Humans Must Love Carbon if They Will Frack the Earth to Get It

Neutral observers from Jupiter would have to conclude that earth humans must really crave carbon, they are willing to go to such lengths to get their hands on it. For the love of oil, they are willing to put up with Saudi Arabia's state sponsorship of anti-western schools (madrasha), and for that matter Saudi princes' sponsorship of anti-American terrorist groups. (I write this on the 12th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, and yet the United States subsequently invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with the attacks. Hmmm.)

They are willing to tear the living daylights out of east central Alberta to get at tar sands that can be made—at vast expense—to release a not very clean elixir of oil.

We are willing to fight an endless series of resource wars in the Middle East to insure that the oil comes out of the ground and flows towards America. This is formally known as the Carter Doctrine. In his State of the Union Address on January 23, 1980, following the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter said, "An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." It would be impossible to make sense of the unending Gulf Wars without factoring in the existence of the world's single richest concentration of oil in the region. In other words, if there were no more oil under Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia than there is under Minnesota, imagine for a moment what our foreign policy might look like.

We are willing literally to slice the top off of the mountains of West Virginia to get at the coal that lies underneath.

And now, of course, we appear to be willing to transform western North Dakota beyond recognition to get at the shale oil and natural gas that lie 10,000 feet or more beneath the surface of the most beautiful (and formerly quiet) landscapes of the state. The technology is breathtaking, nearly miraculous. First a series of stiff pipes penetrate vertically to a depth of almost two miles. To get a sense of how much energy this involves, try digging a 10-foot hole this afternoon with a fence post digger. Then the stiff pipes are made to turn a corner at a full 90 degrees (try that with steel fence posts!), and snake out another mile into the heart of a narrow oil-permeated shale formation. Then a sand-bearing slurry is forced down and out all that pipe to a series of perforations (little trap doors) in the laterals, where, under almost unbelievable amounts of hydraulic pressure, it fractures the shale and then keeps the fractures open by depositing countless little sand or plastic wedges in the cracks.

At that point, with the help of additional hydraulic manipulation, oil finally begins to pool from a gazillion fractures. By employing more energy to turn a pump jack at the surface, that oil can be made to slurpy up along a pipe that may be three miles long. At which point, using more energy, it can be made to travel to a refinery, either through a steel pipeline, or on giant trucks or rail cars. At the refinery, thanks to yet another large expenditure of energy, the crude can be forced to separate into some of its ingenious carbon expressions: diesel, heating oil, kerosene, liquid petroleum gas, and of course gasoline. Which is then trucked, at considerable expense, to your neighborhood gas station. Where, for $3.85 per gallon . . . .

Think we want this stuff?

It costs somewhere between $10 and $20 million to develop a single frack well in North Dakota. At the moment, North Dakota is producing over 825,000 barrels of oil per day, which makes us the nation's second largest producer of crude oil. Current American oil consumption (not counting oil-based byproducts) is 18.83 million barrels per day. In other words, North Dakota is now producing about 4 percent of America's daily consumption of oil. If America depended solely on North Dakota for oil, we could at the moment supply the insatiable maw with oil for just 17 days per year. What is happening in Killdeer, Watford City, Williston, Dickinson, Parshall, Stanley, Crosby, and the badlands, is happening in a lot of other places on our watery little planet.

If the only known copy of the works of Shakespeare were trapped in shale two miles below the surface of the earth, do you think we'd take the trouble to go fetch it? Would we fracture the earth to recover 3-5 percent of the musical output of Beethoven or Mahler? Would we organize two thousand truck events to recover the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David?

My point is that we are hopelessly, helplessly, appallingly addicted to carbon. We literally cannot live without it now, and we have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to go get it. If that means an annual US Defense Department budget of $600 billion, we're willing to pay that price. If it means giving the Saudis a pass (not even a slap on the wrist) after 15 Saudi nationals (and the Saudi mastermind Osama bin Laden) perpetrated the gravest attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, we appear to be willing to "let it be" to make sure that Saudi oil continues to flow our way. If it means turning western North Dakota into an industrial park, we have to be willing to marshal the cement trucks and lay the pipe, because the existing pattern of American energy consumption requires no less.

We could, of course, revolutionize the way we live rather than the communities and badlands of North Dakota, but addiction is addiction, and my Honda hybrid and your Birkenstocks are not going to break it. We could, of course, throw the same amount of money at developing serious alternatives to crude carbon as we now use to extract crude carbon, but the virtually infinite pools of oil and gas newly available thanks to the magic of first-world technology are more likely to deepen our addictions than tip us into greener alternatives. Alas.

When I ran out of gas near Glen Ullin 10 days ago, at 10:38 p.m. on a dark and stormy night, while musing about questions of this sort—about the future of the soul of North Dakota—I had barely stopped cursing myself for blithering idiocy when I was able to smirk at my hypocrisies. Before that little drama ended, I had hiked 4.4 miles out and 4.4 miles back to fetch a single gallon of gasoline, for which I paid $3.79 (not counting soft tissue damage and the various psychological repercussions). By 3 a.m. I would have paid $37.90 for that gallon of gasoline and by 5 a.m. $379.00.

To supply our insatiable carbon needs, there have been a lot of Bakkens elsewhere in the world, and we have been able to ignore them because they have not disturbed our lovely back yard. But now the chickens have come home to roost, and we have a moral duty—no matter what we do about the North Dakota oil rush—to gaze honestly in that mirror.

"Spindle Top, an important oil region near Beaumont, Texas, U.S.A." From the New York Public Library Digital Collections.