Category Archives: clean technology vs. fossil fuels

Bucking the Oil Industry, Part II

I had just written myself a note because I had that eureka moment which I talked about in yesterday’s post. I suddenly realized that the oil industry has a vested interest in blocking those who want to make clean technology workable. (I know; sometimes I am a little slow.)  Anyway, after I wrote that note to myself I went to my mailbox and found the Wall Street Journal for Saturday, March 9th. Tucked into the center was WSJ. Money, a special section for Spring, 2013. Inside was an article called Cleaning Out with the subtitle: “It wins the hearts of environmentalists, but what does clean tech do for investors? Why some are heading for cover?”

Written by Udayan Gupta this article shows that there has been a decline in investment in clean energy alternatives, and it connects this decline with the new technologies for extracting oil and natural gas which are promising energy independence for America (even perhaps exportable surpluses). Mr. Gupta tells us, “Market analysts at Goldman Sachs, HSBC and UBS are now advising their clients to steer clear of clean tech.”
 

It is fairly obvious that this move is more about profit and less about climate change. We would have to be foolish to ask the oil industry if climate change is real and to expect an objective response. Yet much of the advertising that encourages us to use the newer, cleaner fossil fuels comes from the fossil fuel industry, although they may use that bland-sounding female spokeswoman they like to use to throw us off their scent.
 

How do you get investors to put money into a technology that is still in the developmental stage when others are raking in the bucks by staying with old energy technology? This would only happen if everyone agreed that continuing to use fossil fuels will continue to release greenhouse gases, which will continue to heat the atmosphere, which will eventually melt the ice caps and bury coastal cities. We don’t seem to be having much luck convincing an industry that is making money hand over fist that this scenario is actually in play. Choosing to block a possible negative outcome that may be decades down the road is unlikely when profits are the goal you must shoot for right now.

Mr. Gupta goes on to quote Shad Azimi of Vanterra Capital, “Even worse, the global economic crunch appears to be making it harder for national governments to maintain their funding commitments and tax breaks for clean tech. This development so alarmed climate-change organizations that they put together a group representing $22 trillion in assets and presented a joint letter at a United Nations conference. Their communiqué warned ‘further delay in implementing adequately ambitious climate and clean energy policy will increase investment risk for institutional investors and jeopardize the investments and retirement savings of millions of citizens.’”

Abandoning investment in clean fuel, in other words, will not only affect the planet, it will affect citizens who already included such investments in their portfolios. Will we one day wish we never decided to suck the oil out of the depths of our Earth in order to maintain the status quo? Change is difficult and shifting to clean tech is a big change, perhaps too big for an economy invested in fossil fuels and without any certain proof that we must either change or be changed. Still, I am afraid; I am very afraid that what we earthlings really can’t afford is to abandon our investments in clean technologies research, development, manufacture and implementation.
 
Photo credits:  Top of page photo is from a Google image search, Mid and bottom graphics are scanned from the WSJ article mentioned in the text.

Bucking the Oil Industry, Part I

 
 

Here’s a chapter from Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 which I happened to be reading during this week when I wanted to talk about big places where America is stuck. I was thinking that clean energy was having such a rough time getting the investment and innovation and attention it needs and this is probably because of the oil industry. I realize that this is not too much of a leap, but energy is one of the places where America is stuck. It may also eventually be responsible for the greatest Earth upheavals. Sometimes when you start thinking about a topic the whole rest of your little world starts to chime in with variations on the theme like some great swelling in a symphony or a nexus of culture and ideas and you just find yourself smiling because this kind of mental crescendo occurs so rarely.  Of course we are not living in 2312 but Mr. Robinson has a genius for showing us the possible promise and repercussions of our current ideas and behaviors. ( see below from page 303 – 305)

 

Earth, The Planet of Sadness

   When you look at the planet from low orbit, the impact of the Himalayas on Earth’s climate seems obvious. It creates the rain shadow to beat all rain shadows, standing athwart the latitude of the trade winds and squeezing all the rain out of them before they head southwest, thus supplying eight of the Earth’s mightiest rivers, but also parching everything to the southwest, including Pakistan and Iran, Mesopotamia, Saudi Arabia, even Northern Africa and southern Europe. The dry belt runs more than halfway across the Eurasia-African landmass – a burnt rock landscape, home to the fiery religions that then spread out and torched the rest of the world. Coincidence?

   In North Africa the pattern is now disrupted by many big shallow lakes dotting the Sahara and the Sahel. The water has been pumped out of the Mediterranean and deposited in depressions in the desert, often in ancient lake beds. Some of these are as big as the Great Lakes, though much shallower. They’re freshwater lakes; the water from the Med has been progressively desalinated on its way inland, and the recovered salts have been bonded with fixatives to make excellent white bricks and roof tiles. White roof tiles covered by translucent photovoltaic film have been used for many older roofs as well; these days when seen from space, cities look like patches of snow.

   But clean tech came too late to save Earth from the catastrophes of the early Anthropocene. It was one of the ironies of their time that they could radically change the surfaces of the other planets, but not Earth. The methods they employed in space were almost too crude and violent. Only with the utmost caution could they tinker with anything on Earth, because everything there was so tightly balanced and interwoven. Anything done for good somewhere usually caused ill somewhere else.

   This caution about terraforming Earth expressed itself in clots and gouts of sometimes military bickering. Political crosschop led to legal gridlock. Big geoengineering projects were all assumed to contain within them an accident like the Little Ice Age of the 2140’s, which was generally said to have caused the death of a billion people. Nothing now could overcome that fear.

   Also, for many of Earth’s problems, there was simply nothing to be done. The heating and subsequent expansion of the ocean’s water – also its acidification – nothing could be done about these. There was no terraforming technique that would help. Some water had been pumped onto the dry basins of North Africa and central Asia, but the capacity was not there to hold very much of the ocean’s excess volume. Maintaining the one healthy ice cap remaining to them, high on East Antarctica, was a priority that meant no one was comfortable pumping salt water up there to freeze, as had sometimes been proposed, because if something went wrong and they lost the whole ice cap, it would raise sea level another fifty meters and deal humanity something very like a death blow. So caution was in order, and ultimately it had to be admitted, the new sea level could not be substantially altered. And it was much the same with many of their other problems. The many delicate physical, biological, and legal situations were so tightly knitted together that none of the cosmic engineering they were doing elsewhere in the solar system could be fitted to the needs of the place.

   Despite this people tried things. So much more power than ever before was at their command that some felt they could at last begin to overturn Jevons Paradox, which states that the better human technology gets, the more harm we do with it. That painful paradox has never yet failed to manifest itself in human history, but perhaps now was the tipping point – Archimedes’ lever brought to bear at last – the moment when they could get something out of their growing powers besides redoubled destruction.

   But no one could be sure. They still hung suspended between catastrophe and paradise, spinning bluely in space like some terrible telenovela. Scheherazade was Earth’s muse, it seemed; it was just one damn thing after another, always one more cliffhanger, clinging to life and sanity by the skin of one’s teeth; and so the spacers kept on coming home, home to home’s nightmares, with the Gordian knot tied in their guts.

 

Good stuff, huh? If we can’t even make simple decisions about whether there is such a thing as climate change, about whether or not it is caused by global warming, about whether we should or should not go ahead with the Keystone Pipeline, or about whether hydrofracking will or will not be harmful, how will we ever make the even bigger decisions that probably lie in our real future?  Just because we have found rich new sources of fossil fuels, will retrieving these fuels and selling them and using them help our current economy and yet doom Earth to devastating climate changes that will eventually impact on Earth’s geography and Earth’s inhabitants? We do not know. We are operating in the dark.

Although we have intelligent people providing us with evidence that we still need to find alternatives to fossil fuels, we have others who classify these people as alarmists and who feel that America will lose too much economically and in terms of the balance of power in the world if we do not make use of these valuable resources. They assume that the world’s environment is not being changed by man, but is just cycling through climate changes on its own timetable as it always does. And just because these fuel “boosters” happen to own oil companies or invest in oil companies or own businesses that run on oil is no reason to discount them as people who just want to protect their own wealth and power, is it? I think it is clear that the biggest enemy of clean fuel is the fossil fuel industry and that they have no incentive to change the way they operate. In fact, the discovery of new oil and gas resources under America almost dooms any attempt to replace “dirty” fuel with “clean” energy. Our current economy which begs us not to shed more jobs is also a deterrent to changing energy sources at this time. However, CO2 numbers suggest later may be too late. And there we are. Stuck.