What are Unconventional Energy Developments?

Unconventional onshore oil and gas development broadly refers to extracting hydrocarbon resources from oil and gas shale, tight gas and tar sands, heavy oil reservoirs, coal bed methane, and methane hydrates.  Unconventional oil and gas resources are regional in extent, found in extremely low permeability rock or on sand, and require stimulation (known as fracturing) to produce the gas or oil.  According to the United States’ Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, these unconventional fossil fuel resources also typically have lower rates of estimated recovery than conventional oil and gas (Energy Information Administration 2011). This type of development is technology driven, using one or a combination of advanced technologies that include horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracing”) in the case of tight sands, coal bed methane, and shales, and in the case of oil sands includes open pit mining and hot water extraction, or in-situ steam extraction practices, such as steam assisted gravity drainage (Holditch 2006).  Due to these advanced technologies, higher initial capital investment is required.

In the political and societal discourses on the exploitation of these unconventional fossil fuel resources, the full scale development of these “domestic” fossil fuels, and the capital investment required, have been argued for in political debates as promising more “secure” and independent sources of oil and gas that could free the United States of America and Canada from oil and gas supplies in more politically volatile places around the world.  In addition, political and societal calls for cleaner burning fossil fuels in the face of global climate change have brought the debate over a switch from coal and oil to “clean-burning” natural gas to the fore.  All of these discourses around the promotion of unconventional energy in North America have involved, most notably in the United States of America, new federal tax incentives, new federal subsidies, de-regulation, new federal and state policies and regulations, state permit streamlining, and federal and state security measures that protect the corporations and technologies involved in unconventional oil and gas developments.

Yet, the calculation of the United States of America’s promotion and protection of unconventional energy development does not take into consideration the increasing costs (and losses) paid by local rural landowners, families, livelihoods, histories, and landscapes, where the majority of these fossil fuel resources are geographically located. Rural landowners will continue to pay these costs in both the short and long term to satisfy the predominately urban and industrial demands for electricity, private transportation, and goods. Even the increasingly capitalized agricultural sector appears beholden to the promotion of fossil fuel developments (Cleveland 1995). My work, and this blog, are dedicated to sharing (without compromising the security and safety of the people I work with) what I am documenting about the everyday, real-life perspectives of rural families across North America. The rural people and places that grow our current (and future) food supplies are in many cases the caretakers of not only our physical health, but also our watersheds, and increasingly, according to what I have witnessed over the years in Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas, these people are being treated as slaves, or worse, a people to dispose of in the name of unconventional fossil fuel energy development.

Literature Cited

Cleveland, Cutler J. 1995. The direct and indirect use of fossil fuels and electricity in USA agriculture, 1910-1990. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 55(2): 111-121.

Energy Information Administration. 2011. Annual energy outlook 2011 with projections to 2035. DOE/EIA-0383(2011). www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/.

Holditch, Stephen A. 2006. Tight gas sands. JPT, June 2006:86-93. Society of Petroleum Engineers, SPE Paper 103356, Distinguished Author Series. http://www.spe.org/spe-site/spe/spe/jpt/2006/06/5278463DAS103356.pdf.

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Documenting the social, environmental, and psychological costs of unconventional energy developments across North America