Naomi Klein on the People’s Climate March & the global grassroots movement fighting fossil fuels

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Michael Klare: Oil rush in America

Whatever you may imagine, “peak oil” has not been discredited as a concept, a statement no less true for “peak fossil fuels.”  Think of them instead as postponed.  We are, after all, on a finite planet that, by definition, holds a finite amount of oil, natural gas, and coal.  Sooner or later, as such deposits get used up (no matter the new techniques that might be invented to extract more of the ever tougher stuff from the earth), we will reach a “peak” of production from which it will be all downhill.

That’s a simple fact to which, as it happens, there’s a catch.  Here, according to the New York Times, is the key finding from the latest leaked 127-page draft report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which manages to use the word “risk” 351 times, “vulnerable” or “vulnerability” 61 times, and “irreversible” 48 times: “The report found that companies and governments had identified reserves of these [fossil] fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level.”

In other words, while “peak oil” may be a perfectly on-target concept, “peak existence” turns out to precede it by decades and from that far more consequential “peak” we are, unlike “peak oil,” already on the downhill slide.  The scientists who produced the IPCC’s draft report expect the average global temperature to increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and at least 6.7 degrees by its end, which will leave humanity on a staggeringly less habitable planet.

The damage, including the melting of the Greenland ice shield, which alone could raise global sea levels by an average of 23 feet, will be irreversible (at least on a historical — that is, human — timescale).  Faced with this relatively straightforward reality, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What’s Left, reports today, oil companies are using remarkable ingenuity and spending billions of dollars to reach ever deeper, ever more difficult to extract, and ever more environmentally treacherous deposits of fossil fuels.  No less strikingly, the Obama administration has been working energetically to pave the way for them to do so — to, that is, make real headway in removing those deposits four times larger than will be even faintly comfortable for our future.  Not only is it doing so in a thoroughly drill-baby-drill spirit of cooperation with the globe’s largest and most avaricious energy outfits, but it’s bragging about it, too. 

In my childhood, I remember ads that fascinated me.  I’m not sure what they were selling or promoting, but they showed scenes of multiple error, including, if I remember rightly, five-legged cows floating through clouds.  They were always tagged with some question like: What’s wrong with this picture?  Today, as in those ads, Klare offers us a picture filled with the energy exploitation and global-warming equivalent of those five-legged cows in the clouds and asks the same question. Tom Engelhardt

Oil is back!
A global warming president presides over a drill-baby-drill America
By Michael T. Klare

Considering all the talk about global warming, peak oil, carbon divestment, and renewable energy, you’d think that oil consumption in the United States would be on a downward path.  By now, we should certainly be witnessing real progress toward a post-petroleum economy.  As it happens, the opposite is occurring.  U.S. oil consumption is on an upward trajectory, climbing by 400,000 barrels per day in 2013 alone — and, if current trends persist, it should rise again both this year and next.

In other words, oil is back.  Big time.  Signs of its resurgence abound.  Despite what you may think, Americans, on average, are driving more miles every day, not fewer, filling ever more fuel tanks with ever more gasoline, and evidently feeling ever less bad about it.  The stigma of buying new gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, seems to have vanished; according to CNN Money, nearly one out of three vehicles sold today is an SUV.  As a result of all this, America’s demand for oil grew more than China’s in 2013, the first time that’s happened since 1999.

[Read more...]

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As part of its black economy, oil sales earn ISIS $2 million every day

Luay Al Khatteeb writes: The United Nation Security Council dramatically escalated the conflict with the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), Al Nusra Front (JNF) and other Al Qaeda splinter groups by passing UN Resolution 2170 in August 2014, thereby expanding the range of retaliatory measures (short of military action) against individuals associated with those groups. This UN Security Council is the latest in a series of draconian UN Resolutions against terror groups pursuant to its responsibility of Forgotten Obligations and affirming its primary role as peacekeepers enshrined in the UN Charter.

The cumulative effect of these resolutions recognizes the long term threat posed by ISIL which was addressed by President Obama in a White House briefing on the 18 August. What Obama did not address however was ISIL’s threat to global energy security, which forms (in part) the premise of this article.

The implications of these UN resolutions for ISIL are clear. The UN Security Council has effectively decided to cut off ISIL’s main lifeline, which is the illicit black economy derived mainly from the oil resources under its control. Consequently, ISIL’s ability to recruit and equip members, consolidate gains if not expand its theatre of operations will be affected. Furthermore, middle men including financiers, arms dealers, traders and Member States now face punitive action for failing to comply.

Whilst I have aired my thoughts on the main features of ISIL’s black market economy, I set out in this Article, my analysis of the background and significance of the UN’s latest bold move against ISIL, ANF and other Qaeda splinters.

Contrary to the media’s one dimensional portrayal of ISIL as a bunch of nihilist extremists, ISIL have moved relatively fast and in a relatively sophisticated manner to create an ‘ad-hoc’ black market economy over the territories it controls. ISIL is no longer desperate for donors’ funding to continue and expand their operations given they now possess a loosely integrated and thriving black economy consisting of approximately 60% of Syria’s oil assets and 7 oil producing assets in Iraq. It has successfully achieved a thriving black market economy by developing an extensive network of middlemen in neighboring territories and countries to trade crude oil for cash and in kind.

ISIL’s estimated total revenues from its oil production are around USD $2 million a day! Put simply, ISIL are in a position to smuggle over 30,000 barrels of crude oil a day to neighboring territories and countries at a price of between USD $25 to USD $60 per barrel depending on the number of middle men involved. [Continue reading...]

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Naomi Oreskes: A ‘green’ bridge to hell

Call it the energy or global warming news of recent weeks.  No, I’m not referring to the fact this was globally the hottest June on record ever (as May had been before it), or that NASA launched the first space vehicle “dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Nor do I mean the new report released by a “bipartisan group,” including former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and three former secretaries of the treasury, suggesting that, by 2100, $238 billion to $507 billion worth of American property will be “below sea level”; nor that Virginia’s coastline is already being eaten away by rising seas and storm-surge destruction in such a striking manner that state Democrats and Republicans are leaving global warming denialists in the lurch and forming a climate change task force to figure out what in the world to do.

No, I was referring to the news that the Obama administration has just reopened the eastern seaboard to offshore oil and gas exploration. To the extent that this has been covered, the articles have generally focused on the economic positives — for jobs and national wealth — of finding new deposits of oil and gas in those waters, and the unhappiness of the environmental community over the effect of the sonic booms used in underwater seismic exploration on whales and other sea creatures. Not emphasized has been the way, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, not to speak of the shale-gas fracking fields of this country, the Obama administration has had an all-of-the-above policy on fossil fuels.  Our “global warming” president has consistently championed reforms (of a modest sort) to combat climate change.  These, however, fit uncomfortably with his administration’s anything-goes menu of oil and gas exploration and exploitation that is distinctly in the drill-baby-drill mode. Unlike that drill-baby-drill proponent Sarah Palin, however, the president knows what he’s doing and what the long-term effects of such policies are likely to be.

Part of the way he and his officials seem to have squared the circle is by championing their moves to throttle coal use and bring natural gas, touted as the “clean” fossil fuel, to market in a big way.  As it happens, historian of science Naomi Oreskes, an expert on the subject, has news for the president and his advisors: when looked at in a clear-eyed way, natural gas isn’t going to turn out to be the fossil-fuel equivalent of a wonder drug that will cure the latest climate disease.  Quite the opposite: its exploitation will actually increase the global use of fossil fuels and pump more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, while possibly suppressing the development of actual renewable alternatives.  In a magisterial piece today, she explores every aspect of the crucial question of why natural gas is anything but a panacea for our climate change problems.

This couldn’t be more important.  Science historians Oreskes and Erik Conway have already written a classic book, Merchants of Doubt, on how Big Energy and a tiny group of scientists associated with it sold us a false bill of goods on the nature and impact of its products (as the tobacco industry and essentially the same set of scientists had before it).  Together, they have now produced a little gem of a book on climate change: The Collapse of Western Civilization: a View From the Future.  Written, so the claim goes, in 2393 by a “senior scholar of the Second People’s Republic of China,” it traces the events that led to the Great Collapse of 2090.  You haven’t heard of that grim event yet?  Well, you will as soon as you pick up Oreskes’s and Conway’s “thought-provoking” and gripping work of “science-based fiction” on what our future may have in store for us — if we don’t act to change our world. Tom Engelhardt

Wishful thinking about natural gas
Why fossil fuels can’t solve the problems created by fossil fuels
By Naomi Oreskes

Albert Einstein is rumored to have said that one cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that led to it. Yet this is precisely what we are now trying to do with climate change policy.  The Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, many environmental groups, and the oil and gas industry all tell us that the way to solve the problem created by fossil fuels is with more fossils fuels.  We can do this, they claim, by using more natural gas, which is touted as a “clean” fuel — even a “greenfuel.

Like most misleading arguments, this one starts from a kernel of truth.

[Read more...]

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Kurdish independence: Harder than it looks

Joost Hiltermann writes: The jihadist blitz through northwestern Iraq has ended the fragile peace that was established after the 2007-2008 US surge. It has cast grave doubt on the basic capacity of the Iraqi army—reconstituted, trained and equipped at great expense by Washington—to control the country, and it could bring down the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose eight-year reign has been marred by mismanagement and sectarian polarization. But for Iraqi Kurds, the offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other groups has offered a dramatic opportunity: a chance to expand their own influence beyond Iraqi Kurdistan and take possession of other parts of northern Iraq they’ve long claimed as theirs.

At the heart of these “disputed areas” is the strategic city of Kirkuk, which the disciplined and highly motivated Kurdish Peshmerga took over in mid-June, after Iraqi soldiers stationed there fled in fear of advancing jihadists. A charmless city of slightly less than one million people, Kirkuk betrays little of its past as an important Ottoman garrison town. The desolate ruin of an ancient citadel, sitting on a mound overlooking the dried-out Khasa River, is one of the few hints of the city’s earlier glory. Yet Kirkuk lies on top of one of Iraq’s largest oil fields, and with its crucial location directly adjacent to the Kurdish region, the city is the prize in the Kurds’ long journey to independence, a town they call their Jerusalem. When their Peshmerga fighters easily took over a few weeks ago, there was loud rejoicing throughout the Kurdish land.

But while the Kurds believe Kirkuk’s riches give them crucial economic foundations for a sustainable independent state, the city’s ethnic heterogeneity raises serious questions about their claims to it. Not only is Kirkuk’s population—as with that of many other Iraqi cities, including Baghdad itself—deeply intermixed. The disputed status of its vast oil field also stands as a major obstacle to any attempt to divide the country’s oil revenues equitably. To anyone who advocates dividing Iraq into neat ethnic and sectarian groups, Kirkuk shows just how challenging that would be in practice. [Continue reading...]

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Kurdish forces seize control of two key Iraqi oil fields

The Wall Street Journal reports: Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of production facilities at two key oil fields near the northern city of Kirkuk Friday, in a politically-charged move that is likely to worsen already frayed relations between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad.

In statements that cast dramatically opposing views of the event, the central government and KRG confirmed Kurdish Peshmerga forces had taken control of oil fields around Kirkuk on Friday morning, and expelled employees of Iraq’s central-government controlled North Oil Company.

The move places Iraq’s prize northern oil field in the hands of the KRG; the Kirkuk field alone could add 250,000 barrels a day to the region’s oil production capacity. Though Kurdish forces have held control of the disputed and oil-rich town of Kirkuk since insurgents overran the nearby town of Mosul, until now they have not sought control of the oil infrastructure.

However, the KRG claimed it moved to secure control of the oil fields Friday after learning that Baghdad planned to sabotage recently-built infrastructure that could help transport oil from the northern oil fields through Kurdistan to Turkey for export.

“This morning’s events have shown that the KRG is determined to protect and defend Iraq’s oil infrastructure whenever it is threatened by acts of terrorism or, as in this case, politically motivated sabotage,” the KRG said in a statement. [Continue reading...]

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Michael Klare: Fighting for oil

Call it a double whammy for the planet or simply irony with a capital “I.”  As the invaluable Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular and author of The Race for What’s Left, points out today, if you scan the planet for conflict, what you’ll find from Syria and Iraq to the South China Sea are a series of energy wars — fossil-fuel conflicts to be exact.  At present, despite some hopeful signs, this crazed planet of ours is still a ravenous beast that only fossil fuels can sate.  No question that conflicts and wars are terrible things.  Just consider the million new refugees being generated by the disintegration of Iraq in a blaze of warfare and sectarian killings.  But oil wars add a grim twist to the mix, because when they’re settled, however miserably or bloodily, the winners take to the oil rigs and the refineries and pump out yet more of the stuff that puts carbon dioxide and methane, both greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere and, as in the Middle East today, creates the basis for yet more conflict.

That region has been going through a period of heightened dryness and drought that researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe to be caused, at least in part, by global warming.  This winter, the driest in decades, Syria and Iraq in particular have experienced a severe lack of rainfall in what should be the wettest part of the year and record heat as well.  These are factors the Pentagon lists in its recent Quadrennial Defense Review as “threat multipliers.”  According to meteorologist Eric Holthaus, “As in neighboring Syria, it’s increasingly clear that Iraq is drying out, an effect that’s long been predicted as a result of the human-caused build up of heat-trapping gases like CO2. Since 1973… parts of Iraq and Syria have seen ‘some of the most dramatic precipitation declines in the world.’ Citing projected stark declines in rainfall and continued population pressure and upstream dam building, a study released earlier this year made the case that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers may no longer reach the sea by 2040.”

The weather destabilization of Syria and the rise of ISIS seem to be connected.  In the Mobius Strip of life, the more desperate you are — thank you, global warming — the more you’re likely to fight over what resources, from water to oil, you can command, and then when you’re done, you’ll use those resources to heat the planet further.  It’s a closed system, a simple formula for the production of violent emotions, dead bodies, and a particularly nasty world. Tom Engelhardt

Twenty-first-century energy wars
Global conflicts are increasingly fueled by the desire for oil and natural gas — and the funds they generate
By Michael T. Klare

Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, the East and South China Seas: wherever you look, the world is aflame with new or intensifying conflicts.  At first glance, these upheavals appear to be independent events, driven by their own unique and idiosyncratic circumstances.  But look more closely and they share several key characteristics — notably, a witch’s brew of ethnic, religious, and national antagonisms that have been stirred to the boiling point by a fixation on energy.

In each of these conflicts, the fighting is driven in large part by the eruption of long-standing historic antagonisms among neighboring (often intermingled) tribes, sects, and peoples.  In Iraq and Syria, it is a clash among Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkmen, and others; in Nigeria, among Muslims, Christians, and assorted tribal groupings; in South Sudan, between the Dinka and Nuer; in Ukraine, between Ukrainian loyalists and Russian-speakers aligned with Moscow; in the East and South China Sea, among the Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and others.  It would be easy to attribute all this to age-old hatreds, as suggested by many analysts; but while such hostilities do help drive these conflicts, they are fueled by a most modern impulse as well: the desire to control valuable oil and natural gas assets.  Make no mistake about it, these are twenty-first-century energy wars.

[Read more...]

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Israel accepts delivery of disputed Kurdish pipeline oil

Reuters reports: A tanker delivered a cargo of disputed crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan’s new pipeline for the first time on Friday in Israel, despite threats by Baghdad to take legal action against any buyer.

The SCF Altai tanker arrived at Israel’s Ashkelon port early on Friday morning, ship tracking and industry sources said. By the evening, the tanker began unloading the Kurdish oil, a source at the port said.

The port authority at Ashkelon declined to comment.

Securing the first sale of oil from its independent pipeline is crucial for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as it seeks greater financial independence from war-torn Iraq.

But the new export route to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, designed to bypass Baghdad’s federal pipeline system, has created a bitter dispute over oil sale rights between the central government and the Kurds. [Continue reading...]

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How the Kurds may benefit from the ISIS rampage

Foreign Policy reports: Amid the rubble left in Iraq by the rampage of Islamist insurgents, one group seems poised to benefit: the Kurds. Baghdad’s flailing response to the offensive launched by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham opens the door to greater geographical reach for the Kurdish region, greater leverage over the central government, and a stronger possibility of becoming a big energy exporter in its own right.

The Islamist insurgents, known variously as ISIS and ISIL, continued their drive south toward the Iraqi capital on Thursday after having captured key northern cities, including Mosul. No less vigorous has been the Kurdish response: In sharp contrast to the Iraqi military forces, which evaporated despite outnumbering ISIS fighters, Kurdish military forces on Thursday took Kirkuk, an important city straddling the Arab and Kurdish parts of Iraq and the centerpiece of the northern oil industry. The Kurdish occupation, in a matter of hours, of a city that has been a bone of contention between Arabs and Kurds for centuries — and especially during Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq — underscores how dramatically the ISIS offensive is redrawing the map of Iraq.

“This may be the end of Iraq as it was. The chances that Iraq can return to the centralized state that [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki was trying to restore are minimal at this point,” said Marina Ottaway, a Middle East specialist at the Wilson Center.

The contrast between robust security in Kurdish-ruled parts of the country and the security vacuum left by fleeing Iraqi troops could ultimately roll back decades of Iraqi history and put Kurdish leaders in Erbil in the catbird seat, especially when it comes to a contentious tug of war over energy resources.

“The strategic failure of Iraqi forces has really shifted the entire balance of power between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East director at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy. “It really allows the KRG to negotiate with Baghdad on entirely different terms” when it comes to a fight over the Kurds’ right to export oil directly.

For years, Kurds in northern Iraq sought to benefit more from the region’s abundant oil and gas resources, but energy exports were centralized in Baghdad, with export revenues shared among Iraq’s regions. Kurdish leaders argued that the deal shortchanged them because they never got the 17 percent of revenues they were promised.

As a result, the Kurds decided — in the face of a barrage of threats and intimidation from Baghdad — to build their own energy-export infrastructure, enabling them to transport oil directly to nearby Turkey. That pipeline opened this year and energy firms operating in the region say that it will be fully operational later this year. Getting the export pipeline up to cruising speed is important for the Kurdish government. It needs to export about 450,000 barrels of oil a day to earn what it received from the central government. By the end of next year, the KRG hopes to be exporting as many as 1 million barrels a day. [Continue reading...]

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Israel has Egypt over a barrel

David Hearst writes: It took the CIA 60 years to admit its involvement in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq, Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister. The circumstances around the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, may not take as long to come to light, regardless of whom is behind it.

Mossadeq sealed his fate when he renationalized Iran’s oil production, which had been under the control of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later to become BP. Morsi’s enemy was gas, and he proved to be a major obstacle to a lucrative deal with Israel – which nobody will be surprised to learn – is about to take place now he has been removed.

Clayton Swisher of Al Jazeera’s investigative unit has spent five months delving into the corrupt sale of Egyptian gas to Israel. His report Egypt’s Lost Power to be broadcast on Monday night reveals that Egypt has lost a staggering amount of money -$11bn , with debts and legal liabilities of another $20bn – selling gas at rock bottom prices to Israel, Spain and Jordan. [Continue reading...]

(Interactive: Egypt’s Lost Power)

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Russia joins global dash for shale oil in policy volte-face

The Telegraph reports: Russia is launching a strategic drive to unlock its shale oil wealth as crude output stagnates and reserves run low in the West Siberian fields, aiming to replicate America’s technology leap in a near total reversal of policy.

The Kremlin has launched an “action plan” to master fracking methods and lure investors into the Bazhenov prospective, a shale basin the size of France to the east of the Urals. Officials are no longer dismissing shale’s promise as a mirage. “We are clearing away the administrative barriers to exploration. This is the urgent challenge we are now facing,” said Kirill Molodtsov, the deputy energy minister.

The US Energy Department estimates that Russia has 75bn barrels of recoverable shale oil resources, the world’s largest deposits. The Bazhenov field is 80 times bigger than the US Bakken field in North Dakota, which alone produces 1m barrels a day.

BP joined the scramble on Saturday by signing a deal to explore for shale in Volga Urals with Rosneft, even though Rosneft’s chairman Igor Sechin is on the US sanctions list. [Continue reading...]

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Michael Klare: What’s Big Energy smoking?

“The industry’s position was that there was no ‘proof’ that tobacco was bad, and they fostered that position by manufacturing a ‘debate,’ convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present ‘both sides’ of it.”  Using a handful of scientists as their expert witnesses, the major tobacco companies also denied the science linking cigarette smoking and cancer and claimed that anti-tobacco findings were driven by a political agenda.  Using publicity outfits, think tanks, and those “objective” scientists in their pay or thrall, they put their money where their mouths were and financed a massive campaign of what, in retrospect, can only be called disinformation on the effects of tobacco smoking on human health.  In this way, they created the doubt and debate they wanted, successfully postponing a reckoning for their industry for years.

Sound familiar today?  It should.  As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway documented in their classic book Merchants of Doubt, the seeding of doubt into the cigarette controversy proved a brilliant move.  The two authors call it “the tobacco strategy.”  It was so successful for the cigarette companies that it would be imitated and replicated in similar encounters over acid rain, the ozone hole, and finally global warming, a “debate” still ongoing and, as Oreskes and Conway make clear, with the same tiny cast of doubting scientists, who have moved conveniently from one issue to the next (without themselves doing original work), ending up in league with the fossil fuel industry.  It’s quite a tale of men representing whole industries who have ended up repeatedly on the wrong side of science.  On the effects of tobacco, acid rain, and the chemicals that were destroying the ozone layer, they were notoriously wrong and yet, for the industries that supported them, notoriously right.  It’s clear enough how the fourth of these “debates” on climate change will be decided.  The question is only when — and on that question hangs human health on a global scale.

In the meantime, Big Energy has never stopped learning from Big Tobacco’s successes.  As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What’s Left, reveals today, they are once again adapting and exploiting the latest tobacco strategy in a new and devastating way.  It couldn’t be a more shameful tale and no one has told it — until now. Tom Engelhardt

Let them eat carbon
Like Big Tobacco, Big Energy targets the developing world for future profits
By Michael T. Klare

In the 1980s, encountering regulatory restrictions and public resistance to smoking in the United States, the giant tobacco companies came up with a particularly effective strategy for sustaining their profit levels: sell more cigarettes in the developing world, where demand was strong and anti-tobacco regulation weak or nonexistent.  Now, the giant energy companies are taking a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook.  As concern over climate change begins to lower the demand for fossil fuels in the United States and Europe, they are accelerating their sales to developing nations, where demand is strong and climate-control measures weak or nonexistent.  That this will produce a colossal increase in climate-altering carbon emissions troubles them no more than the global spurt in smoking-related illnesses troubled the tobacco companies.

The tobacco industry’s shift from rich, developed nations to low- and middle-income countries has been well documented.  “With tobacco use declining in wealthier countries, tobacco companies are spending tens of billions of dollars a year on advertising, marketing, and sponsorship, much of it to increase sales in… developing countries,” the New York Times noted in a 2008 editorial.  To boost their sales, outfits like Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco also brought their legal and financial clout to bear to block the implementation of anti-smoking regulations in such places.  “They’re using litigation to threaten low- and middle-income countries,” Dr. Douglas Bettcher, head of the Tobacco Free Initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO), told the Times.

[Read more...]

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Why do rail tank cars carrying crude oil keep blowing up?

Mother Jones reports: Early on the morning of July 6, 2013, a runaway freight train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, setting off a series of massive explosions and inundating the town in flaming oil. The inferno destroyed the downtown area; 47 people died.

The 72-car train had been carrying nearly 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. While the recent surge in domestic oil production has raised concerns about fracking, less attention has been paid to the billions of gallons of petroleum crisscrossing the country in "virtual pipelines" running through neighbor­hoods and alongside waterways. Most of this oil is being shipped in what’s been called "the Ford Pinto of rail cars"—a tank car whose safety flaws have been known for more than two decades. [Continue reading...]

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China, Russia on verge of gas deal

The Associated Press reports: China plans to sign a multibillion-dollar deal to buy Russian gas during a visit by President Vladimir Putin next week despite U.S. pressure to avoid undermining sanctions on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.

Washington has appealed to Beijing to avoid making business deals with Russia, though American officials acknowledge the pressing energy needs of China, the world’s second-largest economy.

Negotiations that began more than a decade ago had stalled over price. But analysts say Moscow, isolated over its role in Ukraine, faces pressure to make concessions in exchange for an economic and political boost.

“We are still exchanging views with Moscow and we will try our best to ensure that this contract can be signed and witnessed by the two presidents during President Putin’s visit to China,” a deputy Chinese foreign minister, Cheng Guoping, told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading...]

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Eighth major oil train accident in less than a year

The Guardian reports: A train carrying crude oil partly derailed and then caught fire on Wednesday along the James river in Lynchburg, Virginia, with three leaking tankers ending up in the water. It is latest in a series of fiery accidents involving oil transported on North America’s rail network.

Nearby buildings were temporarily evacuated but officials said there were no injuries. The city of Lynchburg said firefighters on the scene made the decision to let the fire burn out. Three or four of the tankers were breached on the 15-car train that train company CSX said had been on its way from Chicago to unspecified destination.

Photos and videos posted online showed large flames and thick black smoke immediately after the crash. Later photos showed the fire mostly out.

In July 2013 a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in Canada near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3m gallons of light sweet crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.

In all there have been eight significant oil train accidents in the US and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in large fires, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

“This is another national wake-up call,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman said of the Lynchburg crash. “We have these oil trains moving all across the United States through communities and the growth and distribution of this has all occurred, unfortunately, while the federal regulators have been asleep.

“This is just an area in which the federal rulemaking process is too slow to protect the American people.” [Continue reading...]

Is the rulemaking simply too slow or are there more nefarious forces at play? Every time there’s another rail accident, I have little doubt the XL Keystone lobbyists jump at the opportunity to underline how oil transportation through pipelines is so much “safer.”

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Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing Big Oil to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth

Chris Hayes writes: In 2012, the writer and activist Bill McKibben published a heart-stopping essay in Rolling Stone titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” I’ve read hundreds of thousands of words about climate change over the last decade, but that essay haunts me the most.

The piece walks through a fairly straightforward bit of arithmetic that goes as follows. The scientific consensus is that human civilization cannot survive in any recognizable form a temperature increase this century more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Given that we’ve already warmed the earth about 0.8 degrees Celsius, that means we have 1.2 degrees left — and some of that warming is already in motion. Given the relationship between carbon emissions and global average temperatures, that means we can release about 565 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by mid-century. Total. That’s all we get to emit if we hope to keep inhabiting the planet in a manner that resembles current conditions.

Now here’s the terrifying part. The Carbon Tracker Initiative, a consortium of financial analysts and environmentalists, set out to tally the amount of carbon contained in the proven fossil fuel reserves of the world’s energy companies and major fossil fuel–producing countries. That is, the total amount of carbon we know is in the ground that we can, with present technology, extract, burn and put into the atmosphere. The number that the Carbon Tracker Initiative came up with is… 2,795 gigatons. Which means the total amount of known, proven extractable fossil fuel in the ground at this very moment is almost five times the amount we can safely burn.

Proceeding from this fact, McKibben leads us inexorably to the staggering conclusion that the work of the climate movement is to find a way to force the powers that be, from the government of Saudi Arabia to the board and shareholders of ExxonMobil, to leave 80 percent of the carbon they have claims on in the ground. That stuff you own, that property you’re counting on and pricing into your stocks? You can’t have it.

Given the fluctuations of fuel prices, it’s a bit tricky to put an exact price tag on how much money all that unexcavated carbon would be worth, but one financial analyst puts the price at somewhere in the ballpark of $20 trillion. So in order to preserve a roughly habitable planet, we somehow need to convince or coerce the world’s most profitable corporations and the nations that partner with them to walk away from $20 trillion of wealth. Since all of these numbers are fairly complex estimates, let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that we’ve overestimated the total amount of carbon and attendant cost by a factor of 2. Let’s say that it’s just $10 trillion.

The last time in American history that some powerful set of interests relinquished its claim on $10 trillion of wealth was in 1865 — and then only after four years and more than 600,000 lives lost in the bloodiest, most horrific war we’ve ever fought.

It is almost always foolish to compare a modern political issue to slavery, because there’s nothing in American history that is slavery’s proper analogue. So before anyone misunderstands my point, let me be clear and state the obvious: there is absolutely no conceivable moral comparison between the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans and the burning of carbon to power our devices. Humans are humans; molecules are molecules. The comparison I’m making is a comparison between the political economy of slavery and the political economy of fossil fuel.

More acutely, when you consider the math that McKibben, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) all lay out, you must confront the fact that the climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth. It is impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition. [Continue reading...]

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The bear and the dragon: Russia pivots to China in the face of western sanctions

The Globe and Mail reports: On March 20, the U.S. authorized sanctions against billionaire Gennady Timchenko amid the escalating crisis between Russia and Ukraine. Three weeks later, the Russian tycoon, who amassed a fortune trading oil and selling natural gas, appeared on Russian television. He was not in Russia at the time. He was in China. The West, he said, was “pushing us away.” China was not. In fact, Chinese companies were talking with Mr. Timchenko about buying more of Russia’s abundant energy.

“There is a market with a lot of potential developing in the Asia-Pacific region,” said the billionaire, who boasts close ties to Vladimir Putin and has been called one of Russia’s most powerful men.

This week, the country’s Prime Minister was even more explicit: “We are interested in diversifying today more so than ever before. Therefore we are implementing solutions for the export of gas and oil to Asian and Pacific countries, first and foremost China,” Dmitry Medvedev said on Russian television.

As the global fissures radiating from Russia’s moves against Ukraine call into question the future of its ties with Western powers, Russia is increasingly casting its gaze east, to a distant border long neglected. In May, Mr. Putin is expected to come to Beijing to sign a major contract that will see Russia pipe vast quantities of natural gas to China. It will mark the sixth meeting between Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping since the beginning of 2013, as Russia pushes for a “pivot east” that has taken on sudden new urgency in the wake of the country’s moves in Ukraine, which have earned it global criticism, and an increasing likelihood of punitive sanctions.

The change stands to have wide-reaching ramifications, redrawing geopolitical alignments and altering global energy flows, a matter of concern to Canada, among others.

For Russia’s economy, Ukraine stands to create “a major crisis,” said Vassily Kasin, a China expert with the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defence studies organization. “And China will become the major economic partner.” The two countries “will in fact move very close to an alliance, I think,” he said. “This is a major change.” [Continue reading...]

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The Kashagan oil field: The world’s most toxic money pit

Alex Pasternack reports: The Kashagan oil field, located fifty miles offshore in western Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea, takes its name from a 19th century poet and from the Kazakh word meaning “skittish” and “elusive.”

That’s one understated way to describe the oil that some of the world’s biggest companies are hoping to suck out of the Earth. In thirteen years, they’ve spent $50 billion, building islands and pipelines and digging deep, some two and a half miles below the surface, to reach a so-called supergiant oil field where sour crude is mixed with toxic gas at ungodly pressures. In industry circles, Kashagan has become a watchword for massive complexity and near impossibility, and adopted an unofficial motto: “cash all gone.”

Since geologists discovered the field in 2000, north of the also-massive Tengiz oil field, Kashagan remains the largest new oil deposit since the Prudhoe Bay field was found off Alaska in 1968. Estimates say that there are between 30 and 50 billion barrels (4.8 and 7.9 billion cubic meters) buried in a reservoir so complicated to plumb that only between four and 13 billion barrels are thought to be recoverable.

Even if the cost is five times that of a conventional oil development in Saudi Arabia, Kashagan alone could someday deliver as much as 1.2 million barrels per day; the US currently uses about 19 million barrels per day.

But thirteen years and $50 billion later, the global consortium operating Kashagan has produced almost no oil. [Continue reading...]

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