Dr. Yergin’s Dilemma Goes Global: The Collision of Abundant Fossil Fuels and Climate Protection

Jun 11, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Not that long ago I wrote here about Daniel Yergin’s latest book, the long-awaited follow up to his authoritative history of human use of oil. I concluded by noting:

[How] difficult [it would be for] Dr. Yergin to fully confront the dilemma implicit in his work – that the presence of affordable hydrocarbons (oil and/or natural gas) for indefinite future will create a strong pull constantly moving us away from making the reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions that science tells us we need to make in order to save ourselves.

Sadly, this is not a challenge that Dr. Yergin has taken up. The New York published an essay by Dr. Yergin in its widely-read Sunday Opinion section about the changing face of petroleum supply as the United States has dramatically increased its oil and gas production.  As influential commentator Joe Romm notes in a blog post this new Yergin piece completely ignores the issue of climate. Romm argues that, “While Yergin is happy to detail America’s new orgy of fossil production, he is has nothing to say about how we could do this in an environmentally sound way, in part, I suspect, because he knows that we can’t.”

But this head-on collision of climate and increased gas and oil production is not unique to Daniel Yergin.  Over at Foreign Policy, Steve LeVine provocatively asks “Can we survive the new golden age of oil?”  He surveys the opinions of various experts about how oil and gas production around the world will continue to expand in all kinds of places including in North America and in the Eastern Mediterranean noting that:

What these experts have not said, however, is that while this new golden age may indeed shake up the currently rich and powerful and create new regional forces, it could also accelerate the swamping of the planet in melted Arctic ice. So much new oil may flood the market that crude and gasoline prices might moderate and lessen consumer incentives to economize. “In the absence of U.S. leadership, I tend to agree with NASA’s James Hansen that it is ‘game over for the planet,'” Peter Rutland, a professor at Wesleyan University, told me in an email exchange.

These thoughts, and related exploration of the same theme by Michael Levi, should provide us all with a real jolt. It is simply not true that declining supplies and rising prices of oil and gas will bring about the fundamental changes that will be needed to avert climate disaster. And if you think the U.S. Federal government or a global agreement will save the day – you just haven’t been paying attention.

Dr. Yergin and others who describe a world with continued high availability (and low prices) of petroleum are presenting us with a gordian knot – and among the only folks holding a sword are the local, state and regional leaders from both government and business who are working to build a new economy around clean, zero emissions technology and practices.

New Report Shows Economic, Enviro Benefits of Regional Clean Fuels Standard

Aug 18, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A new report released today indicates that a proposed Clean Fuels Standard could significantly strengthen the economy and boost energy self-sufficiency in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic by saving Americans billions in personal disposable income, bringing in billions more for participating states, and creating up to 50,000 jobs per year.

The analysis, conducted by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management (NESCAUM) on behalf of 11 northeast and mid-Atlantic states, shows that creating a Clean Fuels Standard would help strengthen the region’s economy while reducing America’s reliance on oil and our exposure to volatile oil prices by supporting a clean energy economy here at home.

It enumerates multiple economic and environmental benefits the standard could deliver in the next 10 years, including:

  • Creating up to 50,000 jobs annually
  • Increasing personal disposable income in the region by up to $3.2 billion
  • Growing our state economies by up to nearly $30 billion dollars
  • Reducing our region’s dependence on oil by as much as 29 percent
  • Reducing harmful air pollution that causes climate change up to 9 percent

Under a Clean Fuels Standard being considered, oil companies would make their fuels 10 percent cleaner on average when it comes to carbon pollution, allowing them to do this any way they choose (such as boosting sales of electricity for electric vehicles, advanced biofuels or natural gas). This means billions of dollars would be reinvested in the states to develop clean, local alternatives to gasoline and diesel – rather than sending them overseas.

CLF is encouraged by the report’s positive findings. Sue Reid, director of CLF Massachusetts, said, “The status quo of continuing to burn billions of gallons of gasoline and diesel fuels year after year is unsustainable on every level. With gas prices a dollar higher than this time last year, our region should seize on this good news that cleaner alternatives present real economic opportunity for the region. A Clean Fuels Standard provides a viable path to meeting our greenhouse gas reduction targets, and a way off of the fossil fuel roller coaster.”

Read reaction from other leading environmental and science organizations who support the Clean Fuels Standard here.

I Want My Ocean Back

Jun 23, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Yesterday US District Federal Judge Martin Feldman revoked the six month moratorium on deep water oil drilling put into place by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The Obama administration immediately announced it would appeal the judge’s decision. Seems the Judge has concern that a halt on the use of 33 rigs already in place “cannot justify the immeasurable effect on the plaintiffs, the local economy, the Gulf region, and the critical present-day aspect of the availability of domestic energy in this country.” He disagreed there was a logical conclusion between the ongoing oil geyser and the six month lets-take-a-look-and-see-what’s-up moratorium.

The State of Alaska — which has deemed BP an environmental felon for past spills on that state’s North Slope — sees a logical conclusion between the BP oil geyser and damage to their ocean waters. Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation (not to mention the Coast Guard and the EPA) are concerned that they are shipping so much of their stockpiled oil spill containment supplies to the Gulf of Mexico that they are vulnerable to a potential spill in their state. 

Concern, to put it mildly, is growing across the country about the stark threat that offshore oil drilling places on our oceans and coasts. Several national polls now show a shift in beliefs as a majority of Americans not only oppose offshore oil drilling but are also willing to reduce consumption and improve their own energy efficiency

This Saturday tens of thousands of Americans are gathering at hundreds of places across the country to demand a halt to new oil and gas drilling. Hands Across the Sand now has 693 gatherings planned in all 50 states and 21 countries. Saturday, June 26, 11:00am. Go to the beach or coast near you. Join hands at noon. Help take your ocean back.

Mercy, mercy, mercy

May 10, 2010 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

In probably the most honest headline published since the start of the BP oil disaster, today’s Miami Herald writes “With no clear plan, experts brace for worst.” US Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen is contemplating an attempt at plugging the gushing well with a collection of shredded tires, golf balls and other assorted technologically advanced clogging materials. Meanwhile, the BP spokesperson on the scene says, “I have every confidence we’ll find a good temporary solution.” When asked for particulars he revised his confidence to say he has every “hope and prayer.” Another step towards honesty. “Sometimes we are not prepared for adversity,” as Cannonball Adderley once said. Why not approach adversity with honesty?

Oil booms, chemical dispersant, skimmer boats and prep to wash oily wildlife are the basic tenets of oil spill response. For all the creativity and commitment to get oil out of the ground, into your tank and the money in the bank we sure have not made much progress in disaster preparedness or oil clean-up. Every oil spill from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the Exxon Valdez and the smaller spill of fuel oil in Buzzard’s Bay in April of 2003 employed the same four components. What is being employed in the Gulf Coast today is the same approach on a larger scale. It’s no mystery why this is the case. Unless the oil industry feels the pain through fines, regulations and criminal responsibility there will always be an incentive to cut corners, cross fingers and place confidence in “hope and prayer.”

Philosphers and theologians can weigh hope and prayer, but most of us use the standard yardsticks of oil disaster measurement. The BP oil disaster, although likely low-balled, now has its own ticker. The US Coast Guard estimates there have been 250,000 gallons of Corexit, the chemical dispersant of choice, sprayed on or in the ocean so far. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone was over 7000 square miles before the BP oil disaster. There are about 77,000 miles of coastline in Louisiana alone. And then we have about 900,000 feet of plastic oil containment boom placed along Gulf Coast shores. There are still 5280 feet in one mile.

Oil well in Pacific STILL leaking – and now it is on fire . . .

Nov 2, 2009 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The continued flow of oil into the Timor Sea north of Australia previously presented on this blog

(PTTEP ERG Media) via Australian Broadcasting Company

"PTTEP ERG Media" via Australian Broadcasting Company

is both a general example of the many kinds of harm that flow from uncontrolled fossil fuel use and a specific example of why talk about new drilling techniques being safe should be viewed with great skepticism.

News reports tell us that the flow of oil into the sea from the drilling platform continues and in a really sad new development the platform burst into flames during an attempt to close down the well.

And now there is video of the situation.  Note the spokesman for the oil exploration company admitting that the fire is out of control.

And yes the Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett who is in part responsible for dealing with this is the same Peter Garrett who was the lead singer of Australian rock band Midnight Oil.  Only a matter of time until someone asks how he can sleep while the rig is burning, to paraphrase their biggest hit.

Imagine Vermont Covered in Oil

Sep 29, 2009 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

On August 21st, the Thai based energy company PTTEP announced that a “crude oil gas leak incident occurred” in the Timor Sea about 155 miles northwest of Western Australia.  The energy company’s press released continued that “the size of the spill is not known.  Aproximately 40 barrels of oil were discharged from the wellhead in the initial incident.”  In the ensuing month, it has become clear that this oil spill is much more serious than initially thought:

Aerial Photo of the oil spill from the drilling platform in the Timor Sea (Source: SkyTruth)

Aerial Photo of the oil spill from the drilling platform in the Timor Sea (Source: SkyTruth)

  1. As of September 25th, photos from NASA satellites document that the oil slicks and sheen from the spill covered 9,870 square miles, an area even bigger than the state of Vermont.  Part of the oil sheen has been moving perilously close to the Cartier Island Marine Reserve.
  2. According to conservative estimates by the World Wildlife Fund, the rig has been leaking 400 barrels a day — over 14,000 barrels since late August.  That equates to about 600,000 gallons of oil.
  3. When the spill was first reported, the government of Australia predicted it would take 7 weeks to clean up.   Already, it has been 5 weeks and the spill isn’t contained.

This devastating spill may be a world away but US ocean waters, including Georges Bank and the rest of the Gulf of Maine, are also at risk because they no longer are protected from the devastating impacts of oil and gas extraction. As a parting gift before leaving office, President Bush lifted the Presidential Moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas on the Outer Continental Shelf that had been in place since 1990.  On September 30, 2008, Congress followed suit and lifted a longstanding legislative ban on offshore oil and gas leasing as part of a large government operations appropriations bill.  As a result, important habitat in the Gulf of Maine, including Georges Bank — one of the world’s premier fishing grounds — is at risk of industrial scale fossil fuel energy development.

As the Saudi oil fields are tapped out, there is increased pressure to drill in remote areas of the ocean.  For example, at the beginning of September, BP announced a “giant oil discovery” 35,055 feet below the Gulf of Mexico seafloor, which itself is already 4,132 feet below the surface of the ocean.  In an ironic twist of fate, just as the ocean is beginning to bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change (see my earlier blog post on ocean acidification), oil companies are stepping up efforts to locate and drill for oil and gas under the seafloor.

Clearly we need energy — but how do we design a sustainable, climate neutral ocean energy solution that will not put important marine wildlife, habitat and ecosystems at risk? As Greg Watson, then a VP at the Mass Technology Collaborative, noted, New England (and Massachusetts in particular) is “the ‘Saudi Arabia of Wind.'” Of course, we need to responsibly tap this renewable resource — we can’t build wind farms wholesale across the region just because there is a lot of wind on the ocean.  Rather, we need to engage in a thorough marine spatial planning process whereby different human uses and ecological resources are identified and mapped and responsible renewable energy development is sited in a way that doesn’t create unreasonable impacts on those activities or natural resources.  Massachusetts is in the process of doing just that — and has released the first in the nation Draft Ocean Management Plan.  In Maine, the governor appointed an Ocean Energy Task Force to evaluate how to develop offshore renewable energy.  Rhode Island is working on an Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) in part to promote offshore renewable energy development.  Finally, at the federal level, President Obama issued an Executive Memorandum calling for a national ocean policy and marine spatial planning  framework.  CLF is working on all of these issues.

Imagine if all of Vermont were covered in an oil spill.  Well it has been over a month and an equally large spill in the Timor Sea hasn’t been contained.  Oil and gas drilling is still a risky business and, thanks to former President Bush and Congress, these projects are allowable in US ocean waters.  A concerted effort is needed to make oil and gas drilling old news.  We need to usher in a new era of responsible, climate friendly, renewable ocean energy development.  Help CLF make this a reality!

What can you do to help promote responsible marine renewable energy Development?

  1. Sign the CLF Ocean Petition
  2. Learn more about the Massachusetts Draft Ocean Management Plan, Maine Ocean Energy Task Force, Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan and the National Ocean Policy and Marine Spatial Framework.
  3. Learn more about the Timor Sea Spill
Satellite Image of the oil spill in the Timor Sea.  Northwest Australia is in the lower right hand corner of the photo (Source: SkyTruth)

Satellite Image of the oil spill in the Timor Sea. Northwest Australia is in the lower right hand corner of the photo (Source: SkyTruth)