Published in the Telegraph Journal April 29, 2013

Original title “Our Energy Dilemma.”

Title below used by the editor

Why Extreme Energy Won’t Last

Keith Helmuth

The historical facts of our energy situation are clear. Since the early days of the 20th Century the development of modern societies has been based on a huge injection of hydrocarbon energy. This sudden and unusual injection of energy must realistically be understood as a temporary subsidy.

At the beginning of this hydrocarbon era, large deposits of oil and natural gas were easily accessible. The energy return on energy investment for early oil wells was often 100 to 1. This means 100 barrels of oil could be extracted using the energy of only l barrel of oil.

This ratio steadily dropped as the deposits of easily accessible oil were depleted. In recent years the ratio has plummeted. Increasing amounts of energy are required to produce new oil as it becomes harder and harder to extract from deeper, less accessible, and lower quality deposits. The ratio is now down to approximately 18 to 1 worldwide. The ratio for North America is down to 15 to l. Alberta oil sands extraction is down to 5 to 1, and perhaps much lower; some calculations put it at 1 to 1.

This rapidly declining ratio of energy return on energy invested is the fundamental reality of our energy situation. Energy science analysts and biophysical economists now calculate that 5 to 1 is about as low as the ratio can go before oil extraction is no longer a profitable investment. At 3 to 1 they calculate the oil industry will come to a stand still. Energy corporations will no longer be able to earn a profit and investment will stop. This is simply the logic of our economic system.

There is no obvious work-around for this future energy scenario. There is simply nothing in the energy picture that can replace the oil subsidy on which our society now runs. As this subsidy is depleted and becomes economically inaccessible, the whole energy basis of our society will  change. The big question is, change to what?

Meanwhile, the push is on to forestall the sunset of the hydrocarbon economy by moving to extreme energy. Extreme energy is defined by the extraordinary measures required for its extraction compared to conventional energy. These measures include deep-ocean drilling, drilling in remote sites such the Arctic, surface mining of tar and oil sands, and horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of deep shale formations. This extreme energy extraction includes both oil and natural gas.

Extreme energy is to conventional energy what extreme sports are to conventional sports. Extreme energy, like extreme sports, involves high risk. Failure is often catastrophic. In extreme sports the individual participant suffers the damage of failure. With extreme energy, however, the damage of failure is suffered by the larger environment, economy, and society.

Extreme energy requires a complexity of technology and a level of risk management that must necessarily become more and more intense as hydrocarbon resources become increasingly difficult to extract. Technology and risk must be pushed to more and more extreme levels in order to keep up the flow of oil required by our current economy.

Some experts in the field now warn that extreme energy systems are being pushed beyond operator capacity for safe and effective management, and significant failures can, therefore, be expected. (See Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma by Joseph A. Tainter and Tadeusz W. Patzek.)

We are currently locked into a rapidly ascending spiral of complexity and risk, that will likely   lead to more events like the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the BP Macondo Gulf well blowout. More pipeline failures, more oil and LNG tanker accidents, and more surface and ground water contamination from fracking can be reasonably expected. Evidence is accumulating that fracking can trigger earthquake activity. Fracking and natural gas extraction routinely leak significant amounts of raw methane. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Habitat and health damage is increasingly associated with extreme energy installations.

The intensity of this extreme energy spiral will continue to mount as we approach the limit of its economic profitability. When energy return on energy investment no longer returns a profit, the spiral will subside, or perhaps collapse. An unforeseen shock to this extremely complex and highly vulnerable energy system could trigger a collapse. Hopefully, we can manage a subsidence, but the possibility of a collapse cannot be dismissed.

Is the path of extreme energy our only way into future? Both the current Government of Canada and the Government of New Brunswick are acting as if it were. Alberta now has everything riding on the oil sands. A pipeline bringing Alberta crude to the Bay of Fundy is seen as a good way for New Brunswick to cash in on the economy of extreme energy while it lasts.

The current NB Government is fully engaged with the prospect of shale gas fracking and the royalties it hopes to realize, even though the long-term aftermath costs to Government may largely offset, or even wipe out, the royalty gains. Short-term rationality may be trumped by long-term costs, but we don’t know because Government has not done the risk analysis or made the calculations on aftermath costs – costs that will continue long after the last well is pumped dry.

The short-term view on oil and natural gas is easy to understand, but it treats the question of extreme energy as if it was here to stay, and we know for sure it is not. We don’t know how  much longer we can depend on it, and we don’t know if we should prepare for a gradual subsidence or a catastrophic collapse. But we do know we better start preparing.

Herbert Stein, a noted economist and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under US presidents Nixon and Ford, once said, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” This bit of folk wisdom has become known as Stein’s Law, and is often expressed as, “Trends that can’t continue, won’t.”

As we launch more and more into the era of extreme energy, Stein’s Law increasingly confronts us. We can run extreme energy right out to the end and then hope for the best, or we can start now to scale back while we still have a cushion that enables us to make different energy plans for the future. The big question is will civic, political, and business leadership raise their sights from making the most of extreme energy in the short-term to making the most of sustainable energy for the long-run?

Keith Helmuth is a member of the Woodstock Sustainable Energy Group

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Action Alerts

Conserve Our NB

Friday, 09 February 2018
by Nature Trust of New Brunswick

For countless generations, people in New Brunswick have cherished the wildlife and beauty of their natural surroundings. We have adopted many deeply rooted outdoor traditions that take us to the rivers, lakes, wetlands, forests, and coastlines of our beautiful province in all seasons of the year. Help protect the wild places that you love so that your family, children, and grandchildren will be able to enjoy them forever.

Over 95% of New Brunswick is currently unprotected and open to exploitation that could harm wildlife and damage the natural beauty of our province, and we need to act now to change that.

Through the Convention on Biological Diversity, Canada has signed on to conserve 17% of land and freshwater by 2020.  As Canadians, it is our shared responsibility to hold the government accountable to achieving this target. The Nature Trust of New Brunswick is urging you to speak out to your provincial representatives to declare your support for increased land conservation in the province, and encourage them to set set their own conservation goals for the province and develop an action plan to achieve these goalsThrough Pathway to Canada Target 1, an Indigenous Circle of Experts (ICE) has been identified to ensure all elements of the initiative are guided by Indigenous experts across Canada, which should be reflected in New Brunswick’s efforts as well.

A vast majority of Canadians agree that protecting the environment is one of the most important issues currently facing our country. In a recent national conservation survey, 87% of Canadians support increasing the amount of natural areas protected from development, including at national parks. Join the growing movement of people who are speaking out in support of land conservation.

We’ve made it easy for you to take action! It takes less than a minute with our online template to send a letter to your local MLA. To learn more about what you can do to support land conservation, download the Conserve Our NB toolkit.  

Printable pledge link: http://www.naturetrust.nb.ca/wp/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Conserve-Our-NB-Pledge.pdf  Please help by joining the movement and collecting signatures from your corner of the province to show support for increased land and freshwater protection in NB. 

Please return pledge sheets with original signatures to the Nature Trust of New Brunswick office.
Next Deadline: March 13, 2018

By mail:
P.O. Box 603 Station A,
Fredericton, NB, E3B 5A6 

In person: 404 Queen St. 3rd floor,
Fredericton, NB

Have your say on Draft Water Strategy!

Wednesday, 15 November 2017
by Conservation Council of New Brunswick
A Water Strategy for New Brunswick

On October 6, 2017, the department of Environment and Local Government released a draft water strategy for comments. The draft strategy is available on the government website. Comments can be submitted by email to: waterstrategy-strategiedeleau@gnb.ca or by mail to: Department of Environment and Local Government, Policy and Planning Division, P.O. Box 6000, Fredericton, N.B., E3B 5H1. Comments will be accepted until November 20, 2017.

In order to help groups with their submissions, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick, in cooperation with watershed groups, has put together key elements of a watershed strategy and a sample letter to send to the Department.

Summary​ ​of​ ​8​ ​Key​ ​Elements​ ​of​ ​a​ ​Strong​ ​Water​ ​Protection​ ​Strategy

New​ ​Brunswick​ ​deserves​ ​a​ ​water​ ​protection​ ​strategy​ ​that:
    1. is​​ ​​science-based;​ ​(involving​ ​baseline​ ​data,​ ​tracking​ ​and​ ​taking​ ​into​ ​consideration cumulative​ ​impacts,​ ​environmental​ ​flows)
    2. sets​ ​water​ ​quality​ ​standards​ ​within​ ​a​ ​working,​ ​legal​ ​mechanism;
    3. conserves​ ​all​ ​water​ ​within​ ​​watersheds​ ​including​ ​surface​ ​waters​ ​(lakes,​ ​streams,​ ​rivers) and​ ​groundwater,​ ​by​ ​developing​ ​good​ ​conservation​ ​plans,​ ​policies​ ​and​ ​practices,​ ​and uses​ ​the​ ​precautionary​ ​principle​ ​as​ ​a​ ​guiding,​ ​legally​ ​enforceable​ ​tool;
    4. protects​ ​our​ ​marine​ ​coastal​ ​areas​ ​in​ ​law;
    5. has​ ​a​ ​meaningful​ ​form​ ​of​ ​​co-governance​ ​with​ ​First​ ​Nations;
    6. includes​ ​the​ ​development,​ ​implementation​ ​and​ ​enforcement​ ​of​ ​watershed​ ​protection plans,​ ​developed​ ​in​ ​a​ ​transparent​ ​manner,​ ​involving​ ​government,​ ​businesses,​ ​watershed organizations,​ ​farmers,​ ​municipal​ ​officials,​ ​and​ ​citizens;
    7. is​ ​accountable,​ ​which​ ​includes​ ​ongoing​ ​monitoring​ ​and​ ​annual​ ​reporting​ ​to​ ​the​ ​public​ ​on the​ ​progress​ ​of​ ​goals​ ​and​ ​objectives​ ​outlined​ ​in​ ​the​ ​water​ ​protection​ ​strategy;​ ​and,
    8. is​​ ​enforceable​ ​through​ ​a​ ​modern​ ​legal​ ​framework
Sample Letter
 My name is ______, and I am writing to express my support for a strong Water Strategy in New Brunswick.

I live near ______ OR I live in ___________ watershed

Describe your favourite spot to fish/swim/paddle etc.

Share your favourite water memory.

Clean, healthy water is important to me because _____________.

Have you recently experienced a boil water order? Blue-green algae? Extreme weather? Describe what is of concern to you.

I applaud the provincial government for moving forward on its commitment to protecting our water; however I believe the draft strategy does not go far enough to ensure healthy water for my watershed.

We need a water protection strategy that (Insert one or multiple key elements).

I am afraid that if left unattended, my watershed will face ongoing and increasing treats from (pollution, wetland and coastal estuary loss, loss of adequate environmental flow to sustain aquatic life, and increasing climate change impacts such as floods, droughts, and high temperatures.)

Please protect my watershed by implementing a strong water protection strategy with modern legislation that (note key element(s)) to ensure the health of our water and people.

Thank you,
Your name.

For more information, visit the CCNB's website.