The Oil Dichotomy

Photograph by James Balog

Is the oil industry a champion of the people, bringing livelihoods where there were none before, or is it a killer of the environment, driving the human race to extinction through its own dumb appetite? Both.

You may think Gulf Coast oil industry families complaining about the drilling moratorium even as oil sloshes toward the beach offer the best illustration of the dichotomy. They don’t. Greenland does.

The June issue of the indispensable National Geographic tackled this head-on in a cover story called “Greenland: Ground Zero For Global Warming.” Part of the feature is available online. The story tells how Greenland is adjusting to the melting of its ice sheet, a 650,000-square-mile behemoth covering 80 percent of the island. Are the 56,000 inhabitants of the island irate at the oil industry for contributing to the melting of the sheet? Not all of them. Many are happy because the disappearance of the sheet makes it easier for them to get…oil.

From the article: “The sea off the central west coast now typically remains ice free for nearly half the year, a month longer than 25 years ago. With the greater ease of working in Greenland’s waters, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other oil companies have acquired exploration licenses.”

The director of Greenland’s Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum said, “We have some very impressive estimates for northwest and northeast Greenland — 50 billion barrels of oil and gas.” The country wants that to be produced to reap more than $4 trillion, which Tim Folger, the author of the article, described as “a windfall that could fund the country’s independence.”

Talk about a mixed blessing. Folger wrote that to “some Greenlanders it would be a Faustian bargain” and quotes Sofie Petersen who, like nearly all Greenlanders, has a Danish surname but is Inuit: “I think oil will damage our way of living. Of course everyone needs money, but should we sell our souls? What will happen if we are millionaires, every one of us, and we can’t deliver Greenland as we know it to our grandchildren? I would rather have little money and give the land to our grandchildren instead.”

She’s not the only one wrestling with the trade-off. From the article:

“It’s a big dilemma to deal with the oil issue, since the Arctic people are the ones most exposed to climate change,” says Kuupik Kleist, Greenland’s popular new prime minister. . . . The irony in his country becoming a major producer of the very stuff that is helping to melt its ice sheet is not lost on him.

“We need a stronger economy,” Kleist says, “and we have to utilize the opportunities that oil could bring to us. Environmentalists around the world advise us not to exploit the oil reserves. But we are not in the situation where we can replace the declining income from our fisheries, and we don’t have any other resources for the time being that hold as much potential as oil.”

The world’s runaway human population has all but eaten the oceans empty, so fisheries are gone, and is burning so much fossil fuel that the poles are melting, so oil is more accessible to step in and replace the collapsed fishing income, and the new oil will be burned up by the growing human population, which will grow that much faster due to the economic boost provided by oil usage.

Nice future we’re cooking up, so to speak.

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