Petrocultures Research Group members Danine Farquharson and Fiona Polack have just published a cutting edge edited collection, Cold Water Oil: Offshore Petroleum Cultures. In this post, Danine and Fiona explain their interest in studying offshore oil cultures, and why what happens out at sea matters for the politics of climate change and energy transition.
The Cold Water Offshore
At the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Premier, Andrew Furey, promoted the Canadian province’s offshore oil as a “clean” product with an important part to play in the transition away from fossil fuels. He did so fully aware that his message might not be well received at this particular venue, and at considerable financial and travel-induced climate-emissions cost. Furey was not the only politician willing to risk ridicule to peddle his jurisdiction’s offshore oil products at a gathering devoted to combatting the climate crisis. The Climate Action Network granted Norway the not-so-tongue-in-cheek “Fossil of the Day Award” on November 2 for promoting its gas as “part of the solution for a transition to renewable energy.”
Many nations and regions that produce offshore oil, particularly in frigid seas, are in a quandary at the moment. Some, like Denmark, have walked away from the industry altogether. But others, like Norway and Newfoundland and Labrador, are scrambling to proclaim their climate awareness by rebranding their products and committing to reducing production-related emissions—all while aggressively seeking to expand their operations. In the process, these societies perpetuate and revise powerful existing narratives about what it means to extract oil from beneath the ocean. As researchers interested in how cultural figurations of offshore energy shape human and nonhuman futures, we see great value in comparing how these efforts and discourses are unfolding across the North Atlantic and Arctic, in particular. Because of its ecological fragility, and the extreme logistical, political, and financial challenges this oceanic region poses to petroleum producers, it is something of a limit case for energy transition.
Over a quarter of the world’s oil, and an increasing proportion of its gas, comes from offshore sources. In the case of what we call the cold water offshore, this product might best be described, paraphrasing Stephanie LeMenager, as super “tough oil.” Oil and gas operations are often geographically entangled across this region as nations such as Norway and Russia, with already well-established industries in the North Atlantic, seek to expand operations in their Arctic territories. Exploration and production take place in frigid and tumultuous seas and within ecologically sensitive and isolated environments. Cold water oil locations are exceedingly difficult to remediate in the event of spills, pose unique engineering and operational challenges, and require exorbitant amounts of money to exploit. Indeed, the cold water offshore is so uniquely challenging that the International Organization for Standardization issues specific guidelines to inform operations within it. Ironically, the temptation to pursue hydrocarbons in the Arctic and yet untapped parts of the North Atlantic only grows as climate change melts sea ice and makes once remote oceans more accessible.
In our new edited collection, Cold Water Oil: Offshore Petroleum Cultures, we take petrocultural research out to sea. Our contributors attend to overlooked histories, influential contemporary narratives, and emerging energy and environmental futures associated with petroleum extraction in the oceanic territories of Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, and the Iñupiat of Alaska. Thinking about oil and its effects in geographically and environmentally de-limited contexts makes it easier to perceive petroleum’s complex influences, and to identify the narratives and mythologies that often accompany its extraction and consumption. The climate crisis makes studies of cold water oil urgent. What happens offshore matters.
Fiona Polack and Danine Farquharson are both Associate Professors in the Department of English at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Cold Water Oil is available now from Routledge.