Posts Tagged ‘Michael Klare’
Michael Klare offers convincing proof that the world is mad!
Once again, serendipity has stepped in and provided me with today’s post.
What do I mean?
Well yesterday, I republished in full a recent essay from George Monbiot. He demonstrated that when it comes to “fiddling while Rome burns” the United Nations takes some beating. This is in the context of 23 years of UN gatherings to control the levels of CO2 in our planet’s atmosphere without attempting, in the slightest, to control the production of coal, oil and gas. Take this excerpt as an example of our madness.
You cannot solve a problem without naming it. The absence of official recognition of the role of fossil fuel production in causing climate change – blitheringly obvious as it is – permits governments to pursue directly contradictory policies. While almost all governments claim to support the aim of preventing more than 2°C of global warming, they also seek to “maximise economic recovery” of their fossil fuel reserves. (Then they cross their fingers, walk three times widdershins around the office and pray that no one burns it). But few governments go as far as the UK has gone.
In the Infrastructure Act that received royal assent last month, maximising the economic recovery of petroleum from the UK’s continental shelf became a statutory duty. Future governments are now legally bound to squeeze every possible drop out of the ground.
The idea came from a government review conducted by Sir Ian Wood, the billionaire owner of an inherited company – the Wood Group – that provides services to the oil and gas industry. While Sir Ian says his recommendations “received overwhelming industry support”, his team interviewed no one outside either the oil business or government. It contains no sign that I can detect of any feedback from environment groups or scientists.
Then serendipitously, yesterday morning up pops an essay from Michael Klare published on Tom Dispatch that continues to underline the absence, the global absence, of any form of smart thinking. It is republished today with the kind permission of Tom Engelhardt.
Tomgram: Michael Klare, Is Big Oil Finally Entering a Climate Change World?
Posted by Michael Klare at 8:00am, March 12, 2015.
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Welcome to the asylum! I’m talking, of course, about this country, or rather the world Big Oil spent big bucks creating.You know, the one in which the obvious — climate change — is doubted and denied, and in which the new Republican Congress is actively opposed to doing anything about it. Just the other day, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote a column in his home state paper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, adopting the old Nancy Reagan slogan “just say no” to climate change. The senator from Coalville, smarting over the Obama administration’s attempts to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, is urging state governors to simply ignore the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed “landmark limits” on those plants — to hell with the law and to hell, above all, with climate change. But it’s probably no news to you that the inmates are now running the asylum.
Just weeks ago, an example of Big Energy’s largess when it comes to sowing doubt about climate change surfaced. A rare scientific researcher, Wei-Hock Soon, who has published work denying the reality of climate change — the warming of the planet, he claims, is a result of “variations in the sun’s energy” — turned out to have received $1.2 million from various fossil fuel outfits, according to recently released documents; nor did he bother to disclose such support to any of the publications using his work. “The documents,” reported the New York Times, “show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as ‘deliverables’ that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.”
There’s nothing new in this. Big Energy (like Big Tobacco before it) has for years been using a tiny cadre of scientists to sow uncertainty about the reality of climate change. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway wrote a now-classic investigative book, Merchants of Doubt, about just how the fossil fuel companies pulled this off, creating a public sense of doubt where a scientific one didn’t exist. Now, the book has been made into a striking documentary film, which has just opened nationally. Someday, perhaps, all of this will enter a court of law where those who knowingly perpetrated fraud on the American and global publics and in the process threatened humanity with a disaster of potentially apocalyptic proportions will get their just desserts. On that distant day when those who ran the planet into the ground for corporate profits have to pay for their criminal acts, Merchants of Doubt will undoubtedly be exhibit one for the prosecution.
In the meantime, TomDispatch regular Michael Klare continues his invaluable chronicling at this site of the depredations of Big Oil on this fragile planet of ours. Tom
Big Oil’s Broken Business Model
The Real Story Behind the Oil Price Collapse
By Michael T. Klare
Many reasons have been provided for the dramatic plunge in the price of oil to about $60 per barrel (nearly half of what it was a year ago): slowing demand due to global economic stagnation; overproduction at shale fields in the United States; the decision of the Saudis and other Middle Eastern OPEC producers to maintain output at current levels (presumably to punish higher-cost producers in the U.S. and elsewhere); and the increased value of the dollar relative to other currencies. There is, however, one reason that’s not being discussed, and yet it could be the most important of all: the complete collapse of Big Oil’s production-maximizing business model.
Until last fall, when the price decline gathered momentum, the oil giants were operating at full throttle, pumping out more petroleum every day. They did so, of course, in part to profit from the high prices. For most of the previous six years, Brent crude, the international benchmark for crude oil, had been selling at $100 or higher. But Big Oil was also operating according to a business model that assumed an ever-increasing demand for its products, however costly they might be to produce and refine. This meant that no fossil fuel reserves, no potential source of supply — no matter how remote or hard to reach, how far offshore or deeply buried, how encased in rock — was deemed untouchable in the mad scramble to increase output and profits.
In recent years, this output-maximizing strategy had, in turn, generated historic wealth for the giant oil companies. Exxon, the largest U.S.-based oil firm, earned an eye-popping $32.6 billion in 2013 alone, more than any other American company except for Apple. Chevron, the second biggest oil firm, posted earnings of $21.4 billion that same year. State-owned companies like Saudi Aramco and Russia’s Rosneft also reaped mammoth profits.
How things have changed in a matter of mere months. With demand stagnant and excess production the story of the moment, the very strategy that had generated record-breaking profits has suddenly become hopelessly dysfunctional.
To fully appreciate the nature of the energy industry’s predicament, it’s necessary to go back a decade to 2005, when the production-maximizing strategy was first adopted. At that time, Big Oil faced a critical juncture. On the one hand, many existing oil fields were being depleted at a torrid pace, leading experts to predict an imminent “peak” in global oil production, followed by an irreversible decline; on the other, rapid economic growth in China, India, and other developing nations was pushing demand for fossil fuels into the stratosphere. In those same years, concern over climate change was also beginning to gather momentum, threatening the future of Big Oil and generating pressures to invest in alternative forms of energy.
A “Brave New World” of Tough Oil
No one better captured that moment than David O’Reilly, the chairman and CEO of Chevron. “Our industry is at a strategic inflection point, a unique place in our history,” he told a gathering of oil executives that February. “The most visible element of this new equation,” he explained in what some observers dubbed his “Brave New World” address, “is that relative to demand, oil is no longer in plentiful supply.” Even though China was sucking up oil, coal, and natural gas supplies at a staggering rate, he had a message for that country and the world: “The era of easy access to energy is over.”
To prosper in such an environment, O’Reilly explained, the oil industry would have to adopt a new strategy. It would have to look beyond the easy-to-reach sources that had powered it in the past and make massive investments in the extraction of what the industry calls “unconventional oil” and what I labeled at the time “tough oil”: resources located far offshore, in the threatening environments of the far north, in politically dangerous places like Iraq, or in unyielding rock formations like shale. “Increasingly,” O’Reilly insisted, “future supplies will have to be found in ultradeep water and other remote areas, development projects that will ultimately require new technology and trillions of dollars of investment in new infrastructure.”
For top industry officials like O’Reilly, it seemed evident that Big Oil had no choice in the matter. It would have to invest those needed trillions in tough-oil projects or lose ground to other sources of energy, drying up its stream of profits. True, the cost of extracting unconventional oil would be much greater than from easier-to-reach conventional reserves (not to mention more environmentally hazardous), but that would be the world’s problem, not theirs. “Collectively, we are stepping up to this challenge,” O’Reilly declared. “The industry is making significant investments to build additional capacity for future production.”
On this basis, Chevron, Exxon, Royal Dutch Shell, and other major firms indeed invested enormous amounts of money and resources in a growing unconventional oil and gas race, an extraordinary saga I described in my book The Race for What’s Left. Some, including Chevron and Shell, started drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico; others, including Exxon, commenced operations in the Arctic and eastern Siberia. Virtually every one of them began exploiting U.S. shale reserves via hydro-fracking.
Only one top executive questioned this drill-baby-drill approach: John Browne, then the chief executive of BP. Claiming that the science of climate change had become too convincing to deny, Browne argued that Big Energy would have to look “beyond petroleum” and put major resources into alternative sources of supply. “Climate change is an issue which raises fundamental questions about the relationship between companies and society as a whole, and between one generation and the next,” he had declared as early as 2002. For BP, he indicated, that meant developing wind power, solar power, and biofuels.
Browne, however, was eased out of BP in 2007 just as Big Oil’s output-maximizing business model was taking off, and his successor, Tony Hayward, quickly abandoned the “beyond petroleum” approach. “Some may question whether so much of the [world’s energy] growth needs to come from fossil fuels,” he said in 2009. “But here it is vital that we face up to the harsh reality [of energy availability].” Despite the growing emphasis on renewables, “we still foresee 80% of energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030.”
Under Hayward’s leadership, BP largely discontinued its research into alternative forms of energy and reaffirmed its commitment to the production of oil and gas, the tougher the better. Following in the footsteps of other giant firms, BP hustled into the Arctic, the deep water of the Gulf of Mexico, and Canadian tar sands, a particularly carbon-dirty and messy-to-produce form of energy. In its drive to become the leading producer in the Gulf, BP rushed the exploration of a deep offshore field it called Macondo, triggering the Deepwater Horizon blow-out of April 2010 and the devastating oil spill of monumental proportions that followed.
Over the Cliff
By the end of the first decade of this century, Big Oil was united in its embrace of its new production-maximizing, drill-baby-drill approach. It made the necessary investments, perfected new technology for extracting tough oil, and did indeed triumph over the decline of existing, “easy oil” deposits. In those years, it managed to ramp up production in remarkable ways, bringing ever more hard-to-reach oil reservoirs online.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) of the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production rose from 85.1 million barrels per day in 2005 to 92.9 million in 2014, despite the continuing decline of many legacy fields in North America and the Middle East. Claiming that industry investments in new drilling technologies had vanquished the specter of oil scarcity, BP’s latest CEO, Bob Dudley, assured the world only a year ago that Big Oil was going places and the only thing that had “peaked” was “the theory of peak oil.”
That, of course, was just before oil prices took their leap off the cliff, bringing instantly into question the wisdom of continuing to pump out record levels of petroleum. The production-maximizing strategy crafted by O’Reilly and his fellow CEOs rested on three fundamental assumptions: that, year after year, demand would keep climbing; that such rising demand would ensure prices high enough to justify costly investments in unconventional oil; and that concern over climate change would in no significant way alter the equation. Today, none of these assumptions holds true.
Demand will continue to rise — that’s undeniable, given expected growth in world income and population — but not at the pace to which Big Oil has become accustomed. Consider this: in 2005, when many of the major investments in unconventional oil were getting under way, the EIA projected that global oil demand would reach 103.2 million barrels per day in 2015; now, it’s lowered that figure for this year to only 93.1 million barrels. Those 10 million “lost” barrels per day in expected consumption may not seem like a lot, given the total figure, but keep in mind that Big Oil’s multibillion-dollar investments in tough energy were predicated on all that added demand materializing, thereby generating the kind of high prices needed to offset the increasing costs of extraction. With so much anticipated demand vanishing, however, prices were bound to collapse.
Current indications suggest that consumption will continue to fall short of expectations in the years to come. In an assessment of future trends released last month, the EIA reported that, thanks to deteriorating global economic conditions, many countries will experience either a slower rate of growth or an actual reduction in consumption. While still inching up, Chinese consumption, for instance, is expected to grow by only 0.3 million barrels per day this year and next — a far cry from the 0.5 million barrel increase it posted in 2011 and 2012 and its one million barrel increase in 2010. In Europe and Japan, meanwhile, consumption is actually expected to fall over the next two years.
And this slowdown in demand is likely to persist well beyond 2016, suggests the International Energy Agency (IEA), an arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the club of rich industrialized nations). While lower gasoline prices may spur increased consumption in the United States and a few other nations, it predicted, most countries will experience no such lift and so “the recent price decline is expected to have only a marginal impact on global demand growth for the remainder of the decade.”
This being the case, the IEA believes that oil prices will only average about $55 per barrel in 2015 and not reach $73 again until 2020. Such figures fall far below what would be needed to justify continued investment in and exploitation of tough-oil options like Canadian tar sands, Arctic oil, and many shale projects. Indeed, the financial press is now full of reports on stalled or cancelled mega-energy projects. Shell, for example, announced in January that it had abandoned plans for a $6.5 billion petrochemical plant in Qatar, citing “the current economic climate prevailing in the energy industry.” At the same time, Chevron shelved its plan to drill in the Arctic waters of the Beaufort Sea, while Norway’s Statoil turned its back on drilling in Greenland.
There is, as well, another factor that threatens the wellbeing of Big Oil: climate change can no longer be discounted in any future energy business model. The pressures to deal with a phenomenon that could quite literally destroy human civilization are growing. Although Big Oil has spent massive amounts of money over the years in a campaign to raise doubts about the science of climate change, more and more people globally are starting to worry about its effects — extreme weather patterns, extreme storms, extreme drought, rising sea levels, and the like — and demanding that governments take action to reduce the magnitude of the threat.
Europe has already adopted plans to lower carbon emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2020 and to achieve even greater reductions in the following decades. China, while still increasing its reliance on fossil fuels, has at least finally pledged to cap the growth of its carbon emissions by 2030 and to increase renewable energy sources to 20% of total energy use by then. In the United States, increasingly stringent automobile fuel-efficiency standards will require that cars sold in 2025 achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon, reducing U.S. oil demand by 2.2 million barrels per day. (Of course, the Republican-controlled Congress — heavily subsidized by Big Oil — will do everything it can to eradicate curbs on fossil fuel consumption.)
Still, however inadequate the response to the dangers of climate change thus far, the issue is on the energy map and its influence on policy globally can only increase. Whether Big Oil is ready to admit it or not, alternative energy is now on the planetary agenda and there’s no turning back from that. “It is a different world than it was the last time we saw an oil-price plunge,” said IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven in February, referring to the 2008 economic meltdown. “Emerging economies, notably China, have entered less oil-intensive stages of development… On top of this, concerns about climate change are influencing energy policies [and so] renewables are increasingly pervasive.”
The oil industry is, of course, hoping that the current price plunge will soon reverse itself and that its now-crumbling maximizing-output model will make a comeback along with $100-per-barrel price levels. But these hopes for the return of “normality” are likely energy pipe dreams. As van der Hoeven suggests, the world has changed in significant ways, in the process obliterating the very foundations on which Big Oil’s production-maximizing strategy rested. The oil giants will either have to adapt to new circumstances, while scaling back their operations, or face takeover challenges from more nimble and aggressive firms.
Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left. A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2015 Michael T. Klare
Both yesterday’s essay from George Monbiot and Michael Klare’s essay above are not quick reads. But reading them thoroughly is rewarding because it underlines the degree to which the lives of millions of hard-working citizens comes to naught when big money, power and politics are involved.
A story of a ship is just the tip of the iceberg!
This is the ship:
Just a ship out of many thousands that ply the trade routes across our oceans. She was built in 2011 and is classified as a bulk carrier. Her gross tonnage is 40,142 tons. She is 738 feet long and 105 feet wide.
So what, you may ask?
To answer that question, let me turn to a recent post over on TomDispatch generously offered for republication on Learning from Dogs. (Thanks Tom.)
Tomgram: Rebecca Solnit, The Age of Inhuman Scale
It was the stuff of fantasy, of repeated failed expeditions and dreams that wouldn’t die. I’m talking about the Northwest Passage, that fabled route through Arctic waters around North America. Now, it’s reality. The first “bulk carrier,” a Danish commercial freighter with a load of coal, just traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to Finland, cutting a week off its voyage, skipping the Panama Canal, and even, according to the Finnish steel maker Ruukki Metals, for whom the coal was intended, “reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because of fuel savings.”
When dreams come true, it’s time to celebrate, no? Only in this case, under the upbeat news of the immediate moment lies a far larger nightmare. Those expeditions from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries failed to find the Northwest Passage because Arctic sea ice made the voyage impossible. There simply was no passage. No longer. Thanks to global warming, the melting of ice — glaciers are losing an estimated 303 billion tons of the stuff annually worldwide — staggers the imagination. The Greenland ice shield is turning into runoff ever more rapidly, threatening significant sea level rise, and all of the melting in the cold north has, in turn, opened a previously nonexistent Northwest Passage, as well as a similar passage through Russia’s Arctic waters.
None of this would have happened, as the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out in its latest report, if not for the way the burning of fossil fuels (like that coal the Nordic Orion took to Finland) has poured carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In other words, we created that Arctic passage and made it commercially viable, thus ensuring that our world, the one we’ve known since the dawn of (human) time, will be ever less viable for our children and grandchildren. After all, the Arctic with its enormous reservoirs of fossil fuels can now begin to be opened up for exploitation like so much of the rest of the planet. And there can be no doubt about it: those previously unreachable reserves will be extracted and burned, putting yet more CO2 into the atmosphere, and anyone who tries to stop that process, as Greenpeace protestors symbolically tried to do recently at an oil rig in Arctic Russia, will be dealt with firmly as “pirates” or worse. That dream of history, of explorers from once upon a time, is now not just a reality, but part of a seemingly inexorable feedback loop of modern fossil-fuel production and planetary heating, another aspect of what Michael Klare has grimly termed the Third Carbon Age (rather than a new Age of Renewables).
If we don’t need a little perspective on ourselves and our world now, then when? Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit is here to offer us both that perspective and some hope for what we can do in the face of well-funded climate denialism and fossil-fuel company boosterism. Tom
Bigger Than That
(The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change
By Rebecca Solnit
Late last week, in the lobby of a particularly unglamorous downtown San Francisco building, a group of passionate but polite activists met with a bureaucrat who stepped forward to hear what they had to say about the fate of the Earth. The activists wanted to save the world. The particular part of it that might be under their control involved getting the San Francisco Retirement board to divest its half a billion dollars in fossil fuel holdings, one piece of the international divestment movement that arose a year ago.
Sometimes the fate of the Earth boils down to getting one person with modest powers to budge.
The bureaucrat had a hundred reasons why changing course was, well, too much of a change. This public official wanted to operate under ordinary-times rules and the idea that climate change has thrust us into extraordinary times (and that divesting didn’t necessarily entail financial loss or even financial risk) was apparently too much to accept.
The mass media aren’t exactly helping. Last Saturday, for instance, the New York Times gave its story on the International Panel on Climate Change’s six-years-in-the-making report on the catastrophic future that’s already here below-the-fold front-page placement, more or less equal to that given a story on the last episode of Breaking Bad. The end of the second paragraph did include this quote: “In short, it threatens our planet, our only home.” But the headline (“U.N. Climate Panel Endorses Ceiling on Global Emissions”) and the opening paragraph assured you this was dull stuff. Imagine a front page that reported your house was on fire right now, but that some television show was more exciting.
Sometimes I wish media stories were organized in proportion to their impact. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, there is not paper enough on this planet to properly scale up a story to the right size. If you gave it the complete front page to suggest its import, you would then have to print the rest of the news at some sort of nanoscale and include an electron microscope for reading ease.
Hold up your hand. It’s so big it can block out the sun, though you know that the sun is so much bigger. Now look at the news: in column inches and airtime, a minor controversy or celebrity may loom bigger than the planet. The problem is that, though websites and print media may give us the news, they seldom give us the scale of the news or a real sense of the proportional importance of one thing compared to another. And proportion, scale, is the main news we need right now — maybe always.
As it happens, we’re not very good at looking at the biggest things. They may be bigger than we can see, or move more slowly than we have the patience to watch for or remember or piece together, or they may cause impacts that are themselves complex and dispersed and stretch into the future. Scandals are easier. They are on a distinctly human scale, the scale of lust, greed, and violence. We like those, we understand them, we get mired in them, and mostly they mean little or nothing in the long run (or often even in the short run).
A resident in a town on the northwest coast of Japan told me that the black 70-foot-high wave of water coming at him on March 11, 2011, was so huge that, at first, he didn’t believe his eyes. It was the great Tohoku tsunami, which killed about 20,000 people. A version of such cognitive dissonance occurred in 1982, when NASA initially rejected measurements of the atmosphere above Antarctica because they indicated such a radical loss of ozone that the computer program just threw out the data.
Some things are so big you don’t see them, or you don’t want to think about them, or you almost can’t think about them. Climate change is one of those things. It’s impossible to see the whole, because it’s everything. It’s not just a seven-story-tall black wave about to engulf your town, it’s a complete system thrashing out of control, so that it threatens to become too hot, too cold, too dry, too wet, too wild, too destructive, too erratic for many plants and animals that depend on reliable annual cycles. It affects the entire surface of the Earth and every living thing, from the highest peaks to the depths of the oceans, from one pole to the other, from the tropics to the tundra, likely for millennia — and it’s not just coming like that wave, it’s already here.
It’s not only bigger than everything else, it’s bigger than everything else put together. But it’s not a sudden event like a massacre or a flood or a fire, even though it includes floods, fires, heat waves, and wild weather. It’s an incremental shift over decades, over centuries. It’s the definition of the big picture itself, the far-too-big picture. Which is why we have so much news about everything else, or so it seems.
To understand climate change, you need to translate figures into impacts, to think about places you’ll never see and times after you’re gone. You need to imagine sea level rise and understand its impact, to see the cause-and-effect relations between coal-fired power plants, fossil-fuel emissions, and the fate of the Earth. You need to model data in fairly sophisticated ways. You need to think like a scientist.
Given the demands of the task and the muddle of the mainstream media, it’s remarkable that so many people get it, and that they do so despite massive, heavily funded petroleum industry propaganda campaigns is maybe a victory, if not enough of one.
Four months ago, two bombers in Boston murdered three people and injured hundreds in a way spectacularly calculated to attract media attention, and the media obeyed with alacrity. Climate change probably fueled the colossal floods around Boulder, Colorado, that killed seven people in mid-September, but amid the copious coverage, it was barely mentioned in the media. Similarly, in Mexico, 115 people died in unprecedented floods in the Acapulco area (no significant mention of climate change), while floods reportedly are halving Pakistan’s economic growth (no significant mention), and 166 bodies were found in the wake of the latest Indian floods (no significant mention).
Climate change is taking hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa every year in complex ways whose causes and effects are difficult to follow. Forest fires, very likely enhanced by climate change, took the lives of 19 firefighters facing Arizona blazes amid record heat waves in July. Again, climate change generally wasn’t the headline on that story.
(For the record, climate change is clearly helping to produce many of the bigger, more destructive, more expensive, more frequent disasters of our time, but it is impossible to point to any one of them and say definitely, this one is climate change. It’s like trying to say which cancers in a contaminated area were caused by the contamination; you can’t, but what you can say is that the overall rise in cancer is connected.)
Not quite a year ago, a climate-change-related hurricane drowned people when superstorm Sandy hit a place that doesn’t usually experience major hurricane impact, let alone storm surges that submerge amusement parks, the New York City subway system, and the Jersey shore. In that disaster, 148 people died directly, nearly that many indirectly, losses far greater than from any terrorist incident in this country other than that great anomaly, 9/11. The weather has now become man-made violence, though no one thinks of it as terrorism, in part because there’s no smoking gun or bomb — unless you have the eyes to see and the data to look at, in which case the smokestacks of coal plants start to look gun-like and the hands of energy company CEOs and well-paid-off legislators begin to morph into those of bombers.
Even the civil war in Syria may be a climate-change war of sorts: over the past several years, the country has been hit by its worst drought in modern times. Climate and Security analyst Francesco Femia says, “Around 75 percent of [Syrian] farmers suffered total crop failure, so they moved into the cities. Farmers in the northeast lost 80 percent of their livestock, so they had to leave and find livelihoods elsewhere. They all moved into urban areas — urban areas that were already experiencing economic insecurity due to an influx of Iraqi and Palestinian refugees. But this massive displacement mostly wasn’t reported. So it wasn’t factoring into various security analyses. People assumed Syria was relatively stable compared to Egypt.”
Column Inches, Glacial Miles
We like to think about morality and sex and the lives of people we’ve gotten to know in some fashion. We know how to do it. It’s on a distinctly human scale. It’s disturbing in a reassuring way. We fret about it and feel secure in doing so. Now, everything’s changed, and our imaginations need to keep pace with that change. What is human scale anyway? These days, after all, we split atoms and tinker with genes and can melt an ice sheet. We were designed to think about human-scale phenomena, and now that very phrase is almost as meaningless as old terms like “glacial,” which used to mean slow-moving and slow to change.
Nowadays glaciers are melting rapidly or disappearing entirely, and some — those in Greenland, for example — have gushing rivers of ice water eating through their base. If the whole vast Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it could raise global sea levels by 23 feet.
We tend to think about climate change as one or two or five things: polar ice, glaciers melting, sea-level rise, heat waves, maybe droughts. Now, however, we need to start adding everything else into the mix: the migration of tropical diseases, the proliferation of insect pests, crop failures and declining crop yields leading to widespread hunger and famine, desertification and flooded zones and water failures leading to mass population shifts, resource wars, and so many other things that have to do with the widest systems of life on Earth, affecting health, the global economy, food systems, water systems, and energy systems.
It is almost impossibly scary and painful to contemplate the radical decline and potential death of the oceans that cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and the dramatic decrease of plankton, which do more than any other type of organism to sequester carbon and produce oxygen — a giant forest in microscopic form breathing in what we produce, breathing out what we need, keeping the whole system going. If you want to read something really terrifying, take a look at the rise of the Age of Jellyfish in this review of Lisa-Ann Gershwin’s book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean. Maybe read it even if you don’t.
Only remember that like so much about climate change we used to imagine as a grim future, that future is increasingly here and now. In this case, in the form of millions or maybe billions of tons of jellyfish proliferating globally and devouring plankton, fish eggs, small fish, and bigger creatures in the sea we love, we know, we count on, we feed on, and now even clogging the water-intake pipes of nuclear power plants. In the form of seashells dissolving in acidic waters from the Pacific Northwest to the Antarctic Ocean. In the form of billions of pine-bark beetles massacring the forests of the American West, from Arizona to Alaska, one bite at a time.
It’s huge. I think about it, and I read about it, following blogs at Weather Underground, various climate websites, the emails of environmental groups, the tweets of people at 350.org, and bits and pieces of news on the subject that straggle into the mainstream and alternative media. Then I lose sight of it. I think about everything and anything else; I get caught up in old human-scale news that fits into my frameworks so much more easily. And then I remember, and regain my sense of proportion, or disproportion.
The Great Wall, Brick by Brick
The changes required to address climate change are colossal, but they are made up of increments and steps and stages that are more than possible. Many are already underway, both as positive changes (adaptation of renewable energy, increased energy efficiency, new laws, policies, and principles) and as halts to destruction (for example, all the coal-fired plants that have not been built in recent years and the Tar Sands pipeline that, but for popular resistance, would already be sending its sludge from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico). The problem is planetary in scale, but there is room to mitigate the worst-case scenarios, and that room is full of activists at work. Much of that work consists of small-scale changes.
As Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune put it last week, “Here’s the single most important thing you need to know about the IPCC report: It’s not too late. We still have time to do something about climate disruption. The best estimate from the best science is that we can limit warming from human-caused carbon pollution to less than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit — if we act now. Bottom line: Our house is on fire. Rather than argue about how fast it’s burning, we need to start throwing buckets of water.”
There are buckets and bucket brigades. For example, the movement to get universities, cities, churches, and other entities to divest their holdings of the top 200 fossil-fuel stocks could have major consequences. If it works, it will be achieved through dedicated groups on this campus or in that city competing in a difficult sport: budging bureaucrats. It’s already succeeded in some key places, from the city of Seattle to the national United Church of Christ, and hundreds of campaigns are underway across the United States and in some other countries.
My heroes are now people who can remain engaged with climate change’s complex and daunting facts and still believe that we have some leeway to determine what happens. They insist on looking directly at the black wall of water, and they focus on what we can do about the peril we face, and then they do it. They do their best to understand scale and science, and their dedication and clarity comes from connecting their hearts to their minds.
I hear people who are either uninformed or who are justifying disengagement say that it’s too late and what we do won’t matter, but it does matter, because a rise in the global temperature of two degrees Celsius is going to be very, very different from, say, five degrees Celsius for almost everything living on Earth now and for millennia to come. And there are still many things that can be done, both to help us adapt to the radical change on the way and to limit the degree of change to which we’ll have to adapt. Because it’s already risen .8 degrees and that’s been a disaster — many, many disasters.
I spent time over the last several months with the stalwarts carrying on a campaign to get San Francisco to divest from its energy stocks. In the beginning, it seemed easy enough. City Supervisor John Avalos introduced a nonbinding resolution to the Board of Supervisors, and to everyone’s surprise it passed unanimously in April on a voice vote. But the board turned out only to have the power to recommend that the San Francisco Retirement Board do the real work of divesting its vast holdings of fossil-fuel stocks. The retirement board was a tougher nut to crack.
Its main job, after all, is to ensure a safe and profitable pension fund and in that sense, energy companies have, in the past, been good investments. To continue on such a path is to be “smart about the market.” The market, in the meantime, is working hard at not imagining the financial impact of climate change.
The failure of major food sources, including fishing stocks and agricultural crops, and the resultant mass hunger and instability — see Syria — is going to impact the market. Retirees in the beautiful Bay Area are going feel it if the global economy crashes, the region fills with climate refugees, the spectacularly productive state agricultural system runs dry or roasts, and the oceans rise on our scenic coasts. It’s a matter of scale. Your investments are not independent of nature, even if fossil-fuel companies remain, for a time, profitable while helping destroying the world as humanity has known it.
Some reliable sources now argue that fossil-fuel stocks are not good investments, that they’re volatile for a number of reasons and due to crash. The IPCC report makes it clear that we need to leave most of the planet’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground in the coming decades, that the choice is either to fry the planet or freeze the assets of the carbon companies. Activists are now doing their best to undermine the value of the big carbon-energy corporations, and governments clued in to the new IPCC report will likely join them in trying to keep the oil, gas, and coal in the ground — the fossil fuel that is also much of the worth of these corporations on paper. If we’re lucky, we’ll make them crash. So divesting can be fiscally sound, and there is a very strong case that it can be done without economic impact. But the crucial thing here isn’t the financial logistics of divestment; it’s the necessity of grasping the scale of things, understanding the colossal nature of the problem and the need to address it, in part, by pressuring one small group or one institution in one place.
To grasp this involves a feat of imagination and, I think, a leap of faith: a kind of conviction about what matters, about living according to principle, about understanding what is too big to be seen with your own eyes, about correlating data on a range of scales. A lot of people I know do it. If we are to pull back from the brink of catastrophe, it will be because of their vision and their faith. You might want to thank them now, and while your words are nice, so are donations. Or you might want to join them.
That there is a widespread divestment movement right now is due to the work of a few people who put forth the plan less than a year ago at 350.org. The president has already mentioned it, and hundreds of colleges are now in the midst of or considering the process of divesting, with cities, churches, and other institutions joining the movement. It takes a peculiar kind of genius to see the monster and to see that it might begin to be pushed back by small actions — by, in fact, actions on a distinctly human scale that could still triumph over the increasingly inhuman scale of our era.
Hold up your hand. It looks puny in relation to the sun, but the other half of the equation of scale is seeing that something as small as that hand, as your own powers, as your own efforts, can matter. The cathedral is made stone by stone, and the book is written word by word.
If there is to be an effort to respond to climate change, it will need to make epic differences in economics, in ecologies, in the largest and most powerful systems around us. Though the goals may be heroic, they will be achieved mostly through an endless accumulation of small gestures.
Those gestures are in your hands, and everyone’s. Or they could be if we learned to see the true scale of things, including how big we can be together.
Rebecca Solnit writes regularly for TomDispatch, works a little with 350.org, and is hanging out a lot in 2013 with the newly arrived Martin, Thyri, Bija Milagro, and Camilo, who will be 80 in the unimaginable year of 2093. Her most recent book is The Faraway Nearby.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Rebecca Solnit
So back to me! And the blindness of present-day society.
Or try cause and effect.
Where hope and inspiration meets the cold world of reality!
Yesterday’s post Don’t frighten the horses was all about reminding me that fear is a very bad motivator. I promoted the Transition message, “If we can’t imagine a positive future we won’t be able to create it.”
Easy to say, easy to write, less easy to put into practice in the face of really chilling predictions.
My way of introducing today’s guest post, a recent post from TomDispatch. This was an essay by Michael Klare that has been widely shared and commented upon. For good reason. It challenges to the core the terrible consequences of not changing, of not having that image of the positive future we all so badly need.
So with the gracious permission of Tom Engelhardt, here is that essay.
Tomgram: Michael T. Klare, 2040 or Bust
If you’re an oil exec, the world is a rosy place — and I’m not talking about the pink haze of heat that’s been rising from the burning American West all summer. I’m talking about energy consumption where the news just couldn’t be cheerier. Despite declines in North America and Europe, according to a new study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), world consumption of petroleum products in 2012 rose to record heights, a staggering 88.9 million barrels a day. Increases in Asia in particular were impressive, as a snazzy little animated graphic of soaring global oil use, 1980-2012, at the EIA’s website makes clear.
And speaking of upbeat news, there was another rosy record set in 2012 (at least, if you’re an oil exec who could care less about the fate of the planet): carbon dioxide emissions leaped into the atmosphere in record quantities, 31.6 billion tons of CO2, even as U.S. greenhouse gas emissions dropped, in part because utilities were switching from coal to natural gas. Of course, significant amounts of the coal not used in this country get shipped off to places like China where it no longer counts as U.S. emissions when it heads skyward.
Anyway, put the two together and you can practically see the heat haze of an eternal summer rising on the eastern horizon. In fact, these days even the worst news for the rest of us can be good news for the energy industry. For example, the possibility of an American intervention in Syria, a spreading conflict in the region, and chaos in Middle Eastern oil markets has already helped raise the price of a barrel of crude oil above $115. An American air assault on Syrian military facilities in Damascus could send that price over $120 and cause pain at the pump in the U.S. as well. So you and I won’t be happy, but oil execs will be toasting their good fortune.
In the coming years, there’s likely to be no end to this sort of good news, as Michael Klare,TomDispatch energy expert and author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today. If you thought fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were at unbeatable levels, just wait until he introduces you to Earth 2040. If, by then, you’re the CEO of a big energy company, you’ll truly be in the pink. As for the rest of us, if you’ll excuse the expression, we’ll be in the red. Tom
Our Fossil-Fueled Future
World Energy in 2040
By Michael T. Klare
What sort of fabulous new energy systems will the world possess in 2040? Which fuels will supply the bulk of our energy needs? And how will that change the global energy equation, international politics, and the planet’s health? If the experts at the U.S. Department of Energy are right, the startling “new” fuels of 2040 will be oil, coal, and natural gas — and we will find ourselves on a baking, painfully uncomfortable planet.
It’s true, of course, that any predictions about the fuel situation almost three decades from now aren’t likely to be reliable. All sorts of unexpected upheavals and disasters in the years ahead make long-range predictions inherently difficult. This has not, however, deterred the Department of Energy from producing a comprehensive portrait of the world’s future energy system. Known as the International Energy Outlook (IEO), the assessment incorporates detailed projections of future energy production and consumption. Although dense with statistical data and filled with technical jargon, the 2013 report provides a unique and disturbing picture of our planetary future.
Many of us would like to believe that, by 2040, the world will be far along the path toward a green industrial future with wind, solar, and renewable fuels providing the bulk of our energy supplies. The IEO assumes otherwise. It anticipates a world in which coal — the most carbon-intense of all major fuels — still supplies more of our energy than renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined.
The world it foresees is also one in which oil remains a preeminent source of energy, while hydro-fracking and other drilling techniques for extracting unconventional fossil fuels are far more widely employed than today. Wind and solar energy will also play a bigger role in 2040, but — as the IEO sees it — will still represent only a small fraction of the global energy mix.
Admittedly, International Energy Outlook is a government product of this moment with all the limitations that implies. It envisions the future by extrapolating from current developments. It is not visionary. Its authors can’t imagine energy breakthroughs that have yet to happen, or changes in world attitudes that may affect how energy is dealt with, or events like wars, environmental disasters, and global economic recessions or depressions that could alter the world’s energy situation. Nonetheless, because it assesses current endeavors that are sure to have long-lasting repercussions, like the present massive worldwide investments in shale oil and shale gas extraction, it provides an extraordinary resource for imagining the energy crisis in our future.
Among its major findings are three fundamental developments:
* Global energy use will continue to rise rapidly, with total world consumption jumping from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) in 2010 to an estimated 820 quadrillion in 2040, a net increase of 56%. (A BTU is the amount of energy needed to heat one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.)
* An increasing share of world energy demand will be generated by developing countries, especially those in Asia. Of the nearly 300 quadrillion BTUs in added energy needed to meet global requirements between now and 2040, some 250 quadrillion, or 85%, will be used to satisfy rising demand in the developing world.
* China, which only recently overtook the United States as the world’s leading energy consumer, will account for the largest share — 40% — of the growth in global consumption over the next 30 years.
These projections may not in themselves be surprising, but if accurate, the consequences for the global economy, world politics, and the health and well-being of the planetary environment will be staggering. To meet constantly expanding world requirements, energy producers will be compelled to ramp up production of every kind of fossil fuel at a time of growing concern about the paramount role those fuels play in fostering runaway climate change. Meanwhile, the shift in the center of gravity of energy consumption from the older industrial powers to the developing world will lead to intense competition for access to available supplies.
To fully appreciate the significance of the IEO’s findings, it is necessary to consider four critical trends: the surprising resilience of fossil fuels, the degree to which the world’s energy will be being provided by unconventional fossil fuels, the seemingly relentless global increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, and significant shifts in the geopolitics of energy.
The Continuing Predominance of Fossil Fuels
Anyone searching for evidence that we are transitioning to a system based on renewable sources of energy will be sorely disappointed by the projections in the 2013 International Energy Outlook. Although the share of world energy provided by fossil fuels is expected to decline from 84% in 2010 to 78% in 2040, it will still tower over all other forms of energy. In fact, in 2040 the projected share of global energy consumption provided by each of the fossil fuels (28% for oil, 27% for coal, and 23% for gas) will exceed that of renewables, nuclear, and hydropower combined (21%).
Oil and coal continue to dominate the fossil-fuel category despite all the talk of a massive increase in natural gas supplies — the so-called shale gas revolution — made possible by hydro-fracking. Oil’s continued supremacy can be attributed, in part, to the endless growth in demand for cars, vans, and trucks in China, India, and other rising states in Asia. The prominence of coal, however, is on the face of it less expectable. Given the degree to which utilities in the United States and Western Europe are shunning coal in favor of natural gas, the prominence the IEO gives it in 2040 is startling. But for each reduction in coal use in older industrialized nations, we are seeing a huge increase in the developing world, where the demand for affordable electricity trumps concern about greenhouse gas emissions.
The continuing dominance of fossil fuels in the world’s energy mix will not only ensure the continued dominance of the great fossil-fuel companies — both private and state-owned — in the energy economy, but also bolster their political clout when it comes to decisions about new energy investment and climate policy. Above all, however, soaring fossil-fuel consumption will result in a substantial boost in greenhouse gas emissions, and all the disastrous effects that come with it.
The Rise of the “Unconventionals”
At present, most of our oil, coal, and natural gas still comes from “conventional” sources — deposits close to the surface, close to shore, and within easy reach of transportation and processing facilities. But these reservoirs are being depleted at a rapid pace and by 2040 — or so the Department of Energy’s report tells us — will be unable to supply more than a fraction of our needs. Increasingly, fossil fuel supplies will be of an “unconventional” character — materials hard to refine and/or acquired from deposits deep underground, far from shore, or in relatively inaccessible locations. These include Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale gas, deep-offshore oil, and Arctic energy.
Until recently, unconventional oil and gas constituted only a tiny share of the world’s energy supply, but that is changing fast. Shale gas, for example, provided a negligible share of the U.S. natural gas supply in 2000; by 2010, it had risen to 23%; in 2040, it is expected to exceed 50%. Comparable increases are expected in Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, and U.S. shale oil (also called “tight oil”).
By definition, unconventional fuels are harder to produce, refine, and transport than conventional ones. In most cases, this means that more energy is consumed in their extraction than in the exploitation of conventional fuels, with more carbon dioxide being emitted per unit of energy produced. As is especially the case with fracking, the extraction of unconventional fuels normally requires significant infusions of water, raising the possibility of competition and conflict among major water consumers over access to supplies that, by 2040, will be severely threatened by climate change.
Relentless Growth in Carbon Emissions
By 2040, humanity will be burning far more fossil fuels than today: 673 quadrillion BTUs, compared to 440 quadrillion in 2010. The continued dominance of fossil fuels, rising coal demand, and a growing reliance on unconventional sources of supply can only have one outcome, as the IEO makes clear: a huge jump in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon dioxide is the most prominent of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere, and the combustion of fossil fuels is the primary source of that CO2; hence, the IEO’s projections on energy-related carbon emissions constitute an important measure of humankind’s ongoing role in heating the planet.
And here’s the bad news: as a result of the continued reliance on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions from energy are projected to increase by a stunning 46% between 2010 and 2040, jumping from 31.2 billion to 45.5 billion metric tons. No more ominous sign could be found of the kind of runaway global warming likely to be experienced in the decades to come than this grim figure.
In the IEO projections, all fossil fuels and all of the major consuming regions contribute to this nightmarish future, but coal is the greatest culprit. Of the extra 14.3 billion metric tons of CO2 to be added to global emissions over the next 30 years, 6.8 billion, or 48%, will be generated by the combustion of coal. Because most of the increase in coal consumption is occurring in China and India, these two countries will have a major responsibility for accelerating the pace of global warming. China alone is expected to contribute half of the added CO2 in these decades; India, 11%.
New Geopolitical Tensions
Finally, the 2013 edition of International Energy Outlook is rife with hints of possible new geopolitical tensions generated by these developments. Of particular interest to its authors are the international implications of humanity’s growing reliance on unconventional sources of energy. While the know-how to extract conventional energy resources is by now widely available, the specialized technology needed to exploit shale gas, tar sands, and other such materials is far less so, giving a clear economic advantage in the IEO’s projected energy future to countries which possess these capabilities.
One consequence, already evident, is the dramatic turnaround in America’s energy status. Just a few years ago, many analysts were bemoaning the growing reliance of the United States on energy imports from Africa and the Middle East, with an attendant vulnerability to overseas chaos and conflict. Now, thanks to American leadership in the development of shale and other unconventional resources, the U.S. is becoming less dependent on imported energy and so finds itself in a stronger position to dominate the global energy marketplace.
In one of many celebratory passages on these developments, the IEO affirms that a key to “increasing natural gas production has been advances in the application of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies, which made it possible to develop the country’s vast shale gas resources and contributed to a near doubling of total U.S. technically recoverable natural gas resource estimates over the past decade.”
At the same time, the report asserts that energy-producing countries that fail to gain mastery over these new technologies will be at a significant disadvantage in the energy marketplace of 2040. Russia is particularly vulnerable in this regard: heavily dependent on oil and gas revenues to finance government operations, it faces a significant decline in output from its conventional reserves and so must turn to unconventional supplies; its ability to acquire the needed technologies will, however, be hindered by its historically poor treatment of foreign companies.
China is also said to face significant challenges in the new energy environment. Simply to meet the country’s growing need for energy is likely to prove an immense challenge for its leaders, given the magnitude of its requirements and the limits to China’s domestic supplies. As the world’s fastest growing consumer of oil and gas, an increasing share of its energy supplies must be imported, posing the same sort of dependency problems that until recently plagued American leaders. The country does possess substantial reserves of shale gas, but lacking the skills needed to exploit them, is unlikely to become a significant producer for years to come.
The IEO does not discuss the political implications of all this. However, top U.S. leaders, from the president on down, have been asserting that America’s mastery of new energy technologies is contributing to the nation’s economic vitality, and so enhancing its overseas influence. “America’s new energy posture allows us to engage from a position of greater strength,” said National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in an April speech at Columbia University. “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions and price shocks. It also affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”
The Department of Energy’s report avoids such explicit language, but no one reading it could doubt that its authors are thinking along similar lines. Indeed, the whole report can be viewed as providing ammunition for the pundits and politicians who argue that the emerging global energy equation is unusually propitious for the United States (so long, of course, as everyone ignores the effects of climate change) — an assessment that can only energize advocates of a more assertive U.S. stance abroad.
The World of 2040
The 2013 International Energy Outlook offers us a revealing peek into the thinking of U.S. government experts — and their assessment of the world of 2040 should depress us all. But make no mistake, none of this can be said to constitute a reliable picture of what the world will actually look like at that time.
Many of the projected trends are likely to be altered, possibly unrecognizably, thanks to unforeseen developments of every sort, especially in the climate realm. Nonetheless, the massive investments now being made in conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations will ensure that these fuels play a significant role in the energy mix for a long time to come — and this, in turn, means that international efforts to slow the pace of planetary warming are likely to be frustrated. Similarly, Washington’s determination to maintain U.S. dominance in the exploitation of unconventional fuel resources, combined with the desires of Chinese and Russian leaders to cut into the American lead in this field, is guaranteed to provoke friction and distrust in the decades to come.
If the trends identified in the Department of Energy report prove enduring, then the world of 2040 will be one of ever-rising temperatures and sea levels, ever more catastrophic storms, ever fiercer wildfires, ever more devastating droughts. Can there, in fact, be a sadder conclusion when it comes to our future than the IEO’s insistence that, among all the resource shortages humanity may face in the decades to come, fossil fuels will be spared? Thanks to the exploitation of advanced technologies to extract “tough energy” globally, they will remain relatively abundant for decades to come.
So just how reliable is the IEO assessment? Personally, I suspect that its scenarios will prove a good deal less than accurate for an obvious enough reason. As the severity and destructiveness of climate change becomes increasingly evident in our lives, ever more people will be pressing governments around the world to undertake radical changes in global energy behavior and rein in the power of the giant energy companies. This, in turn, will lead to a substantially greater emphasis on investment in the development of alternative energy systems plus significantly less reliance on fossil fuels than the IEO anticipates.
Make no mistake about it, though: the major fossil fuel producers — the world’s giant oil, gas, and coal corporations — are hardly going to acquiesce to this shift without a fight. Given their staggering profits and their determination to perpetuate the fossil-fuel era for as a long as possible, they will employ every means at their command to postpone the age of renewables. Eventually, however, the destructive effects of climate change will prove so severe and inescapable that the pressure to embrace changes in energy behavior will undoubtedly overpower the energy industry’s resistance.
Unfortunately, none of us can actually see into the future and so no one can know when such a shift will take place. But here’s a simple reality: it had better happen before 2040 or, as the saying goes, our goose is cooked.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback by Picador. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
[Note to readers: As most of this text is based on a single document, International Energy Outlook 2013, there are fewer hyperlinks to source material than is usual in my pieces. The report itself can be viewed by clicking here.]
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare
So how to return to a hopeful place?
Like this. Saw this a couple of days ago on Cat Skoor’s blog I Vary Widely. Seemed most appropriate.
“Experience is not what happens to you; it’s what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley
Today’s post is a republishing of a recent essay on TomDispatch by Professor Michael Klare; professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. Once again, I am indebted to Tom Engelhardt for such permission.
However, before Michael Klare’s post let me interject this.
Tens of thousands marched to the White House on February 17th, to protest about the Keystone XL pipeline. Hundreds of thousands more across the globe are in support of the campaign to prevent the XL pipeline from ever being commissioned.
To my mind, political leaders are expected to show wisdom, patience and care in terms of how they respond to public opinion.
So was this really the smartest thing for President Obama to be doing at the same time as the protesters were massing outside the White House! From the Huffington Post:
Obama Golfed With Oil Men As Climate Protesters Descended On White House
WASHINGTON — On the same weekend that 40,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington to protest construction of the Keystone Pipeline — to its critics, a monument to carbon-based folly — President Obama was golfing in Florida with a pair of Texans who are key oil, gas and pipeline players.
Read more of this story here.
On to the TomDispatch guest essay, always introduced by Tom.
Tomgram: Michael Klare, Will the Keystone XL Pipeline Go Down?
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Don’t miss Bill Moyers’s interview with TD Managing Editor Nick Turse on this week’s “Moyers & Company,” which you can watch by clicking here. (And I don’t mind adding that, in introducing Turse, Moyers calls TomDispatch “the indispensible website if you want the news powerful people would prefer to keep hidden.”) The focus of the interview is his new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, which, miraculously enough, will be #35 on next week’s New York Times (extended) bestseller list — and well it should be. If you want to know more about Turse’s work, check out Jonathan Schell’s powerful TomDispatch essay “How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam?” Keep in mind that, for a donation of $100 to this website, you can still get a personalized, signed copy of the book. Just check out the offer at our donation page. Or if, like so many others, you are planning to buy the book at Amazon and you go there via any TomDispatch book link like this one, we get a small cut of whatever you purchase at no cost to you. Tom]
Think of it as a prospective irony: In a spirit of pure, blind partisanship, the drill-baby-drill folks in the Republican Party may have done themselves in. After all, their obsession with the Benghazi incident led them to launch a preemptive strike against the president’s choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice, for her statements on what happened when the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were murdered there. They sent her nomination down in flames. In the process, it’s just possible that they took out something far dearer to them. Though it didn’t get much attention during her disastrous nomination moment, we did learn that Rice and her husband had made significant investments in companies connected to the Canadian tar-sands industry and the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to bring the resulting crude (and carbon-dirty) oil 1,700 miles from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. They reportedly had $300,000-$600,000 in stock in TransCanada, the company building the pipeline. In addition, “about a third of Rice’s personal net worth is tied up in oil producers, pipeline operators, and related energy industries north of the 49th parallel,” including Enbridge, a company which hopes to build another tar-sands pipeline. Had she been secretary of state, she might have had one of the great conflicts of interest of our time (or a major divestment problem).
Congress seems desperate to see that pipeline built. More than half the Senate — 44 Republicans, including key Rice opponent John McCain, and nine Democrats — signed a letter to that effect, but it matters little. Because of the international border Keystone XL crosses, only two people stand between us and its construction, the secretary of state and President Obama, who alone will make the final decision on whether the project should proceed. The president’s second choice for secretary of state, who recently swept through the nomination process, is of course former Senator John Kerry, a “climate hawk” who has already said that he will be deeply involved in the State Department’s review of the pipeline. (It’s worth noting that TransCanada, trying to cover all its bases, hired one of Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign staffers as a lobbyist, along with “heavyweights” from past Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential runs, and that Kerry does have to divest himself of holdings in two Canadian energy companies which have supported the pipeline.)
No one, of course, can know what the new secretary of state and the president will decide. They are, however, already being pushed hard by a growing coalition of environmentally oriented groups, fearful of what it would mean to get all those tar sands out of the ground and (as carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere. In addition, this coming Sunday, February 17th, an enormous “forward on climate” rally is to take place in Washington. Originally organized by 350.org and TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben but now involving dozens of groups, it is expected to draw worried protestors (including this writer) from all over to demonstrate on the National Mall. The goal is, in part, to push President Obama to make the necessary decision on the Keystone pipeline. It’s remarkable that one man has the power to shoot this project down. As another TomDispatch regular, Michael Klare, explains below, should he do so, the tar-sands industry might never recover. That would lend a genuine hand to our over-heating planet, which means there has seldom been a situation where demonstrations to pressure a president were more in order. Tom
A Presidential Decision That Could Change the World
The Strategic Importance of Keystone XL
By Michael T. Klare
Presidential decisions often turn out to be far less significant than imagined, but every now and then what a president decides actually determines how the world turns. Such is the case with the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, is slated to bring some of the “dirtiest,” carbon-rich oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. In the near future, President Obama is expected to give its construction a definitive thumbs up or thumbs down, and the decision he makes could prove far more important than anyone imagines. It could determine the fate of the Canadian tar-sands industry and, with it, the future well-being of the planet. If that sounds overly dramatic, let me explain.
Sometimes, what starts out as a minor skirmish can wind up determining the outcome of a war — and that seems to be the case when it comes to the mounting battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. If given the go-ahead by President Obama, it will daily carry more than 700,000 barrels of tar-sands oil to those Gulf Coast refineries, providing a desperately needed boost to the Canadian energy industry. If Obama says no, the Canadians (and their American backers) will encounter possibly insuperable difficulties in exporting their heavy crude oil, discouraging further investment and putting the industry’s future in doubt.
The battle over Keystone XL was initially joined in the summer of 2011, when environmental writer and climate activist Bill McKibben and 350.org, which he helped found, organized a series of non-violent anti-pipeline protests in front of theWhite House to highlight the links between tar sands production and the accelerating pace of climate change. At the same time, farmers and politicians in Nebraska, through which the pipeline is set to pass, expressed grave concern about its threat to that state’s crucial aquifers. After all, tar-sands crude is highly corrosive, and leaks are a notable risk.
In mid-January 2012, in response to those concerns, other worries about the pipeline, and perhaps a looming presidential campaign season, Obama postponed a decision on completing the controversial project. (He, not Congress, has the final say, since it will cross an international boundary.) Now, he must decide on a suggested new route that will, supposedly, take Keystone XL around those aquifers and so reduce the threat to Nebraska’s water supplies.
Ever since the president postponed the decision on whether to proceed, powerful forces in the energy industry and government have been mobilizing to press ever harder for its approval. Its supporters argue vociferously that the pipeline will bring jobs to America and enhance the nation’s “energy security” by lessening its reliance on Middle Eastern oil suppliers. Their true aim, however, is far simpler: to save the tar-sands industry (and many billions of dollars in U.S. investments) from possible disaster.
Just how critical the fight over Keystone has become in the eyes of the industry is suggested by a recent pro-pipeline editorial in the trade publication Oil & Gas Journal:
“Controversy over the Keystone XL project leaves no room for compromise. Fundamental views about the future of energy are in conflict. Approval of the project would acknowledge the rich potential of the next generation of fossil energy and encourage its development. Rejection would foreclose much of that potential in deference to an energy utopia few Americans support when they learn how much it costs.”
Opponents of Keystone XL, who are planning a mass demonstration at the White House on February 17th, have also come to view the pipeline battle in epic terms. “Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb,” McKibben wrote at TomDispatch. “If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature.” Halting Keystone would not by itself prevent those high concentrations, he argued, but would impede the production of tar sands, stop that “carbon bomb” from further heating the atmosphere, and create space for a transition to renewables. “Stopping Keystone will buy time,” he says, “and hopefully that time will be used for the planet to come to its senses around climate change.”
A Pipeline With Nowhere to Go?
Why has the fight over a pipeline, which, if completed, would provide only 4% of the U.S. petroleum supply, assumed such strategic significance? As in any major conflict, the answer lies in three factors: logistics, geography, and timing.
Start with logistics and consider the tar sands themselves or, as the industry and its supporters in government prefer to call them, “oil sands.” Neither tar nor oil, thesubstance in question is a sludge-like mixture of sand, clay, water, and bitumen (a degraded, carbon-rich form of petroleum). Alberta has a colossal supply of the stuff — at least a trillion barrels in known reserves, or the equivalent of all the conventional oil burned by humans since the onset of commercial drilling in 1859. Even if you count only the reserves that are deemed extractible by existing technology, its tar sands reportedly are the equivalent of 170 billion barrels of conventional petroleum — more than the reserves of any nation except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The availability of so much untapped energy in a country like Canada, which is private-enterprise-friendly and where the political dangers are few, has been a magnet for major international energy firms. Not surprisingly, many of them, including ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, have invested heavily in tar-sands operations.
Tar sands, however, bear little resemblance to the conventional oil fields which these companies have long exploited. They must be treated in various energy-intensive ways to be converted into a transportable liquid and then processed even further into usable products. Some tar sands can be strip-mined like coal and then “upgraded” through chemical processing into a synthetic crude oil — SCO, or “syncrude.” Alternatively, the bitumen can be pumped from the ground after the sands are exposed to steam, which liquefies the bitumen and allows its extraction with conventional oil pumps. The latter process, known as steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD), produces a heavy crude oil. It must, in turn, be diluted with lighter crudes for transportation by pipeline to specialized refineries equipped to process such oil, most of which are located on the Gulf Coast.
Extracting and processing tar sands is an extraordinarily expensive undertaking, far more so than most conventional oil drilling operations. Considerable energy is needed to dig the sludge out of the ground or heat the water into steam for underground injection; then, additional energy is needed for the various upgrading processes. The environmental risks involved are enormous (even leaving aside the vast amounts of greenhouse gases that the whole process will pump into the atmosphere). The massive quantities of water needed for SAGD and those upgrading processes, for example, become contaminated with toxic substances. Once used, they cannot be returned to any water source that might end up in human drinking supplies — something environmentalists say is already occurring. All of this and the expenses involved mean that the multibillion-dollar investments needed to launch a tar-sands operation can only pay off if the final product fetches a healthy price in the marketplace.
And that’s where geography enters the picture. Alberta is theoretically capable of producing five to six million barrels of tar-sands oil per day. In 2011, however, Canada itself consumed only 2.3 million barrels of oil per day, much of it supplied by conventional (and cheaper) oil from fields in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. That number is not expected to rise appreciably in the foreseeable future. No less significant, Canada’s refining capacity for all kinds of oil is limited to 1.9 million barrels per day, and few of its refineries are equipped to process tar sands-style heavy crude. This leaves the producers with one strategic option: exporting the stuff.
And that’s where the problems really begin. Alberta is an interior province and so cannot export its crude by sea. Given the geography, this leaves only three export options: pipelines heading east across Canada to ports on the Atlantic, pipelines heading west across the Rockies to ports in British Columbia, or pipelines heading south to refineries in the United States.
Alberta’s preferred option is to send the preponderance of its tar-sands oil to its biggest natural market, the United States. At present, Canadian pipeline companies do operate a number of conduits that deliver some of this oil to the U.S., notably the original Keystone conduit extending from Hardisty, Alberta, to Illinois and then southward to Cushing, Oklahoma. But these lines can carry less than one million barrels of crude per day, and so will not permit the massive expansion of output the industry is planning for the next decade or so.
In other words, the only pipeline now under development that would significantly expand Albertan tar-sands exports is Keystone XL. It is vitally important to the tar-sands producers because it offers the sole short-term — or possibly even long-term — option for the export and sale of the crude output now coming on line at dozens of projects being developed across northern Alberta. Without it, these projects will languish and Albertan production will have to be sold at a deep discount — at, that is, a per-barrel price that could fall below production costs, making further investment in tar sands unattractive. In January, Canadian tar-sands oil was already selling for $30-$40 less than West Texas Intermediate (WTI), the standard U.S. blend.
The Pipelines That Weren’t
Like an army bottled up geographically and increasingly at the mercy of enemy forces, the tar-sands producers see the completion of Keystone XL as their sole realistic escape route to survival. “Our biggest problem is that Alberta is landlocked,” the province’s finance minister Doug Horner said in January. “In fact, of the world’s major oil-producing jurisdictions, Alberta is the only one with no direct access to the ocean. And until we solve this problem… the [price] differential will remain large.”
Logistics, geography, and finally timing. A presidential stamp of approval on the building of Keystone XL will save the tar-sands industry, ensuring them enough return to justify their massive investments. It would also undoubtedly prompt additional investments in tar-sands projects and further production increases by an industry that assumed opposition to future pipelines had been weakened by this victory.
A presidential thumbs-down and resulting failure to build Keystone XL, however, could have lasting and severe consequences for tar-sands production. After all, no other export link is likely to be completed in the near-term. The other three most widely discussed options — the Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, British Columbia, an expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline to Vancouver, British Columbia, and a plan to use existing, conventional-oil conduits to carry tar-sands oil across Quebec, Vermont, and New Hampshire to Portland, Maine — already face intense opposition, with initial construction at best still years in the future.
The Northern Gateway project, proposed by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, would stretch from Bruderheim in northern Alberta to Kitimat, a port on Charlotte Sound and the Pacific. If completed, it would allow the export of tar-sands oil to Asia, where Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper sees a significant future market (even though few Asian refineries could now process the stuff). But unlike oil-friendly Alberta, British Columbia has a strong pro-environmental bias and many senior provincial officials have expressed fierce opposition to the project. Moreover, under the country’s constitution, native peoples over whose land the pipeline would have to travel must be consulted on the project — and most tribal communities are adamantly opposed to its construction.
Another proposed conduit — an expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver — presents the same set of obstacles and, like the Northern Gateway project, has aroused strong opposition in Vancouver.
This leaves the third option, a plan to pump tar-sands oil to Ontario and Quebec and then employ an existing pipeline now used for oil imports. It connects to a terminal in Casco Bay, near Portland, Maine, where the Albertan crude would begin the long trip by ship to those refineries on the Gulf Coast. Although no official action has yet been taken to allow the use of the U.S. conduit for this purpose, anti-pipeline protests have already erupted in Portland, including one on January 26th that attracted more than 1,400 people.
With no other pipelines in the offing, tar sands producers are increasing their reliance on deliveries by rail. This is producing boom times for some long-haul freight carriiers, but will never prove sufficient to move the millions of barrels in added daily output expected from projects now coming on line.
The conclusion is obvious: without Keystone XL, the price of tar-sands oil will remain substantially lower than conventional oil (as well as unconventional oil extracted from shale formations in the United States), discouraging future investment and dimming the prospects for increased output. In other words, as Bill McKibben hopes, much of it will stay in the ground.
Industry officials are painfully aware of their predicament. In an Annual Information Form released at the end of 2011, Canadian Oil Sands Limited, owner of the largest share of Syncrude Canada (one of the leading producers of tar-sands oil) noted:
“A prolonged period of low crude oil prices could affect the value of our crude oil properties and the level of spending on growth projects and could result in curtailment of production… Any substantial and extended decline in the price of oil or an extended negative differential for SCO compared to either WTI or European Brent Crude would have an adverse effect on the revenues, profitability, and cash flow of Canadian Oil Sands and likely affect the ability of Canadian Oil Sands to pay dividends and repay its debt obligations.”
The stakes in this battle could not be higher. If Keystone XL fails to win the president’s approval, the industry will certainly grow at a far slower pace than forecast and possibly witness the failure of costly ventures, resulting in an industry-wide contraction. If approved, however, production will soar and global warming will occur at an even faster rate than previously projected. In this way, a presidential decision will have an unexpectedly decisive and lasting impact on all our lives.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left, just published in paperback. A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
Copyright 2013 Michael T. Klare
The expression of being between a rock and a hard place comes to mind!
Maybe the power of open communications is our only way forward.
A number of disparate ideas have flown into my ‘in-box’ and left me with these thoughts.
The first was the last essay on TomDispatch. This one from the hands of Mr. Engelhardt himself. I’m referring to Tomgram: Engelhardt, The Washington Straitjacket. As many of you know, Tom has been generous in granting me blanket permission to republish his posts and I frequently so do; as yesterday’s post written by Professor Michael Klare demonstrated.
Let me give you a idea of where Tom was coming from with this personal essay,
The Barack Obama Story (Updated)
How a Community Organizer and Constitutional Law Professor Became a Robot President
By Tom Engelhardt
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear President Obama,
Nothing you don’t know, but let me just say it: the world’s a weird place. In my younger years, I might have said “crazy,” but that was back when I thought being crazy was a cool thing and only regretted I wasn’t.
I mean, do you ever think about how you ended up where you are? And I’m not actually talking about the Oval Office, though that’s undoubtedly a weird enough story in its own right.
The next paragraph opens, thus:
After all, you were a community organizer and a constitutional law professor and now, if you stop to think about it, here’s where you’ve ended up: you’re using robots to assassinate people you personally pick as targets.
Then there’s a comprehensive description of all the outcomes that have taken place in the last few years as in this paragraph,
Still, who woulda thunk it? Don’t these “accomplishments” of yours sometimes amaze you? Don’t you ever wake up in the middle of the night wondering just who you are? Don’t you, like me, open your eyes some mornings in a state of amazement about just how you ended up on this particular fast-morphing planet? Are you as stunned as I am by the fact that a tanker carrying liquid natural gas is now making a trip from Norway to Japan across the winter waters of the Arctic? Twenty days at sea lopped off an otherwise endless voyage via the Mediterranean Sea, and the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Did you ever think you’d live to see the opening of the Northeast Passage in winter? Don’t you find it ironic that fossil fuels, which helped burn that oceanic hole in the Arctic ice, were the first commercial products shipped through those open waters? Don’t you find it just a tad odd that you can kill someone in distant Yemen without the slightest obstacle and yet you’ve been able to do next to nothing when it comes to global warming? I mean, isn’t that world-championship weird, believe-it-or-not bizarre, and increasingly our everyday reality?
Tom’s essay comes to this conclusion,
And don’t you ever wonder whether a labyrinth of 17 (yes, 17!) major agencies and outfits in the U.S. “Intelligence Community” (and even more minor ones), spending at least $75 billion annually, really makes us either safe or smart? Mightn’t we be more “intelligent” and less paranoid about the world if we spent so much less and relied instead on readily available open-source material?
I mean, there are so many things to dream about. So many ghostly possibilities to conjure up. So many experimental acts that offer at least a chance at another planet of possibility. It would be such a waste if you only reverted to your community-organizer or constitutional-law self after you left office, once “retirement syndrome” kicked in, once those drones were taking off at the command of another president and it was too late to do a thing. You could still dream then, but what good would those dreams do us or anyone else?
It’s a very powerful analysis that I really encourage you to read.
Then thanks to a mailing from the WordPress team, I was drawn to a recent account of life by Ruth Rutherford. In an essay from the 13th November, Ruth writes about living in the dark, as this sample evocatively describes,
Dating in the dark
Just got back from visiting my ol’ stomping grounds in New Jersey where I spent the weekend with my parents and grandparents, just talking, eating and enjoying good company. And all this was done in the dark. Yep, that’s right. Even nearly two weeks after Hurricane Sandy unleashed her fury, the Garden State is still struggling to recover. And let me tell you: Living without power for that long will quickly make you appreciate the little things.
Like walking into a dark room and then transforming it with just the flip of a switch. Or turning on a faucet and seeing water actually pour out. Or pulling into a gas station on any day you choose, not just the days you’re allowed to based on the numbers on your license plate. Or just using the bathroom without strategically planning your “number twos” based on how much water is in the tank. Or not having to wake up at two o’clock in the morning to wander outside in your pajamas to fill the generator with gas. (Okay, fine. My dad did that part. But still…)
When you’re without electricity for a while, your mind tends to do a lot of thinking. There are no reality shows to turn your brain into mush, no hair dryers to block out the noise of everyday life, and no steaming hot baths to drown your worries in. Basically, it’s you, alone, with a candle, a flashlight and your thoughts. So I spent the time brain blogging.
At the heart of this essay is the concept that ‘dating’ as in finding one’s life partner has become too complex. This is how Ruth concludes her ideas.
Yep, I’m telling you to be shallow.
Forget the deep end, folks. Jump, cannonball style, into the shallow end and let the fun begin!
Shared interests. Favorite movies. Local hot spots. Interesting hobbies. Recent vacations. Current music playlists. Boring work stories. Embarrassing childhood memories. Stupid jokes. Mutual attraction. Sparks. Chemistry.
Because if you can’t relate on these basic levels, then who the heck cares if you both want two boys, one girl and a yellow Labrador named Minnie?
Start small. Start simple. Grab a lantern and meet during a power outage. It’s amazing what you’ll find out about your date in the dark. (With your clotheson, people! Get your minds out of the gutter.)
Finally, closer to home. Patrice Ayme and Martin Lack have been exchanging views in comments to my recent post Unintended Consequences. Patrice ended a comment with this: ” If goodness is to win, it has to be smarter than the enemy.”
So what’s this all coming to? According to WordPress there are over 500,000 people blogging about the world as they see it. The number of others who read all those words must be well into many, many millions. Even humble old Learning from Dogs received over 45,000 viewings in November alone bringing the total viewings to over 785,000!
As the saying goes, “the only thing required for evil to win, is for good people to do nothing.”
Go and read the latest from Bill McKibben on 350.org.
The article in The New York Times tells the story of students, faculty and alumni around the country who are demanding divestment from fossil fuels. On a few campuses, like Swarthmore, they’ve been at it for semesters — but all of a sudden, as the article says, they find themselves “at the vanguard of a national movement. In recent weeks, college students on dozens of campuses have demanded that university endowment funds rid themselves of coal, oil and gas stocks. The students see it as a tactic that could force climate change, barely discussed in the presidential campaign, back onto the national political agenda.”
The picture that accompanies the article comes from our Minneapolis roadshow last Friday night, and the article concisely lays out the demands and the strategy of the campaign. It’s precisely the boost we need. So please, go read it here: www.nyti.ms/SESrfr
We’re quickly getting traction, but we can get more if we have your help.
So, first things first: please email the article by clicking the “E-Mail” button on the New York Times website — if we can get it on the newspaper’s “most emailed list”, we can help make sure it goes as far as possible, as fast as possible.
For full instructions on how to email the article, click here: www.350.org/nyt
I sense that we, as in the peoples on this planet, are well into a period of such change that even by the end of 2013, a little over 50 weeks away, the precipice for humanity will be within sight. I hold out zero hope that any time soon our leaders and politicians will stop ‘playing games’ and focus on doing what’s right. The time for truth, for integrity, for sound debate is NOW!
The sharing of ideas, thoughts and emotions that this ‘virtual’ world of blogging offers (despite me regarding the word ‘blogging’ as ugly) is going to be the only tool, the only channel to carry sufficient weight and power for the wishes and desires of the ‘common man’ to live peacefully and safely to the end of this century and beyond!
Michael Klare courtesy of Tom Dispatch.
I’m conscious that there have been a number of republications recently. Partly that’s because there has been a run of great articles that have gone down well with you, but also because the ‘task list’ arising from the move into our home in Merlin, Oregon continues to dominate our lives. Even before Mother Nature demonstrated that our bridge needed repairing!
So onto another republication of a TomDispatch special. But what a special. Here’s Tom’s introduction:
Let’s face it: climate change is getting scarier by the week. In this all-American year, record wildfires, record temperatures in the continental U.S., an endless summer, a fierce drought that stillwon’t go away, and Frankenstorm Sandy all descended on us. Globally, billion-dollar weather events are increasingly dime-a-dozen affairs, with a record 14 of them in 2012 so far. So is a linked phenomenon, the continuing rise in the volume of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, especially from burning fossil fuels, that get pumped into the atmosphere. The latest figures from 2011 indicate that those gases once again made an appearance in record amounts with no indication that abatement is anywhere on the horizon.
With new studies and more data, it seems, come ever more frightening projections of just how much the temperature of this planet is going to rise by 2100. After all, as Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of the invaluable The Race for What’s Left, points out, the International Energy Agency’s latest study suggests a possible temperature rise by century’s end of 3.6 degrees Celsius. That should startle the imagination, involving as it would the transformation of this planet into something unrecognizably different from the one we all grew up on. And keep in mind that it’s by no means the top estimate for temperature disaster. A new World Bank report indicates that a rise of 4 degrees Celsius is possible by century’s end, a prospect that bank president Jim Yong Kim termed a “doomsday scenario.”
In the meantime, the most comprehensive study to date of how humans have affected the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere predicts that the planet’s temperature could rise by an unimaginable 6 degrees Celsius by 2100. These days, it increasingly looks like we’ve entered the lottery from hell when it comes to Earth’s ultimate temperature — especially now that a recent report from the United Nations Environment Program suggests carbon in the atmosphere has increased by 20% since 2000 and that “there are few signs of global emissions falling.”
With this in mind, consider the latest “good news” reported (and widely hailed) in the world of fossil fuels, courtesy of Michael Klare. Tom
World Energy Report 2012
The Good, the Bad, and the Really, Truly Ugly
By Michael T. Klare
Rarely does the release of a data-driven report on energy trends trigger front-page headlines around the world. That, however, is exactly what happened on November 12th when the prestigious Paris-based International Energy Agency(IEA) released this year’s edition of its World Energy Outlook. In the process, just about everyone missed its real news, which should have set off alarm bells across the planet.
Claiming that advances in drilling technology were producing an upsurge in North American energy output, World Energy Outlook predicted that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the planet’s leading oil producer by 2020. “North America is at the forefront of a sweeping transformation in oil and gas production that will affect all regions of the world,”declared IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a widely quoted statement.
In the U.S., the prediction of imminent supremacy in the oil-output sweepstakes was generally greeted with unabashed jubilation. “This is a remarkable change,”said John Larson of IHS, a corporate research firm. “It’s truly transformative. It’s fundamentally changing the energy outlook for this country.” Not only will this result in a diminished reliance on imported oil, he indicated, but also generate vast numbers of new jobs. “This is about jobs. You know, it’s about blue-collar jobs. These are good jobs.”
The editors of the Wall Street Journal were no less ecstatic. In an editorial with the eye-catching headline “Saudi America,” they lauded U.S. energy companies for bringing about a technological revolution, largely based on the utilization of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to extract oil and gas from shale rock. That, they claimed, was what made a new mega-energy boom possible. “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal noted, “even if it’s far from the renewable energy dreamland of so many government subsidies and mandates.”
Other commentaries were similarly focused on the U.S. outpacing Saudi Arabia and Russia, even if some questioned whether the benefits would be as great as advertised or obtainable at an acceptable cost to the environment.
While agreeing that the expected spurt in U.S. production is mostly “good news,”Michael A. Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations warned that gas prices will not drop significantly because oil is a global commodity and those prices are largely set by international market forces. “[T]he U.S. may be slightly more protected, but it doesn’t give you the energy independence some people claim,” he told the New York Times.
Some observers focused on whether increased output and job creation could possibly outweigh the harm that the exploitation of extreme energy resources like fracked oil or Canadian tar sands was sure to do to the environment. Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress, for example, warned of a growing threat to America’s water supply from poorly regulated fracking operations. “In addition, oil companies want to open up areas off the northern coast of Alaska in the Arctic Ocean, where they are not prepared to address a major oil blowout or spill like we had in the Gulf of Mexico.”
Such a focus certainly offered a timely reminder of how important oil remains to the American economy (and political culture), but it stole attention away from other aspects of the World Energy Report that were, in some cases, downright scary. Its portrait of our global energy future should have dampened enthusiasm everywhere, focusing as it did on an uncertain future energy supply, excessive reliance on fossil fuels, inadequate investment in renewables, and an increasingly hot, erratic, and dangerous climate. Here are some of the most worrisome takeaways from the report.
Shrinking World Oil Supply
Given the hullabaloo about rising energy production in the U.S., you would think that the IEA report was loaded with good news about the world’s future oil supply. No such luck. In fact, on a close reading anyone who has the slightest familiarity with world oil dynamics should shudder, as its overall emphasis is on decline and uncertainty.
Take U.S. oil production surpassing Saudi Arabia’s and Russia’s. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here’s the catch: previous editions of the IEA report and theInternational Energy Outlook, its equivalent from the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), rested their claims about a growing future global oil supply on the assumption that those two countries would far surpass U.S. output. Yet the U.S. will pull ahead of them in the 2020s only because, the IEA now asserts, their output is going to fall, not rise as previously assumed.
This is one hidden surprise in the report that’s gone unnoticed. According to the DoE’s 2011 projections, Saudi production was expected to rise to 13.9 million barrels per day in 2025, and Russian output to 12.2 million barrels, jointly providing much of the world’s added petroleum supply; the United States, in this calculation, would reach the 11.7 million barrel mark.
The IEA’s latest revision of those figures suggests that U.S. production will indeed rise, as expected, to about 11 million barrels per day in 2025, but that Saudi output will unexpectedly fall to about 10.6 million barrels and Russian to 9.7 million barrels. The U.S., that is, will essentially become number one by default. At best, then, the global oil supply is not going to grow appreciably — despite the IEA’s projection of a significant upswing in international demand.
But wait, suggests the IEA, there’s still one wild card hope out there: Iraq. Yes, Iraq. In the belief that the Iraqis will somehow overcome their sectarian differences, attain a high level of internal stability, establish a legal framework for oil production, and secure the necessary investment and technical support, the IEApredicts that its output will jump from 3.4 million barrels per day this year to 8 million barrels in 2035, adding an extra 4.6 million barrels to the global supply. In fact, claims the IEA, this gain would represent half the total increase in world oil production over the next 25 years. Certainly, stranger things have happened, but for the obvious reasons, it remains an implausible scenario.
Add all this together — declining output from Russia and Saudi Arabia, continuing strife in Iraq, uncertain results elsewhere — and you get insufficient oil in the 2020s and 2030s to meet anticipated world demand. From a global warming perspective that may be good news, but economically, without a massive increase in investment in alternate energy sources, the outlook is grim. You don’t know what bad times are until you don’t have enough energy to run the machinery of civilization. Assuggested by the IEA, “Much is riding on Iraq’s success… Without this supply growth from Iraq, oil markets would be set for difficult times.”
Continuing Reliance on Fossil Fuels
For all the talk of the need to increase reliance on renewable sources of energy, fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — will continue to provide most of the additional energy supplies needed to satisfy soaring world demand. “Taking all new developments and policies into account,” the IEA reported, “the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path.” In fact, recent developments seem to favor greater fossil-fuel reliance.
In the United States, for instance, the increased extraction of oil and gas from shale formations has largely silenced calls for government investment in renewable technology. In its editorial on the IEA report, for example, the Wall Street Journal ridiculed such investment. It had, the Journal’s writers suggested, now become unnecessary due to the Saudi Arabian-style oil and gas boom to come. “Historians will one day marvel that so much political and financial capital was invested in a [failed] green-energy revolution at the very moment a fossil fuel revolution was aborning,” they declared.
One aspect of this energy “revolution” deserves special attention. The growing availability of cheap natural gas, thanks to hydro-fracking, has already reduced the use of coal as a fuel for electrical power plants in the United States. This would seem to be an obvious environmental plus, since gas produces less climate-altering carbon dioxide than does coal. Unfortunately, coal output and its use haven’t diminished: American producers have simply increased their coal exports to Asia and Europe. In fact, U.S. coal exports are expected to reach as high as 133 million tons in 2012, overtaking an export record set in 1981.
Despite its deleterious effects on the environment, coal remains popular in countries seeking to increase their electricity output and promote economic development. Shockingly, according to the IEA, it supplied nearly half of the increase in global energy consumption over the last decade, growing faster than renewables. And the agency predicts that coal will continue its rise in the decades ahead. The world’s top coal consumer, China, will burn ever more of it until 2020, when demand is finally expected to level off. India’s usage will rise without cessation, with that country overtaking the U.S. as the number two consumer around 2025.
In many regions, notes the IEA report, the continued dominance of fossil fuels is sustained by government policies. In the developing world, countries commonly subsidize energy consumption, selling transportation, cooking, and heating fuels at below-market rates. In this way, they hope to buffer their populations from rising commodity costs, and so protect their regimes from popular unrest. Cutting back on such subsidies can prove dangerous, as in Jordan where a recent government decision to raise fuel prices led to widespread riots and calls for the monarchy’s abolition. In 2011, such subsidies amounted to $523 billion globally, says the IEA, up almost 30% from 2010 and six times greater than subsidies for renewable energy.
No Hope for Averting Catastrophic Climate Change
Of all the findings in the 2012 edition of the World Energy Outlook, the one that merits the greatest international attention is the one that received the least. Even if governments take vigorous steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the report concluded, the continuing increase in fossil fuel consumption will result in “a long-term average global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C.”
This should stop everyone in their tracks. Most scientists believe that an increase of 2 degrees Celsius is about all the planet can accommodate without unimaginably catastrophic consequences: sea-level increases that will wipe out many coastal cities, persistent droughts that will destroy farmland on which hundreds of millions of people depend for their survival, the collapse of vital ecosystems, and far more. An increase of 3.6 degrees C essentially suggests the end of human civilization as we know it.
To put this in context, human activity has already warmed the planet by about 0.8 degrees C — enough to produce severe droughts around the world, trigger or intensify intense storms like Hurricane Sandy, and drastically reduce the Arctic ice cap. “Given those impacts,” writes noted environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, “many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.” Among those cited by McKibben is Kerry Emanuel of MIT, a leading authority on hurricanes. “Any number much above one degree involves a gamble,” Emanuel writes, “and the odds become less and less favorable as the temperature goes up.” Thomas Lovejoy, once the World Bank’s chief biodiversity adviser, puts it this way: “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing today at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much.”
At this point, it’s hard even to imagine what a planet that’s 3.6 degrees C hotter would be like, though some climate-change scholars and prophets — like former Vice President Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth — have tried. In all likelihood, the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets would melt entirely, raising sea levels by several dozen feet and completely inundating coastal cities like New York and Shanghai. Large parts of Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East, and the American Southwest would be rendered uninhabitable thanks to lack of water and desertification, while wildfires of a sort that we can’t imagine today would consume the parched forests of the temperate latitudes.
In a report that leads with the “good news” of impending U.S. oil supremacy, to calmly suggest that the world is headed for that 3.6 degree C mark is like placing a thermonuclear bomb in a gaudily-wrapped Christmas present. In fact, the “good news” is really the bad news: the energy industry’s ability to boost production of oil, coal, and natural gas in North America is feeding a global surge in demand for these commodities, ensuring ever higher levels of carbon emissions. As long as these trends persist — and the IEA report provides no evidence that they will be reversed in the coming years — we are all in a race to see who gets to the Apocalypse first.
Michael Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, ofThe Race for What’s Left (Metropolitan Books). A documentary movie based on his book Blood and Oil can be previewed and ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com. You can follow Klare on Facebook by clicking here.
Why do I have this inner feeling that 2013 will be bringing some surprises!
Further reflections on where next for US Energy policy.
On the 28th March, I republished a powerful essay from Patrice Ayme under my Post title of Questions are never stupid. In fact, Patrice’s essay was called Energy Question For The USA and concluded thus:
Total oil sales, per day are about 100 million barrels (in truth the cap is lower, see graph above), at, say $100, so ten billion dollars a day, 3.6 trillion a year. The USA uses about 25% of that. Some have incorporated the price of the part of the gigantic American war machine and (what are truly) bribes to feudal warlords insuring Western access to the oil fields, and found a much higher cost up to $11 a gallon.
Ultimately, and pretty soon, in 2016, specialists expect oil prices to explode up, from the exhaustion of the existing oil fields. Then what?
Moreover, in 2016, the dependence upon OPEC, or, more exactly Arab regimes, is going to become much greater than now. What’s the plan of the USA? Extend ever more the security state, and go occupy the Middle East with a one million men army? To occupy, or not to occupy, that is the question.
Is it time for a better plan? And yes, any better plan will require consumers to pay higher energy prices. As consumers apparently want the army to procure the oil, they ought to pay for it.
So when Michael Klare published an essay just two days ago on TomDispatch entitled, Welcome to the New Third World of Energy, the U.S. it seemed highly relevant to have that follow-on from Patrice’s essay. Again I am very grateful to Tom Engelhardt for giving me permission to republish. Readers may like to know a little of Michael Klare’s background, from here:
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author of Resource Wars and Blood and Oil. Consider this essay a preview of his newest book, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, which has just been published by Metropolitan Books. A brief video of Klare discussing key subjects in his new book can be viewed by clicking here.
So here is that essay. I’m going to include Tom’s introduction because it’s fair to so do!
Tomgram: Michael Klare, Welcome to the New Third World of Energy, the U.S.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers:With today’s Michael Klare piece, you get your last chance to receive a signed, personalized copy of his new book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, in return for a contribution of $100 or more to this website. (Visit our donation page to check it out.) The offer will end later this week. Many thanks to those of you who have already given. Klare’s book is little short of prophetic and the dollars you so generously send in really do help keep TomDispatch afloat! Tom]
Here’s a simple rule of thumb when it comes to energy disasters: if it’s the nuclear industry and something begins to go wrong — from Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 to Fukushima, Japan, after the 2011 tsunami — whatever news is first released, always relatively reassuring, will be a lie, pure and simple. And as the disaster unrolls, it’s not likely to get much better. The nuclear industry is incapable of telling the truth about the harm it does. So when the early stories appear about the next nuclear plant in trouble, whatever you hear or read, just assume that you don’t know the half, not even the quarter, of it.
When it comes to the oil and gas industry and disasters, a similar rule of thumb follows: however bad it first sounds, the odds are it’s going to sound a lot worse before it’s over. (See BP, Deepwater Horizon.) So when you first hear about an oil leak from a Chevron well off the coast of Brazil or from a natural gas well in the North Sea operated by the French oil giant Total and you getthose expectable reassurances, they, too, are likely to be nothing but gas.
And here’s the sad thing, you’re going to get all too many chances to test out these simple rules when it comes to bad energy news. After all, as Michael Klare has been writing at this site for years, we’re entering the “tough energy” era. The big energy companies are going to be extracting hydrocarbons in ever more hazardous, difficult-to-reach places like the Arctic and they’re going to be using ever uglier methods to do so.
It’s a guarantee that, however bad the environmental damage we’ve seen so far, it’s only going to get worse as the energy industry despoils various regions to give us our fossil-fuel fix and theirmega-profits. As Klare points out, one of those regions is slated to be not in distant Africa, the Persian Gulf, or the Caspian Sea, but right here in the U.S. Klare has been ahead of the energy curve ever since, in the late 1990s, he suggested that we would soon be on a planet embroiled in“resource wars.” His new book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, catches the nightmarish nature of the planet’s last energy boom in a way no one else has. And don’t be surprised if that nightmare lands squarely in your backyard. Tom
A New Energy Third World in North America?
How the Big Energy Companies Plan to Turn the United States into a Third-World Petro-State
By Michael T. Klare
The “curse” of oil wealth is a well-known phenomenon in Third World petro-states where millions of lives are wasted in poverty and the environment is ravaged, while tiny elites rake in the energy dollars and corruption rules the land. Recently, North America has been repeatedly hailed as the planet’s twenty-first-century “new Saudi Arabia” for “tough energy” — deep-sea oil, Canadian tar sands, and fracked oil and natural gas. But here’s a question no one considers: Will the oil curse become as familiar on this continent in the wake of a new American energy rush as it is in Africa and elsewhere? Will North America, that is, become not just the next boom continent for energy bonanzas, but a new energy Third World?
Once upon a time, the giant U.S. oil companies — Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco — got their start in North America, launching an oil boom that lasted a century and made the U.S. the planet’s dominant energy producer. But most of those companies have long since turned elsewhere for new sources of oil.
Eager to escape ever-stronger environmental restrictions and dying oil fields at home, the energy giants were naturally drawn to the economically and environmentally wide-open producing areas of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America — the Third World — where oil deposits were plentiful, governments compliant, and environmental regulations few or nonexistent.
Here, then, is the energy surprise of the twenty-first century: with operating conditions growing increasingly difficult in the global South, the major firms are now flocking back to North America. To exploit previously neglected reserves on this continent, however, Big Oil will have to overcome a host of regulatory and environmental obstacles. It will, in other words, have to use its version of deep-pocket persuasion to convert the United States into the functional equivalent of a Third World petro-state.
Knowledgeable observers are already noting the first telltale signs of the oil industry’s “Third-Worldification” of the United States. Wilderness areas from which the oil companies were once barred are being opened to energy exploitation and other restraints on invasive drilling operations are being dismantled. Expectations are that, in the wake of the 2012 election season, environmental regulations will be rolled back even further and other protected areas made available for development. In the process, as has so often been the case with Third World petro-states, the rights and wellbeing of local citizens will be trampled underfoot.
Welcome to the Third World of Energy
Up until 1950, the United States was the world’s leading oil producer, the Saudi Arabia of its day. In that year, the U.S. produced approximately 270 million metric tons of oil, or about 55% of the world’s entire output. But with a postwar recovery then in full swing, the world needed a lot more energy while America’s most accessible oil fields — though still capable of growth — were approaching their maximum sustainable production levels. Net U.S. crude oil output reached a peakof about 9.2 million barrels per day in 1970 and then went into decline (until very recently).
This prompted the giant oil firms, which had already developed significant footholds in Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela, to scour the global South in search of new reserves to exploit — a saga told with great gusto in Daniel Yergin’s epic history of the oil industry, The Prize. Particular attention was devoted to the Persian Gulf region, where in 1948 a consortium of American companies — Chevron, Exxon, Mobil, and Texaco — discovered the world’s largest oil field, Ghawar, in Saudi Arabia. By 1975, Third World countries were producing 58% of the world’s oil supply, while the U.S. share had dropped to 18%.
Environmental concerns also drove this search for new reserves in the global South. On January 28, 1969, a blowout at Platform A of a Union Oil Company offshore field in California’s Santa Barbara Channel produced a massive oil leak that covered much of the area and laid waste to local wildlife. Coming at a time of growing environmental consciousness, the spill provoked an outpouring of public outrage, helping to inspire the establishment of Earth Day, first observed one year later. Equally important, it helped spur passage of various legislative restraints on drilling activities, including the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, theClean Water Act of 1972, and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. In addition, Congress banned new drilling in waters off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico near Florida.
During these years, Washington also expanded areas designated as wilderness or wildlife preserves, protecting them from resource extraction. In 1952, for example, President Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Range and, in 1980, this remote area of northeastern Alaska was redesignated by Congress as theArctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Ever since the discovery of oil in the adjacent Prudhoe Bay area, energy firms have been clamoring for the right to drill in ANWR, only to be blocked by one or another president or house of Congress.
For the most part, production in Third World countries posed no such complications. The Nigerian government, for example, has long welcomed foreign investment in its onshore and offshore oil fields, while showing little concern over the despoliation of its southern coastline, where oil company operations have produced a massive environmental disaster. As Adam Nossiter of the New York Timesdescribed the resulting situation, “The Niger Delta, where the [petroleum] wealth underground is out of all proportion with the poverty on the surface, has endured the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates.”
As vividly laid out by Peter Maass in Crude World, a similar pattern is evident in many other Third World petro-states where anything goes as compliant government officials — often the recipients of hefty bribes or other oil-company favors — regularly look the other way. The companies, in turn, don’t trouble themselves over the human rights abuses perpetrated by their foreign government “partners” — many of them dictators, warlords, or feudal potentates.
But times change. The Third World increasingly isn’t what it used to be. Many countries in the global South are becoming more protective of their environments, ever more inclined to take ever larger cuts of the oil wealth of their own countries, and ever more inclined to punish foreign companies that abuse their laws. In February 2011, for example, a judge in the Ecuadorean Amazon town of Lago Agrio ordered Chevron to pay $9 billion in damages for environmental harm caused to the region in the 1970s by Texaco (which the company later acquired). Although the Ecuadorians are unlikely to collect a single dollar from Chevron, the case is indicative of the tougher regulatory climate now facing these companies in the developing world. More recently, in a case resulting from an oil spill at an offshore field, a judge in Brazil hasseized the passports of 17 employees of Chevron and U.S. drilling-rig operator Transocean, preventing them from leaving the country.
In addition, production is on the decline in some developing countries like Indonesia and Gabon, while others have nationalized their oil fields or narrowed the space in which private international firms can operate. During Hugo Chávez’s presidency, for example, Venezuela has forced all foreign firms to award a majority stake in their operations to the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Similarly, the Brazilian government, under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, instituted a rule that all drilling operations in the new “pre-salt” fields in the Atlantic Ocean — widely believed to be the biggest oil discovery of the twenty-first century — be managed by the state-controlled firm, Petróleo de Brasil (Petrobras).
Fracking Our Way to a Toxic Planet
Such pressures in the Third World have forced the major U.S. and European firms — BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and Total of France — to look elsewhere for new sources of oil and natural gas. Unfortunately for them, there aren’t many places left in the world that possess promising hydrocarbon reserves and also welcome investment by private energy giants. That’s why some of the most attractive new energy markets now lie in Canada and the United States, or in the waters off their shores. As a result, both are experiencing a remarkable uptick in fresh investment from the major international firms.
Both countries still possess substantial oil and gas deposits, but not of the “easy” variety (deposits close to the surface, close to shore, or easily accessible for extraction). All that remains are “tough” energy reserves (deep underground, far offshore, hard to extract and process). To exploit these, the energy companies must deploy aggressive technologies likely to cause extensive damage to the environment and in many cases human health as well. They must also find ways to gain government approval to enter environmentally protected areas now off limits.
The formula for making Canada and the U.S. the “Saudi Arabia” of the twenty-first century is grim but relatively simple: environmental protections will have to be eviscerated and those who stand in the way of intensified drilling, from landowners to local environmental protection groups, bulldozed out of the way. Put another way, North America will have to be Third-Worldified.
Consider the extraction of shale oil and gas, widely considered the most crucial aspect of Big Oil’s current push back into the North American market. Shale formations in Canada and the U.S. are believed to house massive quantities of oil and natural gas, and their accelerated extraction is already helping reduce the region’s reliance on imported petroleum.
Both energy sources, however, can only be extracted through a process known as hydraulic fracturing (“hydro-fracking,” or just plain “fracking”) that uses powerful jets of water in massive quantities to shatter underground shale formations, creating fissures through which the hydrocarbons can escape. In addition, to widen these fissures and ease the escape of the oil and gas they hold, the fracking water has to be mixed with a variety of often poisonous solvents and acids. This technique produces massive quantities of toxic wastewater, which can neither be returned to the environment without endangering drinking water supplies nor easily stored and decontaminated.
The rapid expansion of hydro-fracking would be problematic under the best of circumstances, which these aren’t. Many of the richest sources of shale oil and gas, for instance, are located in populated areas of Texas, Arkansas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. In fact, one of the most promising sites, the Marcellus formation, abuts New York City’s upstate watershed area. Under such circumstances, concern over the safety of drinking water should be paramount, and federal legislation, especially the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, should theoretically give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to oversee (and potentially ban) any procedures that endanger water supplies.
However, oil companies seeking to increase profits by maximizing the utilization of hydro-fracking banded together, put pressure on Congress, and managed to get itself exempted from the 1974 law’s provisions. In 2005, under heavy lobbying from then Vice President Dick Cheney — formerly the CEO of oil services contractor Halliburton — Congress passed the Energy Policy Act, which prohibited the EPA from regulating hydro-fracking via the Safe Drinking Water Act, thereby eliminating a significant impediment to wider use of the technique.
Since then, there has been a virtual stampede to the shale regions by the major oil companies, which have in many cases devoured smaller firms that pioneered the development of hydro-fracking. (In 2009, for example, ExxonMobil paid $31 billion to acquire XTO Energy, one of the leading producers of shale gas.) As the extraction of shale oil and gas has accelerated, the industry has faced other problems. To successfully exploit promising shale formations, for instance, energy firms must insert many wells, since each fracking operation can only extend several hundred feet in any direction, requiring the establishment of noisy, polluting, and potentially hazardous drilling operations in well-populated rural and suburban areas.
While drilling has been welcomed by some of these communities as a source of added income, many have vigorously opposed the invasion, seeing it as an assault on neighborhood peace, health, and safety. In an effort to protect their quality of life, some Pennsylvania communities, for example, have adopted zoning laws that ban fracking in their midst. Viewing this as yet another intolerable obstacle, the industry has put intense pressure on friendly members of the state legislature to adopt a law depriving most local jurisdictions of the right to exclude fracking operations. “We have been sold out to the gas industry, plain and simple,” saidTodd Miller, a town commissioner in South Fayette Township who opposed the legislation.
If the energy industry has its way in North America, there will be many more Todd Millers complaining about the way their lives and worlds have been “sold out” to the energy barons. Similar battles are already being fought elsewhere in North America, as energy firms seek to overcome resistance to expanded drilling in areas once protected from such activity.
In Alaska, for example, the industry is fighting in the courts and in Congress to allow drilling in coastal areas, despite opposition from Native American communities which worry that vulnerable marine animals and their traditional way of life will be put at risk. This summer, Royal Dutch Shell is expected to begin test drilling in the Chukchi Sea, an area important to several such communities.
And this is just the beginning. To gain access to additional stores of oil and gas, the industry is seeking to eliminate virtually all environmental restraints imposed since the 1960s and open vast tracts of coastal and wilderness areas, including ANWR, to intensive drilling. It also seeks the construction of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to transport synthetic crude oil made from Canadian tar sands — a particularly “dirty” and environmentally devastating form of energy which has attracted substantial U.S. investment — to Texas and Louisiana for further processing. According to Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute (API), the preferred U.S. energy strategy “would include greater access to areas that are currently off limits, a regulatory and permitting process that supported reasonable timelines for development, and immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.”
To achieve these objectives, the API, which claims to represent more than 490 oil and natural gas companies, has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to sway the 2012 elections, dubbed “Vote 4 Energy.” While describing itself as nonpartisan, the API-financed campaign seeks to discredit and marginalize any candidate, including President Obama, who opposes even the mildest version of its drill-anywhere agenda.
“There [are] two paths that we can take” on energy policy, the Vote 4 Energy Web site proclaims. “One path leads to more jobs, higher government revenues and greater U.S. energy security — which can be achieved by increasing oil and natural gas development right here at home. The other path would put jobs, revenues and our energy security at risk.” This message will be broadcast with increasing frequency as Election Day nears.
According to the energy industry, we are at a fork in the road and can either chose a path leading to greater energy independence or to ever more perilous energy insecurity. But there is another way to characterize that “choice”: on one path, the United States will increasingly come to resemble a Third World petro-state, with compliant government leaders, an increasingly money-ridden and corrupt political system, and negligible environmental and health safeguards; on the other, which would also involve far greater investment in the development of renewable alternative energies, it would remain a First World nation with strong health and environmental regulations and robust democratic institutions.
How we characterize our energy predicament in the coming decades and what path we ultimately select will in large measure determine the fate of this nation.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resourcesjust published by Metropolitan Books. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses his new book and what it means to rely on extreme energy, click here, or download it to your iPod here. Klare can be followed on Facebook.
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Copyright 2012 Michael T. Klare
Fascinating times indeed!