Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Post-Peak Oil

 

Detail of photo by Adriana Loureiro Fernandez
for Bloomberg Green

Perhaps the most profane guest lecturer I ever brought to campus was James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency. I qualify this with "perhaps" because I also helped to bring Junot Díaz to campus. Kunstler is certainly the more curmudgeonly of the two: a professional pessimist for whom dire predictions are a moral imperative. It is as if we were stepping off a curb in front of a fast-moving bus, and he is trying to push us out of its path with books, lectures, and profanity-laden blog posts.

I was reminded of this by a recent story from Bloomberg. In Toxic Spills in Venezuela Offer a Bleak Vision of the End of Oil, journalists Fabiola Zerpa, Peter Millard, and Andrew Rosati describe the multiple environmental catastrophes that are accompanying the financial collapse of what was once a leading national petroleum industry.

As the article describes in detail, the demise of petroleum in Venezuela is following a path that is not likely to play out in other producing areas. It is, after all, failing to refine oil while it still has plenty. Most other oil fields -- and the global oil field as a whole -- will not run aground financially until reserves are proportionally much scarcer than they are in Venezuela at the moment. 

But the tale is a cautionary one for another reason: it is difficult enough to get polluters to take financial responsibility for the havoc they cause while they are profitable. It is much more difficult when they have run out of money. It is for this reason that regulatory programs such as RCRA in the United States require industries to show strong financial reserves as part of any process of permitting potentially polluting facilities. 

As oil reserves dwindle worldwide -- and all of them will -- abandoned fields and infrastructure will require close scrutiny. Unfortunately, many of the costs of our oil addiction are likely to be borne by generations who do not enjoy the benefits.

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