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The Power of Euphemism

Ed Marshall · August 19th, 2013

It’s been said that it’s impossible to go through the day without a rationalism or two … or three. In PR, the same can be said for the euphemism. Without them, companies might be forced to speak more directly about some rather uncomfortable situations. Layoffs? No, rightsizing. Or, “the opportunity to start your new job search immediately.” Seriously.

Fracking-SignThe thought occurred as I read through a few stories covering Shell’s recent disappointing quarterly earnings announcement. The company largely blamed the earnings miss on poor performance in their US oil shale holdings. In short, the drilling wasn’t turning out the expected amount of crude. In fact, the prospects for production from shale are so poor that the company is backtracking on previous predictions of prodigious output to come in those same shale plays. But that’s not how they put it.

In a master use of euphemism that will surely be noticed by others in corporate communications, the previously stated production target of 4 million barrels per day was “retired.” They didn’t give up on the goal. They didn’t say they made a mistake in calculating the original target. Nope, they simply “retired” it.

Brilliant.

In fact, given the underlying cost structure issues apparently beginning to play out in the shale oil sector, it might behoove the other oil majors who have invested in these fields to keep the thesaurus handy.

A little climate music

Steve McGrath · August 6th, 2013

Pen mightier than the sword? Hardly. All the words in the world have barely moved the needle on American’s indifference toward climate change. As long as there’s air conditioning in the summer and skiing in the winter, it’s pretty much business as usual.

Maybe music can help?

In separate projects, two musicians mapped temperature readings to musical notes to spotlight recent warming spikes. The songs start in the past and conclude in the present, with the pitch rising markedly along with the temperatures.

First, let’s listen to the anxious violin, a 24-second song spanning six centuries of climate readings.

 

 

Now the somber cello, which covers the last 130 years.

 

A Song of Our Warming Planet from Ensia on Vimeo.

 

“Climate scientists have a standard toolbox to communicate their data,” says the cellist, Daniel Crawford, University of Minnesota class of 2017. “What we’re trying to do is add another tool to that toolbox, another way to communicate these ideas to the people who might get more out of this than maps, graphs and numbers.”

It’s not Mozart, but it certainly makes the point. Credit these guys for recognizing logic is overrated and that sometimes you’ve got to go straight for the gut.

More here from the New York Times.

Conventional wisdom: real and manufactured

Ed Marshall · June 28th, 2013

Even as winds of change sweep through the media landscape, it remains a truth that the first audience for any pitch is the reporter. Without a compelling pitch that resonates with the reporter, your story will not get written and therefore will not influence the end-reader audience.

FrackingIt’s interesting, then, to see a campaign succeed with that initial target audience even as it butts up against a reality that could torpedo it.

This past Memorial Day Weekend, I happened upon an article in The Boston Globe (yes, I still have dead tree media delivered to my door, daily) assuring readers that the price of gasoline this summer would not be as expensive as last summer. Why the lower price? Well, according to article author Erin Ailworth, “The main reason is the boom in US production of crude oil, which accounts for about two-thirds of the price of gas. As a result of the controversial drilling process known as “fracking” that frees oil from shale formations, US crude is flooding global markets and holding down prices.”

That line has become conventional wisdom in the media, as well it should. As I’ve blogged in the past, vested fossil energy interests have expended a lot of effort to create it. A steady wave of research papers from institutes, investment houses, agencies and academics with ties to the energy industry have received breathless uptake in the media. Those who have taken critical views of those papers have been largely ignored. Not really a surprise because people prefer information that assures them the world they’ve known will continue on untroubled. The media, like corporations, is made up of people and the message they’ve been receiving on a regular basis from fossil-fueled sources is that all is well.

The problem with this manufactured conventional wisdom is reality. If you make it to the bottom of that Globe article you come across this paragraph:

In the meantime, gas prices remain historically high and may convince some people to stay close to home, said Mary Maguire, spokeswoman for AAA Southern New England. The auto association estimates that 34.8 million Americans will journey 50 miles or more from home during the holiday, a decline of about 1 percent from last year, when 35.1 million people traveled.

So, yeah, reality. Fracking for oil is expensive, both in terms of labor and materials. Those sustained high prices are tamping demand in the US, especially among those who remain among the ranks of the unemployed. Faced with a dearth of summer jobs and low wages, teens, too, appear to be less interested in dropping $60 or$100 in the tank every week to cruise around.

Meanwhile in what are still called “the emerging economies” of countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam, demand for refined petroleum products continues to climb. That rising demand will more than make up for declining demand here in the US. That trend will ensure both high gasoline prices and that fracking for oil remains a profitable endeavor. But, profitable or not, it’s unlikely to result in production rates that can replace that lost from depleting conventional wells and this trend will also help ensure prices for crude stay high enough to keep frackers in business.

And as the fracked oil flows, the conventional wisdom will as well, while people at the pump bump into the underlying reality of a world no longer awash in cheap fossil energy.

 

Hide and seek – getting warmer

Ed Marshall · March 29th, 2013

Don’t you hate it when you misplace something important? It’s a great relief when you find it, right? Well, not always. For the last decade or so, climate scientists have been searching for some missing heat. Climate models had suggested a certain rate of warming in the atmosphere based on our increasing rate of carbon emissions, but measurement showed a lower rate of warming over the past decade than predicted. Clearly some heat had gone missing.

Found it. A recently published underwater scene with bubbles and sunraysstudy has confirmed that the missing heat was actually not missing at all, but simply absorbed by the deep ocean – below 1,000 feet. In fact, according to the study, global warming hasn’t slowed over the past decade, but actually accelerated over the past 15 when the heat absorbed in the deep oceans is factored in.

This makes sense, in that the Earth is mostly covered in water so you’d expect the oceans to act as a heat sink for the atmosphere given the contact area involved. Apparently, budget issues have been limiting heat mapping of the oceans to its upper layers, but recent low-cost robotic deployments (described here) have started to paint a fuller picture of the ocean heat sink effect on atmospheric warming. This will help climate scientists build better informed models and projections. A recent article in The Economist touches on why finding the missing heat is so important – its absence raises numerous questions about the sensitivity of the overall climate system to the introduction of increasing levels of greenhouse gases.

There’s another nice piece outlining the study’s salient points here that leads off with a mention of why this new study is so important to the ongoing struggle for popular understanding of the urgency of our climate problem. The missing heat, you see, has been more than a scientific head scratcher.

It’s also been an asset to those seeking to discredit and undermine the case for anthropogenic global warming. The ocean cycles and interacts in dynamic ways with the atmosphere that we don’t yet fully understand. Nature, unfortunately, really does not care about your politics, PR or stock portfolio. The system continues on its way, not waiting for our understanding of it to catch up. Heat absorbed in the deep ocean is not likely to stay there. The effects of this deep ocean heating are likely already playing out, leaving me to wonder what we will we find next?

Plugging in electric cars is easy, but paying for them might kill you

Mike McGrail · March 12th, 2013

Charging a plug-in vehicle is a lot like a middle school science project – except most middle school science projects don’t leave you stranded in a parking lot hundreds of miles from home.

Electric_car_chargingThat’s the implicit message permeating the public duel between Tesla Motors CEO and founder Elon Musk and New York Times writer John Broder. The former objects to the latter’s review of Tesla’s swanky Model S electric sedan. Broder’s travelogue legitimizes a central fear about plug-in vehicles: that they’re unreliable if they stray too far from a high-speed charging station. (Which, incidentally, aren’t all that speedy at 30 minutes for a 150-mile charge.)

Broder wrote that he did everything short of pumping magic beans into the Model S to keep it rolling. He drove at low speeds without the heat on for miles to get from one charging station to another. He stayed in almost constant touch with Tesla customer service. He took long breaks while the Model S slowly sipped from electric outlets.

Even with those accommodations, Broder claimed that the Model S ran out of juice and shut itself down in Milford, Conn., about two thirds of the distance from his starting point of Washington DC to his destination of Boston.

Tesla struck back – persuasively. Musk cited the car’s on-board activity log and Broder’s own communications with Tesla customer service to charge that Broder deliberately ran the Model S down for dramatic effect. Oh yeah, and he didn’t putter along at 50 miles per hour with the heat off in February, as he claimed. He drove at highway speeds with the heat on.

No matter whom you believe in this beef, the underlying issue is bogus. Electric cars are not going to fail for lack of places to plug them in any more than gasoline-powered cars failed for lack of gas stations at the end of the horse-and-buggy era.

When gasoline engines hit the scene, the technology was good enough to spur growth of an infrastructure around it. The same thing is happening with plug-ins. Nissan and Tesla Motors are rolling out coast-to-coast networks of high-speed charging stations for their electric vehicles. There are already gujillions of charging devices on the market. The Baltic nation of Estonia has made it a national priority to establish a network of charging stations and they’re off to a good start.

I know, Estonia doesn’t compare to the U.S. in size or population. Yet it has 1.25 million people and 17,000 square miles to cover, so it’s not a throwaway comparison either.

No, the issue with plug-in cars isn’t where to plug them in. The issue is also not that they plug into a grid powered largely by dirty-burning coal, which is the other popular red herring around plug-ins. The grid is getting more environmentally friendly and will grow steadily more so as more renewable energy sources come online.

The issue with plug-in cars is that they’re too expensive for large-scale consumer adoption. A Tesla Model S costs $54,000. A similarly tricked-out Mercedes Benz E-class sedan goes for $51,000. A Chevy Volt is $39,000, compared to $21,000 for a Chevy Mailbu. A basic Nissan Leaf costs $21,300 – and the Leaf is the econobox of the electric car set. A comparable conventionally powered car costs about $14,500.

These price points make plug-in vehicles irrelevant to most consumers. Even if they care for the environment, they can’t pay for a car with good intentions. So treat spitting contests like Broder versus Musk for what they are: entertainment. But when someone talks about making a plug-in that the average consumer can afford, you might want to pay attention. That’s the real obstacle for plug-ins.

Today’s forecast: changing climate views

Steve McGrath · February 28th, 2013

We had a blizzard up here the other day, the second biggest in our history. Yet a few days before that, the thermometer was pushing 60 degrees. This certainly feels like global weirding.

IcebergAlthough I’m generally concerned about climate change, I worry more about the fate of this planet on days when the temperatures don’t match the season. When it’s balmy in February, that’s troubling.

On the other hand, when the snowbanks tower over my head, warming doesn’t seem to be an issue. Doubts chip away at my climate change convictions, notwithstanding the statements of NASA, NOAA, the United Nations, 34 science academies and countless other credible agencies.

I’m not the only one who’s fickle on climate.

A University of British Columbia study found a strong connection between weather and climate attitudes over the past two decades “with skepticism about global warming increasing during cold snaps and concern about climate change growing during hot spells.”

The University of New Hampshire came up with similar findings, especially among independent voters in the state. “Interviewed on unseasonably warm days, independents tend to agree with the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change,” said researchers Lawrence Hamilton and Mary Stampone. “On unseasonably cool days, they tend not to.”

Why do our attitudes change like this? Because despite what we know, we just can’t deny what we see and feel. Yes, sensory experiences do play a big role in what’s relevant to us, maybe more than we think. You can see it in our new Conversational Relevance study. Although hotel guests value location and recreational facilities for the kids, these highly rational concerns are only part of the mix. Guests also chatter online about water pressure in the shower and the view from the room, and about abstractions like a hotel’s culture and cachet.

The bottom line? When it comes to decision-making, whether it’s a hotel room or the destiny of the human race, logic is overrated. Think about it. Rationally, if you can.

Vermonters want to tame the wind power momentum

Steve McGrath · January 15th, 2013

What’s not to like about wind power? It’s clean, it’s abundant, and windmills look pretty sleek – unless they’re blighting scenic mountain ridges.

That’s just one concern that some in Vermont, the country’s second-bluest state, are decrying in their bid for a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind development. Supporters of the measure want the state to take time to figure out how to better manage wind proposals.

“We shouldn’t permit ourselves to be pressured by corporate, mostly out-of-state entities while we take that time,” said co-sponsor Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington. “We shouldn’t be allowing our cherished mountains, our cherished history to be destroyed while we take that time. We shouldn’t involve ourselves in social upheaval while we take that time. For that reason, a bipartisan effort … is being made to make sure we back up the train, set the reset button and redefine a conversation with Vermont’s history and environmental proactivism involved in the discussion.” (Source: vtdigger.org)

Although a similar bill failed last year, Gov. Peter Shumlin has called for a commission to look at energy permitting in the state. And with every wind proposal come a new group of affected neighbors. Last fall, nearly 200 activists descended on the capitol, issuing a mock “Certificate of Public Harm” to the governor, wind developers and others.

This should get interesting. There’s enough energy in wind to power our warming planet more than 20 times over. But if resistance is coming from a state that’s so blue it has “green” in its nickname, we’re in for a long slog.

Renewable energy is showing spark for 2013 and beyond

Mike McGrail · January 8th, 2013

2012 had all the ingredients for a bummer year in renewable energy, but instead it gave us a lot to be optimistic about for 2013 and beyond.

Sure, the renewable energy and conservation grants in the stimulus bill are going away. Consumer demand for alternative energy systems dropped. A glut of solar photovoltaic equipment on the international market helped fuel a trade dispute between the U.S. and China. That dispute raised uncertainty about solar’s long-term prospects as free trade collided with low prices.plug-in earth

Solar energy companies, some backed by government loans and grants, scaled back operations or shut down. Critics in Congress derided each failure as a waste of tax money. Some tried to prevent the military from investing in biofuels.

In the end, Congress restored the military’s freedom to explore alternative energy sources. That was emblematic of what happened in the U.S. and the world in renewable energy. It didn’t look good for a while, but by the end of 2012, there were a lot of positives on the scoreboard.

Germany again showed what a developed nation with a large, complex economy can accomplish in renewable energy. The country’s renewable energy output rose to 25 percent of its total energy production in the first half of 2012. Wind led the way at 9.2 percent, followed by solar at 5.3 percent. When the final numbers from 2012 are in, Germany expects to beat its 2011 clean energy output by 15 percent.

China, the world’s largest energy consumer, erected 36 wind turbines per day in 2012. One of its provinces alone generates as much electricity through wind power as the entire United Kingdom does from all fossil-fueled and renewable sources. The Chinese government quadrupled the amount of solar power it wants to generate by 2015 to 21 gigawatts.

In the U.S., total renewable energy output dropped slightly in 2012 because of lower water levels in the Pacific Northwest that cut hydroelectric energy production. However, renewable output is forecast to rebound to 2011 levels in 2013.

As of Nov. 30, 2012, new wind power installations in the U.S. outpaced natural gas and coal with 6,519 megawatts of new capacity. Natural gas was at 6,335 megawatts and coal was less than half of the wind power total. Wind power electric generation increased 15 percent in 2012.

As good as 2012’s lagging indicators were, the signs of what’s coming in 2013 and beyond were even more encouraging.

Investor Warren Buffet bought the 579-megawatt Antelope Valley Solar Project in California for somewhere between $2 and $2.5 billion. It’s the world’s largest solar photovoltaic development. When a guy like Buffet puts that much down on a venture, he’s clearly not afraid of government subsidies drying up, or market peaks and valleys.

On the technology front, there are encouraging signs that companies are plugging away at the limitations holding renewable energy back from mass acceptance. A U.S.-based company has applied for a patent on a wind turbine design that stores energy as heat instead of immediately converting it to electricity. The heat generates steam to drive turbines when the wind isn’t blowing, a stubborn drawback of wind power.

In solar photovoltaics, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and partner Solar Junction announced a solar cell that converts 44 percent of the light that hits it into energy. Efficiency has been a drag on solar photovoltaic; most panels only convert somewhere around 20-25 percent of available light into electricity. At the same time, the government research agency DARPA is experimenting with nano materials that can boost solar cell efficiency to 50 percent.

Politicians and economists are still guarded in their predictions about renewable energy. Even so, there’s a feeling of inevitability building around it. The feeling ebbs from time to time, but even during slack tides like 2012, the trend is for better and smarter renewable energy technology and a bigger renewable energy market.

 

At current rates

Ed Marshall · December 12th, 2012

In the unfolding war of perception around fossil fuel availability, it’s always important to watch for key words and phrasings.

It’s important because they typically take two forms: “soothe and enthuse” and the “fine print.”

“Soothe and enthuse” phrases assure the public that there is plenty of resources available. In the realm of fracking and natural gas, the phrase that soothes and enthuses is “100year supply,” as in “we have a 100-year supply of natural gas in the United States.”

The inline “fine print” wording ensures plausible deniability when physical realities and/or business needs undermine assertions made in the assurance phrases, thus dampening excitement. Again, in the natural gas fracking world, the one to watch for is “at current rates.” Sometimes the current rate cited is of consumption. Other times it’s production. Either way, it’s usually closely tied to the aforementioned “100-year supply” phrase.

With this in mind, I read with interest this story about a recently issued report written by NERA Economic Consulting at the behest of the Energy Department stating that exporting U.S. natural gas would be a big booster for the domestic economy. As I summarized previously, fracking for natural gas is expensive and not currently profitable. In short, fracking produces a quick rush and then a quick fall off in flow, requiring more drilling. That’s expensive. However, that initial rush produces a glut which drops prices, making the whole process rather uneconomic.

Clearly, shipping fracked gas overseas to growing markets such as Japan and China, where prices are currently more than triple what U.S. buyers pay, would do wonders for the bottom line of the frackers. But what would it mean for that “100-year supply”?

That’s where the aforementioned fine print kicks in.

You see, “at current rates” refers to a time when the U.S. natural gas supply isn’t part of a global market; it’s all consumed here for the things natural gas has historically been used for – cooking, heating homes and water, supplying chemical manufacturers with an important feedstock, pre-heating metals in iron and steel making, generating electricity in a power plant, that sort of thing – and produced at rates commensurate with those historical uses.

Open up the U.S. gas supply to the soaring demands of growing Asian economies and you are instantly no longer consuming “at current rates.” You’re consuming at much higher rates, which increases prices. Higher prices will drive driller’s revenue and provide capital for more fracking. Soon you’re no longer producing “at current rates” because it has jumped to meet the new, higher demand.

The boom in jobs fostered by this expensive, messy frenzy of resource extraction is unlikely to focus anyone on the math that “at current rates” encourages. Rather, some day hence, certainly much sooner than a century from now, when the issue becomes more than obvious, an intrepid scribe may wonder why the 100-year promise fell so short. This movie has played out before; but sadly it was a foreign film – British, to be precise – and we don’t really pay much attention to those here in the States.

 

Frontline does a deep dive on climate doubt

Ed Marshall · November 7th, 2012

A quick one to add to your “must see” list is a new Frontline special, “Climate of Doubt,” looking at the machine behind climate change denial and doubt. You may recall my post, “The Sensible Center,” earlier this year that looked at the same topic based on a terrific book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt.

The special is online in its entirety so head on over to the Frontline site to watch it and view other, related material they’ve posted to buttress the episode.

It’s great to see this getting wider exposure, as it might help push more people to understand that the science of anthropogenic climate change is not in doubt and that action is needed, because things are really heating up out there in the real world.