Lindsay McNamara, Columnist
Ideology: Environmentalist | Writing from: New Jersey

For the last 20 some-odd years, natural resource experts have estimated we have 30 years of oil left.  This seems counterintuitive.  How can 20 years pass, but the amount of oil we have left on the planet stay the same, especially as we continue to consume it at an exponential rate?  The answer lies in advances in technology.  Improved technology has allowed access to otherwise trapped oil reservoirs.  We can now reach what has been termed “tough oil.”

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, and Michael Klare, a Five Colleges professor of Peace and World Security Studies shed light on the idea of “easy oil” vs. “tough oil.” “Easy oil” is categorized as oil produced in “friendly, safe, and welcoming places,” such as oil found on shore or near to the shore, close to the surface or concentrated in large reservoirs.  On the other hand, “tough oil” is buried far offshore or deep underground, or spread out in small, hard-to-find reservoirs.  The manner with which “tough oil” must be obtained is from “unfriendly, politically dangerous or hazardous places.”

Twenty years ago, the majority of our oil supply was “easy oil,” giving us 30 more years of black gold.  Currently in 2011, as we continue to deplete natural reserves at an ungodly rate, we have managed to reestablish our 30 year oil supply with advances in technology, but twenty-first century oil is now “tough oil,” calling for processes like oil sands mining to extract.

While conventional crude oil is extracted from the ground by drilling wells into a petroleum reservoir, oil sands have been deemed “unconventional” oil and require a much more extensive process.  Extra-heavy oil flows very slowly toward producing wells under normal conditions and therefore must be extracted by strip mining.  Strip mining reduces the viscosity of the oil by injecting steam, solvents, and/or hot air into the sands.  Consequently, oil sands mining requires more water and energy than conventional oil extraction.  Because of this, Environmental Defense has called the Alberta Oil Sands project “the most destructive project on Earth.”  Below are a few hard numbers to back up this claim:

  • Oil sands mining is permitted to use two times more fresh water than the entire city of Calgary uses in a year
  • At least 90% of the fresh water used in the oil sands ends up in ponds so toxic that propane cannons are used to keep ducks from landing in them
  • Processing the oil sands uses enough natural gas in a day to heat 3 million homes
  • Producing a barrel of oil from the oil sands produces three times more greenhouse gas emissions than a barrel of conventional oil


Despite the environmental disadvantages of oil sands mining, Chief executive Peter Voser has named tar sands one of the new projects set to propel Shell’s growth even higher.

With this damaging method proposed, it is important to pay attention to where 2012 election candidates stand on alternative energy and peak oil.  Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) claims, “The new Republican majority seems intent on restoring the robber-baron era where there were no controls on pollution from power plants, oil refineries and factories.”  We absolutely cannot return this era where politicians honor businessmen who use questionable business practices to become powerful or wealthy.  We cannot elect candidates who are funded and supported by oil megalomaniacs.  We need to credit candidates who are walking the talk and looking for new solutions away from petroleum to power America’s economy.

We can no longer stand for individuals who are just talking about renewable energy sources—we need action.  Especially since many environmentalists believe that we have reached “peak oil,” the point at which the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.

“Peak oil” is not to be confused with oil depletion; it is not a period of falling reserves and supply, but a point at which maximum production is reached.  “Peak oil” should be viewed as an opportunity to transition our economy and consequently the American lifestyle away from oil and towards more renewable sources, like solar, wind and geothermal.  It is not a doomsday environmental crisis, more a wakeup call to stop extracting “tough oil” and progress in a more environmentally-conscious manner.