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Michael Klare: Grappling With The Age Of 'Tough Oil'

Children play on a Nigerian oil-flow station in 2007. Nigeria, a major oil source for the United States, is riddled with ancient pipes and constant spills. That, plus the geopolitical challenges involved, is why much of Nigeria's crude is the kind of "tough oil" that author Michael Klare describes. (AP)

Journalist Michael Klare says the age of "easy oil" is over.

"Easy oil would be the stuff that would be easy to get out of the Earth, in large reservoirs, close to the surface or in shallow, coastal areas, or in friendly countries that are law-abiding and nearby," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "All of that oil is now gone. We'll never see it again."

Klare has written several books about the oil industry. Blood and Oil examined America's dependence on foreign sources, and his latest, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, focuses on the geopolitical problems countries face if they don't find alternative energy resources.

Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet
By Michael Klare
Paperback, 352 pages
Henry Holt and Co. LLC
List price: $16
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He sees America entering a new era: one of "tough oil."

"Tough oil is deep underground, far offshore, in complex geological formations like shale rock or in the Arctic. Or in unfriendly, dangerous countries," he explains. "That's what I mean by tough oil. That's all that's left on the planet, so that, to the degree to which we remain dependent on oil, that's what we're going to have to go after."

But going after the "tough oil," Klare says, is tough in part because of the complexities of weather, geology and politics. And he warns that deep-water drilling in "tough oil" areas may well lead to more disasters like that of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think that when you engage in drilling in environmentally hazardous areas -- which is the trajectory we're on -- more such disasters are inevitable because we're operating in places increasingly where the geological formations are unfamiliar, unknown -- and where the Earth will behave in unexpected, unforeseen ways, and we can't protect against all of these unforeseen events. So all kinds of disasters are likely to occur."


Interview Highlights

On the Deepwater Horizon disaster

"We have been drilling in the Gulf of Mexico for a very long time -- at least 40 years. Almost all of the wells in the Gulf of Mexico are very close to shore in shallow water -- 100 feet, a few hundred feet. But virtually all of that oil close to shore has now been exhausted. So anything left in the Gulf of Mexico is going to be in very deep water, as much as a mile of water -- which is what the Deepwater Horizon was drilling in -- even deeper than that, and then going much further underground. So we're drilling under very difficult and hazardous conditions in many cases. The water pressures are enormous at that level. Humans can't operate down there. You have to rely on robots. And the Earth can behave in unusual and unpredictable ways."

On the danger of hurricanes

"The hurricanes produce high winds and big waves, and these can topple the oil rigs that are out there in the deep water, they can damage the facilities, and they make it impossible to operate -- so you have to evacuate the crew. Now the big danger is that it will snap an underground facility -- the pipes, the risers -- and spill oil into the Gulf. Of course, the oil companies say there's no danger of that because of the blowout preventers and other safety devices that are supposed to shut off the flow of oil in the event of a hurricane. But we now know we can't count on those devices to shut off the flow of oil in an emergency."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

BP's Deepwater Horizon oil disaster is just a prelude to a new era, the age of tough oil. That's what my guest, Michael Klare, has written. He says the BP oil explosion was the inevitable result of the pursuit of extreme energy, a relentless effort to extract oil from ever deeper and more geologically or politically hazardous locations.

We're going to talk about this new era of oil and the new dangers it may pose. Klare has been writing about the BP spill for the website TomDispatch and for The Nation, where he's the defense correspondent. He's written two books about oil: "Blood and Oil" and "The Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy." Klare is also a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College.

Michael Klare, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So if BP is just a prelude to the age of tough oil, what is the age of tough oil?

Professor MICHAEL KLARE (Peace and World Security Studies, Hampshire College): Well, let's begin by contrasting it with the era that we've just left, which is the age of easy oil. Easy oil would be the stuff that's easy to get out of the earth, in large reservoirs close to the surface or in shallow coastal areas, or in friendly countries that are law-abiding and nearby.

All of that oil is now gone, and we'll never see it again. So what's left is the tough oil, oil that's deep underground, far offshore, in complex geological formations like shale rock or in the Arctic or in unfriendly, dangerous countries.

That's what I mean by tough oil. That's all that's left on the planet, so that, to the degree to which we remain dependent on oil, that's what we're going to have to go after.

GROSS: So are more and more companies starting to drill now off the shore of Alaska and in the Arctic?

Prof. KLARE: The Arctic region north of the Arctic Circle is increasingly of interest to oil and energy companies because much of the world's remaining oil and natural gas is believed to lie there.

Now, off of Alaska, there is believed to be quite a bit of oil. In the rest of the Arctic area, off of Norway and Russia, is a lot of natural gas. So the oil companies are very interested in getting at this oil and natural gas.

Shell, for example, has applied for permits to drill in the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea - both of those are off of Alaska - for oil. Now, those have been put on hold because of the recent developments in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, Norway is drilling for natural gas above the Arctic Circle, at a place called Hammerfest, the most advanced Arctic production facility now in operation. And Russia is planning a number of operations in the Arctic Ocean - again, drilling for natural gas.

GROSS: So what are some of the unique problems posed by drilling off the shore of Alaska or in the Arctic?

Prof. KLARE: You're obviously operating in an area of extreme weather conditions, where storms are frequent, and the conditions are extremely hazardous for anybody who works up there. If things go wrong, it's going to be very difficult to mount a rescue operation or to address the disasters, the spills that might occur.

We've seen in the Gulf a massive effort to address the spill, with thousands of boats involved and tens of thousands of people working on that. That's not going to be possible in the Arctic. You're not going to be able to move that kind of equipment up there.

There aren't the personnel, the facilities, the infrastructure, the installations. So any damage that occurs, a spill, will be almost impossible to deal with.

In addition, you have very fragile environments. You have plants and animals and fish that are living at the edge of survival capacity, and an oil spill will push them over the edge, and many species risk extinction in those conditions.

GROSS: So what about floating sea ice - and there's plenty of in the Arctic. Can that present a problem to oil rigs?

Prof. KLARE: Yes, indeed. The Arctic is full of floating sea ice, and this problem is going to get worse in the years ahead because of global warming. As the Arctic ice cap begins to melt and disintegrate, you're going to have more floating ice, and this poses a tremendous danger to any structures or boats, for that matter, that are out in the Arctic Ocean. And so any rigs have to be reinforced, have to be very strong to withstand an impact with floating ice, which can be very destructive. And even so, some of these are at risk of collapse.

One of the ways to avoid this danger is to build artificial islands in the Arctic Ocean, like the Liberty Project that BP is building in the Beaufort Sea, where you actually construct an island out of sand and rock and gravel so that and then put the rig on top of that so that you have some protection against floating ice.

GROSS: So if you're creating your own island for a rig, does that pose environmental problems for the sea that the artificial island is in?

Prof. KLARE: There's a worry that these artificial islands and other offshore structures will pose a danger to species that use these waters for feeding and mating. This is an area where a number of endangered species of whales come at certain times of years to mate. They come in exactly these areas of the Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea.

So there's a worry by environmentalists that all of this offshore activity, these artificial islands, will interfere with their mating behavior and pose a further threat to the survival of these endangered species.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Klare, and we're talking about what he describes as the age of tough oil, the age when all the easy-to-get oil has already been drilled out, and we're now facing oil from places in which there are weather extremes, geological extremes and/or political extremes.

Let's talk a little bit about some other geological extremes. You've written about how Brazil, for instance - in Brazil, there is pre-salt oil. Would you explain what that is?

Prof. KLARE: Yes. The pre-salt finds are large reservoirs of oil about 100 miles off the shore of Rio de Janeiro, under a mile and a half of water, and then a mile or two of salt - salt and rock and sand all mixed together.

Underneath all of that is a large reservoir of oil, maybe the largest new reservoir of oil discovered in the past 40 or 50 years, as much as 50 or a hundred billion barrels of oil.

To put that in perspective, the United States is believed to have total reserves of only 30 billion barrels of oil. So 50 to a hundred billion barrels of oil would be a huge new find.

But getting this oil out of the pre-salt finds is going to pose enormous technological difficulties.

GROSS: Like what?

Prof. KLARE: Well, picture the Deepwater Horizon explosion, all of the problems that have emerged there in the Gulf of Mexico, and then multiply that by a factor of 10. That's what I think you're going to face here.

It's deeper underwater and then deeper underground, in a situation where the geology, the salt field and the sand and the rock, is constantly shifting. So the piping and the well technology has to be much more sophisticated.

On top of that, all of these fields are mixed with natural gas that has to be separated out from the oil as it comes up. So you have the risk of blowouts, as you do in the Gulf of Mexico, but it's going to be much more tricky and difficult to extract this pre-salt oil.

GROSS: Now, are these operations already in progress, or is this something that's going to that's planned to happen in the near future?

Prof. KLARE: The testing has already begun. The Brazilian state-controlled oil company Petrobras has already conducted test drilling in the area, and a number of its partners - including American companies and BP - are out there trying to establish the infrastructure to do commercial drilling. But commercial drilling hasn't begun yet.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Klare, and we're discussing what he describes as the age of tough oil, an age where in order to get oil, you're facing weather extremes, geological extremes or political extremes. We'll talk more about this after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael Klare. We're discussing what he describes as the age of tough oil, where all the easy-to-get oil has been depleted, and now we're left with oil in areas of great weather extremes, geological extremes or political chaos.

And Michael Klare is the author of "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy." He's also the author of "Blood and Oil," and he's a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

So we've talked about some of the geological extremes that oil companies are going to now to get oil in what you describe as the age of tough oil. There are political extremes that oil companies are facing now, too, and an example that you've written about is Nigeria. What are the political problems posed for oil companies drilling in Nigeria?

Prof. KLARE: Nigeria is a major source of America's oil. It's the fourth or fifth leading supplier of imported oil to the United States.

GROSS: And BP is big there, too, right?

Prof. KLARE: Yes, BP is a major producer, along with Shell and Exxon Mobil and Chevron. So Nigeria is a major producer. A problem is that most of the oil is located in the Niger Delta region in the south of the country.

This is a very poor area. It's historically been excluded from political participation. All of the decisions are made in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, which are dominated by other ethnic groups than the people who live in the Delta region, and all of the income derived from oil production is collected by the elites in the capital and goes to -either to their pockets or their private bank accounts, historically, or to projects in areas that they favor.

None of it, virtually none of it, ever goes back to the Niger Delta. So the people there live in poverty, and they experience horrendous environmental damage caused by the drilling.

If you picture what's happening in the Gulf today, that's what they have experienced for decades in the Niger Delta. It's a very similar area. It's wetlands. It's swampy area that is very vulnerable to oil spills. And that's what they've had for many decades.

GROSS: So they've had oil spills there.

Prof. KLARE: They have constant oil spills. The whole area is crisscrossed with ancient pipes. Flaring goes on, natural gas flaring goes on constantly. There are spills. The pipelines break and spill out oil. They're never fixed. So the entire area is riddled with pools of petroleum.

It kills the fish that they live on. It kills the water that they rely on for drinking and to feed their crops. So the area is a total environmental devastation zone.

GROSS: You write that there are guerrilla groups that are protesting the environmental hazards that the people there are living with and protesting the fact that they're not getting any of the income of the oil. So what are these guerrilla groups doing?

Prof. KLARE: Originally, people chose nonviolent protest against what was happening. Ken Sarawewa was a leader of a nonviolent protest movement, and those movements were crushed by the government, and Sarawewa was hung in a trumped-up trial about 10 years ago.

And then people concluded that only armed resistance would be sufficient to achieve any results. So for the past five years, you've had a number of armed militias challenging the government.

The most successful is called MEND, for Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. And this is a group really composed of a number of militias, made up of young men, unemployed young men, who harass the oil companies, engage in sabotage, attack government troops occasionally, and they've been exceedingly successful in preventing successful drilling in the area and so have collapsed Nigeria's oil production. And this is partly why oil prices are so high.

GROSS: Recently, chief executives of oil companies argued in House Energy and Commerce Committee testimony that the BP oil disaster won't happen again because there's going to be proper safeguards and oversight.

You've been looking at, like, the whole world where there's oil drilling going on, and gas drilling as well, drilling happening in political or geological extremes. So you're suggesting a similar catastrophe to the Deepwater Horizon will be difficult to avoid.

Prof. KLARE: Absolutely. I think that I think that when you engage in drilling in environmentally hazardous areas, which is the trajectory we're on, more such disasters are inevitable because we're operating in places increasingly where the geological formations are unfamiliar, unknown and where the earth will behave in unexpected, unforeseen ways. And we can't protect against all of these unforeseen events.

So all kinds of disasters are likely to occur, and global warming is going to make the situation worse. It's going to produce more icebergs, more floating ice. It's going to increase the number of hurricanes, and all of this will threaten offshore oil drilling in particular.

GROSS: Are there national policies that have helped lead us to where we are now and the problems that we face, drilling for oil?

Prof. KLARE: Yes, Terry. The U.S. government, under a series of administrations, has favored moving in this direction. And we've had an opportunity to move in other directions but chose otherwise.

I speak for example of the 2001 energy review conducted by President Bush and Vice President Cheney, the national energy policy that was announced on May 17, 2001, which called not for a radical move towards energy alternatives but rather the acceleration of reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power.

And because we're running out of easy oil and gas and coal, it called for government assistance to facilitate the extraction of unconventional oil and gas, by which they meant Arctic oil and gas deep offshore and geologically unconventional, like shale oil and gas.

So this is the path that the Bush Administration set us open, and it led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April.

GROSS: Just three weeks before the Deepwater disaster, President Obama came out in favor of more offshore drilling and said that the areas of the Atlantic, Eastern Gulf and Alaskan waters would be open to oil and gas drilling for the first time. Was that a change in his point of view?

Prof. KLARE: No. He made it very clear, even during the presidential campaign, that he was not religiously opposed to all offshore drilling. He always held out the possibility that he would permit this, that this would be an option, as part of a move to reduce U.S. reliance on imported oil for national security reasons and also as a bridge towards greater reliance on petroleum alternatives, which he says is going to take a very long time.

And he reiterated that in his State of the Union address this past January. So it wasn't a total surprise that he might allow this. What was surprising was the sweeping nature of his March 31st announcement.

Not only did he expand the areas of the Gulf of Mexico that would be open to offshore drilling, but he included large areas off of Alaska and parts of the Atlantic Ocean. This was even larger than the oil companies expected.

GROSS: Do you feel like you understand why he did that?

Prof. KLARE: I think in part, he saw this as a tactical ploy, to gain support in the Senate for a climate change bill that he considers terribly important. And I understand in this day and age, in this political environment, you have to make tradeoffs of various sorts.

And I think he also understands the agonizing position we're in in this country, where we're heavily dependent on imported oil, and that gets us into wars in the Middle East, and he wants to get us out of dependence on important oil, and the fact that we simply are not moving swiftly enough towards the development of energy alternatives of the renewables that are eventually going to save us from this mess.

So what are you going to do in those circumstances? You have to give somewhere, and I think he decided that more offshore drilling was the best place to give. I'm sure now he thinks he made a terrible mistake, but I think that's the calculation that he made.

GROSS: My guest, Michael Klare, will be back in the second half of the show. His latest book is "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy." Im Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michael Klare. We're talking about what he describes as the age of tough oil, the era we've entered now that easy-to-access oil reserves have been depleted. In this new era, energy companies are extracting oil from ever deeper and more geologically or politically hazardous locations.

Klare says the BP disaster is just one example of what can go wrong in this new era. Klare has been writing about the Gulf oil disaster for the website TomDispatch and for The Nation. His latest book is "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Oil."

Prof. KLARE: Would you spell out for us an example of what you think is a disaster waiting to happen that is different from the disaster that we've just witnessed and that we're still witnessing with the BP Deepwater Horizon?

Prof. KLARE: Okay, I'm very concerned about drilling off of Newfoundland and Labrador in what's called Iceberg Alley, the Canadian Maritime Provinces. This is an area where the Titanic sank in 1912. This is where we're now putting oil-drilling rigs.

I just think that this is asking for trouble. These rigs like the Hibernia Platform are supposed to be reinforced against collision with an iceberg, but I just can't imagine that you can reinforce an oil platform sufficiently to withstand an impact with a giant iceberg.

And bear in mind that the Hibernia Platform is sitting at a spot where, in 1982, the predecessor, the drilling rig that was testing this site, called Ocean Ranger, sank, and 84 crew members aboard lost their lives in that very location in a massive storm.

So we know that storms and icebergs are prevalent in this area, yet out of desperation, out of our desperate need for more oil and gas, we're going to put more oil rigs out in that dangerous area.

GROSS: Okay, so say your scenario happens, and an iceberg hits a rig there. What kind of damage do we face?

Prof. KLARE: Well, the Hibernia Platform, for example, is a giant, hollow, steel column that sits on the ocean floor and inside, it can contain a million barrels of oil. That's about three or four times as much oil that was on the Exxon Valdez when it sank.

So imagine if an iceberg ruptured that container, and all of that oil spilled out of it. Meanwhile, all of the underground wells that connect to the Hibernia could also be destroyed in a major storm if the Hibernia were destroyed.

So you would have multiples of the Exxon Valdez oil spilling out into the North Atlantic. Now, this is called the Grand Banks. This is the most prolific fishery in the entire world. This is where the world's cod fishing began, which made New England prosperous, which fed Europe for centuries. So to have this kind of oil spill in the Grand Banks would be catastrophic for North Atlantic fisheries.

GROSS: You've outlined so many, like, political and environmental hazards of the kind of deepwater drilling that companies are doing now and the drilling in politically war-torn places. Is there a best-case scenario? In other words, is there a way that oil companies can continue to drill in these extreme circumstances in an age where the easy oil has already been extracted? Where they can do that and still keep things relatively safe environmentally?

Prof. KLARE: You know, my own view...

GROSS: A lot of oil companies will say, you know, look, if we just, like, have better safeguards, and if we actually enforce those safeguards, we'll be okay.

Prof. KLARE: My own view is that there isn't any safe, clean future for oil in the years ahead. Increasingly, we're going to be running out of the wells that we've relied on, the reservoirs we've relied on all these years in the safe, easy places, and increasingly, we're going to have to rely on oil and gas from the more hazardous locations.

So what the oil companies should be doing is investing in energy alternatives, and I don't see them doing that. I see them investing in the technology to drill in the Arctic and in deeper and deeper waters. So what they really have to do is make a change in strategy to say that we will continue producing oil but only as an interim step as we move in a new direction.

GROSS: What are the financial problems that you think are preventing oil companies from investigating energy alternatives instead of sinking most of their money into risky oil drilling?

Prof. KLARE: I think it's a problem of sunk costs. If you have refineries, if you've invested billions, trillions of dollars, really, when you add it all up, in oil refineries and oil pipelines and oil gas stations and all of the rest, you want to maximize the return on investment of those sunk costs.

So even though you may be spending a lot of money to produce oil in the Arctic or the deep waters of the Gulf, you can bring it to those same refineries that you built a quarter of a century ago rather than investing in a new technology, which will require an entire new infrastructure. And I think that's what's holding them back.

GROSS: Do you think that the explosion and spill in the Gulf is leading either oil companies or the Obama administration or Congress to rethink energy policy, safeguards, et cetera?

Prof. KLARE: Indeed, I do think that the oil spill in the Gulf is going to lead to some change in government policy. It will certainly lead to greater oversight of offshore drilling. There's no question about that.

We've seen the breakup of the Minerals Management Service. So you won't have the same collusion between the regulators and the oil companies, and that's a good thing. And I hope it will lead to a greater investment, greater emphasis on the development of energy alternatives.

But that's the part that I worry about right now in the current economic climate, where Congress is reluctant to add to the government deficit by spending new money.

GROSS: What about oil companies? Do you think that they're more concerned about safeguards? Do you see oil companies changing in the future? Or do you think that on the whole, they have the safeguards in place?

Prof. KLARE: Well, I do think that the oil companies are very concerned about safety and safeguards, and as a result of this experience, they're going to be even more careful about that in the future. There's no question about it.

For example, Exxon Mobil, after the Exxon Valdez accident, really did do a sweeping overhaul of its safety procedures and by all reports has become much more careful about that and is a much safer place to work. So yes, I would imagine they'll be more careful about this in the future.

I'm not blaming the companies as being irresponsible. My point is that we're at a time in the history of energy where oil is no longer going to be an easy source of fuel to obtain, and the more we go out into the future, it's going to be more hazardous no matter what. It's built into the situation, and the oil companies can't avoid that.

GROSS: Well, Michael Klare, thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. KLARE: It's been my pleasure, Terry, always.

GROSS: Michael Klare is the defense correspondent for The Nation and writes for the website TomDispatch. He's a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. You can read an excerpt of his book, "Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy," on our website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, the impact of the BP oil spill on wildlife in the Gulf. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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