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Just months after an enormous discovery of natural gas off the coast of Israel, a local company has reported another potentially big strike -- an estimated 1.4 billion barrels of oil, in addition to more natural gas. The company, Israel Opportunity Energy Resources, says it will start drilling by the end of the year. All of a sudden, Israel has found itself a focus of the world's hydrocarbon interest.
Energy experts are tittering about a prodigious new golden age of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Israel and Cyprus could become substantial oil and natural gas exporters, in addition to some other surprising places including French Guiana, Kenya, North Dakota, and Somalia. All in all, say increasingly mainstream projections, the world is moving into a period of petroleum abundance, and not the scarcity that most industry hands embraced just months ago. Plus, the United States, or at least North America, may be on the cusp of energy independence while OPEC's days of über-influence are numbered.
What these experts have not said, however, is that while this new golden age may indeed shake up the currently rich and powerful and create new regional forces, it could also accelerate the swamping of the planet in melted Arctic ice. So much new oil may flood the market that crude and gasoline prices might moderate and lessen consumer incentives to economize. "In the absence of U.S. leadership, I tend to agree with NASA's James Hansen that it is 'game over for the planet,'" Peter Rutland, a professor at Wesleyan University, told me in an email exchange.
This unspoken flaw in the golden-age scenario suggests it might not unfold so smoothly. The projected turnaround of oil's sagging fortunes may indeed herald economic salvation for the U.S. and global economies. But the environmental consequences could also trip up its full realization.
Hansen famously made his apocalyptic remark (and repeated it last month in the New York Times) while discussing Canadian plans to expand exports of Albertan oil sands to the United States through a new Keystone XL pipeline to the Texas Gulf coast. Significant as they are, however, the sands are only one component of the projected global flood of new oil. Excluded from his appraisal are millions of additional barrels per day expected in the next decade and beyond from North Dakota's Bakken shale oil, plus the deep waters off Angola, Brazil, Ghana, the U.S. Gulf Coast, and elsewhere.
In that context, Hansen's staunch opposition to Keystone resembles less a strong defensive position than the proverbial finger in the dike. Two weeks ago, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that carbon dioxide emissions last year already neared an important line: the point at which the probability of global temperatures sticking to a maximum 2 degree Celsius rise above pre-Industrial Revolution levels dips below 50 percent. Carbon emissions reached a record 31.6 gigatons in 2011, just under the targeted 2017 maximum of 32.6 gigatons, the point at which the IEA wants emissions to start dropping. If the new oil finds are developed fully, you will instead "blow through your emissions targets," says Frank Verrastro, director of energy and security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.