How the past can power the future

Hydrocarbons play a crucial role in today's economy. They are also crucial in fueling the transition away from hydrocarbons.

ORLIN WAGNER/AP/FILE
WORKERS ON A HYDRAULIC FRACTURING (‘FRACKING’) SITE DRILL INTO THE GYPSUM HILLS NEAR MEDICINE LODGE, KAN.

Extractive industries – the pumping of oil from the ground, the mining of minerals, harvesting of timber, farming of food – are the oldest industries in the world, a step up from hunting and gathering but far removed from software development or robotic prosthetics. Extraction is often associated with the “resource curse,” the observation that windfall riches stunt the growth of human capital and lead to corruption and indolence. When you get something free of charge, you might not be better off. 

And, of course, extraction is not a felicitous word in a world trying to transition to lower carbon emissions, recycled waste, and greater reliance on renewable energy. But let’s give extraction its due. Without hydrocarbons, plastics, metals, and other resources, the devices that will power an environmentally sustainable, energy-efficient future couldn’t be built or serviced. Windmills and solar panels are produced on assembly lines with precision parts hammered out of eked-from-earth minerals. Guys driving pickup trucks install and maintain them.

In a Monitor cover story (read it here), you’ll meet William Sargent and follow his excellent adventure in a small piece of the Texas oil patch. This is a story about a quintessentially extractive industry in a proud-to-be-extractive state. The technique that will be used to winkle out more oil from the Webster field is the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing of subterranean shale deposits.

But note the intriguing technique that will be used to frack in this case: Carbon dioxide captured from a coal-fired power plant in Mississippi will be piped to southeast Texas, forced into the ground, and afterward trapped there. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that this is an example of an extractive industry being assisted by environmentalism and vice versa. This is a promising development, a completion, if somewhat attenuated, of the carbon cycle.

The action takes place not far from the legendary Spindletop field, where the Lucas gusher blasted its way into history books in 1901. That big bang set off the Texas oil boom and made the United States the world’s once and (thanks to fracking) future energy superpower. Like Spindletop, the Webster field sits atop salt domes. Wildcatters have long looked for these formations in their hunt for oil. Salt domes, it turns out, are promising not just for extraction but also for long-term carbon sequestration.

The point: Environment and energy are not black-and-white issues. Outsize personalities such as J.R. Ewing in “Dallas” or Jett Rink in “Giant” may make the oil era seem crude and brawling. The hypersensitive, solarized recyclers of “Portlandia” may make sustainability seem amusingly twee. Those are caricatures. Oil extracted from the ground powered the progress of the 20th century – and, yes, also its wars. Extracting energy from the sun, wind, and other elemental resources will power the 21st – for better and sometimes for worse. 

Fossil fuel is essential in the global transition that will lessen our dependence on fossil fuel. Resources used right are a blessing, not a curse.

John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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