Sunday, July 29, 2012

Our current infrastructure was built for a different planet

It's easy to forget that every piece of our current infrastructure--roads, rails, runways, bridges, industrial plants, housing--was built with a certain temperature range in mind. Our agricultural system and much of our electrical generating system (including dams, nuclear power stations and conventional thermal electric plants which burn coal and natural gas) were created not only with a certain temperature range in mind, but also a certain range of rainfall. Rainfall, whether it is excessive or absent, can become a problem if it creates 1) floods that damage and sweep away buildings and crops or 2) if there isn't enough water to quench crops and supply industrial and utility operating needs.

This summer has shown just what can happen when those built-in tolerances for heat, moisture (or lack of it) and wind are exceeded. The New York Times did an excellent short piece providing examples of some of those effects:
  1. A jet stuck on the tarmac as its wheels sank into asphalt softened by 100-degree heat.
  2. A subway train derailed by a kink in the track due to excessive heat.
  3. A power plant that had to be shut down due to lack of cooling water when the water level dropped below the intake pipe.
  4. A "derecho", a severe weather pattern of thunderstorms and very high straight-line winds, that deprived 4.3 million people of power in the eastern part of the United States, some for eight days.
  5. Drainage culverts destroyed by excessive rains.

Past attempts to forecast the possible costs of climate change have been largely inadequate. They failed because of unanticipated effects on and complex interconnections among various parts of critical infrastructure.

Back in 2007 Yale economist William Nordhaus wrote in a paper that "[e]conomic studies suggest that those parts of the economy that are insulated from climate, such as air-conditioned houses or most manufacturing operations, will be little affected directly by climatic change over the next century or so." Having air-conditioning does not do you much good, however, if the electricity is out. And, manufacturing operations depend on reliable electric service. Many manufacturing operations are also water-intensive and so will be affected by water shortages. In addition, damage to transportation systems (as detailed above) could hamper the delivery of manufactured products.

Where Nordhaus does acknowledge considerable effects, he seems to underestimate the impact:

However, those human and natural systems that are “unmanaged,” such as rain-fed agriculture, seasonal snow packs and river runoffs, and most natural ecosystems, may be significantly affected. While economic studies in this area are subject to large uncertainties, the best guess in this study is that economic damages from climate change with no interventions will be in the order of 2½ percent of world output per year by the end of the 21st century.

I have commented on this assessment in a previous piece. Nordhaus imagines that because agriculture, forestry, and fisheries make up only about 1.0 percent of the U.S. economy, negative effects on these from climate change would do minimal damage. We cannot, however, look only within the border of the United States for effects, though those have been bad enough. Extreme drought in the grain-growing areas of the world's major exporter of grain has already sent soybean and corn prices to record highs. This has the potential to affect political stability in countries where food costs are a much larger share of income. If high prices persist, then it's possible we'll see food riots similar to those in 2007-2008 that were a precursor to the Arab Spring which destabilized so many regimes in a short period of time. This kind of disruption to an economy and society is far beyond anything Nordhaus anticipates.

Naturally, the oil industry agrees that the problem of adaptation will be fairly minor. Rex Tillerson, current CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest international oil company, recently told the Council on Foreign Relations the following:

We have spent our entire existence adapting, OK? So we will adapt to this. Changes to weather patterns that move crop production areas around--we'll adapt to that. It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.

Not surprisingly, Tillerson doesn't understand that costly existing agricultural infrastructure won't be easily moved or replaced. He also doesn't seem to understand that soil quality is not uniform from place to place. Does he think that as temperatures warm and devastate the American grain belt with recurrent drought, we can simply transfer the growing of much of the world's export grain crop north to the Canadian Shield which has soil so thin it has never supported agriculture?

Writer Bill McKibben, who sounded one of the first warnings about climate change in his 1989 book The End of Nature, has explained in his recent book Eaarth that we now live on a new planet, one created by irrevocable and increasingly rapid climate change. One of our biggest problems is that our current infrastructure was built for the old planet Earth. Neither Rex Tillerson, who leads an organization that has consistently put out disinformation about climate change, nor William Nordhaus, who has long acknowledged that climate change is a problem, seem to understand the scope and scale of our infrastructure predicament.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fool me twice, shame on me: The oil industry repackages the fake abundance story (from the late 1990s)

[I]f you're still operating under the assumption that the earth's petroleum--or at least the cheap stuff--is about to run out, you're not going to thrive in the new oil era. Technology is making it possible to find, produce, and refine oil so efficiently that its supply, at least for practical purposes, is basically unlimited.
                                    --BusinessWeek, December 14, 1998

That was the industry's story right before a decade-long climb in oil prices that ended with an all-time high in 2008. Only the oil industry would now have the audacity once again to peddle a story that it has gotten wrong for more than a decade as if it were brand new. Enlisting the media and its army of paid consultants, the industry is once again telling the public that oil abundance is at hand. And, what is doubly audacious is that it is promoting this tale as oil prices hover at levels more than eight times the 1999 low. Clearly, the industry is counting on collective amnesia to shield it from ridicule.

The industry's purpose is transparent: To ensure that the world remains addicted to fossil fuels by convincing all of us that our energy sources--more than 80 percent of which are fossil fuels--don't need to change. It's a winning strategy even if the industry's premise is wrong since the oil companies still have huge inventories of fossil fuels underground that they want to sell at top prices. And, they are only going to get those top prices if government, businesses and households fail to convert to alternatives and thus remain hostage to fossil fuels.

In a stroke of public relations genius, the industry recently sent one of its own, Leonardo Maugeri, an Italian oil executive, to moonlight as a "research fellow" at Harvard. It's hard to imagine a more prestigious name to use to propagate the industry's consistently overly optimistic pronouncements about oil supplies--even though we are told in italic type at the bottom of Maugeri's policy brief that "[s]tatements and views expressed in this policy brief are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs." Guess how many media outlets printed that disclaimer.

You can find Maugeri's report here. What you won't find there or in current media accounts are his consistently failed predictions about rising supply in the last decade, supply that was supposed to result in a flood of oil. Here's one gem from 2006 in a piece he authored for Forbes Magazine: "A plausible forecast is that by the end of the decade the daily demand for oil will have expanded by 7 to 8 million barrels. If global production continues at present rates, it could grow by 12 to 15 million barrels per day in that period. In other words, there is more than enough oil in the ground." Maugeri's contention was that high prices would result in a supply response that would bring back the good old days of abundance. Of course, no one covering his recent policy brief bothers to mention that his 2006 prediction turned out to be wrong, and not by just a little. World oil production has been flat since 2005. His vaunted supply response never materialized.

But, it wasn't for lack of trying by the oil industry. As John Westwood, chairman of the energy consulting firm Douglas-Westwood, explained in a recent slide presentation, it is becoming exceedingly difficult to add new oil production capacity. Some $2.4 trillion in oil industry capital expenditures from 1994 to 2004 increased the worldwide rate of oil production by 12 million barrels per day. However, the $2.4 trillion in capital expenditures spent from 2005 to 2010 resulted in a decrease in the rate of oil production of 200,000 barrels per day (See slide 8).

And, yet Maugeri and the industry as a whole keep trying to convince everyone that things have now changed. Naturally, they assiduously stay away from actual data and trends which show flat oil supplies since 2005 in the face of rising prices, something that would tend to would disprove their case. And, they try to confuse the issue by adding things which are not oil to the oil supply numbers such as natural gas plant liquids and biofuels and then applaud themselves for being right about rising oil production when, in fact, they are actually wrong.

Maugeri and others argue not using facts, but fantasy. They try to sell their imagined future by conjuring vast supplies of oil from extremely low-grade sources which no one has so far figured out how to extract profitably such as oil shale (not to be confused with shale oil which is properly called tight oil). Or by projecting unrealistically low worldwide decline rates in existing fields, pretending that existing fields are somehow like factories that can be made to produce not far below current levels for an extended time instead of declining at historically observed rates. Or by engaging in fantasy projections of supply growth not based on existing data and a proper understanding of historical and technical information.

But as any good PR professional will tell you, it's the headline that counts, and Maugeri and others have gotten all sorts of headlines proclaiming a new era of oil abundance. Reporters tend to focus on the highest numbers and boldest claim in any report. And, the public often gauges the truth of such claims, especially if they are technical in nature, by how many times they hear them.

With oil still hovering above $100 a barrel in Europe, people find the stories of Maugeri and others comforting because they promise continuity. And, yet change is all around us in the oil markets and has been for more than a decade. Eventually, the volatility of those markets and the realities of constrained supply will demonstrate the truth of the matter to the public. By then, however, we may have lost another decade of preparation to the complacency created by a cleverly crafted abundance fantasy designed to lull policymakers and the public into a dreamlike trance of acquiescence.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sloppy thinking about local food

Margaret Wente, a columnist for The Globe and Mail (Toronto), styles herself a provocateur. Naturally, columnists want to be read, and so they often write provocative things to attract and engage their readers. But sloppy is not the same as provocative, and for a journalist with Wente's credentials, the sloppiness is both surprising and disappointing.

In her recent piece "Take the romance out of farming and ditch locavorism" she advises her readers that locally grown food is inefficient and bad for the environment. Oddly, she tells us at the end of her column that she has no intention to abandoning local food for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who patronizes local growers and farmers' markets.

But before she tells us that she will continue with her guilty pleasure of visiting the farmers' market, she gives us her litany of criticisms which should by now be familiar to local food advocates:

1. It's inefficient to grow a wide variety of crops in one locale because the best soils for each crop are not available. It's better to let those who have soil best for growing say, potatoes, grow those and trade them. Of course, very few in the local food movement have said that each and every crop one desires must be grown locally, say, within 100 miles. This is merely a straw man argument meant to get opposition hearts beating. And, it reads as if it has been lifted from an Archer Daniels Midland press release. Quite sloppy for a journalist of Wente's caliber.

2. Wente tells us that she is happy that marginal farmland around Toronto has reverted back to forest and counts this as an environmental triumph for modern agriculture. Some digging--not much actually--would have informed her that great swaths of Amazonian and other forests are being felled instead to satisfy mouths hungry for fast-food hamburgers, palm oil and many other foodstuffs which now find their origin in the former jungle. Deforestation that takes place out of sight is out of mind. Wente seems blissfully unaware that her alleged environmental triumph has really simply turned into someone else's environmental tragedy.

3. Now here is the centerpiece of her critique: "Modern mass-produced, globally distributed food (not junk food, real food) is cheaper, more nutritious, safer, higher-quality, more reliably available and far less wasteful than the local kind. Modern food systems have done wonders for our standard of living and have liberated humankind from the chains of rural serfdom. They have increased, not decreased, food security and made famines (except for those that are politically induced) all but extinct. As for food miles, numerous analyses have shown that claims made for the alleged benefits to the atmosphere of eating food grown close to home are largely bunk."

Cheaper? Can't argue with that (except to remind people that you get what you pay for). More nutritious? Increasingly, no. The degraded soil upon which modern industrial agriculture grows its crops often leads to produce with lower levels of nutrients. It may not be true in every case. But it's true often enough to matter.

Safer? Depends on what you mean by safer. If refrigeration and food preservatives are what Wente is referring to, then yes the modern system is safer. And, there are (sometimes lax) inspections and safety standards for food. But the introduction of genetically modified crops and overreliance on pesticides (which are increasingly understood as endocrine disruptors that can affect human health at very, very low doses) are important caveats to this claim.

Higher quality? Does she mean appearance or taste or both? It's not clear, but many (including Wente) are flocking to local food precisely because it tastes better and is fresher than supermarket food. More reliably available? Probably, until it isn't. The complexities of the global food system are in the process of being tested by intense drought in the United States which is the world's largest grain producer. Complex systems have a way of disappointing you just when you need them most. (See Saudia Arabia below.)

Far less wasteful? Knowing what she means by wasteful would be useful. Elsewhere she says that local food is inefficient. By this I understand her to mean that it requires more inputs (which it clearly does not), more emissions per calorie (evidence cuts both ways), and more labor (almost certainly). But efficiency is usually meant as an economic term, and as Wente is a former business writer, she is probably thinking in these narrow terms. But if we consider the external costs of industrial agriculture--deforestation, enormous fossil fuel inputs (10 calories for each food calorie produced in the United States), persistent and widespread erosion of topsoil, large pesticide and herbicide inputs (309 million pounds of insecticide and 577 million pounds of herbicide worldwide in 2010) and their effects on the environment and food safety--well, then the global food system doesn't seem so efficient.

So, just as Wente's lovely Toronto woodlands mask deforestation elsewhere that feeds her, so too do these various external costs disappear so long as somebody else has to bear them or so long as they don't crash the food system altogether.

But, history tells us that every society that has depleted its soil has collapsed. I know of no exceptions to this rule. And so, this particular external cost is being displaced both in space and in time away from Wente's present-day Toronto. Let future generations deal with the devastation we are bringing currently to the soil with our industrial agriculture, she seems to say. Her unconscious logic, however, is impeccable: If they pay the price later, naturally, it'll be cheaper for us now.

As for claims that the modern global food system has increased food security. I assume Wente is talking about nations and not the world's poor who seem as insecure in their nutrition as ever. But even if she is talking about nations, how secure should Japan which imported 59 percent of its food as of 2009 feel? How secure should Great Britain which imports 40 percent of its food feel? How secure should Saudi Arabia feel after its oil wealth was unable to secure as much rice as it wanted on the world market in 2007 as major exporters held back supplies because of concerns about domestic shortages? Not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia's approach now to food security is to grow more crops of its own and not rely so much on the global food system to give it that security.

And, this brings me to a curious disconnect in Wente's logic. She somehow believes that the global food system creates more food security. But, she does NOT believe that the global energy system creates energy security. In a piece praising hydraulic fracturing used to free natural gas from deep shale layers in the United States, she wrote: "Best of all, the U.S. will become less dependent on nasty authoritarian petro-states." Why should that matter unless our global logistics systems really do NOT make us more secure in our supply of anything?

Despite this sloppy critique, you will be able to find Wente at Toronto's farmers' markets indulging in local food because, as she writes, "I love the sense of community and chatting with the neighbours. It’s much more fun than shopping at the superstore, and when the produce is in season there’s nothing that tastes better." Maybe she can start with that and rethink her condemnation of local food after considering just how flawed and incomplete her recent tirade really is.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

How changing the definition of oil has deceived both policymakers and the public

Everyone knows that world oil production has been running between 88 and 89 million barrels per day (mbpd) this year because government, industry and media sources tell us so. As it turns out, what everyone knows is wrong.

It's wrong not because the range quoted above can't be found in official sources. It's wrong because the numbers include things which are not oil such as natural gas plant liquids and biofuels. If you strip these other things out, then world oil production has been running around 75 mbpd this year. The main thing you need to know about the worldwide rate of production of crude oil alone is that it has been stuck between 71 and 75 mbpd since 2005 (calculated on a monthly basis). And, that has already had huge negative effects on the world economy and world society through high energy prices that are partly responsible for our current economic stagnation.

But because natural gas plant liquids production has been growing rather rapidly due to recent intensive drilling for natural gas and because those liquids are misleadingly lumped in with oil supplies, people have been mistakenly given the impression that world oil production continues to grow. Not true! What's growing is a category called "total liquids" which encompasses oil, natural gas plant liquids, biofuels and some other minor fuels. Total liquids are growing only because of large gains in natural gas plant liquids and minor gains in biofuels. And, this is why it is so important to understand what natural gas plant liquids are.

But first, an important question. Why do government and industry officials, oil analysts, and energy reporters equate total liquids and total oil supply? They claim that these other liquids are essentially interchangeable with oil. (I will discuss some of the not-so-savory motives behind this claim later.) In a recent report the U.S. Energy Information Administration put it this way: "The term 'liquid fuels' encompasses petroleum and petroleum products and close substitutes, including crude oil, lease condensate, natural gas plant liquids, biofuels, coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids, and refinery processing gains." Let's see why the "close substitutes" assumption is demonstrably false when it comes to most natural gas plant liquids and decidedly disingenuous when it comes to biofuels.

First, crude oil is what you think it is. It's a black, hydrocarbon-rich liquid that comes out of underground reservoirs. It can also be made synthetically from other hydrocarbons such as the bitumen found in the Canadian tar sands. Oil also includes something called lease condensate which refers to the light hydrocarbons that often occur in oil reservoirs. They are gaseous in the high-temperature environment of the reservoir, but condense to liquids when they escape the wellbore and are captured by special equipment located on the oil lease. These condensates become part of the crude oil stream. They are highly prized because of the ease in refining them, though they make only a small contribution to world oil supplies.

But what are natural gas plant liquids and are they good substitutes for oil? Unfortunately, confusion reigns because a very similar but more inclusive term, natural gas liquids or NGL, includes lease condensate, already discussed above and which we know is included in the crude oil stream. Usually, when people refer to NGL, what they really mean is natural gas plant liquids (NGPL).

NGPL are hydrocarbons other than methane that are separated from raw natural gas at a processing plant. They include ethane, propane, butane and pentane. The amounts vary. For example, raw natural gas extracted off the coast of Malaysia contains 11 percent ethane, 5 percent propane, 2 percent butane and about 2 percent of something called natural gasoline or drip gas, a low-octane fuel that is used today primarily as a solvent. Raw natural gas from the North Slope of Alaska contains a higher percentage of methane and correspondingly smaller percentages of ethane (7 percent), propane (4 percent), butane (1 percent) and other components including carbon dioxide and pentanes (2 percent). In these two cases you can see that ethane makes up about half of the NGPL, propane makes up about a quarter, butane makes up 10 percent of Malaysian NGPL and 7 percent of Alaskan slope NGPL.

So what is ethane used for? It's major use is as feedstock for the production of ethylene, one of the most widely used chemicals. Polyethylene is the world's most widely used plastic and found in such things as packaging film and trash bags. Other processes turn ethylene into automotive antifreeze. Yet others turn it into polystyrene which is used in insulation and packaging. Some ethane remains in the natural gas piped to our homes and factories, but not much. So far, it's hard to see how ethane, the most plentiful of the NGPLs, is a good substitute for petroleum-based liquid fuel products.

How about propane? Everyone is familiar with propane use in backyard barbeques and camping stoves. It's also used to heat rural homes. In addition, the Green Truck Association reports that there are 270,000 propane-powered vehicles in the United States. That's about one-tenth of one percent of the roughly 250 million vehicles registered in the country. Some claim that 17.5 million vehicles worldwide run on propane. If true, that would be about 1.7 percent of the billion vehicle worldwide fleet. Yes, propane is a viable substitute for petroleum-based fuels in transportation. But a lot more vehicles would have to be converted to propane for that substitution to be meaningful. And, then there is a ceiling on how much propane could actually be made available because as we've seen, it makes up only 4 to 5 percent of all raw natural gas production.

To the extent that propane displaces heating oil, it is a good substitute for oil. But again, limits on its production prevent it from being a panacea. Of course, natural gas itself is often a substitute for heating oil, especially given its comparatively low cost. So there can be a limited substitution effect where natural gas infrastructure is feasible.

How about butane? Everyone recognizes butane as the fuel for butane lighters. When it is mixed with propane, it is called liquified petroleum gas or LPG which is used for space heating. It's also used as a propellant in aerosol sprays. But no one can put butane into a vehicle. It's not a suitable liquid fuel for transportation. I suppose one could say that we'd have to use petroleum to make lighters if we didn't have butane. I'm not sure that's a good start for making intelligent energy policy based on the central role of oil in global civilization.

Pentanes have industrial and laboratory uses, but aren't used as liquid fuel.

The case for lumping NGPL with oil supply is not very strong. In fact, given that little substitution is possible and the growth in the substitutes that are available is limited, the merging of NGPL with oil seems more like a face-saving gesture on the part of those who have consistently been wrong on oil supplies and prices in the last decade. And, it seems to be a move of desperation by an industry that has been having trouble in recent years replacing its oil reserves. If investors caught on to the idea that oil companies are now essentially self-liquidating enterprises, valuations would be cut drastically. And that, of course, means that stock options and stock holdings for top executives would be devastated as would positions held by big investors.

NGPL currently constitutes about 9 mbpd of so-called total liquids. Biofuels, some coal-to-liquids, and a tiny amount of (natural) gas-to-liquids constitute another 2 mbpd. Turning coal into liquid fuels for vehicles is now done mostly in South Africa, a holdover from the days of apartheid when the South African government feared an oil embargo could leave the country without fuel for transportation. Turning coal into gasoline and diesel is extremely dirty and extremely expensive. But South Africa paid for the equipment to do so long ago and now must simply pay for domestic coal to supply its coal-to-liquids refineries. Only a relatively small amount of natural gas is currently being turned chemically into liquid fuels, mostly diesel. The process is capital intensive and expensive, and thought to be suitable for converting natural gas that might otherwise be flared.

As for biofuels, America is already approaching the current limit of its ability to absorb the supply of ethanol. Most cars can only run with a 10 percent mixture. Above that engine parts in the vast majority of vehicles start to degrade. Of course, we could continue to increase the ability of automobiles to burn ethanol. But the scale problem is the deciding factor. In North America it would take 1.8 billion acres to grow enough corn to supply enough ethanol to run the North American vehicle fleet. That's four and one-half times the amount of arable land available. And besides, corn ethanol takes more energy to produce than it provides. It's not an energy source so much as an energy carrier. Similar limitations apply to biodiesel which is made from vegetable oil.

The remaining volume of total liquids production, about 2 mbpd, is what is called refinery gain. Simply put, the total volume of crude oil increases once it is separated into its various fractions. This is not a source of oil so much as a consequence of spending energy to refine it.

Even when non-oil products are considered, total liquids have barely budged, up just 3.5 percent for the entire period from 2005 to 2011. Even if these liquids were interchangeable with oil, they would be making very little headway in substituting for it.

But because few of the non-oil products now being lumped in with oil supplies are genuine substitutes and the ones that are have serious limitations on the volume they could provide, we should consider the truth about oil. Its supply is stagnant which accounts for the record prices of recent years. And, the promise that high prices would bring on copious new supplies has proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

The limitations on oil supplies are now upon us. The salient issue is the rate of production, not the supposedly huge resources that optimists may conjure up in their imaginations. How much oil you can get out out of the ground on a daily basis is what counts, and it's getting harder and harder to extract the amount of oil we desire from the Earth's crust each day. We extracted the easy stuff first. We cannot now expect to extract the difficult stuff at the same high rates as the easy stuff. And, we cannot expect that total percentage recoveries from the smaller, more complex and challenging reservoirs which we are now forced to exploit will be as high as those we've gotten from large, simple, straightforward reservoirs in the past.

Facing up to this reality will be difficult because it will require so many changes in our thinking and our society. And, it would require the immediate markdown of the value of one of the world's largest and most powerful industries because it now faces contraction in the not-too-distant future. No wonder the powers that be decided to change the definition oil instead of accepting reality.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Pincushion America: The irretrievable legacy of drilling everywhere on drinking water

Since 1949 the United States has had more than 2.6 million oil and natural gas wells drilled into its surface. Many more wells have gone uncounted since they were drilled before comprehensive records were kept. Add to that some 680,000 waste injection wells of which more than 150,000 inject industrial wastes, some of it considered hazardous. And, this may not be the full count since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that records are inadequate on the largest class of injection wells which it says "in general...inject non-hazardous fluids into or above [U.S. drinking water]." The "in general" part is not terribly reassuring.

The concern about all these holes through the country's subsurface layers has taken on added significance with the widespread application of hydraulic fracturing to obtain oil and natural gas trapped in deep shale formations. The process injects millions of gallons of water under high pressure mixed with toxic chemicals into wells to create fractures that will allow oil and natural gas to flow to the surface. Also flowing to the surface are millions of gallons of return flow which must be disposed of. Much of it is forced down waste injection wells.

Vast new areas in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota, Arkansas and many other states are now the subject of intense interest from drillers. So, an issue that had previously been confined to hydrocarbon-rich states such as Texas, Louisiana and California has now become a nationwide concern almost overnight.

The ProPublica story referenced above makes the case that the injection process changes the underground geology because of the amounts that have been injected (trillions of gallons), the high pressures used and the fractures created intentionally or unintentionally by the process--fractures which have the potential to allow dangerous wastes to reach underground drinking water aquifers. All of this is compounded by the lax supervision by both state and federal regulators who are overburdened in any case and have too few resources to monitor so many wells. It is no surprise then that many wells experience failures and leaks.

So where does that leave the future of America's drinking water? One former EPA engineer predicts that within 100 years most of the country's underground drinking water will be contaminated. This is an observation that I want to focus on.

I had a conversation this week about this issue with a contact who frequently does environmental consulting with clients in the oil and gas industry. While he thinks the immediate dangers of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas wells are overblown, when I asked him about the long-term integrity of all those millions of wells, both recent ones and those long since abandoned, he was less sanguine. I asked him to imagine those wells not 10 years or even 100 years from now, but 1,000 years from now. He agreed that most of them will have disintegrated allowing free flows of liquid along the drill paths. There wouldn't be much pressure, he added. But then, the liquids don't need to come to the surface to be a problem for underground drinking water.

More recent wells might maintain their integrity much longer since they are usually stainless steel, and the concrete which surrounds them is more intelligently formulated to withstand corrosive elements in the subsurface layers. He was far more concerned about the waste injection wells which he agrees are poorly regulated and poorly run. These, he believes, pose the greatest danger to underground drinking water supplies.

I suggested that we are not accustomed to asking questions such as, "Who will be monitoring all these wells in 500 years or 5,000 years?" Human civilization, that is, our settlement in cities with their complex systems and logistics, is only roughly 10,000 years old. And, many discrete civilizations have come and gone in that period, most in under 1,000 years; many have come and gone in only a few hundred.

A great number of people in our time imagine that our technological age has solved the problem of civilizational collapse. They imagine our society moving from triumph to triumph and never making fatal mistakes that could wipe our way of life from the globe. Since the mental time line these people imagine stretches out thousands of years into the future, they have no care about who will be monitoring all those wells we've drilled in America and across the globe.

But history suggests the folly of this way of thinking. And, it is therefore an almost unspeakable horror that we have already bequeathed to future generations--polluted groundwater virtually everywhere that will kill and sicken many and may make habitation based on groundwater supplies impossible in many areas of the country.

That is the irretrievable legacy of our age of pincushion America. We get the temporary benefits while all future generations pay the terrible price.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.