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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Scrounging for the Dregs
distributed 5/4/12 - ©2012

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

I was witness to a tragic scene at a party, and the image that I remember haunts me when I consider some of our most pressing environmental issues.

The party was an after-hours event at a big convention. A crowd gathered in a large meeting room, and there was plenty of good fellowship, good food, and at least adequate drink. The normal schmoozing and politicking that happens at a convention took place, and most seemed to be having a good time.

As the evening wound down, the leftover food went back to the kitchen, the bar closed, and the guests started to drift away. That's when I saw the memorable scene.

One man wandered from table to table, checking out the drink glasses that had been left behind. When he found one with liquor in the bottom, he'd fish out the toothpicks and spoons that had been dumped in the glass, and drink the bit of booze. Then he'd move on to the next table. His drinking problem didn't allow him to accept that the party was over, and that it was time to go home.

It was a sad and distressing sight, and I hope the obviously addicted man got help for his alcoholism.

The desperate drunk comes to mind when I look at the scramble for fossil fuels that is going on in this country and around the world. Corporations and nations know that "the bar has closed" and that the abundant and easy-to-gather fuels are gone, and now they're desperately scrounging for the remnants and the dregs to keep the system going.

Like the almost-empty glasses left on the table at a convention, oil and gas wells that were considered finished decades ago are being re-opened to coax out a bit more. In countless settings, with all kinds of fuels, enormous amounts of labor and energy are being used to scrape up and suck out the final pockets.

The signs should be clear that the party is over for the carbon-based economy, and that it is time to dry out and do something new. There are some trends in that direction -- but so far the prevailing policy is as tragic and misguided as the sad man at the convention.

I see the desperate search for the last bits of fossil fuels in at least four well-known and controversial practices. In each case, the costs are high both economically and environmentally. And in all cases, the continued extraction of these fuels maintains and deepens our collective addiction at the time when we should be making a rapid shift toward conservation, efficiency and other energy sources.

  • Coal and mountaintop removal. In Appalachia, the thick seams of coal are mostly gone, and tunneling underground for coal doesn't work anymore. So hundreds of feet of rock are blasted and bulldozed off of mountains to get at coal layers just a few inches thick. The process dumps the former mountaintops into valleys, devastating human communities and diverse ecologies, polluting water supplies. It seems especially absurd that an increasing amount of the coal now being produced in the US is exported to other countries.

  • Oil and extreme drilling. Just two years ago, a deepwater oil well blew out in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers, pouring five million barrels of oil and gas into the ocean, and leading to the use of equally enormous quantities of chemicals to break down and disperse the oil. Tourism and fishing industries have been hard-hit, and the ecological effects are still showing up. The deepwater drilling resumes in the Gulf and expands around the world -- at great cost and greater risk -- because the wells on land and in shallower water have been exhausted. There are proposals to start drilling in the even more extreme setting of Arctic seas.

  • Tar sands. This really is the dregs. As I wrote last summer about The Crisis of Canadian Gunk : "It takes the energy equivalent of about one barrel of oil to produce three barrels of synthetic crude from the tar sands. One hundred years ago, when our society first started to get hooked on cheap oil, wells had an 'energy returned on energy invested' ratio of 100-to-1 or even 300-to-1. That commercial production is now happening at a 3-to-1 level shows how desperate we are to sustain our oil addiction." Getting fuel out of the Canadian tar sands involves the destruction of vast forests, the pollution of lakes and rivers, and the release of toxic chemicals, all to produce "the world's dirtiest oil".

  • Fracking for oil and gas. The astonishing technological processes of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- injecting water, sand and chemicals deep underground -- have given new life to a dying natural gas industry. Gas fields that were considered impossible or uneconomic to tap are now turning into pincushions. (Here in Colorado, there are now 50,000 wells statewide.) The process of getting to this gas has many dangerous consequences. The wells often leak lots of gas and pollutants, such as benzene, into the air. Water pollution is a serious problem, perhaps in the direct contamination of some water wells, and certainly in the contamination of rivers and groundwater by fracking fluids. An emerging concern is the enormous amount of water used to crack open these wells -- water that is so polluted that it cannot be returned to streams, but must be disposed of in other deep wells -- a concern that is heightened in arid and drought-stricken areas where water is already in short supply for towns and agriculture.

The specific dangers, costs and policy issues are different in each of these practices. It is important, though, to see how the same desperation runs through all four settings. Whether in Appalachia, the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic oceans, Canadian forests, or gas fields across much of the US, extreme measures are being used to extract the last bits of fossil fuels.

It was tragic to see a desperate man scrounging for booze in the dregs left after a party. It is even more tragic to see our political and business leaders making explicit choices to go after the dregs of fossil fuels instead of working hard for new energy sources.

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There's a passage in the gospel of John (2:1-11) where Jesus goes to a party, and the bar closes while some of the guests still want to drink. Jesus turns water into wine, and the wedding feast continues.

John tells the story about Jesus' delightful miracle to make a theological point (and the Anchor Bible commentary spends 15 pages trying to figure out just what that point is). The wedding at Cana is not intended to give advice on either catering or energy policy.

The wild party of the fossil fuel economy is winding down. Technological miracles are letting us keep the party going a little longer at ever increasing environmental, social and economic costs -- and our desperate measures to continue the binge are both foolish and tragic.

It is long past time to stop the carbon party. We're ruining the climate, polluting oceans and fresh water, destroying mountains and devastating habitat, and continuing the lethal path of our addiction. Let's start to call it quits right now.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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