Being conservative

Last week I was listening to a radio discussion about the impact of the oil boom on western North Dakota. One commentator stated that recent studies indicate that the Bakken boom will “last a long time. Perhaps as long as 20 to 30 years!”

I know I’m getting old. Twenty or thirty years does not seem like a long time to me. Twenty years ago I was suffering a mid-life crisis as my oldest child turned 18 and left for college. It seems like just yesterday, not a long time ago.

Will all the millions of barrels of oil under the ground in the Bakken shale be gone in another blink of an eye? Really? All gone in just 20 or 30 years? Then what?

The commentator added, “Of course, that is with current drilling technology.” The implication is that with new, yet undeveloped, technology we might be able to suck out a few more millions of barrels.

Just as the last 20 years have flown by, I expect the next 20 to pass even more quickly. If I live to be my mother’s or my grandmother’s age, I will be around to see if that prediction is true.

If this oil (and millions of barrels from other places around the globe) are used up in the next 20-30 years, what will our lives be like? Will we find new sources of oil when this is all gone up in smoke? If so, what will it cost to extract it from the earth? How much will a barrel of oil need to sell for to make it profitable to pull it up from the earth’s depths?

If we don’t find new reserves of hydrocarbons, how will we make all the things now made from plastic? Will we have access to disposable intravenous tubing or other medical supplies? Will we have plastic bags, bottles, pails or toys? Some of those things might be made of recycled plastic and perhaps we will find ways of recapturing raw materials for reuse. Why aren’t we doing more recycling and reusing now?

Seventy percent of a barrel of oil is used in transportation. We use it for our cars, trucks, buses, airplanes, trains and ships. If we think it is expensive to fill our car’s tank with gas today, what will it cost in 2034 or 2044 when the Bakken’s last drop is extracted?

If the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is right, what will the weather be like in my backyard if we burn up all the oil in the Bakken in the next two decades? Will it be warmer and drier? Will violent weather extremes make growing things impossible even if our climate is warmer? Will we need to find homes for our neighbors from the disappearing coastlines? What will food cost? Will my well run dry? Will burning oil and other carbon dioxide producing fuels be taxed? Will higher costs stimulate the development of less expensive and more sustainable alternatives?

What will this community look like? How will the economic and environmental changes ahead affect what kind of life we live? How will the price of oil change how we access groceries, see medical specialists, get our mail delivered, or heat our homes and plant our fields?

It is possible that we will be able to find technological solutions to the problems we will face in twenty years. Many of the changes in the past, however, were made possible by the use of vast amounts of resources, including the use of millions of barrels of oil a day.

Will we learn to conserve and reuse the resources we have left or will we pretend there is no end to the raw materials at our disposal? Will we refuse to acknowledge that the oil that has fueled the innovation of the last century is not going to be available to us in the same quantities and at the same relatively low price in the next century? Will we decide that developing alternative sources of energy and recycling of resources is worth the required investment?

I don’t have a crystal ball. I could not have predicted that in the span of my life we would go from manual typewriters to computers and wireless keyboards, from wringer washers to high efficiency front-loading washing machines, from expensive adding machines to tiny, disposable calculators, from a stack of vinyl records to thousands of hours of music stored and played from the “cloud” on players smaller than a matchbook.

My hope is that we not approach the future with the assumption that life will stay the same as it is today, that we will strive to make sure that the changes in store for our children, our grandchildren and their children are good ones. Twenty years is not a long time. We should not be in such a hurry to use the blessings of the Bakken’s oil in such a brief blink of the eye. The future needs us to be truly conservative.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains