Oil and gas corporations, their trade associations, mass media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Timemagazine, and numerous pundits continue to report there is a new day unfolding in the energy future of the U.S. Indeed, they sometimes say it's a revolution in the making. It's now feasible to mine hitherto unreachable or unprofitable sources of "unconventional" oil and gas. As a result, massive, environmentally devastating mining of tar sands in Canada expands, with a proposed and controversial pipeline to carry the partly processed oil from Alberto to Texas. Drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic, multiple off-shore locations drill ever-more deeply into the ocean floor and beneath it. As far as mining for shale gas and oil goes, the situation is described with words such as gushers, or bonanzas, or energy independence.
Locally, the concern and action has been about shale gas and oil. This type of mining is already occurring in at least 17 states. In Ohio, where shale oil and shale gas drilling are still in their early stages, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reports that 176 permits have been granted in some counties across the state for horizontal wells and over 50 of them are being drilled. These numbers underestimate the involvement of oil and gas corporations acquiring land or leases in Ohio.
Bob Downing writes in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 26 that Chesapeake Energy Corp. alone has acquired 1.35 million acres of land leases and "drilled 56 wells, mostly in Carroll County." Downing also identifies 13 other corporations that have signed leases or made other deals (e.g., outright purchases of land) "in an area stretching from Youngstown to Marietta, including such big oil corporations as Anadarko Petroleum Corp, Chevron Corp, Hess Energy, XTO (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil). Additionally, the Associated Press reported on March 27 that "BP has agreed to lease 84,000 acres of land in Northeast Ohio."
Downing makes two other points worth mentioning. By the end of March, 3.8 million acres of land in Ohio had been leased or acquired. And, according to drilling projections, there "will be 160 wells drilled in 2012 in Ohio, with another 650 wells in 2013 and 1,075 in 2014."
The scramble for oil and gas from shale rock formations deep in the ground may not come to Athens County. Geological maps based on limited evidence were released by ODNR two weeks ago. The maps indicate that the Athens area does not sit atop the promising parts of the Utica-Point Pleasant shale rock formation and is west of the Marcellus.
In the meantime, the extraction of unconventional oil and gas reserves gallops along. But amidst it all, there are unfortunately other important issues that are often side-tracked, relegated to afterthoughts or projects for the future, or for which there is simply not much energy or time. We are thus continuously saddled with corporations that are able to wield power in ways that subordinate the public interest to the bottom line, and future generations to current profit-making opportunities.
This rush to profits for control of unconventional sources of fossil fuels is taking place in a world in which the easy-to-extract fossil fuels are diminishing and those that remain require huge investments, while demand for such energy soars. Such a world is becoming increasingly primed for conflict and counter-productive, militarized national policies.
Ross Gelbspan, author of books on global warming, refers on his heatison.org website to a "new report from a blue-ribbon panel of senior admirals and generals," which "identifies climate-related military impacts." One of the principal findings of the panel is stated by retired General Gordon R. Sullivan: "We found that climate instability will lead to instability in geopolitics and impact American military operations around the world."
It's worrisome but not surprising that the push for unconventional fossil fuels has overshadowed in media coverage and public debate the accelerating global warming that is taking place. It's not too hard to understand why. ExxonMobil and other transnational oil and gas corporations want it that way. They reject the best scientific evidence of global warming as "uncertain" or mount major efforts to discredit the very idea of global warming.
Wikipedia has a 13-page chapter on "Scientific opinion on climate change" in which the principal organizations of scientists from around the world (e.g., Academies of Science, Earth Science, Meteorology and Oceanography) concur with the view that "the Earth's climate system is unequivocally warming and it is more than 90 percent certain that humans are causing it through activities that increase concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels."
So what's the point? Sure, the odds are not good that the best science will prevail over big oil. There's not much time to build more ecologically compatible energy systems than we have. But you keep learning, talking, acting, and know that there are people just like you in communities across the country and the world. Time will tell whether it coalesces into something big enough to effectively challenge the powerful, institutionalized forces in the society and to build sustainable and just societies.
Editor's note: Bob Sheak, who lives just outside of Athens, is an emeritus professor of sociology at Ohio University.