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Almost half of the world’s population is running out of freshwater, the basis of terrestrial life. Yet water is competing with our greed for oil.
Find all the references at the end of the post.
Contrary to what you might think, I am going to talk about water. Water and oil.
Last November, The Guardian has warned of water shortages affecting more than 3 billion people worldwide. In 20 years, the amount of freshwater available per person has decreased by 20% and billions of people will face chronic food shortages. The article blames climate change, of course, as well as increased demand and what the author calls “poor management”. Not a single word about oil, though.
Yet! The French organization Les Greniers d’Abondance, which brings together people from research and from the field to act on the food resilience of local areas, clearly demonstrates that the global food system is entirely dependent on oil. Besides, oil has a much more direct impact on the planet’s freshwater supplies: it pollutes them.
Cleaning up abandoned and orphaned wells
In October 2020, a journalist from Le Monde reported on the plans of the Bridgeoil company, which currently operates two oil wells in the town of Nonville, less than 70 kilometers south of Paris in France. The company plans to drill 10 additional wells in the area of two groundwater catchments that are strategic for the water supply of the French capital. While a geologist from the oil company tries to reassure by mentioning the cementing of the structures to guarantee the sealing of the drilling over time, by turning our gaze towards Canada, we discover other devastating effects of oil exploitation. The oil industry is leaving behind an increasing number of remnants that go by the moving name of “orphan wells”, whose risks of leakage threaten the soil and the water table. Let’s take a step back to understand what happens during drilling: to bring fossil fuels (oil or gas) to the surface, a company digs holes sometimes hundreds of meters deep and consolidates them with concrete and steel. When these wells are no longer in use, the company is required to clean them up, by plugging it with cement and removing the top (such as pumps and pipes). “After a well has been abandoned, the land can then be reclaimed.”
When it comes to orphaned wells, there is no longer a company responsible for the high costs of cleanup: the slowdown in the growth of the fossil fuel sector has indeed caused bankruptcies. These orphaned or abandoned wells are not a handful of infrastructures left behind in the Canadian wilderness! There are nearly 94,000 in Alberta, 24,000 in Saskatchewan and 10,000 in British Columbia. As the oil industry fails, taxpayers are likely to pay the bill, which could be as high as $100 billion.
Without delay, the Saulteau and West Moberly Lake First Nations in British Columbia are preparing to restore polluted land occupied by inactive wells. Radio-Canada reports on the work of Carmen Richter, a biologist with the Saulteau First Nation, to revegetate wells with native plants. These plants decontaminate the land, but they also have the vocation “to restore their original function”. Ethnobotany thus makes it possible to reconstitute the use and function of the land in “pre-colonial times”, in particular by questioning the elders and the stories. This recovery to the natural state before oil is not a whim of a nostalgic indigenous community but a way to ensure future food security.
The water of Lake Chad, a regional stability issue
Another continent, another once-colonized land, same greed for oil: according to The Conversation, Canadian oil company ReconAfrica plans to explore for oil and gas in protected areas in southern Africa, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It will use conventional techniques and fracking. This latter technique threatens to pollute water resources in countries where freshwater is already scarce.
Further north, Lake Chad is under threat: The Guardian reports that Chad’s tourism and culture minister wrote to Unesco last September, asking to “postpone the process of registering Lake Chad on the World Heritage list” in order to explore oil and mining opportunities in the region. Lake Chad is home to 45 million people and provides them with water and resources. Its surface area has been drastically reduced since the 1970s due to drought and increased irrigation needs because of population growth. Exploration projects for fossil fuels have come at a bad time: studies conducted as part of the World Heritage application had revealed an increase in the size of the lake in recent years.
The oil industry’s entry may also exacerbate tensions in the region: an analysis published by The Conversation highlights the role of the shrinking Lake Chad in its instability. It is causing a loss of livelihoods, encouraging crime, migration to urban centers and making it easier for terrorist groups to recruit. “Management of the shrinking lake has caused conflicts among the states that depend on it and this has made it more difficult for them to collectively fight insecurity in the region. The lake is central to regional stability. To achieve peace, countries should focus on reviving the water body rather than on military activities.” This conclusion is similar to that of a Novethic paper on the effects of climate change on armies: “access to fresh water is already a significant factor of instability and will pose a major global security problem by 2030”.
So hot in the Arctic!
However, nothing seems to stop our frantic quest for oil. The New Republic revealed that the US oil giant “ExxonMobil has recently planned to increase its carbon dioxide emissions 17 percent by 2025 while doubling its earnings.” Recently, the online science magazine Phys.org announced the start of the gigantic Vostok project in the Arctic by the also gigantic Russian oil company Rosneft: it has been forecast to create 130,000 jobs, including the construction of a 770-kilometre oil pipeline and a port. Vostok project should “allow access to estimated reserves of around five billion tonnes of oil.”
However, the Arctic is not what it used to be… This vast reservoir of fresh water is melting! In Alaska, the American oil company ConocoPhillips, which wanted to pump 160,000 more barrels of oil each day, had to face the consequences of global warming, which is particularly strong in the Arctic (and largely caused by the oil industry): the thawing of the permafrost was threatening its infrastructures! No problem, we’ll fix it! Engineers found the solution: an energy-intensive ground-cooling device. Just think about it!
“Russian oil giant announces start of vast Arctic project” (Phys.org, 25/11/2020).
Kate ARONOFF, “ExxonMobil Should Not Exist” (The New Republic, 06/10/2020).
Surina ESTERHUYSE, “How fracking plans could affect shared water resources in southern Africa” (The Conversation, 18/10/2020).
Mélanie GOUBY, “Chad halts lake’s world heritage status request over oil exploration” (The Guardian, 24/09/2020).
Fiona HARVEY, “More than 3 billion people affected by water shortages, data shows” (The Guardian, 26/11/2020).
Nat HERZ, “Big oil’s answer to melting Arctic: cooling the ground so it can keep drilling” (The Guardian, 19/10/2020).
Kevin KEMBALL, “The growing cost to clean up abandoned and orphaned wells” (The Conversation, 15/10/2020).
LES GRENIERS D’ABONDANCE, « Qui veille au grain pour demain ? » (Medium, 16/04/2020).
Stéphane MANDARD, « La Mairie de Paris alerte sur la « menace » d’un projet de forages pétroliers sur l’alimentation en eau de la capitale » (Le Monde, 20/10/2020).
Saheed Babajide OWONIKOKO, “The key to peace in the Lake Chad area is water, not military action” (The Conversation, 30/09/2020).
Camille VERNET, « Les Premières Nations utilisent l’ethnobotanique pour restaurer l’environnement » (Radio-Canada, 16/10/2020).
Jingle music: Muthoni Drummer Queen — Suzie Noma