Environment & the World

Friday, August 18, 2006

Global competition for oil

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil, Politics — Cathy @ 11:16 pm

Just read a long and interesting article in Der Spiegel on oil politics:

http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/spiegel/0,1518,429968,00.html

Basically the article talks about how, sooner or later, the U.S., China, and India are going to clash over oil and natural gas resources.  Already, China’s demand for oil has led it to support the current Iranian regime; President Ahmadinead rightly notes that “the West needs us more than we need the West.”  Africa is another hotspot, with both the United States and China pushing for oil development along the West African coast – regardless of the corruption and consequences for human rights.

The article’s main conclusions are that: China, the US and India will have trouble securing the oil resources they need in the coming century, the EU’s energy security is uncertain, Russia is likely to be a winner if it can stabilize its government, and Brazil and Sweden will be fine.  Brazil has a well-developed biofuel economy and Sweden is developing one, with the goal of being independent of oil by 2020.  More investment into alternative transportation fuels would probably be a wise idea for the U.S., China, and India too.  The United States certainly has the resources for a significant biofuels industry based on crop residues.  China might as well, although China also has significant coal reserves; converting coal into liquid fuels and sequestering the carbon would probably be a better alternative than the current path of propping up corrupt and unstable governments for a source of energy that is damaging the climate.

 It is not surprising that the role of oil as a driving force in African poverty and political corruption (at least in some parts of Africa) rarely surfaces in public debate.  While oil does indeed bring money into many African countries, it often ends up fueling corrupt and brutally repressive governments, such as that in Nigeria.   As the article points out, “The standard of living has declined for most of the population in corrupt states such as Nigeria, Algeria and Gabun, for example.”  China gets 5% of its oil imports from the Sudan, with the consent of its genocidal government, so it’s no surprise that the Chinese are not anxious to have that government toppled (China has been blocking the imposition of UN sanctions against Sudan).  If oil exports were less of a driving force, not only would there be less corruption, but I suspect that the rest of the world would be able to turn a more objective eye to problems in Africa.  After all, it is rather difficult to make serious progress in promoting transparent governance and reducing poverty when our oil dollars are simultaneously funding the corrupt regimes.

  (There is more detail on the East Africa’s role in the global oil scene in a previous Spiegel article: http://service.spiegel.de/cache/international/spiegel/0,1518,389138,00.html)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Big Coal, the Book

Filed under: Books, Energy — amirj @ 5:13 pm

Earlier today I saw Jeff Goodell talk about his latest book, Big Coal, on C-Span’s BookTV. Goodell, who today is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and also contributes to the New York Times Magazine, grew up in Silicon Valley with no affiliation with the environmental movement. The idea for this book began after a trip to the West Viriginia coal mines on behalf of the New York Times Magazine to cover the rising fortune of the coal industry after Bush announced his new energy plan several years ago, in which he touted “clean coal” technologies to power the U.S. in the coming century. Having grown up in the Silicon Valley cradle of technology, which often takes for granted an abundant supply of electricity–divorced from concerns over where, how, and at what cost it receives it, Goodell turns precisely to those concerns in this book with regard to coal-generated power.

Goodell spent several years visiting coal mines across the country and researching the book. In it, he reflects upon the politics, economics, environmental and human health reprocussions of coal. With regard to the former concerns, he discusses the history of coal, its widespread availability in the U.S., and its business and political connections. The latter concerns, however cause Goodell to raise questions about coal and ultimately question whether or not this source of energy that powered the 19th and 20th century ought to power the 21st century as well.

Interestingly, while Goodell acknowledges that coal power plants can indeed be built to emit minimal emissions and to sequester most of the carbon dioxide, his critique of coal persists due to unresolved problems: environmentally harmful mountain-top removal techniques, the human toll on miners’ health, and the socio-economic grip that coal industries have on many mining towns. For these reasons, the research and writing of the book have turned Goodell into a critic of President Bush’s energy policy, as is evident in “The Fake Energy Solution,” a piece he wrote earlier this year for the Rolling Stone.

Goodell also inevitably points out the role coal plays in contributing to global warming–another reason why he is not a fan of coal. Despite ample praise for his book, some critics such as Corey S. Powell in his NY Times review of the book accuse Goodell of falling short on proposing viable energy alternatives to coal. Powell writes,

“Goodell’s writing, so fiery and committed through the narrative parts of ‘Big Coal,’ turns oddly tentative when it comes time to endorse solutions. He waves off green dreams like wind and solar electricity. He pins much of his hopes on a kind of national psychotherapy program to ‘change our thinking’ and ‘make the invisible visible,’ which translates into a vague endorsement of new emissions taxes and regulations.”

However, after decades of pushing for its “green dreams” of solar and wind, the environmental movement’s energy dreams still remain mostly that–dreams. While Goodell’s actual suggestions in the book many not be the most novel nor inspiring, if some sort of “national psychotherapy program” is what Goodell believes this nation needs in order to reorient its energy future, he has taken on an important step: educating. If the book is taken for what it is–a thorough study of the place of coal in U.S. society–then it seems to do a good job of explaining the multifaceted reasons why burning coal to produce energy may not be the best plan for our energy future. And in these times, perhaps that education is better than yet another call for more wind and solar power that will fall on deaf ears or preach to a chorus that cannot change the status quo.

 More on Jeff Goodell and Big Coal:

In Goodell Company,” an interview at Grist.

Could Coal Make the U.S. Energy Independent?” an interview on NPR.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Push for Renewables in Northern Ireland

Filed under: Energy — amirj @ 9:10 am

Here’s a little piece of slightly outdated news that recently crossed my path. Northern Ireland is making a big push for small-scale renewable energy.

“Under proposed building regulation changes, the use of renewable energy in new builds will be mandatory from 2008.

About 4,000 grants will cover up to 50% of the cost of installing renewable energy systems, such as solar panels.”

It’s great to see a country implement a program that will demonstrate the feasbility and benefits of developing small-scale renewable energies. In addition to reducing fossil fuel extraction and greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring that every building can generate some of its own energy could prevent some of the massive blackouts we’ve recently experienced in the US. If this proves successful, let’s hope other countries will follow suit.

Buildings that generate some of their own power also mean lower energy bills. Northern Ireland has its mind in the right place with this program, “Five-hundred low-income families will get solar hot water systems installed in their homes, under a Department of Social Development initiative.”

The BBC article from which this information comes also reports that N.I. Secretary of State Peter Hain has installed photovoltaics on his house in Wales, which he claims led to the halving of his energy bills. Solar energy being that effective in such northern lattitudes and in a place that isn’t exactly known for its abundance of sunny days? Who woulda thought?!

Friday, August 4, 2006

Climate change in the British media

Filed under: Climate Change, Media — Cathy @ 10:38 pm

The BBC had an interesting article this week on the state of climate change media coverage in Britain:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5236482.stm

They are at least ahead of the United States in accepting the problem, but even so there is debate about how this issue should be covered.  The leading criticism of the study was that coverage was too alarmist, making people feel powerless to combat the problem.

Also, flying in the face of much of the accepted wisdom of the environmental community, the study argued that most articles on this topic end up trivializing the solutions.  An environmental consultant is quoted in the article as saying “[W]e use a loud rumbling voice to talk about the challenge, about melting ice and drought; yet we have a mouse-like voice when we talk about ‘easy, cheap and simple’ solutions, making them sound as tiny as possible because we think that’s what makes them acceptable to the public … In fact it makes them seem trivial in relation to the problem.”

 I am inclined to agree with this statement, as I have often felt that the “10 ways you can stop global warming!” suggestions that are mandatory for every environmental organization’s website are uniformly uninspiring.  However, I would really like to see an actual study of consumer attitudes towards this issue.  Does anyone know of one?  I do know a couple of people who were inspired by Al Gore’s film to install more efficient appliances in their homes and telecommute to work more often, so perhaps such suggestions are more inspiring to people who are less familiar with these issues than I am.

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