Tuesday, January 21, 2014

West Virginia Governor Says: It's Your Decision

In the age of global warming and rising fossil fuel production costs, the paralysis of pragmatism among many right wing Republican politicians is becoming more evident. For Republicans, it's the age of do-nothingism.

But Democrats also need to make sure their politicians don't go down that road. Democratic Gov. Earl Tomblin says to West Virginians that 'it's your decision' whether to drink the water that was recently contaminated by a chemical spell. I'm sure many Americans have noticed many chemical spills, refinery accidents, oil spells and exploding fertilizer plants have occurred lately across the nation.

With all due respect, I disagree with the oddly lax attitude of the governor (he sure sounds like a Republican to me). Making sure the water supply is healthy and communities are livable should be a major goal of every state. But making sure the United States has a responsible energy and global warming plan going forward for the coming decades should be the highest priority of our nation.

It's a fact of life that we now have two critical issues facing us. No one in the world is more impacted by the two critical issues than the United States. We are, first of all, the world's biggest energy user per capita. So the need for new forms of energy is crucial. If we wish to remain economically healthy, we need over the next 10 to 25 years to turn to other forms of energy in a major way.

We are also one of the largest countries in the world. It would be an illusion to think that global warming will not affect us. We have three large climate change issues and a not so small issue. The not so small issue is in Alaska where the permafrost in the north is melting and homes and communities are literally sinking into the ground.

A big second issue is that the American West is having repeated bouts of drought, and the computer models expect more of them. Keep in mind that in places like California, the weather tends to be feast and famine. In the years that California gets rain, it gets far more than it wants. This may happen more often in other areas of the country.

Actually, the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard at times will also have an increased number of the largest hurricanes, but possibly not more hurricanes in general (the science of our new changing climate isn't always going to be able to read exactly the changes and timing of what will come; but the energy pouring into the Earth's various climates is already having measurable consequences; and one of the major consequences is the way warm water is moving north in the late summer — warm water fuels hurricanes).

The final issue involves our coastlines. One part of the issue is already here: the rising seas are sending a great deal more water inland when big hurricanes and even thunder storms drive water inland. But the seas will continue rising and over the next few decades we will lose a certain percentage of our coastal lands. No one can precisely predict what will happen and when for a number of reasons; the biggest wild card is when the production of fossil fuels will begin to significantly drop.

The reality is the age of light sweet crude is over. We can no longer produce the best quality oil cheaply. Cheap oil is gone and is not returning. One call also see growing stresses in the refinery, fossil producing, and chemical sectors. And keep in mind that fossil producers have known about climate change for at least two decades. Most of them made a political choice to ignore the science. The smartest thing many of these companies should have done was take their enormous wealth and diversify. Some did, but most chose not to (curiously, there is still time to diversify but the window is on the edge of closing).

We have many politicians in the United States, particularly on the Republican side, who are currently in the back pockets of fossil fuel producers. Many of these producers interested in politics have been warned for years. Or rather decades. They have largely chosen not to listen. They refuse the evidence of global warming. And they refuse the evidence of the older issue: that we need new sources of energy. The first call for diversifying into other forms of energy, made purely on economic grounds, came in the 1970s. Here's something many people don't know: many of those calls came from those in the fossil industries, particularly those who had been in the business for 20-40 years.

In the end, maybe Gov. Tomblin is right, it's your decision. It's the decision of every American. Except the decision involves more than West Virginia. Do we push harder to begin the changes we need (there are exciting changes for cheaper sources of energy happening for those who are observant), or do we let the United States slip into irrelevance? I can virtually guarantee other nations will push for the new forms of energy that are falling rapidly in prices while we let fossil producers fantasize about dreams that have no relevance during the growing crisis we are facing. American genius is still alive. But the ground has shifted. The future no longer lies in fossil fuels that now cost four more times than what they cost just in the early 21st Century.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Faux Outrage from the Right?

I think we've all been aware of an incredible amount of anger coming from the far right. Even common sense Republicans who have more in common with Goldwater or Reagan than the Teas have commented on this from time to time, though perhaps using politer language in public. I happen to sympathize with common sense Republicans since sometimes the anger of the Tea Party is specifically directed at them, and is just as irrational as the anger directed at progressives.

In any case, articles show up from time to time that puzzle me. For example, there have been a lot of articles around oil, natural gas and fracking that are head scratchers. Here's an item from the Daily Camera in Colorado:

Founder and CEO Jonathan Sawyer [of XetaWave] said the Lafayette Community Rights Act, which was passed by voters in November and bans all new oil and gas drilling within city limits, puts a business like his in questionable legal territory

XetaWave provides radios to oil and gas operators that can relay information about operational aspects at remote sites, such as condensation tank levels or flow rates at the well.

Because the charter amendment states that it is illegal in Lafayette to "engage in the creation of fossil fuel, nuclear or other non-sustainable energy production and delivery infrastructures," Sawyer said it's not clear to him if a company like XetaWave could be prosecuted even if it doesn't extract energy itself.

Now maybe Mr. Sawyer was misled or misunderstood, and maybe the writer of the article is just writing the facts as they came to him. In the comments, a city attorney is also mentioned who may also be part of the story. But what I see is something that I see too often that looks like a phony tempest in a teapot that is designed to make those "dangerous left wingers" look like idiots. However, in our country, our communities still have some latitude on organizing their communities how they see fit (and yes, sometimes local politics go the other way). Now as I understand it, the right to drill whether anybody likes it or not is not one I see in the U.S. Constitution. 
Now the law in Lafayette was legally passed and was intended to stop oil drilling within the city limits. That much is clear. 
But a claim seems to have been made (by opponents of the law?) that anything remotely associated with oil drilling whether inside the city or outside is somehow illegal according to the new city ordinance. This of course is ridiculous. The logic of that interpretation might mean that if a candy factory inside the city limits supplied their product to an oil company's vending machines outside the city, they would be in violation of the city ordinance. A broad interpretation by right wingers would be a classic example of right wingers looking for controversy where none exists. I've heard a phrase for it in recent years (since 2010, in fact): "Faux Outrage." Sometimes, because we hear such things so often on Fox News, I've seen it as "Fox Outrage."
The irony is that many oil companies have full-time lawyers who clean up numerous and serious company violations of the law on the quiet. It would not surprise me if the more conservative oil executives find Faux Outrage a convenient utility in their legal tool box, though of course in this particular case, the motivations of the company may simply be informational. Nevertheless, the question remains: how is it that such a trivial story came to be in the Daily Camera? And why is it that such phony stories of late have so often managed to be printed?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Fossil Fuels Have Served Their Purpose

I had an older relative who was involved in building one of the first long distance natural gas pipelines. He finished the pipeline around 1930, long before I was born. Natural gas was much cleaner than coal and was considered an improvement in that era. The truth is that coal, oil and natural gas, in their time, created the modern age. It's a simple historical fact that oil made possible victory for the allies in World War I and World War II. Without oil, the automobile age would not be possible.

But we now know that fossil fuels are a major source of the carbon dioxide emissions that are responsible for causing global warming. The Arctic is melting. Temperatures are rising (particularly in the oceans). Megastorms are beginning to appear. And we know these things sooner than we might have because coal, oil and natural gas were instrumental in helping create a huge world population increase as well as massive industrialization throughout large areas of the Earth.

But there's a second story that has been getting little attention: the decline of cheap fossil fuels. The age of cheap light sweet crude is over. It's been over for almost ten years now. We now rely on heavy crude, Fracked oil and gas, and tar sands. Coal, over the last hundred years, has been just getting lower and lower in grade. Only natural gas is holding its own and that's only if the prices stay up, but many regard natural gas as experiencing a production bubble that cannot be sustained.

The reality is that the costs of fossil fuels are rising. And more and more energy needs to be invested to bring fossil fuels to market, thus defeating some of the important value of fossil fuels. Many of the companies who produce fossil fuels are currently in denial. That's a long story I'll leave to others to explain. Some of the dominant figures in coal and oil, for example, have political agendas that they try to tie to their businesses in ways inconsistent with who we are as a nation and not consistent with our needs.

The truth is that we've known for a long time that fossil fuels are in trouble. The crucial issue, above all others, is oil. One of the largest producers of oil in the world, the United States, reached maximum production a long time ago, back in 1970. We had a resurgence because of the North Slope but we never again reached maximum production. Because of fracking in places like Texas, North Dakota and elsewhere, oil and natural gas production are once again rising in the United States. We may even surpass the totals from 1970, but it's likely to be short-lived and we are doing it at considerable cost to our future.

There are two issues. First, global warming cannot be ignored. For anyone who has looked at the science, that ship has sailed. Second, we cannot wait until the last shipload or trainload of fossil fuels to begin the transition to fossil fuels. That second issue is now crucial given the eroding circumstances of fossil fuels.

Here's a story from Cleantech about a coal terminal — a story we are seeing more often in all areas of fossil fuels:

The Gateway Pacific Terminal, near Bellingham, Washington, is poised to become the West Coast’s biggest coal export project — but it will no longer have the backing of New York-based, international banking behemoth Goldman Sachs.
On Tuesday, Goldman Sachs sold its stock back to the companies proposing to build the terminal, which would transport 48 million tons of coal from Wyoming to Asia annually.
The banks are starting to see the writing on the wall. Alternative energy is clean and competitive. And because of a host of brilliant scientists and researchers, the prices for alternative energy will continue to improve.