I’ll do the next best thing. Send it back.
I encourage everyone to check it out by clicking here. According to the Baltimore Sun’s publishing rules, they maintain 30-day exclusivity rights over the piece, so I won’t be able to post it on my website until mid-January.
This opinion piece, which was months in the making, highlights the extreme lack of scientific expertise in the halls of Congress. It gives examples, lists negative impacts and demonstrates how having at least some scientists in charge would be beneficial for the entire country. It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that climate change takes center stage in my argument.
Now here’s a little inside baseball. I’ve actually been pretty successful in getting my opinion pieces published in newspapers. I had my two previous letters to the editor (one on offshore drilling and the other on Keystone XL) published in the Baltimore Sun and one of those also in the NJ Star Ledger. Basically I was batting a thousand until this article.
So then a few weeks ago I submit a version through the Baltimore Sun website and hear nothing for like two weeks. Of course I’m thinking that they chose not to run it. So one morning I just decide to rewrite the entire thing. I kept certain phrases, but it was a total reorganization and shifting of the thesis. After bouncing it off some people, I resubmitted.
About three days later I get an email from the Sun’s deputy editorial page editor. She thought my first submission was interesting and well put together, but my contact info was cut off and she couldn’t respond! When I sent the second article, she recognized it as a variation of the first, got my phone number and email and we went ahead. In the end, the version you see here is a marriage of those two drafts.
I plan to extend this into a longer form article in the near future. After all, there’s a lot more than 750 words to say about this topic. I’m still trying to figure out where I can get it published (Science? Scientific American? American Physical Society News?). I’ve never done this before, so I welcome any advice.
Tucked away at the bottom of a small hill in a distant corner of Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus is a large brick building. Metal pipes protrude horizontally from its side before diving perpendicularly into the ground. Its tall, curved top windows, rooftop smokestack and mysterious purpose are vaguely reminiscent of the factory from the classic 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. And much like the Wonka factory, no student ever goes in and no student ever comes out.
This building is the Homewood Power Plant, the facility responsible for providing electricity, heating, and cooling to the Homewood campus in central Baltimore City. As part of Earth Week @ Johns Hopkins, the university’s Department of Facilities Management granted me a walkthrough to learn exactly what happens within.
The JHU Power Plant plays the same role as an electric utility’s generation station. Fuel goes in and electricity comes out. BGE, Maryland’s electricity provider, achieves 35% efficiency in this process. What this means is that for every 100 units of fuel energy that goes in, 35 units of electricity comes out. The remaining 65 units are expelled as waste heat through the Chesapeake Bay Cooling Tower.
Principles of thermodynamics and engineering limitations make it difficult to achieve higher efficiencies. This is unless, of course, you manage to reclaim that waste heat for something useful. This is where Homewood’s Cogeneration Facility comes into play. Cogeneration (which stands for Combined Heat and Power System) is a process in which both electricity and useful heat (steam) are simultaneously produced. The 65 units of waste heat, which would otherwise be discarded, are diverted to a waste heat recovery system.
Here are the basics. Waste heat in the form of steam exits the primary generator at temperatures around 1000 °F. The recovery system takes that steam and pumps it around the campus, eventually taking the form of building heat, hot water, and energy to feed Homewood campus’s four chilling plants. All in all, the waste heat recovery system is able to wring about 45 extra units of steam energy from the 65 units of waste leading to an overall plant efficiency of 75-85%, approximately double what BGE could provide. (For you wonks out there, the total electric capacity of the system is kWh/year and total steam capacity is pounds per year.)
“Cogen uses less energy to make electricity and heat and our process produces less greenhouse gases,” said Ed Kirk, a university energy engineer. “Cogen reduces our energy use in one big chunk.”
The 4.2MW Power Plant, which opened in June 2010, is part of JHU’s plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% in the next 12 years. “Our approach has us looking at energy efficiency, energy conservation, more sustainable energy choices and renewable energy,” added Mr. Kirk.
If this system seems like a no-brainer, then why doesn’t BGE do it itself? The problem is that piping steam over long distances is an incredibly inefficient operation. Much of the steam’s heat will be lost in the process. That’s not to say utilities don’t do it. It’s just that circumstances have to be right. For example, Con Edison, New York City’s utility provider, uses a collection of cogeneration plants to heat around 100,000 densely packed buildings in Manhattan. This explains the familiar image of steam rising through city sewer grates. It also explains why cogeneration plants must be closely located to end-users.
Closer proximity also lessens transmission and distribution losses over power lines and provides greater security in unstable energy markets. The high energy requirements and dense arrangements of college campuses, hospitals, military bases, etc. make them attractive candidates for this type of technology.
The Homewood cogeneration unit joins a small handful of others in the region. Two have been installed at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a couple others are at the University of Maryland at College Park and Mercy Medical in central Baltimore.
The limiting factor prohibiting everyone from installing cogen plants is cost. The Homewood campus was fortunate in that it had a large, unused space directly above one of its on-site combustion turbines. The facility cost $7.5 million to install and will pay for itself in energy savings in about seven years.
Despite the plant’s net energy savings, this project was not always economically viable. It was Maryland’s deregulation of electric utilities in 1999 that turned the tide.
“When electricity was deregulated, electricity prices rose,” said Craig Macomber, Chief Engineer at the Power Plant. “At the same time, natural gas prices were falling. These two conditions made our project feasible.”
The Homewood campus remains reliant on electricity purchased from BGE. According to Mr. Macomber, when all things are considered the total amount of Homewood’s energy generated by the power plant is 20% in the summer and 30% in the winter.
Increased energy efficiency will lower the university’s carbon footprint by 8,650 metric tons per year, important for mitigating global climate change. This falls in line with the goals of the JHU Office of Sustainability, whose stated mission is “to make Johns Hopkins University a showpiece of environmental leadership by demonstrating smart, sensible, and creative actions that promote the vision of sustainability.”
There are tons of organizations that have done research related to energy, climate and policy. Over the years I’ve aggregated a (non-comprehensive) list of those agencies. If you would like to suggest additions, either post them in the comments or tweet them to me @mspecian and I’ll update the list.
Advanced Energy Economy
Alliance for Climate Protection
American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy
American Energy Innovation Council
American Security Project
American Wind Energy Association
Better Buildings Neighborhood Program from DOE
Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Bureau of Labor Statistics
Carbon Tracker Initiative
Center for American Progress
Center for Climate Strategies
Center for Investigative Reporting
Chinese Renewable Energy Industries Association
Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM)
Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research – Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security
Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites
E3G – Change Elements for Sustainable Development
Economics and Equity for the Environment (E3)
Economic Outlook Group
Energy Information Administration
Energy Self Reliant States
Environmental Defense Fund
Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental Research Letters
European Wind Energy Association
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
Friends of the Earth UK
German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW)
Global CCS Institute
Global Warming Policy Foundation
Google Earth Engine
Green Scissors Project
GTM Research (and energy consultancy)
Institute for Local Self Reliance
Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (in Beijing)
Insurance Information Institute
International Council on Clean Transportation
International Research Institute for Climate and Society
InVEST – Integrated Valuation of Ecosystem Services & Tradeoffs
Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory
League of Conservation Voters
Major Economies Forum
MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change
Munich Re’s Geo Risks Research
National Center for Atmospheric Research
National Drought Mitigation Center
National Latino Coalition on Climate Change
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) – National Climatic Data Center
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
National Wildlife Federation
Natural Resources Defense Council
The Nature Conservancy
North American Reliability Corporation
Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership
Pecan Street – R&D on advanced technologies, advanced energy systems, and human interactions with them
Rocky Mountain Institute
Safe Climate Campaign
Scott Polar research Institute at Cambridge University
Solar Energy Industries Association
Southwest Climate Change Network
Surface Ocean Lower Atmosphere Study (SOLAS)
Union of Concerned Scientists
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
US Climate Change Science Program
US Defense Department
US Energy Information Administration
US Global Change Research Program
US Historical Climate Network (USHCN)
US Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC)
US Transportation Department – Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
World Climate Research Programme
World Resources and Environmental Law
World Resources Institute
Zero Emissions Platform
Environmental Research Letters
Journal of Climate
Journal of Geophysics Research
Geophysical Research Letters
I recognize that my website is sorta oddball. “Serious” articles on topics like green development in Africa, sustainability and climate are interspersed with professional wrestling results, games and personal photography. This motley assortment of content precludes this site from being a pure issues blog. While I have considered going in that direction, I built mikespecian.com to be a reflection of me along multiple dimensions. So for now I intend to keep it as is.
With one exception. I have added a link entitled Articles to my main menu. This is will be the one-stop-shop for everything I have written and will continue to write on topics such as climate, energy, politics and science in general. Thank you all for reading!
In the course of traveling through life, I occasionally intersect with others as passionate as I am about our world’s climate and energy crisis. I love to pick people’s brains and most of the time I can’t stop myself from asking them, “If you had one silver bullet policy in your pocket that you could implement today, what would it be?”
I have received responses ranging from “sign the Kyoto Protocol” (which I perceive as small beer) to “remove corporate money from politics” (which, while probably the correct answer, is wholly unrealistic).
Through these discussions, I believe I have settled (at least for today) on an answer of my own: “promote international development through green growth.” At a time when economic concerns drown out calls for foreign aid, I’m reminded of the saying, “The cleanest power plant is the one you never have to build.” And nowhere is the need for new power as acute as in the developing world.
For some, a Third World green intervention seems like a misallocation of limited resources. Why not just let them build a bunch of coal plants? For others (me included), this need provides real opportunity. In locations where firewood is the the primary sustainable resource, intelligent green investment can be sustainable in its own way – through profitability.
But with hundreds of international initiatives underway to support green growth, it’s easy to suffer from paralysis of too many options. What are the key strategies? Who’s doing what well? Where is there room for improvement?
In the United States, we look to Silicon Valley as the model of an innovation ecosystem. It is there that raw talent, research capability, and venture capital’s business-building power converge to create the planet’s premier environment for the generation of new products and wealth. While Silicon Valley itself has shown little interest in the developing world, their model remains a gold standard and its strategies are easily transferable.
Nurturing talent must start with education. The status quo of having one professor teaching standard courses to 1000 students will not get the job done. Training students in the basics is key, but education needs to become less abstract and more vocational. Let brewing beer be a study in chemistry. Let cows be a study in biology. If HP cannot offer copying equipment to parts of Africa due to a lack of qualified technicians, as was recently the case, teach technology to match the need.
Then, for research to be effective the world must work together. China and the United States are behemoths, and science agencies like the US’s National Science Foundation offer much in the way of support. Africa, however, is challenged by having 45 separate, smaller science foundations. Regional agencies must be formed to bring these groups together. If Rwanda relies solely upon its own scientists, it’s going to miss 99% of knowledge generated elsewhere.
Consider General Electric’s ecoimagination, an enterprise they describe on their website as “GE’s commitment to imagine and build innovative solutions to today’s environmental challenges while driving economic growth.” Thus far, their research has proven capable of meeting global needs like lowering carbon emissions, increasing energy efficiency, developing/deploying wind and solar, and maximizing water conservation. GE possesses massive resources, benefits from economies of scale and has a global presence. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, from geothermal investments in Indonesia to new public transport systems in Central America and Asia.
But while technology is the glue between green and growth, solving the R&D problem alone doesn’t mean you have a competitive product. It certainly doesn’t guarantee a valid business model, nor is it necessarily scalable. For instance, a company the size of GE is not optimized to sell solar panels to villages one at a time.
So while nations like Burundi will seldom outperform the science team of a company like GE, that shouldn’t be their role. Developing nations are much better positioned to understand their own needs, constraints and goals. Perhaps they can host franchises that spin-off First World tech to deploy on village-sized scales. Then, the smaller region’s needs can spur local innovations of First World “big box” technologies.
For example, to process coffee, beans must be washed, hulled, polished, sorted, etc. A developing nation relying on its own technology will be priced out of the market by big box technology that scales. But since the final coffee product depends keenly on the details of the processing method, innovations of big tech at local sites can provide an end product neither the First nor Third Worlds could have achieved entirely on their own.
However, research and business can only do so much. If conditions on the ground are not fertile for green growth, roots won’t take hold. Electricity cannot be transported if the government fails to maintain electrical wires. If the state heavily subsidizes coal or oil, green technologies competitive in a free market won’t survive in a rigged one. Without patent protection and sharing of intellectual property, tech transfer will not occur. Agencies like the World Bank can be coaxed into giving their assistance, but they rarely lead. The bed must first be set by gathering global support for investment, e.g. by connecting principle investigators in neighboring countries or by getting the World Bank to fund distributed solar (perhaps by crowdsourcing) in developing markets.
Many of these issues will be discussed in June at the Rio+20 Conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. If representatives can figure out how to link regional science foundations, introduce researchers to businesses (venture capital-style) and direct First World technology to Third World innovations, this might be the silver bullet most worth firing.
One of the biggest reasons it is difficult to convince someone of your argument is that, far too often, facts and rationality are irrelevant.
I participated for many years as a parliamentary debater in the American Parliamentary Debate Association. We won rounds based on our ability to establish multiple, strong arguments in favor of our case, then eliminating, one-by-one, the arguments of our opposition. It was a tit-for-tat battle. If my opponent failed to account for one of my arguments, I could triumphantly claim that he “dropped’ my point and win it by forfeit.
This is NOT how the real world works.
In 2010 I attended a climate change education workshop in Washington DC run by the National Academy of Sciences. The question was how climate change skepticism was so widespread despite the fact that 97-98% of actively publishing climate scientists agree with the conclusion that climate change is happening and that humans are primarily responsible. The parliamentary debater in me firmly believed that if only people were more educated to the facts, they would surely change their opinions.
And yet psychological research, including that from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, does not support this conclusion. In one study, cognitive scientists found that many of those most alarmed about climate change don’t even understand the science. A recent poll from Brookings has shown that while 78% of Democrats acknowledge global warming is happening, Republicans are split down the middle. Both examples illustrate a disconnect between facts and what people believe.
This occurs because humans develop, as a natural defense mechanism, a model for the world in which they live. Adherence to the model gives an individual his identity. That identity is often woven into his relationships with larger communities, like family, friends, church, or political party. To turn his back on a foundational tenant means to ostracize himself from a group, and admit to a personal fault.
The most effective way, therefore, to convince someone of your argument is to first understand their cultural commitments. People (political conservatives especially) tend to prefer the established order. Failure to understand their bedrock principles can lead to arguments that rub against the grain, creating backlash and ironically, an entrenchment of previously held beliefs. A compelling debater understands cultural commitments and plays to them.
Every approach will be different. If you want to convince a fisherman of climate change, take him to his favorite river and highlight the changes he’s already observed, like a shortening of the winter season. For the very religious, work through a church authority. For politicians, find a way that allows them to accept an argument that coexists with their principles, e.g. using a carbon price to address greenhouse gas emissions rather than a complicated collection of regulations, requirements and government agencies.
Instead of directly introducing the argument you want your listener to believe, take a three-step approach. First, ask him to name a quality about himself that he considers a strength. While this may seem silly, this helps him assume a position of strength. This mindset increases the likelihood that he will accept new ideas.
Second, instead of directly stating your point, begin by introducing uncontroversial facts. Try to avoid bringing incorrect conclusions, as doing so can reinforce them. If you must, though, be sure to first issue a big disclaimer. For example, you might say to a global warming skeptic, “You will often hear people report incorrectly, and I stress ‘incorrectly’, that global temperatures are decreasing. The way scientists know for sure is by taking temperature measurements all over the globe over a period of many years.”
Third, instead of explicitly saying the argument you want to convince him of, show him data that allows him to draw his own conclusion. You might say, “Here’s a plot of the average planetary temperature as measured by 5 different groups over the last 100 years. You can probably see why so many scientists have concluded what they have.”
Approaching the argument from this direction permits the listener to make up his own mind. He needn’t concede that he was wrong and you were right. Instead, given the freedom to make up his own mind, he takes control of the information as his own. Research has shown this three-step approach to be quite effective.
There are other tips one should follow:
- Make arguments personally meaningful and attempt to trigger empathy.
- People often use poor word choice. Use clever alliteration to aid retention of information, and then repeat, repeat, repeat.
- Tell good stories if you can.
- Never overwhelm with facts. Use three facts at most. Going overboard has been shown to be counterproductive.
- Never dispel an incorrect argument without replacing it with a correct one.
The fate of our planet’s climate and its people depends largely on the total amount of carbon we emit into the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter how fast we emit it or where on the planet it spews from, like flood water into a valley, as it fills up we have to fend off the subsequent catastrophes.
In this post, I will briefly summarize the sizes of Earth’s fossil fuel carbon deposits and how much each will contribute to the deterioration of our planet’s climate system.
First, we ask, “how much warming is ‘safe’”? There’s no clear answer, of course, but a generally accepted benchmark is to limit global warming to C = F, which requires emitting no more than kg of carbon (or approximately 1,400 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) for the next thousands years or so. Here’s a table of major carbon sources and the percentage of the way they get to this total:
Fossil Fuel Type
Carbon Content (kg)
% towards C
|Proven oil reserves||
|Proven gas reserves||
|Economically recoverable coal||
|Tar Sands economically recoverable||
|Tar Sands total||
It’s obvious that coal, which can get us above C all by itself, is the elephant in the room. Its massive time-bomb potential begs for the rapid deployment of carbon capture and sequestration technology (CCS), a plea which is unlikely to be answered given the preliminary and unsettled nature of the technology.
Proven oil and gas reserves are also large contributors, with gas being preferable to oil, though not by much. Note that all of these percentages could increase if A) new reserves are found or B) new technology or C) increases in fuel prices (through increased demand perhaps) makes extraction of these fuels less expensive.
Right now, the Alberta tar sands and the associated Keystone XL pipeline remains a hot-button political issue in Washington with environmentalists and residents of the Midwest, particularly Nebraska, staunchly against the pipeline.
Advocates of the pipeline who acknowledge its climate impacts argue that they are negligible in comparison to other sources of carbon and therefore deserve to be ignored. They further argue the pipeline will only ship 500,000-800,000 barrels a day, which is approximately 20 times less than the amount of crude oil the US imports every day.
However, two key points need to be remembered. First, the rate at which carbon is emitted is irrelevant. The total amount is what matters. So even if it were to take hundreds of years to drain the tar sands, the effect would be the same. Second, once the pipeline starts flowing, new technologies and fluctuations in fuel prices could quickly make larger amounts of the tar sands viable. If all were developed, which presently remains unrealistic, then this would be enough to get to C even if coal was removed from the equation.
From this perspective, we have an opportunity to cut off 5% of the remaining pie to C just by saying no to this pipeline, an option we lack with oil, coal, and gas. Getting 5% back for free would be a huge step in the right direction.
I’m happy to announce that my latest Op-Ed has been published in two major newspapers, the Baltimore Sun and New Jersey’s Star-Leger! I’ve placed links to the article below. I chose these two papers because I grew up in NJ and currently live in Baltimore.
Here’s the text of my original, unedited article:
The Keystone XL Pipeline, designed to pump unrefined oil tar sands from Alberta to Texas, won a critical victory Friday when the US State Department concluded the project posed “no significant impacts” to the environment. This conclusion is horribly misaligned with reality.
TransCanada, a Calgary firm, intends its XL to move over 500,000 highly pressurized barrels per day through what it calls “the safest pipeline in North America,” faint praise for a company whose existing Keystone pipeline has spilled 12 times in one year. That the 1711-mile long, half-inch thick pipeline traverses fragile ecosystems and public aquifers doesn’t aid matters.
More dangerous, though, is the resource-intensive extraction process. The EPA estimates carbon emissions from tar sand extraction to be 80% greater than average crude. Noted Columbia University climatologist Jim Hansen spoke bluntly of the project, claiming “exploitation of tar sands would make it implausible to stabilize climate and avoid disastrous global climate impacts,” adding, “if the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over.”
But some advocates, including Cindy Schild (Baltimore Sun – “Keystone XL pipeline, bringing oil from Canada, is a step towards the future”, August 22), a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute, claim the pipeline is needed to create jobs. Environmental effects aside, this misses the larger point. After the short-term stimulus provided by construction of the Keystone XL, the pipeline locks the US into a long-term dependency on Canadian crude. We will have sent a negative signal to our domestic renewable energy markets all while American energy dollars continue to leak abroad.
Environmental advocates have been vocal in their opposition, staging a two-week sit-in at the White House which culminated earlier this month. The peaceful protest resulted in over 1000 arrests including those of prominent climate scientists. That our nation’s scientific experts have been incarcerated for defending our shared environment is nothing short of an American embarrassment.
To be clear, this decision is out of the hands of Congress. Final approval of the pipeline lies entirely with the Obama administration’s State Department. Instead of striving for a future of crisp, clean, green American energy, the federal government seems desperate to prolong our addiction to finite, filthy, foreign fuels and tar sands are perhaps the dirtiest of the bunch. Their penetration through our American heartland should be staunchly opposed.
At last count, the Star-Ledger article had 1,426 Facebook Likes, 3 Facebook recommendations, and 7 tweets, one Google +1 (I’m not sure this is catching on yet), and 6 comments! Not too bad for a “boring” issue like a pipeline.
Big Oil execs and their political counterparts love to sing the praises of the domestic oil sector. They argue that the industry unleashes “job-creation activity” and will generate up to one million new jobs by 2018, according to the American Petroleum Institute. They argue that increased domestic production will “enhance our energy security” by maximizing the quantity of liquid fuel obtained from “secure” North American sources. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) stated in a GOP weekly radio address, “Tapping our own vast resources will help lower energy costs for Americans, add high-paying jobs to our economy, and strengthen our security for future generations.”
The danger here is that many Big Oil advocates have defended expanded drilling and deregulation in pursuit of jobs and security without realizing that, unfettered, the oil industry will instead pursue its primary goal, profit. In instances where these ideals run counter to each other, “pro-oil” policies intended to create jobs and security can more than just miss their target. They can be directly counterproductive.
Consider a NY Times story published on September 27 (In North Dakota, Flames of Wasted Natural Gas Light the Prairie) which reports that petroleum outfits operating western North Dakota’s Bakken shale field are unintentionally releasing natural gas during the oil extraction process. The industry has claimed that the infrastructure needed to capture the gas is expensive and has chosen to burn it off instead, a process known as flaring. An estimated 30% of all natural gas produced in the state, the annual carbon equivalent of a medium-size coal-fired power plant, is combusted in this manner.
There are no federal regulations against flaring and none are expected any time soon. State governments have greater flexibility, but North Dakota has made no indication that it will act to restrict the process.
Let’s first examine how this fits into Big Oil’s jobs narrative. In the case of the Bakken shale field, petroleum operators have a genuine opportunity to put people back to work creating, transporting, installing, and operating the infrastructure required to capture the available gas reserves. But because collecting these natural gas resources fails to optimize profit, they have opted against it. Now this is not to say that capturing the Bakken field’s natural gas reserves makes the entire enterprise unprofitable. It simply makes it less profitable, and they view this as an unacceptable cost even if it creates jobs.
The simple truth is that the oil industry is not the engine of job growth that many advocates claim it is. Between 2005 and 2010, ExxonMobile, BP, Shell and Chevron combined to reduce their US workforce by 11,200 while simultaneously raking in $546 billion in profits. They, along with ConocoPhillips, followed up that performance in 2010 by shedding another 4,400 jobs amidst profits of $73 billion. They reinvested a paltry 1.2% of their profit in alternative fuels R&D and instead chose to buy back their own stock, enriching their board of directors, senior executives and shareholders in the process.
Then there is the claim that “pro-oil” policies enhance domestic security. In pursuit of greater domestic energy supply, the United States is presently promoting a wide array of risky fossil fuel acquisition projects. The risks are warranted, so the argument goes, because maximizing our domestic supply of liquid-fuel energy is too important to sacrifice.
For example, Congress has failed to pass a single piece of legislative reform in the wake of last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster (which killed 11 people), yet will allow BP to resume offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. There is no proven method to clean up an oil spill in icy Arctic waters, yet the US has issued leases which will allow Royal Dutch Shell to explore for oil in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline would pump over 500,000 barrels of highly pressurized tar sands per day straight through the American Heartland (an amount large enough to be “game over” for climate change according to one prominent climate scientist), yet the US government seems primed to approve it despite the risks.
The list goes on, but the essential point is that Big Oil and its government supporters expect Americans to suffer significant environmental and health burdens in defense of maximizing our domestic energy supply. These are public costs worth bearing, they argue (if they chose to acknowledge them at all), in defense of the greater good. Yet when the North Dakota oil firms are presented the opportunity to absorb their fair share of the cost in defense of our natural gas reserves, they balk.
The case of Keystone XL is particularly emblematic of profiteers’ other tactic, blatant distortion of the facts. Cindy Schild, a refinery manager with the American Petroleum Institute, has defended the XL by arguing that “it will be a part of the nation’s energy future” without which “the oil will be shipped to other countries.” What she fails to mention is that a full three-quarters of the tar sands have already been contracted out to five foreign companies and one domestic, Valero, whose business model is geared towards export.
Make no mistake, “job creation” and “energy security” are little more that thinly veiled justifications for policies designed to maximize corporate oil profits. It is this obsession with profit that explains why taxpayers are needlessly lavishing oil companies with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies. It explains why Americans are being placed in danger by weakened environmental standards and by refusals to strengthen pipeline safety rules. It explains why some politicians have even supported shutting down the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s the same reason companies like Exxon deliberately spread misinformation about the veracity of human-driven climate change and why oil billionaires like the Koch brothers support bogus studies discrediting offshore wind farms.
If politicians are truly concerned with creating jobs and increasing security, then the status quo of coarsely and broadly liberalizing the oil industry must be abandoned in favor of narrowly focused policy goals. Require that natural gas in the Bakken field be collected, not flared. Place a price on carbon pollution, which would level the playing field with other emergent sectors critical for energy security, like wind and solar. Empower the Environmental Protection Agency to protect our water and air as much as our energy supply.
Until then, the fact remains that North Dakota is on fire, energy resources are being squandered, jobs lie fallow, and at least two million tons of carbon dioxide are being released into the atmosphere each year. Big Oil will persist in telling us they are interested in creating jobs and preserving security. If only it weren’t a bunch of hot air.