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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.

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?

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.

Getting warmer on warming

Ed Marshall · October 18th, 2012

In a prior post, The sensible center, I noted that those seeking to de-rail or delay policy addressing man-made global warming aimed to not simply deny the phenomenon or its cause, but to seed uncertainty among the populace so as to encourage doubt and inaction.

With that in mind, I read with interest media coverage of a recent polling showing that some solid majorities of the U.S. population now believe that global warming is indeed a real and currently occurring phenomenon (and with the bake and burn most of the country experienced this past summer you might expect an uptick in that perception).

So, progress, right?

Well, kind of. See recent polling also shows that, while a majority believes the climate is warming, only a minority believe human activity is the cause. Worse, that belief in a cause divide seems to break down solidly along political party identity lines.

So, yeah, more work to do to get the message through. Maybe a push on the appeal-to-authority front, but where to find an authority? In PR, leaning on the expert opinion of an authority to buttress a claim is a time-tested technique for swaying opinion. It’s why 4-out-of-5 dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. Those opposing action on global warming know this is an effective technique and made delegitimizing the most basic authorities – climate scientists – a top priority in their ongoing campaign of doubt and deceit. The scientists are all lying and conspiring about this global warming stuff so that they can get more government study grants and keep their cushy jobs in the ivory tower….or something.

But what about the insurance companies? Just this week, a very large re-insurance company (essentially, an insurance company for insurance companies) called Munich RE issued a report stating that North America has seen a dramatic increase in weather-related claims over the past decade and that “it is quite probable that changing climate conditions are the drivers. The climatic changes detected are in line with the modeled changes due to human-made climate change.”

Catch that last part? The multi-billion dollar international business entity said that climate change is real and likely being driven by human activity and, BTW, it’s costing you money – lots of money. It will be interesting to watch the deep-pocketed vested interests arrayed against the CO2 regulation battle to delegitimize the deep pocketed interests, such as large insurance companies, whose business models are jeopardized by an increase in CO2 levels and the costly extreme weather events it spawns. Oh, and the Pentagon, too – that’d be an interesting fight.

 

Export Land Model watch – news from the Citi

Ed Marshall · September 20th, 2012

Once upon a time, the United States of America was the world’s largest oil exporter. We grew rich from the oil we sold and the oil we used powered new industries and ways of living that, in turn, amped up our use of oil until we had nothing to spare. Simultaneously, natural events ran their course and oil fields became less productive, causing domestic production to peak in the early 1970s.

That about sums up the Export Land Model, a conundrum I touched upon in a previous post. Now, it seems to be playing out, with its own localized twists in the home of the current number one oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, a report by analysts at Citigroup echoed that assessment, saying that the world’s biggest oil exporter may become “an importer” by 2030 due to rising domestic use – which the Citgroup analysis estimated was growing by about eight percent per year.

Even more recently, a Reuters story notes that Saudi Arabia burned record monthly volumes of oil in June and July. The story notes that the reason for the increase is a need to produce more electricity for air conditioning. Unlike the United States and most other Western countries, Saudi Arabia uses oil to produce a large percentage of its electricity. Switching to solar would seem to be a no-brainer – they have a surplus of sun and the rise in oil prices is keeping the cash pipeline flowing. The trick is in the transition.

This Wall Street Journal article has some good numbers and perspective on the challenges the Saudis (and other OPEC countries) face in trying to transition up to a third of their electricity generation to alternatives by 2032.

Meanwhile, a story from this week quotes the Saudis as saying that they will be turning increasingly to natural gas for electricity generation to reduce their dependence on oil.

Ditching one fossil fuel for another to generate electricity? That sounds really familiar – where have I heard that idea before?

Why they were wrong

Ed Marshall · August 27th, 2012

Back in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, environmentalists warned of coming disaster. The air would soon become unbreathable, clean water would be as rare as unicorn dander. Didn’t happen. That these dire warnings failed to accurately predict our present-day circumstances is often cited as evidence that any similar such claims – about, say, climate change or peak oil – should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, if not outright ignored as the usual ravings of hyperventilating Cassandras.

So why were those earlier prognosticators of doom wrong? Because they were right. Environmental degradation was a growing problem. Rivers actually were catching fire in these United States. Air quality in major metropolitan areas truly was bordering on the Dickensian. Acid really was falling from the skies as rain and a hole was opening in the ozone layer. By raising the issues with urgency, passion and creativity, environmentalists of the day were able to engage the larger public in these problems and build support for solutions: the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, for instance.

That public engagement and support for solutions helped ensure passage of legislation at the state and federal level that would guarantee those dire warnings of environmental Armageddon would not come true.

So, here we are again. Credible science and analysis points to real and pressing problems with the climate and energy supply. Dire warnings are being penned by those doing and as well as those interested in the science. Will their dystopian futures also fail to materialize? That, unfortunately, is an open question.

Unlike the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, today’s Internet-driven communications environment makes confusion and apathy as easy to create as clarity and action. What will finally ensure that today’s doomsayers are as inaccurate as yesterday’s? Compelling stories.

Those seeking to compel the actions that will ultimately prove their prophecy wrong must recognize that, for humans, story trumps data. For scientists and engineers, good data tells a compelling story. But for most people, a metaphor works better.

With the science established and consequences beginning to play out, bridging that communication gap may well be the first and most important problem those seeking change will need to solve.

Good (and bad) to the last drop

Ed Marshall · July 12th, 2012

Wildfires and heat waves have me thinking about peak oil, climate change and the efforts to convince folks that oil supply is not an issue. Here’s why. Across the Pond at the Guardian, George Monbiot, a British writer well known for his environmental activism, has recently declared Peak Oil a dead letter, lamenting that there is still enough in the ground to fry the climate. True, but also wrong.

Beyond the basic flaw of interpreting “Peak Oil” as shorthand for “imminently running out of,”others have done a detailed job rebutting not only Monbiot’s misunderstandings, but also the study that was his inspiration. My interest, however, is on the “boom” in oil production he mentions and this lament toward the bottom of the piece: “Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed…”

And I suspect that failure will continue. While some people are moved to change by the havoc wrought on the environment in pursuit of unconventional sources of fossil fuel, the vast majority aren’t – or are willing to look the other way.

The destruction Canada is doing to pristine wilderness in Alberta isn’t a secret, but it’s only increasing. That Macondo well blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico a couple years back is still showing up in the coastal environment, but that hasn’t prevented large oil companies with spotty safety records from receiving permission to drill in even more hostile and environmentally sensitive places, like the Arctic.

But, humans are risk and change averse. We will stay with what we know, even if it’s got problems, rather than risk a radical change. Oil has proven it has the power – quite literally – to transform life from a nasty, brutish and short struggle for survival into a comfortable, convenient and extended tussle for entertainment. Moral persuasion is unlikely to make headway against that perception. People like comfort and convenience, not to mention entertainment.

The vast majority of “consumers” are not interested in going back to a mythically bucolic future. Even “country folk” like their gas-guzzling pick-up trucks, bass boats, chain saws and ATVs. They make life easier and more fun.

The challenge for those who care about our environment, and the affect fossil fuel use is having on it, is to care about our current lifestyle; what it offers and what it doesn’t.

Green and sustainable are, at base, moral persuasion arguments and they’re not working. Can your alternative, sustainable, greener offering make daily life more comfortable, convenient, secure or safe? Can it help a business be demonstrably more profitable, or insulate it from uncertainty in a key area?

If so, then that’s your lead message because for most consumers the only alternative they’re eager to embrace, especially in times of uncertainty, is one that improves their life.

Great green fleet under fire

Ed Marshall · June 12th, 2012

Staying on the military-meets-renewable-energy theme that my colleague Mike touched on, I felt compelled to offer a quick, if rather frustrating, update on a post I did at the end of last year. That post looked at the US Navy’s plans to deploy a “green fleet” in the Pacific this summer; green in the sense that it would be powered by a 50-50 blend of fossil and biofuel.

To fuel the green fleet’s cruise, the Navy contracted with a company out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and broke out the checkbook to pay a per-gallon biodiesel price substantially above the price for fossil-based diesel. At the time I wrote of this arrangement:

And progress often comes at a price above the going market rate. So thank goodness the Navy understands the threat that reliance on a finite vital resource represents to its way of life (and/or death) and is willing to pay those higher prices as an investment in companies that demonstrate they might have a promising solution.

So the Navy gets it. Congress? Sadly, no. According to recent reports, the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California), is leading the charge on legislation that would prohibit the Pentagon from purchasing alternative fuels or building their own facilities to create them “if the cost exceeds the cost of traditional fossil fuels used for the same purpose.” Meanwhile over in the Senate, a former Navy airman weighed in to support Buck’s stoppage:

“It’s a job for the Department of Energy, not the Department of Navy,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “You shouldn’t be paying $244 per gallon when we are having to retire ships early.”

Of course, efforts by the DOE to push renewables and alternatives haven’t met a warm pachyderm embrace. Fossil fuel is finite. Their cost curve, barring complete global economic meltdown, only points up. Alternatives will be needed.

The US military spends a lot of time war gaming future scenarios and positioning for those most likely to develop. The investment it’s been making in efficiency and alternative energies could rightly be read as a positioning exercise. The move by green opponents in Congress could be seen as a depositioning exercise – for the country.