NEW YORK - As humanity runs out of
oil and minerals, the extraction of previously untouched deposits
suddenly pays off -- financially. But experts warn that it will likely
further accelerate climate change and seriously damage the environment.
in the 19th century it was easy to discover an oil well: one could
accidentally step in a puddle of "black gold" -- it made its way to the
surface voluntarily. But with conventional oil wells running dry, the
industry is shifting to so-called "unconventional" sources like tar
sands -- but not without problems.
"It takes two to three times more energy to get a barrel back
from tar sands than from conventional crude oil," said Steve Andrews,
co-founder of the U.S.-based Association for the Study of Peak Oil and
Gas (ASPO), in an interview with IPS.
Hand-in-hand with the needed large amount of energy is significantly
more carbon emissions, which is counterproductive in the global fight
against climate change.
Other unpleasant byproducts are vast ponds full of toxic
water, such as are used during the production of synthetic oil from tar
sands. Hundreds of waterfowl have already died in those contaminated
Nevertheless, as the price of oil has more than tripled in the last few
years -- it is now around 100 dollars per barrel -- the cost-intensive
mining of tar sands has become more and more profitable.
With an estimated 173 billion barrels, the world's largest
deposits are found in Alberta, Canada, making the country's oil
reserves only second to those of Saudi Arabia.
But as Andrews said: "All barrels aren't created equally."
After four decades of excavation and engineering, the flow of oil from
Canadian tar sands is still covering less than two percent of worldwide
consumption, which is about 85 million barrels a day.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia accounts for 12 percent of worldwide production.
Andrews points out that all major sources of unconventional oil --
which also include extra-heavy oil from Venezuela and oil shale from
the United States -- share the same problems.
He also warned that off-shore drilling or oil extraction in the Alaskan
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) "will not be a saviour" of the
United States's energy problems.
Biofuels such as corn-based ethanol, which have been criticised for
driving up food prices, are too land-intensive and will never be an
adequate substitute for fossil fuels, he added.
"All those measures will only slow down the decline in
worldwide oil production but they cannot stop it," said Andrews. "The
alternative which shows the most promise to reduce environmental
problems is an electric-powered transportation system running on
Andrews and other experts from ASPO are expecting global oil production
to peak in the next two to five years -- despite the various
substitutes for conventional crude oil, and despite the fact that
demand is still growing.
A study for the United States Energy Information
Administration (EIA) is somewhat more optimistic, estimating peak crude
oil production to occur between the years 2021 and 2112.
According to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, the
worldwide level of production has not significantly changed since 2005.
It oscillated between 81 and 82 million barrels a day -- with a small
decrease in 2007.
But oil should not be the only matter of concern.
Studies from Australia and Italy point out that peaks in the
production of some minerals are to be expected in this century, too --
for example, of copper and gold. Others like mercury and phosphate
might have hit their peak already.
The growing scarcity involves greater endeavours in mining which are
again -- as in the case of oil -- doing greater harm to environment.
"The deposits we are going after now have lower concentration
of minerals. And where concentration is lower, there is more waste,"
Ramsey Hart, Canada programme coordinator of Mining Watch, told IPS.
Enormous quantities of waste rock loaded with heavy-metals and other
toxic substances are left behind and contaminate water and air.
Moreover, mining often leads to the destruction of natural habitats.
Lower concentration of minerals also means that much more
energy is needed to extract it from the rock -- hence, more carbon
"Recycling metals is much more energy-efficient," said Hart. He also called for improved waste handling by the mining industry.
"Companies are now looking to areas that were previously
considered to difficult for mining -- politically and logistically,"
said Scott Cardiff, international campaign coordinator of the
Washington-based group Earthworks, which focuses on the destructive
impacts of mineral development.
He told IPS that limited supply and high demand are the
reasons for the expansion of mineral extraction -- especially in the
case of gold, which is increasingly seen as a secure investment.
"In many cases mineral extraction is also continuing to expand
to new areas as the result of political developments, including
promotion of extractive industries by donor countries and international
financial institutions," Cardiff said.
"Madagascar is an example of a country where mining is about
to boom and where mining is affecting plans for new protected areas,"
And he gave more examples.
If approved, a copper-gold mine project in southwest Alaska's
Bristol Bay could cause serious damage to the local ecosystem -- which
is of vital importance for the world's stock of wild salmon.
According to Earthworks, another gold mine, which is planned
in Ghana, would destroy over 180 acres of forest in the Ajenjua Bepo
Besides significant investments in renewable resources like
wind and solar. Ramsey Hart offered a simple idea to solve the problems
of diminishing natural resources, climate change and ecological
destruction: "We just need to become more comfortable and satisfied
with a lot less stuff."