Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fossil Fools: Digging Our Own Graves

You would think that in the twenty-first century we would not still be relying on inefficient, ecosystem-destroying, air and water polluting sources of energy that require moving millions of tons of earth, blowing the tops off of mountains, drilling miles into the ocean floor, mucking around in tar sands, and fracturing the upper crust of earth. More than two hundred years after the start of the Industrial Age, we still meet over 86 percent of our energy needs with fossil fuels—the organic remains of ancient plant and animal life buried deep beneath the surface of the Earth. Despite overwhelming evidence that these fuels are literally destroying the planet, the recovery and refining of carbon-based energy continues at an exponential rate.

Catastrophic Climate Change

Annually, the world consumes about 31 billion barrels of oil a year (fully 85 million barrels a day), and 6 billion short tons of coal (the U.S. accounts for one-fifth and 14 percent of these figures, respectively). Collectively, we pump over 31 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. According to a 2000 EPA report, fossil fuels (coal, oil, uranium, natural gas) are responsible for 90 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. Largely due to such emissions, the average global temperature rose by 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit over the 20th century and is likely to rise an additional 2 to 11 degrees in the 21st century. According to an article in the Journal, Science, the last time the world experienced sustained carbon dioxide levels this high was 15 million years ago when global temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees warmer, and the oceans 75 to 120 feet higher. It is also worth noting that the 2 to 11 degree forecast was made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has consistently underestimated the effects of anthropogenic climate change. James Hansen, a former top NASA climate scientist, has been far more accurate in his predictions on global warming. He recently published an assessment that the planet is “perilously close to a tipping point,” where we can no longer readily adapt to the changes in our environment. Even the Pentagon sounded the alarm according to a report by The Observer in 2004:

A secret [Pentagon] report, suppressed by US defence chiefs and obtained by The Observer, warns that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a 'Siberian' climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world. The document predicts that abrupt climate change could bring the planet to the edge of anarchy as countries develop a nuclear threat to defend and secure dwindling food, water and energy supplies. The threat to global stability vastly eclipses that of terrorism, say the few experts privy to its contents. 'Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life,' concludes the Pentagon analysis.' Once again, warfare would define human life.'

In point of fact, the effects of climate change are already upon us. The World Health Organization has reported that global climate change since the 1970s has caused in excess of 140,000 deaths annually. The number of natural disasters related to climate change, such as droughts and hurricanes, has tripled since the 1960s. Global warming is projected to increase infections from insect-bearing diseases (particularly malaria and dengue) to billions of people per year by the 2080s; and the scarcity of safe drinking water will ratchet up diarrheal deaths by millions per year. Diminished precipitation in some areas will threaten food supplies in the coming decade—halving them for some poor African countries--leading to far higher rates of malnutrition and starvation.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) developed a program to assist 10 state and local governments in dealing with the specific climate change threats they expect to face, including debilitating disease pandemics, extreme heat, and water scarcity.

Poisoning the Planet

But the effects of our fossil fuel addiction go beyond carbon emissions and their consequences for global warming. Carbon emissions produce smog, which can compromise crop yields by penetrating plant leaves and destroying cell membranes. Massive quantities of toxic substances are also released into the atmosphere, including nitric, sulfuric and carbonic acids, which produces vegetation-destroying and water-polluting acid rain. Thousands of tons of radioactive substances such as uranium and thorium are emitted annually through the burning of coal. Urban pollution causes about 1.2 million deaths each year worldwide.

The process of extracting fossil fuels is also destructive to plant and animal life. In addition to suffering the negative consequences of moutaintop removal and strip mining, residents of coal mining areas suffer far higher rates of heart, lung, and kidney diseases as well as hyper-tension. In fact, hazardous mining conditions has killed hundreds of thousands of workers over the past century due to gas explosions or poisoning, roof collapse, and suffocation (100,000 in the U.S. alone). Stricter workplace regulations have greatly reduced mining accidents in the developed world. However, mining conditions remain extremely hazardous in less developed countries and continue to kill thousands of miners annually. Off-shore oil drilling also destroys aquatic ecosystems--threatening a vital food source for people around the world--and generates major oceanic catastrophes, as in the case of the recent BP oil spill, which poisoned the entire Gulf coast. Nuclear power generation carries serious risks of its own, producing tons of high-level radioactive waste that must be safely processed or disposed of. Scientific studies have shown a robust link between various cancers (such as thyroid and leukemia) and living in proximity (within a 100-mile radius) to a nuclear reactor. Then there are nuclear accidents, which, though rare, have devastating and multi-generational effects. The death toll from the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine, for example, has been estimated as high as one million deaths; hundreds of thousands were forced to evacuate their homes. Early assessments of the recent nuclear accident in Japan are not nearly so grim, but the devastation from nuclear accidents are not usually realized for decades. At least one analyst predicted eventual casualties from Fukushima to be as high as 500,000--mostly cancer deaths. Contamination of the sea is already far greater than in Chernobyl.

What the Frack is Fracking?

(Hint: fracking is not fragging--the Vietnam war-era practice of lobbing grenades into the tents of senior officers on the battlefield to protest the war.) A recently award-nominated documentary, Gasland, lays out the horror of hydraulic fracturing in stomach-churning detail: it consists of pumping a carcinogenic mixture of over 750 chemicals compounds (at least 29 known or suspected human carcinogens), sand, and millions of gallons of water into a top layers of earth. First, a well is drilled deep into the gas shale, then this toxic brew is pumped into the well at high pressures, creating fissures in the shale, which releases more gas for extraction. The fissures allow the gas to move freely, potentially contaminating the water table; the chemicals, too, can permeate these stores of water. Unlike oil drilling, which takes place mainly off-shore, the harvesting of gas occurs all across the lower forty-eight, and promises to expand still further. The map below, from the Gasland Project, shows the drilling areas, with more intensive drilling in red.

Nor is fracking confined to the lower 48. As of last year, the energy majors have set their sights on Europe. Although fracking has yet to take off in the Old World (and may encounter too many barriers, including lower permeability of European shale, stronger environmental regulations, and formidable public opposition), Halliburton began fracking on behalf of the state oil and gas company in Poland in August 2010. East European countries are likely to be far more amenable to destructive mining practices than West European countries, due to their weaker environmental movements and their greater acceptance of costs and risks of drilling in order to gain alternatives to Russian gas.

What is the U.S. government’s response to this new and potentially deadly technique of drilling for gas? The Bush/Cheney Energy Bill of 2005 managed to insert exemptions for fracking in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act—effectively absolving the industry of any liability for contaminating our drinking water. The question should rightly be asked: If the industry is so sure that fracking does not contaminate well water or poison the air (which is a bit like the tobacco companies’ decades-long defense that there is no proven link between smoking and cancer), then why have they fought so hard to get these exemptions? The answer will be obvious to any eighth-grader: the companies are well aware of the harm their industry poses to public health.

Getting Desperate: Tar Sands and Oil Shale

With the global economy growing at an average rate of 2 to 3 percent a year, and China and India continuing to expand at even greater rates, existing oil and gas reserves are stretched ever thinner, and the race is on to find and develop new sources of energy. This is the reason for the development and expansion of fracking, as well as the refinement of dirtier and less-efficient sources of petroleum. As sources of light crude (see Middle East oil), which require less refinement and drilling, become scarcer and scarcer, we have relied increasingly on the dirtiest sources of energy (coal, oil shale, tar sands) to meet a greater share of our energy requirements. As the world approaches peak oil, this reliance will grow further still.

What are tar sands? They are heavier than heavy crude oil—a mix of sand, clay, water, and an extremely dense, viscous petroleum that together produces the appearance of tar. Canada and Venezuela have by far the greatest reserves of tar sands. Under NATO’s Proportionality Clause, Canada is compelled to make 66 percent of its oil production available for export to the U.S., even if Canada is in need of energy itself. This means that Canada is compelled to refine its tar sands, which is an incredibly dirty, polluting process—a process producing two to four times as much greenhouse gases as the refinement of conventional crude oil.

Oil shale, on the other hand, consists of a sedimentary rock that contains kerogen, which can be processed to produce liquid hydrocarbons. The world’s largest reserves of oil shale are in the U.S. Rocky Mountain states (Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah), but there are also reserves in Australia, Estonia, Russia, Sweden, Germany, France, Jordan, China, Brazil, and Mongolia. Like tar sands, the refinement of oil shale produces much higher greenhouse emissions than the refinement of regular crude oil, and, like tar sands, requires a significant amount of water (the production of Alberta tar sands uses twice the water used by the city of Calgary in an entire year). It is also highly inefficient, in that its refinement requires nearly as much energy as it gets in return—which should lead us to ask whether it can hardly be worth it.

That we are even going to the bother of refining tar sands and shale is a poignant testament to the fact that the end of the oil age is in sight.

War…and More War

Political scientists have written extensively on the “resource curse,” which holds that the endowment of valuable primary commodities (such as oil and diamonds) actually hurts rather than helps a country’s developmental prospects. A series of World Bank papers report a strong correlation between armed conflict and the endowment of natural resources, observing that countries whose exports are made up of 25 percent primary commodities have a 33 percent change of experiencing war, against a mere 6 percent chance of conflict for countries whose exports are made up of 5 percent primary commodities. Large mineral wealth is also correlated with lower economic development and political corruption as politicians focus on enriching themselves rather than investing in human capital, a poor record of human rights, and the repression of women.

Indeed, international war has long been animated by struggles over valuable mineral resources. The twentieth century ushered in decades-long resource wars over access to gas, coal and oil fields. The start of World War I had much to do with British efforts to prevent a rising Germany to complete its Berlin-Baghdad railway, which would have given German companies access to rich Iraqi oil fields. Japan’s expansionist drive in the 1930s was in turn driven by a desperate quest by the energy-poor island nation to gain access to rich supplies of fossil fuels in neighboring countries, while Germany once again began a “Drang nach Osten” into Soviet territories to gain access to the oil and coal resources needed to build their 1000-year Reich.

In the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. and Britain together sought to control Iranian oil fields by subverting a democratically-elected government in favor of the Shah--a murderous, tyrannical puppet government. Saddam Hussein was originally supported by the CIA, as the U.S. believed that Saddam would cooperate with western oil interests in the region; Saddam later fell out of favor with the west when he began to get creative with the management of Iraqi oil wealth. Accordingly, the U.S. backed both Iran and Iraq in a vicious eight-year war of attrition over energy-rich territory that ended in millions of lives lost and a virtual stalemate. This was followed by the First Gulf War and more than a decade of sustained bombing by the west, followed by the Second Gulf War in 2003, which was initiated on the pretext of eliminating a brutal dictator that posed a deadly security threat to the west. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, a brutal anti-democratic state that has actively supported terrorist networks throughout the world, is under the direct military protection of the U.S. government; this deal is good so long as the Saudis keep the oil flowing.

Comedian Robert Newman explains western involvement in the Middle East using the metaphor of a Bronx housing project:

In the coming decades, resource wars are likely to be broader and even more fearsome. The U.S. is currently involved in not one, not two, but three wars in Middle Eastern and North African states--whose oil reserves are deemed vital to our economic interests. Recently, the U.S. Treasury authorized the purchase of oil from Libyan rebels under the authority of the “Transitional National Council of Libya,” to help overthrow Qadafi in favor of a more western-friendly Libyan government.

As the years advance, we are actually likely to see more rather than less military involvement and occupations in oil-rich states in the Middle East, North Africa, and even further afield. In a recently-released wikileaks cable, western officials discussed the possibility that the future scramble over arctic oil reserves (now accessible due to melting of the polar icecap) may lead to armed conflict between Russia and NATO.

What Now?

Why can’t we get our collective shit together to address, even marginally, the dual calamities of peak gas/oil and catastrophic climate change? Are we not an innovative, entrepreneurial, ingenuous people? Are we not the nation that put a man on the moon in 196-frickin-9? Well, there a lot of reasons, but the most fundamental may be that we have lost our collective sense of community and social responsibility. Rather than citizens of a great Republic, we have become self-absorbed consumers—obsessively promoting ourselves and our kin in a metaphysical competition for higher social and material status. The American ethos today is a pale shadow of what it once was—it now has far less to do with building up community ties and improving the lot of our society than it does with leveraging our individual market worth at the expense of our neighbors.

Of course, this individualist consumer mentality serves the interests of economic elites—if we are each myopically focused on competing against our peers, noone is caring for the general societal welfare, and corporations can continue to dismantle regulations and public entitlements so they can pollute our country for profit and appropriate ever more public resources. The American creed (and increasingly that of western societies at large) has become: Screw you, I’ve got mine. It is a message that is drummed into our psyches by the media, by celebrity culture, and by the broad political and media class. We are consumers, we should protect the market against government intrusion. Policies that serve public interest sound suspiciously like parasitical European-style socialism and should be opposed at every turn.

What this comes down to is a collapse of public morality, of civil society and social responsibility--of democracy in the big-picture sense. Which is a far more intractable problem than global warming, peak oil, and environmental degradation combined.