Human ingenuity makes it possible to extract oil under extreme conditions in hellish climates... but there's no longer any reason we have to.
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When you fill up your car, have you ever noticed that the gasoline is invisible?
The fuel nozzle mates with the gas tank, and the hose is thick and opaque. Ideally, you never have to see or touch the liquid as it flows into your car.
Partly, this is practical. Gasoline is both toxic and flammable, so it’s a good idea to keep it away from our hands. But the side effect is that an average person almost never has to encounter gasoline as a substance. It’s an abstract concept: prices and numbers on a screen. You don’t have to think about what it is or where it comes from. You’re shielded from its material reality.
Maybe we should change that. When we fill up, we should start thinking about what that act means for the planet. We can start by thinking about places like the Kashagan Field, in the Caspian Sea off the shore of Kazakhstan:
Conditions at the Kashagan gas and oil field—the largest oil field discovered in several decades—are far from ideal. Temperatures around the northern Caspian Sea range from -40 degrees Celsius (-40 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer. Frigid winters and shallow water make this part of the Sea particularly prone to freezing over. Thick layers of ice build up around Kashagan for five months, and water levels vary markedly throughout the year.
Then there is the oil and gas itself. The reserves are quite deep (about 4.5 kilometers or 2.7 miles below the surface) and stored at high pressures (770 pounds per square inch or 5,309 kilopascals), which adds extra layers of engineering complexity. While geologists estimate that about 13 billion barrels of oil and gas are recoverable, large quantities of hydrogen sulfide—a toxic, corrosive, and explosive gas—are mixed in with the natural gas. Straight out of the well, Kashagan’s gas contains about 17 percent hydrogen sulfide. At concentrations that high, just a few breaths can prove lethal for workers.
A consortium of oil companies spent over $50 billion to develop this hellish place. When ordinary drilling rigs couldn’t withstand the harsh conditions, they built a network of artificial islands to mount drilling equipment. They built barriers around the islands to keep them from being crushed by sea ice buildup. Workers have to wear gas masks to protect them from toxic vapors. Special icebreaker boats are kept on site for emergency evacuation.
After almost two decades of construction, the Kashagan field opened for business in 2013… and then had to be shut down two weeks later, because the hydrogen sulfide immediately corroded the pipelines and caused them to leak. They had to be replaced with new pipes clad in inconel, a high-performance superalloy, which took three more years to install.
It’s a testament to human ingenuity that we were able to overcome the challenges of this inhospitable region. But it should never have been necessary.
The costs of fossil fuel addiction
Humanity’s fossil fuel addiction has immense, ramifying costs. Leaded gasoline poisoned people for decades, shifting the IQ curve of the entire population downward. Oil and gas money props up some of the most corrupt, repressive, violent regimes in the world, from Venezuela to Iran to Saudi Arabia to Russia.
Chemicals from fracking pollute groundwater. The smog and air pollution from burning fossil fuel causes millions of premature deaths from asthma and other respiratory diseases, as well as the creeping disaster of climate change that threatens civilization itself.
And all that is the best-case scenario—when everything works as intended. When oil extraction goes wrong, we get environmental catastrophes like the Exxon Valdez spill or the Deepwater Horizon blowout. When coal mining goes bad, miners die in explosions and cave-ins.
It’s deeply perverse that we use this toxic stuff to power our civilization—let alone that we go to such great lengths to get our hands on it. We shouldn’t be drilling, mining or burning it anymore, for anything. We ought to leave it in the ground where it belongs!
It’s raining money
In their heyday, fossil fuels were a reasonable answer to humanity’s energy needs. They were a giant improvement over wood and steam. Cheap, abundant coal and oil allowed the Industrial Revolution to take place and made the lives of millions of people better and easier. It’s possible that they were a necessary step for creating higher technology.
But the era of fossil fuels is ending. In fact, we should already view them as archaic. We have the technology to surpass them. They should now seem as primitive to us as lighting homes with lamps that burn whale oil.
Imagine if you went outside and money was raining down from the sky. Wouldn’t you scoop up as much of it as you could catch?
That’s the situation we’re in. The Earth is bathed in energy, produced by nuclear fusion in the heart of the Sun, delivered ninety-three million miles at no cost to us. Every one of those photons raining down on our planet is like currency we can use to accomplish whatever matters to us—if only we harness them to our ends.
Now imagine that you ignored the rain of free money and went off to work, sweating and laboring at a physically dangerous, stressful job, to earn the income you need to live. That’s what humanity is doing when we ignore that flood of free solar energy to go digging up buried hydrocarbons.
We successfully ignored the promise of renewables for a long time, first because the technology wasn’t mature, then because fossil-fuel companies used every imaginable tactic to preserve their dominance: buying off politicians, spreading propaganda to cloud the public’s mind, funding captive think tanks to produce phony research. But physics always wins over politics in the end.
Of course, renewables have their own challenges. Most important is intermittency: the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow. And some places have far more sunny days or windy days than others.
To green the world’s power grid, we’ll need investment on a massive scale to store energy and to transmit it from where it’s generated to where it’s needed. But those are engineering details: not trivial, but not a fundamental barrier either. They’re problems we already know how to solve, and more innovation will doubtless make it easier. If we can spend tens of billions of dollars to overcome the challenges of a place like Kashagan, we can most certainly do this.