich oilsands in Alberta (and potentially Saskatchewan).

The Bakken Shale, partially located under southeastern Saskatchewan, is thought to contain four billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

Oil industry geologists say there is much more than that in the Bakken, and in a second oil-rich shale reserve, the Three Forks, that lies below it.

I guess that would be a good thing if the ecosphere were a limitless resource and sinkhole for pollution.

Government studies show that exploiting unconventional fossil-fuel reserves generates more C02 emissions than drilling for conventional oil and gas and uses three to five times more water.

Competition for water could lead to big problems in dry areas like North Dakota and Saskatchewan. Schneider says that extracting unconventional fossil fuel reserves like the Bakken formation uses a lot of water because getting to the oil and natural gas requires rupturing the deep shale to create open spaces and crevices through which the oil and gas can flow.

The pulverizing process, called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," involves sinking drill bits deep into the shale and then turning them to move horizontally. An armada of tank trucks hauls several million gallons of water to each well site, where pumps shoot it down the well at such super-high pressure that the rock splits.

The potential trucking in of massive amounts of water also raises localized air quality and traffic concerns. The transportation of a million gallons of water to fracture a well is estimated to require 200 truck trips.

Recently, an oil well undergoing fracking near Kildeer, N.D., ruptured. The blowout leaked 100,000 gallons of fracturing fluid and crude oil before being plugged two days later. Less dramatically, but more frequently, fracking has caused contamination of surface and groundwater and harmed drinking water in various places around the U.S. and Canada, according to a number of reports from local environmental organizations.

Of course the high-risk fossil-fuel approach to energy supply is not the only way to go. Denmark, for example, has managed to reduce energy use and cut its carbon emissions during the last 20 years.

Part of their approach involves alternative energy sources like wind, but the big reason they have succeeded is simply charging more for energy. Danes pay three to five times the amount North Americans do for electricity, for example. Also, people have turned to active transportation and public transit en masse because of very high taxes on cars.

High energy prices and high taxes are an anathema in North America, especially the U.S., so don't expect European-style reform here anytime soon. Too bad, because the payoff is a cleaner environment, a stable climate, more livable cities, lower health-care costs and a happier, more egalitarian society.

Source: The Star Phoenix

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