10/24/2012 12:24:44 PM
The article below is reprinted with permission from the author and was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of
No one would want a novelist to perform brain surgery with
his pen. No one would want zoologist to then write textbooks claiming those misadventures
as best medical practice. Society understands the architecture of academia and
knows there are specific rooms of neuroscientists, windowsills of botanists,
stories of epidemiologists, a turretful of astrophysicists. Most individuals have
enough sense to know when they reach the limits of their knowledge. The media
accepts the idea of specializations and accords greater respect to those with greater
expertise. With one exception: climate science.
When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if
you have a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants (this is true),
editors will seek your contrarian view more avidly than if you have
qualifications in climate science and a lifetime’s professional expertise. The press
is littered with climate “heretics” with academic backgrounds in history, the classics,
or literature. Not climate science.
I recently watched a debate between a climate scientist and
that pheasant-expert turned-journalist, who also had an unfortunate background in
banking. (He was chairman of the bank Northern Rock up to its ignominious
collapse in 2007, and was accused in Parliament of “harming the reputation” of
British banking. Whoops.) An audience member asked: “Please could you explain
how it is that you are ‘right’ while all climate scientists are wrong?” He
could not. I almost felt sorry for him.
I know he has lectured publicly on scientific heresy. I
think he wants to be Galileo. Contrary to the beliefs of some contrarians, academia
welcomes the galileos and encourages skepticism: It wants its hypotheses robustly
tested precisely because it wants to pass those tests. It has a stern system of
peer review; it is judicious and conscientious. For sure, it can be tedious, no
caveat too small, no qualification too painstaking, no reference too abstruse. (Herodotus,
we’ll be with you shortly). It may spend years debating the infinitesimal advantage
of crenelation over machicolation of its ivory towers until it is disturbed by
a terse demand from wider society to come down to earth.
This demand usually means asking academia to justify itself
in terms of business and money. But what if it were asked to justify itself in
the name of public knowledge? What if it were required to play a role right at
the heart of democracy? Society needs the integrity and expertise of academics
in the puzzling out of some of its biggest quandaries: issues of nuclear power,
health, genetics, social justice, and climate science above all. A democracy then needs that knowledge disseminated through the
press, but the media’s ambition to be entertaining and provocative too often
overrules its respect for intellectual rigor. Journalists cannot hold degrees
in every subject they report on, but their job is not to pretend they know the
science better than the experts.
The BBC and Britain’s
newspapers regularly print and broadcast opinions opposing climate science by a novelist who describes himself as the
author of “fantastically entertaining” books. Fantastical is the word.
Qualified he is not. But the media, wanting to be part of the celebrity culture
it stalks and skedaddling toward infotainment, is losing sight of the core purpose
of its activity: to be a truthful messenger, in this case between the world of
academia and the public.
Pseudojournalism has the upper hand on both sides of the Atlantic. Dazzle camouflage for battleships of propaganda, the garbled plethora of
junkformation, a blare of urgent nonsense that seems designed to have an effect
more physiological than intellectual: it makes its audience tense, on alert,
jittery, prey to misinformation.
When one climate scientist in the States became utterly
frustrated and despairing about the propagandist misinformation put out by an odious
fossil fuel–funded think tank, he went undercover to get them to reveal details
of their funding and their plans for introducing climate contrarianism into
schools. To some, his action was unethical, while to others he was a hero of democracy.
The greater question, though, is not whether he should have gone undercover but
why on earth no investigative journalist did so.
And now over to Herodotus, our man in Athens. Democracy in ancient Greece was
designed to increase the knowledge available to its citizens (as academia does)
and to aid discussion of that knowledge (as the media should), leading to good policy
decisions. The historian Herodotus reports an early debate over what to do with
a windfall from mining. The citizens had a choice. Either each individual could
benefit from some instant cash, or the wealth could be used for long-term
collective benefit. Well informed, and after long discussion, they chose the
latter, a decision whose wisdom history validated. This was a self-respecting
citizenry that wanted to be worthy of its own abstract nouns, democracy above
all, and that believed, as I do, that when people are given good information,
they usually make good decisions.
“A popular government without popular information or the
means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both,”
president James Madison. Farce has been provided by the likes of “Burlesque-only,”
the Italian primate who aped the part of politician and controlled a twisted
media so successfully that Italy has now lost its democracy altogether and is
ruled by unelected bankers. Tragedy comes in the form of climate change, and
the media’s repeated trumpeting of misinformation is not only a breach of the
social contract with the present but also with the future.
Miscount a handful of votes and a nation will rightly
protest. Repeatedly misinform that nation and the law will not care, ruling as it
infamously did that Fox News has the right to lie or distort news. Mislead a
world about climate change and the future is at stake. Being adequately informed
is a democratic duty just as the vote is a democratic right. A misinformed electorate,
voting without knowledge, is not a true democracy.
Cue the graphics. I’m proposing a system of certification
for media articles in which there is a clear issue of social responsibility. Certified
articles should bear a symbol or stamp of quality assurance, be awarded by
teams of academics, and be given to the article, not the journalist, recognizing
the facts, not the personality. It should be awarded when the article is
accurate and uses reliable sources and peer reviewed studies. There already
exists the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, which answers questions at
short notice to help journalists achieve accuracy. The formality of a
certification symbol is necessary, though, for the reader to know whether to trust
an article. Accuracy must not only be achieved but be seen to have been
The certification should be voluntary. I’m not against
entertainment: if someone wants to read fantastically entertaining stories about
a man giving birth to an eight-foot baby with flying saucers for toes, good
luck to them, but I resent the appearance of parity between two articles on an
issue as serious as climate change when one article is actually gibberish masked
in pseudoscience and the other is well informed and accurate.
When the pheasant expert proffered his climate-heretic views
in a hugely popular book, the journal New Scientist gave his work to a
handful of specialists. According to them, the author “completely ignores the
mainstream scientific literature” and “has a very poor understanding of the
core issues,” “compares apples and eggs,” and “introduces confusion.” He “missed
many of the important points and concepts” and “cherry-picked evidence to form
opinions which are unsupported by the bulk of scientific evidence.” His work
was an “unfortunate misrepresentation,” which was “misleading,” an “unbalanced
contribution,” and an “ideological account.”
So, no certification there, then. The author has, I think,
fallen victim to what I call the Galileo fallacy. Just because Galileo was a
heretic doesn’t make every heretic a Galileo.
Jay Griffiths is the author of A Love Letter from a Stray
Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681); public domain / acquired from Wikimedia Commons
10/17/2012 11:57:10 AM
Editor's note: The following is a companion piece to "Power of Nature" from the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Utne Reader (pages 48-50). In that article, futurists Gitte Larsen, Søren Steen Olsen and Steen Svendsen of House of Futures in Denmark paint a vision of the future where we realize that everything is nature and so are we; that we are one with the earth and share a common biology and collective consciousness. The following is an equally optimistic alternate vision of the future where humanity realizes that when it puts its collective mind toward something, it's capable of developing technologies, organizations, political institutions and business models that allow for prosperity without jeopardizing the planet.
In 2112, we live in a “man-made world.” If you look at that world from a 2012 perspective, you will be surprised by the responsibility that we, as humans, exhibit towards nature—the clean cities, the fertile landscape, the light-touch clean economy and the high prosperity. You will be fascinated by the new technology and new innovations, and you may be shocked by the changes in human physiology. But you will recognize general social patterns.
Let us give you the story of how this future unfolds, where it has its historic roots and what drives the transformation. Then let us describe to you the future perception of nature. Finally let us portray what politics, business, living, art, science and technology will look like in this world.
Drivers and Background
The mindset that drives “man-made world” is responsible determination. It is informed by the realization that human activity has created a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, where we have become the most important driving force for changing Earth’s geology, climate, and ecosystems. We are responsible and we have to assume this responsibility. “man-made world” is created by vigorous political initiative and rational science-based planning. And it arguably has its roots stretching back all the way to the Club of Rome with its message of “limits to growth” due to the finiteness of fossil energy and raw materials reserves. This gave rise to an increasing awareness of nature’s boundaries to human activities. Also, it led to a process of institutionalized global political consultation, negotiation and formulation of targets. The Brundtland commission and Kyoto protocols were some early milestones in a process with plenty of twists and bumps along the way to the Anthropocene breakthrough.
In the 1970s, the oil crisis that ended the three decades of historically unprecedented economic growth worked as a powerful demonstration of the exact vulnerabilities that “limits to growth” had pointed out. This run of events was a precursor for the early decades of the 21st century when increasing temperatures, hurricanes, floods and droughts put pressure on our resources and economies thereby demonstrating the message from the scientific community about planetary boundaries. The ideas driving "man-made world" were under ways for many decades, and often quite high on the agenda of public discourse and policy. They were picked up by media, by NGOs and grassroot movements, and by segments of consumers and producers. But the wholesale radical change that marks “man-made world” required a new generation of political leaders taking over as the old generation failed to inspire and weren’t up to tackling the challenges.
It became clear that global action on a massive scale was needed in order to reverse, mitigate and/or adapt to the challenges. Consequently we saw a refocusing and a revitalization of political processes on local, national, regional, and global levels. New generations of policy entrepreneurs were taking the lead in taking responsibility.
Perception of Nature
A strong and conscious perception of nature is absolutely central in the "man-made world." We see nature as a living system and a wonderful resource. We can rely on it to provide us with much of the material basis for our existence. But nature is a finite resource. Since the industrial revolution, humans have become the single most powerful force affecting nature’s development, changing physical landscapes, climate, material metabolisms and biodiversity, both globally and locally. We are living in a geological epoch of our own making. This was a call on us to be responsible and rational in how we use the world’s resources. We learned to be knowledgeable and conscious about how our activities effect the fragile balanced of nature.
Nature requires us to keep researching and studying nature, as well as ourselves and the interplay between human societies and nature. Nature inspires us to recognize the beauty and endless opportunities and scope for innovation that it presents us with, but also to be acutely aware and mindful of the boundaries that nature sets for our utilization.
We must assume responsibility. We must acquire the means to control and manage our own power and collective behavior in order to harness nature without damaging it. We need to take on the role of responsible and conscientious custodians, stewards or managers of nature—like any landowner would his property—all in order to be able to continue to be the biggest beneficiaries of nature.
Previously it was sometimes said that we knew what needed to be done, we just didn’t know how to do it politically. It was somewhat natural to take a cynical view given the previously disappointingly inadequate political action even in the face of a long-standing public awareness of the challenges. We were irresponsibly gambling with the future of the planet. Everybody was waiting for someone else to take the lead and do something.
The emergence of a new generation of political leaders changed the dynamics. It was a generation whose outlook was shaped by the ongoing debate on sustainability and by growing impatience and frustration with the inadequacy of political response. They entered the scene with an ambitious outlook, a firm belief that change is possible, and a deep sense of responsibility towards nature and future generations.
There was a new optimism and enthusiasm for what we can accomplish. A feeling that we actually can make a better world if we put our minds to it. “So let us be masters of our own fate and take responsibility for the destiny of our planet. We can do it!”as one political leader famously put it.
Growing public realization that old methods and politics simply couldn’t deliver urged a tectonic shift in the balance between old vested interests and forward-looking interests. The new political agenda was global in its worldview and resonated with people everywhere, especially younger generations. Beginning in northwestern Europe and the EU, governments all over the world devised and implemented strategic policies using a variety of instruments. The frontrunners were countries where there was a strong awareness of the importance of a new course; a culture which was influenced by a generally high level of economic development and public welfare, and above all by education; a culture based on co-creation.
The global process that unfolded was partly negotiated, cooperative, and coordinated, and partly an uneven process of pioneers and emulators, leaders and followers. International and global institutions gained renewed relevance and were quick to pick up on this agenda assuming their designated role as facilitators of global political dialogue and will.
Democracy and revitalized primarily due to the system’s ability to respond to the challenge, but also because of a new political culture based on a dynamic development in digital and local platforms creating a new responsiveness between people and politicians.
As for strategies, one key was to get prices right. Tax systems were used in various and often innovative ways to ensure that prices reflected true ecological costs. Another key was investing massively in sustainable infrastructure: energy, smart grids, transportation systems, welfare technology, recycling and waste disposal. A third key was support for open source technological development and sustainable innovation. The overall effect was to move the economy on to a new path of development.
Once the political direction was clear, business and consumers were remarkably quick to respond. Breakthroughs in solar, wind, smart grids, waste disposal and material technologies came in rapid succession and were speedily implemented. New patterns of consumption and production emerged that were radically more friendly to the environment. A light-touch, clean and prosperous economy emerged.
What was most surprising to many in the beginning of the transition was that the structural changes to the economic system went hand in hand with economic boom. The new ecologically sustainable economic system was highly competitive.
Frontrunners were those who not only responded to new pricing signals and market demands but who truly comprehended the new policy direction and based their vision and strategy on it. They were the ones who delivered the myriad of new products, services and business models that built the light-touch economy.
The transformation that was set in motion succeeded in completely replacing the fossil fuel based economy with one that was based on energy from clean, renewable sources. It saw a materials revolution driven by the development of new eco-friendly synthetic materials, and by the super-efficient recycling markets and waste disposal systems. And not only did it succeed, but success came much faster than anyone had predicted, or even thought possible. Once set in motion the process quickly gained momentum and became self-reinforcing as political initiative, political response and technological innovation combined in a powerful drive for sustainability and renewed prosperity.
In fact, a dynamic arose in which countries, economies and businesses that embraced sustainable strategies became economic powerhouses and front-runners. To be stuck in the age of gasoline and coal was the biggest structural danger to an economy. Some large companies, notably those rich in fossil fuels, and those poor in political effectiveness, struggled to make the transition but eventually followed suit. We have learned that responsible management of our relationship with nature is not only right. It is also highly rewarding in many regards.
Living and Art
Life in the light-touch society is high-prosperity, low-impact. Intelligent systems handled the metabolic exchange with nature, and secured the safe and efficient recycling of materials and disposal of waster. Our relationship with nature was respectful and sustainable. As people lived in clean and attractive built environments, nature was not top-of-mind all the time. Many people spend a lot of their time in digitized virtual reality rather than in nature. At the same time people very much appreciated nature, and it still had a powerful appeal. It offered great experiences whether you were an adventurer seeking extreme authenticity, or whether you would rather opt for themed nature resorts where people could experience sights and landscapes, some with carefully managed stocks of wild animals. Prehistoric theme parks complete with dinosaurs and swans were particularly popular.
Remarkably, art became big business and the single most dynamic sector in the economy. This was a result of prosperity and individualism that saw art as the ultimate form of self-actualization. The ability to create and appreciate artistic expressions was the ultimate human characteristic, one that was eagerly sought after and high in demand. New technologies and knowledge of the functioning of the human brain and body have opened up a variety of new artistic fields and art forms.
But the one parameter that came to dominate the field was authenticity. That is, the experience of a significant event which takes place at a particular place and time and therefore is unique and cannot be replicated. The development and careful staging of such events constituted a large and fast growing part of the economy and employment. New artistic megahalls and art stadiums sprang up in cities around the world in fierce competition for the most prestigious and creative public spaces for art activities.
The goal was to merge intellect and intuition in new ways, constantly experimenting with new forms of human consciousness, expression of language, story-telling, sound, music, imagery, and sensory stimulation. To many this kind of endeavor was the closest thing to having a meaning of life.
Science and Technology
Science was very visible and important driver in the transition to a sustainable "man-made world," and the string of technological breakthroughs that it spurned gave it a new-found prestige in society. Big science made a decisive comeback, not least when cheap and clean nuclear fusion energy came on stream by the latter half of the 21st century. Their cool and quiet gigantic domes were an aesthetically pleasing addition to the landscape.
Science pursued further advancement in a range of fields stretching from genetics to space. Sophisticated modeling was applied to complex systems such as ecosystems, climate and weather in order to optimize our management of them and in order to facilitate advances in the dynamic field of geo-engineering. There was a new focus on anticipation and prevention instead of problem fixing and symptom treatment.
The scientific study of nature kept offering exciting opportunities to learn from something that was not human-made. The extraction and storage of genetic information from all life forms was one project that promised to enable regeneration of any extinct species that might be deemed valuable or interesting. Given advanced knowledge of managing ecosystems, this would also make it possible to create new types of ecosystems.
Artificial intelligence, robotics, genetics, merging of man and machine, were some of the developments we saw. The re-engineering of humans and the possible prospect of immaturity began to raise a host of new practical and ethical questions.
Image courtesy of dullhunk, licensed under Creative Commons
10/5/2012 4:41:23 PM
fossil-fuel enthusiasts began trumpeting the dawn of a new “golden age of oil”
that would kick-start the American economy, generate millions of new jobs, and
free this country from its dependence on imported petroleum. Ed Morse, head
commodities analyst at Citibank, was typical. In the Wall Street Journal
he crowed, “The United States has become the fastest-growing
oil and gas producer in the world, and is likely to remain so for the rest of this
decade and into the 2020s.”
Once this surge
in U.S. energy production
was linked to a predicted boom in energy from Canada’s tar sands reserves, the
results seemed obvious and uncontestable. “North America,” he announced, “is
becoming the new Middle East.” Many other
analysts have elaborated similarly on this rosy scenario, which now provides
the foundation for Mitt Romney’s plan to achieve “energy independence” by 2020.
By employing impressive new technologies -- notably deepwater drilling and
hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking) -- energy companies were said to be on
the verge of unlocking vast new stores of oil in Alaska,
the Gulf of Mexico, and shale formations across the United States. “A ‘Great Revival’
oil production is taking shape -- a major break from the near 40-year trend of
falling output,” James Burkhard of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates
(CERA) told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
in January 2012.
output was also predicted elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, especially Canada and Brazil. “The outline of a new world
oil map is emerging, and it is centered not on the Middle East but on the Western Hemisphere,” Daniel Yergin, chairman of CERA, wrote in the Washington Post. “The new energy axis
runs from Alberta, Canada,
down through North Dakota and South Texas...
to huge offshore oil deposits found near Brazil.”
It turns out,
however, that the future may prove far more recalcitrant than these prophets of
an American energy cornucopia imagine. To reach their ambitious targets, energy
firms will have to overcome severe geological and environmental barriers -- and
recent developments suggest that they are going to have a tough time doing so.
while many analysts and pundits joined in the premature celebration of the new
“golden age,” few emphasized that it would rest almost entirely on the
exploitation of “unconventional” petroleum resources -- shale oil, oil shale,
Arctic oil, deep offshore oil, and tar sands (bitumen). As for conventional oil
(petroleum substances that emerge from the ground in liquid form and can be
extracted using familiar, standardized technology), no one doubts that it will
continue its historic decline in North America.
“unconventional” oil that is to liberate the U.S. and its neighbors from the
unreliable producers of the Middle East involves substances too hard or viscous
to be extracted using standard technology or embedded in forbidding locations
that require highly specialized equipment for extraction. Think of it as “tough oil.”
Shale oil, for
instance, is oil trapped in shale rock. It can only be liberated through the
application of concentrated force in a process known as hydraulic
fracturing that requires millions of gallons of chemically laced water per
“frack,” plus the subsequent disposal of vast quantities of toxic wastewater
once the fracking has been completed. Oil
shale, or kerogen, is a primitive form of petroleum that must be melted to
be useful, a process that itself consumes vast amounts of energy. Tar
sands (or “oil sands,” as the industry prefers to call them) must be gouged
from the earth using open-pit mining technology or pumped up after first being
melted in place by underground steam jets, then treated with various chemicals.
Only then can the material be transported to refineries via, for example, the
highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Similarly, deepwater and Arctic
drilling requires the deployment of specialized multimillion-dollar rigs along
with enormously costly backup safety systems under the most dangerous of
All these processes have at least one thing in common: each
pushes the envelope of what is technically possible in extracting oil (or
natural gas) from geologically and geographically forbidding environments. They
are all, that is, versions of “extreme energy.” To produce them, energy companies will
have to drill in extreme temperatures or extreme weather, or use extreme
pressures, or operate under extreme danger -- or some combination of all of
these. In each, accidents, mishaps, and setbacks are guaranteed to be more
frequent and their consequences more serious than in conventional drilling
operations. The apocalyptic poster child for these processes already played out
in 2010 with BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf
of Mexico, and this summer we saw intimations of how it will
happen again as a range of major unconventional drilling initiatives -- all
promising that “golden age” -- ran into serious trouble.
most notable example of this was Shell Oil’s costly failure to commence test
drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. After investing $4.5 billion and years of preparation, Shell was
poised to drill five test wells this summer in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas
northern and northwestern coasts. However, on September 17th, a series of
accidents and mishaps forced the company to announce that it would suspend operations until next summer
-- the only time when those waters are largely free of pack ice and so it is
safer to drill.
problems began early and picked up pace as the summer wore on. On September
10th, its Noble Discoverer drill ship was forced to abandon operations at the Burger Prospect, about 70 miles
offshore in the Chukchi
Sea, when floating sea
ice threatened the safety of the ship. A more serious setback occurred later in
the month when a containment dome designed to cover any leak that developed at
an undersea well malfunctioned during tests in Puget Sound in Washington State.
As Clifford Krauss noted in the New York Times, “Shell’s inability to
control its containment equipment in calm waters under predictable test
conditions suggested that the company would not be able to effectively stop a
sudden leak in treacherous Arctic waters, where powerful ice floes and gusty
winds would complicate any spill response.”
was also impeded by persistent opposition from environmentalists and native
groups. They have repeatedly brought suit to block its operations on the
grounds that Arctic drilling will threaten the survival of marine life
essential to native livelihoods and culture. Only after promising to take
immensely costly protective measures and winning the support of the Obama administration -- fearful of appearing
to block “job creation” or “energy independence” during a presidential campaign
-- did the company obtain the necessary permits to proceed. But some lawsuits
remain in play and, with this latest delay, Shell’s opponents will have added
time and ammunition.
Shell insist that the company will overcome all these hurdles and be ready to
drill next summer. But many observers view its experience as a deterrent to
future drilling in the Arctic. “As long as
Shell has not been able to show that they can get the permits and start to
drill, we’re a bit skeptical about moving forward,” said Tim Dodson of Norway’s Statoil. That company also
owns licenses for drilling in the Chukchi
Sea, but has now decided
to postpone operations until 2015 at the earliest.
unexpected impediment to the arrival of energy’s next “golden age” in North
America emerged even more unexpectedly from this summer’s record-breaking
drought, which still has 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land in its grip. The energy angle
on all this was, however, a surprise.
Any increase in
hydrocarbon output will require greater extraction of oil and gas from shale
rock, which can only be accomplished via hydro-fracking. More fracking, in
turn, means more water consumption. With the planet warming thanks to climate
change, such intensive droughts are expected to intensify in many regions, which means rising agricultural
demand for less water, including potentially in prime fracking locations like
the Bakken formation of North Dakota, the
Eagle Ford area of West Texas, and the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania.
impact on hydro-fracking became strikingly evident when, in June and July,
wells and streams started drying up in many drought-stricken areas and drillers
suddenly found themselves competing with hard-pressed food-producers for whatever
water was available. “The amount of water needed for drilling is a double
whammy,” Chris Faulkner, the president and chief executive officer of Breitling Oil &
Gas, told Oil & Gas Journal in July. “We’re getting pushback
from farmers, and my fear is that it’s going to get worse.” In July, in fact,
the situation became so dire in Pennsylvania
that the Susquehanna River Basin Commission suspended permits for water withdrawals from the Susquehanna River and its tributaries, forcing some
drillers to suspend operations.
If this year’s
“endless summer” of unrelenting drought were just a fluke,
and we could expect abundant water in the future, the golden age scenario might
still be viable. But most climate scientists suggest that severe drought is
likely to become the “new normal” in many parts of the United States, putting the fracking
boom very much into question. “Bakken and Eagle Ford are our big keys to energy
independence,” Faulkner noted. “Without water, drilling shale gas and oil wells
is not possible. A continuing drought could cause our domestic production to
decline and derail our road to energy independence in a hurry.”
And then there
are those Canadian tar sands. Turning them into “oil” also requires vast amounts
of water, and climate-change-related shortages of that vital commodity are also
likely in Alberta, Canada, their heartland. In
addition, tar sands production releases far more greenhouse gas emissions than
conventional oil production, which has sparked its own fiercely determined
opposition in Canada, the United States, and Europe.
In the U.S.,
opposition to tar sands has until now largely focused on the construction of
XL pipeline, a $7 billion, 2,000-mile conduit that would carry diluted tar
sands oil from Hardisty, Alberta, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast,
thousands of miles away. Parts of the Keystone system are already in place. If
completed, the pipeline is designed to carry 1.1 million barrels a day of
unrefined liquid across the United
opponents charge that the project will contribute to the acceleration
of climate change. It also exposes crucial underground water supplies in the Midwest to severe risk of contamination by the highly
corrosive tar-sands fluid (and pipeline leaks are commonplace). Citing the
closeness of its proposed route to the critical Ogallala
Aquifer, President Obama denied permission for its construction last January.
(Because it will cross an international boundary, the president gets to make
the call.) He is, however, expected to grant post-election approval to a new,
less aquifer-threatening route; Mitt Romney has vowed to give it his approval
on his first day in office.
Keystone XL were in place, the golden age of Canada’s tar sands won’t be in
sight -- not without yet more pipelines as the bitumen producers face mounting
opposition to their extreme operations. As a result of fierce resistance to
Keystone XL, led in large part by Bill McKibben, -- the public has become far more aware of
the perils of tar sands production. Resistance to it, for example, could stymie
plans to deliver tar sands oil to Portland, Maine (for transshipment by ship to refineries
elsewhere), via an existing pipeline that runs from Montreal
through Vermont and New
Hampshire to the Maine
coast. Environmentalists in New England are
already gearing up to oppose the plan.
If the U.S. proves too tough a nut to crack, Alberta has a backup plan: construction of the Northern
Gateway, a proposed pipeline through British Columbia
for the export of tar sands oil to Asia.
However, it, too, is running into trouble. Environmentalists and native
communities in that province are implacably opposed and have threatened civil disobedience to prevent its construction (with major
protests already set for October 22nd outside the Parliament
Building in Victoria).
sands oil across the Atlantic is likely to
have its own set of problems. The European Union is considering adopting rules that would label it a dirtier
form of energy, subjecting it to various penalties when imported into the European
Union. All of this is, in turn, has forced Albertan authorities to consider tough new environmental regulations that would make it more
difficult and costly to extract bitumen, potentially dampening the enthusiasm
of investors and so diminishing the future output of tar sands.
In a sense,
while the dreams of the boosters of these new forms of energy may thrill
journalists and pundits, their reality could be expressed this way: extreme
energy = extreme methods = extreme disasters = extreme opposition.
already many indications that the new “golden age” of North American oil is
unlikely to materialize as publicized, including an unusually rapid decline in oil output at existing shale oil drilling
operations in Montana.
is not a major producer, the decline there is significant because it is
occurring in part of the Bakken field, widely considered a major source of new
oil.) As for the rest of the Western Hemisphere,
there is little room for optimism there either when it comes to the “promise”
of extreme energy. Typically, for instance, a Brazilian court has ordered Chevron to cease production at its multibillion-dollar
Frade field in the Campos basin of Brazil’s
deep and dangerous Atlantic waters because of
repeated oil leaks. Doubts have meanwhile arisen over the ability of Petrobras, Brazil’s
state-controlled oil company, to develop the immensely challenging Atlantic
“pre-salt” fields on its own.
from unconventional oil operations in the U.S.
is likely to show some growth in the years ahead, there is no “golden age” on
the horizon, only various kinds of potentially disastrous scenarios. Those like
Mitt Romney who claim that the United
States can achieve energy “independence” by
2020 or any other near-term date are only fooling themselves, and perhaps some
elements of the American public. They may indeed employ such claims to gain
support for the rollback of what environmental protections exist against the
exploitation of extreme energy, but the United States will remain dependent
on Middle Eastern and African oil for the foreseeable future.
Of course, were
such a publicized golden age to come about, we would be burning vast quantities
of the dirtiest energy on the planet with truly disastrous consequences. The
truth is this: there is just one possible golden age for U.S. (or any other
kind of) energy and it would be based on a major push to produce breakthroughs
in climate-friendly renewables, especially wind, solar, geothermal, wave, and
only “golden” sight around is likely to be the sun on an ever hotter, ever
dirtier, ever more extreme planet.
Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College,
, and the author, most
The Race for What’s Left
. A movie based on one of his
earlier books, Blood and Oil, can be ordered at http://www.bloodandoilmovie.com.
Klare’s other books and articles are described at his website.
You can follow Klare’s work on Facebook.
Michael T. Klare
Image by Ray Bodden,
licensed under Creative
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