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June 2011

The Oil Curse (domestic version)

Stephen Hodgdon · June 14th, 2011

The Oil Curse is a subset of the Resource Curse, describing an apparent paradox in developing countries “blessed with” large reserves of petroleum. The term refers to the political repression, corruption and violence that seem to accompany the development of oil resources in places like Nigeria.

But that definition might need to stretch because we in the United States – still a top three global oil producer – are living our own Oil Curse. It’s the curse of addiction.

Our transportation system and its supporting infrastructure are the lifeblood of the American lifestyle (which I’m told is not negotiable) and they’re built from the ground up around oil: the roadside stations that keep cars and light trucks fueled, the tanker trucks that keep the stations supplied, the roads the tanker trucks travel on to and from the tank farms, the refineries that keep those tank farms filled, the pipelines snaking cross-country and tanker ships docking at specialized ports. Deeply woven over the past 100-plus years, it’s a blessing that’s evolving into a curse.

As we bump along the plateau of Peak Oil, supply becomes more difficult to maintain at a flow rate demanded by a constant-growth economic model. There is a clear need to move beyond petroleum. However, the influence of stakeholders heavily invested in, and greatly benefitting from, the current energy model creates a drag on innovation and transition. And to be clear, the stakeholders aren’t simply the major oil companies and the firms focused on exploration, extraction, refinement and delivery. They’re also us. And that’s our version of the Oil Curse.

Addiction creates dependence. From strip mall to skyscraper, cul-de-sac to office park, we all have an enormous personal stake in a business-as-usual energy model. There’s a reason that “drill, baby drill” made it onto bumper stickers nationwide. Adopting a new energy infrastructure is not as simple, or easy, as ditching a laptop for a tablet. It’s a big part of the reason that the current administration has placed its weight not only behind innovation in alternative and renewable energy sources, but also in a lot more drilling.

History shows that transitions from one type of energy infrastructure – say wood to coal or coal to oil – takes decades. With the peak of conventional crude oil apparently already in our rearview mirror, the challenge in front of us is to reverse the curse. Hey, the Red Sox managed it. But we don’t have 86 years to figure it out.

To be credible, make your green message concrete

Steve McGrath · June 7th, 2011

Americans want companies to be green, but they’re skeptical.

Most corporations talk a good game about environmental responsibility but don’t make significant changes, say nine in 10 Americans in a recent Gallup survey. Eight in 10 say they’re generally skeptical of corporations promoting themselves as environmentally responsible.

Deserved or not, these are failing grades. They raise the question: How could you make your company more credible on the environment?

Gallup gives us a hint. Of the following five environmental actions companies could take, respondents were asked to select the one or two most important actions:

  • conserve energy or use renewable energy sources in their manufacturing and day-to-day operations (74% said one of most important)
  • use minimal or environmentally friendly packaging (42% said one of most important)
  • reduce the carbon footprint of the product they manufacture (36% said one of most important)
  • educate consumers about environmentally friendly products and practices (25% said one of most important)
  • provide financial support for environmental causes (16% said one of most important)

There’s a pattern here. The more tangible and immediate the action, the higher its potential to convince. These findings affirm the idea that something you can touch, see and feel – e.g., wind turbines, solar panels, post-consumer cardboard evoked by renewables and green packaging – is more relevant than something that’s abstract – e.g., carbon calculations, education and funding.

Even so, abstractions can certainly be brought down to earth and warmed up.

Say your plant is reducing carbon emissions by a ton. What does that equal in something more tangible, say, car miles driven? Or something more emotional, say, respiratory disease cases averted?

If you send one percent of your revenue to an environmental organization, what is that accomplishing on the ground (e.g., how many trees are getting planted)?

If you’re educating consumers, prove they’re learning something. Why not post a video of a real person in her home happily doing the green thing because you showed her how?

If nothing else, the Gallup survey points up the fact that when it comes to greening your company, Americans are fully prepared for a whitewash. And in this case, actions don’t speak loud enough. You need the right words

Nuclear will kill you! Nuclear will save you! A German-Japanese debate

Mike McGrail · June 2nd, 2011

Germany, which has never had a nuclear accident on the magnitude of a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022. At the same time in Japan, which is still trying to control one of history’s worst nuclear accidents, there is no serious opposition to nuclear power. The New York Times reports that a plan for expanding Japan’s nuclear industry, shelved as the crisis with the Fukushima reactors continues, will very likely be revived in the future because of the local economic benefits a nuclear plant offers.

The contrast between Germany and Japan’s nuclear attitudes invokes two recurring story lines in the larger environmental debate. The first is the inherent contradiction of nuclear power, and the second is growing faith in renewables.

Nuclear energy has always been a problem for us non-doctrinaire environmental types – environmental practicality and environmental disaster rolled into one. Go looking for opinions on what’s more environmentally sound, nuclear or fossil fuels, and you’re going to strike an emotionally charged mother lode. Some point to the respective death rates attributed to fossil versus nuclear. Some highlight the pollutants and greenhouse gasses fossil fuel plants emit. Others say it’s a false choice between two unacceptable solutions that draws attention from renewable energy development.

If you look at it from a day-in, day-out perspective, it’s hard to argue against nuclear. A nuclear plant does not emit pollutants during normal operation the way fossil-fuel-powered facilities do. Uranium enrichment is less environmentally damaging than coal mining, and much safer. Nuke plants operate for years on a complement of fuel rods. Fossil fuel plants need coal and oil shipped in constantly by rail or ship, which expends fuel and emits pollutants.

As Fukushima has demonstrated, though, when you go nuclear you’re entering a high-stakes game. Nuclear waste is arguably the most toxic material that humans produce, and it stays toxic for thousands of years. Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Kashima have huge social and economic costs. Five million people live in regions still contaminated with radionuclides from Chernobyl. The then-Soviet government of Russia had to move 350,000 people a safe distance from the ruined reactor. The town is deserted. The surrounding exclusion zone, where no residences or businesses are allowed, covers almost 300 square miles once occupied by 120,000 people. The reactor itself is still a danger. Nuclear experts are concerned that its concrete enclosure is decaying enough to raise the risk of radioactive dust.

Even when a nuclear accident occurs, it doesn’t take the familiar refrain of “if not nuclear, what?” to appear. I didn’t have an answer myself until this week. Germany provided it: renewables. Germany’s plan to get out of the nuke business does not include falling back on fossil-fuel-generated power. It’s based on the country’s long-term plan to go heavily into renewables.

This is Germany we’re talking about. Eighy-five million people. Europe’s largest economy. Source of some of the world’s finest science and engineering. Not a country or a people prone to irrational decisions made in the heat of passion. About 70 percent of Germans expect electrical rates to rise as nuclear is phased out, and they’re willing to pay the price. If they believe renewables can support a heavily industrialized economy, I’m sold. Germany is setting a goal that the rest of the world should aim for as well. Every major technological development in history looked crazy at one time. (A week’s worth of music on a credit card, anyone? How about guiding a rover around Mars from Earth like it was a radio-controlled car?) With the pace of renewable energy technology development, Germany’s goal looks less crazy than it does savvy.