Contributors to original brief: Milan Ilnyckyj, Emily Barrette, Stuart Basden, Tim Berk, Tamara Brown- stone, Mie Inouye, Neal Lantela, Amy Luo, Monica Resendes, Jessica Vogt, Miriam Wilson, Cameron Woloshyn, and Jon Yazer
Contributors to update: Milan Ilnyckyj, Anne Ahrens-Embleton, Jacqueline Allain, Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Ben Donato-Woodger, Joanna Dowdell, Rosemary Frei, Graham Henry, Katie Krelove, Amanda Lewis, Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and Monica Resendes
The place weâ€™re heading for – the world beyond oil – will be cleaner, healthier and more peaceful. We wonâ€™t get there overnight, but weâ€™re already on the way. Many of the solutions are out there. Others need greater political support and investment to make them happen. Ultimately we need to transition to a zero carbon transport system where pretty much all our vehicles run on electricity, powered by the sun, sea and wind – energy that wonâ€™t run out. In the meantime we need to start reducing the oil we use.
We also need to stop our money – whether through our pension funds or our taxes – being used to keep us stuck in the oil age. Currently direct government subsidies to fossil fuel industries are 10 times the amount to clean energy â€“ we need to reverse this trend and put clean energy technologies on a level playing field with fossil fuels so that clean energy can complete in the market place.
Coal may be the most worrisome fossil fuel, when it comes to the sheer quantity that exists on Earth, but there are also scary amounts of unconventional oil and gas out there. Rather than invest our talents and resources in pulling out the last desperate drops of fossil fuel, we should be working on building a sustainable, clean, zero-carbon global energy system.
The fact that Canada has a total of 6km of such booms seems pretty worrisome, given that the Orphan Basin project in Newfoundland is drilling in even deeper water than BP was, oil platforms off the east coast are threatened by icebergs, and are considering drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic.
The National Post is reporting that the economic fallout of the BP oil spill will be minimal. Any reduction in GDP along America’s Gulf Coast resulting from oil shortages will be offset by the increased local spending associated with cleanup efforts. They go as far as to say that:
the economic fallout from the disaster is likely to relatively benign to the global recovery and may even end up benefiting Canadaâ€™s resource-rich economy, economists say.
The failure of thought here is obvious – a distinction is being drawn not only between monetizable and non-monetizable costs (in fact, the environmental cost can be monetized), but between those costs immediately felt by capitalism, and those which have no immediate bearing on shareholder value. This is the same failure of Capitalism to respond to environmental crisis as prevents adaptation to respond to the threat of dangerous global warming.
What we should take from this is the failure of capitalism to be adaptive, to respond to incentives, toÂ anticipateÂ profitable futures. Rather, in its current structures it responds only, or at least principally, to short term incentives and ignores as best it can long term disaster. Capitalism, therefore, is a weak system – a system which is not for us adequate to the challenges posed by the fore-knowledge of long term environmental crises. It must be tamed (i.e. more highly regulated), or eliminated, if we desire to not go under as a result of environmental crises.
A recent issue of The Economist included a detailed briefing on supplies of unconventional gas around the world. The briefing presents the size of these reserves as basically a good thing, even from an environmental perspective, because gas plants emit fewer greenhouse gases per unit of electricity than coal plants do.
As has been explained here before, the question of how much climate change the world will experience is basically a matter of what total quantity of greenhouse gases humanity releases. The more fossil fuels we burn, the riskier climate change becomes. As a chart from the article shows, the world’s unconventional gas supplies are substantial:
All else being equal, the more of this gas is burned, the more climate change humanity will have to deal with. Gas extraction is also one of the world’s major sources of fugitive (unintentional) emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas.
Beyond climate change, the briefing does make note of some other potential environmental issues surrounding unconventional gas extraction: “Despite natural gasâ€™s greener credentials than oilâ€™s or coalâ€™s, shale drilling has critics among environmentalists, who worry that water sources will be poisoned and landscapes despoiled.”
Burning gas instead of oil or coal might be an approach with climatic benefits, but the danger always exists that we will end up burning both – either simultaneously or one after the other. That would almost certainly warm the planet to an unacceptable degree.
end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.
Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.
It is easy enough to see how domestic politics and concern about fossil fuel imports could drive such a decision. That being said, this is another example of the heroin junkie approach to energy policy – when some veins get withered from overuse, start injecting into others rather than working to break the addiction.
The United States and the world would almost certainly be better off if Americans had the foresight to leave these fuels underground while moving aggressively to an economy based on clean and renewable forms of energy.
The Shtokman gas field, located in the Barents Sea, 600km off the Arctic coast, is the embodiment of unconventional gas. Russia’s Gazprom, Norway’s StatoilHydro, and France’s Total are planning to collaborate to access the field, which is the farthest offshore and most ice-exposed of any ever slated for exploitation. The prize they are after is an estimated four trillion cubic metres of natural gas, the second largest field in the world, and enough to provide for Europe’s current level of gas usage for fifty years.
The plan to extract it is to use a ship-shaped floating platform capable of facing towards incoming ice, which will also be broken up by accompanying icebreakers. In the event of ice too heavy to manage, the platform will be able to disconnect from the undersea well and move out of the way. From the platform, a 600km pipeline would have to run to shore. If you want confirmation that the world is running out of cheap and easily-accessible fossil fuels, you need look no further than projects like this. The risk and capital costs they involve are tremendous, and evidence that companies are now attracted by reserves that would once have been written off as too remote and technically difficult to access.
Of course, when it comes to climate change, it is the total quantity of fossil fuels burned that matters. Giving Europe another fifty years of gas will inevitably add to those cumulative emissions. Indirectly, it will also perpetuate the fossil-fuel-powered status quo, delaying the deployment of renewable low-carbon options. Finally, continued dependence on Russian-controlled gas deepens Europe’s geopolitical vulnerability. As long as Europe depends on Russia to keep people from freezing in the winter, they will be unable to effectively criticize its increasing authoritarianism or aspirations for regional control over former Warsaw Pact states. Those Eastern European states, in turn, face an increased risk of Russian dominance.