Thursday, October 1, 2015

Shell Withdrawal Not a Victory

After Shell recently announced that they were ceasing all exploratory work in the Arctic, I received a flood of emails declaring “victory” from the various organizations who had been trying to pressure the Obama administration to not let Shell drill.  This was as deceptive as Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” fiasco in the early days of the Iraq war.

While I am relieved that Shell has left the Arctic … for now … it is not a victory in any sense of the word because the efforts of those organizations to convince the government to not allow any drilling were unseccessful.  

Shell made its decision for two reasons.  First, after spending a reported $7 billion over several years trying to find oil in the Arctic, it had come up dry.  Second, given the current downturn in the oil market and the assessment by many that the market will not recover for some time, it was not economically prudent to continue drilling.

So this “victory” is a false one.  Shell just made a pragmatic economic decision.  It was not the result of a government resolve to not endorse further oil exploration, at least in environmentally sensitive areas, and certainly not a decision on the part of Shell that public opinion was so against the project that they best withdraw.

The power of big oil in governmental energy policy decision-making remains as before … great.  Nothing has changed other than the economics.  And one can be assured that within a few years the price of oil will be sky high again, leading the companies to dust off their plans for exploration of more expensive extraction locations.

So what to do now?  One thing is clear.  The American public will not support any effort to either cut production or decrease use of oil.  They are totally addicted to it.  They will not wean themselves from oil until they are forced to by ever-increasing prices caused by the diminished supply after peak oil.  

Although we were at or almost at that point, the fracking venture has turned the tables so that now there is a glut of oil and it will be some time till we are there again.  In the meantime, climate change will continue on its deadly path.

Obama has been able to move against coal through executive orders only because nobody really cares about coal anymore outside of those states that produce coal.  The power companies don’t need coal because they now have cheap natural gas thanks to fracking.  And the public will feel no pinch from the reduced use of coal.

One should not take heart from polls showing that more people now believe in climate change, even a majority of Republican voters.  It is one thing to believe in climate change, that what man is doing is causing this change.  It is another to believe that the possible future consequences are so dire that it warrants a major change in energy policy and in how we live.  It’s far more likely that these voters will support various efforts to adapt to future climate change, which efforts are already underway in many cities and countries.

So even assuming the public “revolution” that I have argued for in several recent posts occurred and the political power of major corporations and the wealthy was thus greatly reduced, on this  particular issue, where the public attitude and corporate interest are one, it is hard to see how any real progress would be made, absent a catastrophe of truly epic proportion.  And by then it would be too late.

I can see only one practical opportunity.  If fracking were banned, the oil glut would disappear and the price of oil would rise quickly and substantially, even with the global economy in its current state.  That sharp and quick increase in price, at least to the point where it was previously, would bring about renewed pressures both to develop alternative sources of energy and transport as well as to conserve.  Of course big oil would see it as an opportunity to explore more expensive extraction and return to the Arctic.

But how to achieve that aim?  For some reason, which I don’t understand, the evidence that fracking is an environmental disaster has not come together in a compelling way.  Some organization needs to gather all the facts about the actual environmental damage caused by fracking and put it together in a compelling way and convey that information to the public

Also, Congress must be pressured to reverse its position, pushed through by then Vice-President Cheney, that oil companies are exempt from the Clean Water Act requirement of disclosing what chemicals they are putting into the ground when they frack.  That that exemption still stands is a disgrace to our political system, and makes it harder to arouse the public.

With both those pieces of information in hand, the public would need to be mightily aroused and hopefully would then strongly support a ban on fracking.  That is the only hope of countering both the corporate and local business forces that gain from this dreadful practice.

This would not be an answer to the problem, but it would be a major step forward.