10/15/2007 07:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Arctic Agonistes: Ceding Its Treasure of Oil and Gas

It's enough to turn a thoughtful reader into an uneasy and puzzled penguin. One week's newspaper headlines warn that the strikingly rapid pace of ice melting in the Arctic may be at a "tipping point," the critical juncture at which the thaw turns into a self-sustaining calamity. Meanwhile, the Southern Ocean that encircles Antarctica seems to be absorbing less carbon (not a good thing), and the ever-warming atmosphere is causing more frequent drought in the Amazon basin leading in part to such seemingly arcane side effects as causing plagues of beetles that are denuding pine forests in Alaska and parts of Canada. But before one can fully digest the scope of the potential disaster, come headlines the following week that tell of oil and gas companies cheerily gearing up to tap the newly accessible mother lodes of fossil fuels sitting at the soon-to-be ice-free top of the world -- despite the fact that these elements are the acknowledged culprit in what is shaping up as an almost unavoidable global catastrophe.

From Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, we learn that all the models have apparently underestimated the speed at which the Arctic ice is melting; indeed, the ice has "already tipped," the institute says. In other words, the ice has shrunk to the point where there is too little of it reflecting the sun's warming rays back into the atmosphere and too much dark ocean water absorbing the heat of those rays, thus creating a vicious circle that further speeds up the warming trend. If the German scientists are correct, the polar icecap may already be a lost cause. And, its melting will threaten indigenous Arctic populations and wildlife such as polar bears, which will drown from exhaustion as they search for a resting place on icebergs that are no longer there.

Scary? Yes. But perhaps not as scary as The New York Times piece that appeared October 9 detailing Norway's successful quest to mount "the first commercial energy production from waters north of the Arctic Circle." Typically, the Times reporter couldn't resist lending a helping hand to the oil and gas industry, making its case for rationalizing current and ever higher prices for by admiringly informing us that $200 billion was spent developing new energy projects last year. It then continues in the fawning and unquestioning fashion of The New York Times pertaining all matters related to the oil industry, informing us these $200 billion "are an amount larger than the economies of 147 countries."

No mention of course, that with the world consuming approximately 83 million barrels per day, or 30.295 billion barrels per year, at today's prices of over $80 per barrel, the world's oil companies still have something on the order of $2.23 trillion of revenue to divvy up among themselves. That is for crude oil alone and not counting the munificent margins on down stream products such a gasoline and fuel oil.

Another "point" the New York Times reporter left up in the air concerns the justification for today's $80/bbl-plus price for oil. He acknowledged that the industry's discovery and development costs add up to "nearly $15 a barrel," and that is for new sources, conveniently overlooking the fact that installed capacity is pumping away at production costs averaging significantly less then $10 a barrel, thereby leaving readers to wonder about the reasons for a more than 400 to 800 percent markup! But don't hold your breath waiting for the New York Times to go there, other than feeding us the usual oil industry pabulum that it's all due to "market forces"

But I digress. The point I wish to make is the tragedy inherent in this hell-bent rush to satisfy the world's growing appetite for fossil fuels when what we should be doing is looking for any and every way possible to rein in that appetite. Yet, as the dire predictions of global warming come into focus with ever more chilling (pun intended) accuracy and rapidity, our leadership in Washington continues to sit on their hands. No one in power calls for mandatory curbs on manufacturers' deadly emissions of carbon dioxide or initiatives to reduce Americans' use of fossil fuels or serious policies to encourage the development and distribution of alternative energy sources. Rather, the big breakthrough from this administration is its pathetic concession that there is indeed such a thing as global warming, with all its deadly consequences. But should we gear up to do something meaningful to reverse this catastrophe before it's too late? No, says our Madam Secretary of State, speaking on behalf of our president, let's just stress the need for new environmental technology and put our faith in voluntary measures to limit CO2 emissions. Sorry, folks, but faith-based initiatives won't work here. If voluntarism was a viable approach, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in. After all, it's not as if this notion of global warming is an altogether new one.

So, in the face of a world besotted with oil and a U.S. president who aids and abets the industry's machinations, what can worried citizens do to focus attention on interrupting the destabilizing process that is the process of wreaking havoc around the world? Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor at the University of Toronto, writing recently in a New York Times op-ed piece entitled, "A Swiftly Melting Planet," reminds us that, in the 1960s, mothers by the tens of thousands organized a campaign that virtually halted atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Fearing that their children risked childhood leukemia from drinking milk containing radioactive material, these women banded together to demand change and they got it. The threat global warming poses to our children and grandchildren may be even more catastrophic.

The time has passed for wishing and hoping that someone else will fix this problem. Now, anyone and everyone who wishes the only world we have well, but also to have it prosper and survive must stand up and be counted -- before it's too late. And a final thought, perhaps those 'hanging chads' in Florida did us all a favor after all. If not for them, Al Gore would have been dealing with a recalcitrant Congress, and the Nobel champion of this crucial issue would have been waylaid deep in party politics. Listening to all the presumptive candidates, we now know how compelling and constructive that happens to be.

Raymond Learsy is the author of the updated "Over a Barrel: Breaking Oil's Stranglehold on Our Future."