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

Call for nominations for the NBEN Awards - 2017

Monday, 31 July 2017
by Annika Chiasson
Every day people and environmental groups take action to protect and restore New Brunswick’s environment.  

Over this past year, who stands out in your mind? 

We invite you to nominate a group or individual deserving of one of the NBEN awards which will be presented in style at Eco-Confluence 2017.  Send an e-mail to nben@nben.ca describing your nominee’s work.  Nominees must be members or associates of the NBEN*.

Nomination deadline is September 13, 2017.

*Current NBEN Steering Committee members are not eligible for awards.

Resquest for letters of support: Proposed name restoration for the Wolastoq

Sunday, 30 April 2017
by Alma
 The Wolastoq Grand Council supports our YOUTH GROUPS on their proposal for changing the name of the Saint John River, back to it’s original and proper name; Wolastoq (the beautiful & bountiful river ). We see this as a good place to begin the process of implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; which was strongly recommended by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  

Proposed Name Restoration: 
  • The name Saint John River back to it’s original indigenous name -  Wolastoq
Purpose: 
  • Wolastoq; (the beautiful river) is the original Indigenous name of the River.
  • Wolastoq is the name sake for the real identity and unique nationality of our People; the Wolastoqiyik.  Respecting the rights of Wolastoqiyik.
  • Scientific studies have now confirmed, what our people have always known; “that water has memory”.    This river will remember its original name.   
  • This deed would begin a process for reconciliation with a show of goodwill on the part of the Government of New Brunswick, and would;
  • Create opportunities for discussions and engagement around indigenous issues.
  • Wolastoqiyik have a right to retain their own names for communities, places and persons. 

The Wolastoq Grand Council is requesting support letters from our Allies; as individuals, organizations, and/or Groups.  For more information, contact Alma Brooks, 506-478-1256, almabrooks.26@outlook.com

Please send support letters to the following addresses:

The Wolastoq Grand Council,
Grand Chief; Ron Tremblay
50 Maliseet Drive
Fredericton, NB, E3A 2V9


David Coon
Office of the Green Party Leader
P.O. Box 6000
Fredericton, NB, E3B 5H1

Additional Information

  1. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada
Carolyn Bennett; Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada; has assured the Wolastoq Grand Council in writing that; - “Canada is committed to a renewed nation to nation relationship with indigenous peoples based on the recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and partnership.”   Carolyn Bennett also stated that ; - “Achieving full reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Canada is at the heart of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada’s mandate, and that the government of “Canada will engage with Indigenous peoples, provinces, territories, and Canadians on how to implement the Declaration in accordance with Canada’s Constitution”.

  1. Andrea Bear-Nicholas
As described in a 2011 article by Andrea Bear-Nicholas, Maliseet historian:  
  1. The first step in the dispossession for the indigenous peoples in the Maritimes began in earnest immediately after the British capture of the French fort at Louisbourg in 1758.   Where place names and names of First Nations in the entire region had been inscribed on earlier maps; both would soon be erased by colonial cartographers in a process described by J. B. Harley as cartographic colonialism.  The justifications for these erasures was found in the doctrine of discovery.   
  2. The second step in the dispossession of indigenous peoples in Nova Scotia began immediately after signing of the Treaty of 1760 by Passamaquoddy and Maliseet Leaders, and later the signing of the Mascarene Treaty.   Although there was no surrender of any lands in either of these Treaties; 1.5 million acres of Maliseet land which outlawed the surveying and expropriation of lands not yet ceded by the indigenous inhabitants or purchased by the Crown.    


  3. United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:   Articles 1, 2, 6, & 13   support and provide a guide for the implementation leading to reconciliation.

As a distinct ‘people,’ we have a right to our accurate identity and nationality.
  • Indigenous Peoples have the right to the full enjoyment as a collective or as individuals of all human rights and fundamental freedoms as recognized in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and international human rights law. 
  • Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin and identity. 
  • Every indigenous individual has the right to their own nationality. 
  • Indigenous people have a right to retain their own names for communities, places and persons.  “States shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected”.