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and the dawning of the post-carbon eventuality...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Speaking of Tar Sands…

The Canadian premiers are in the news today, thanks to their “economic summit” in Halifax this week. One of the main stories that has emerged highlights the importance of energy policy between the provinces and across the nation.  The leaders expressed a general sense of optimism about sharing the pie that is “Alberta’s oil.” The news media appear willing to jump on that bandwagon as well. The summit’s newsworthiness, such as it may be, pales in contrast to the story that is not being told. As regular readers may have guessed already, the real story I’m referring to is that dual fossil-fuel story about climate change and peak oil.
Indeed the optimism may be a thin veneer: if the leaders of Canada’s provinces and the head of the bank of Canada know anything, they should know about this real story as well. For one thing they should know better than to pretend that it’s “oil” they’re talking about. Same goes for the journalists asking the questions. Everybody knows that when talking of future energy exports coming out of Alberta, it’s the tar sands that are the source. And as Andrew Nikifouruk – among others – rightfully points out, the stuff ain’t oil.
There are at least three major areas of concern surrounding the tar sands that cannot be ignored. One is that the only reason we are talking about the resource’s viability is because of the repercussions of global peak oil and the $80 + price of a barrel of crude. In turn, investors are vulnerable to a price collapse, which would throw a wet blanket on the whole show. The second is that as the Kyoto Protocol limps away to hide in a crawl-space of history, the tar sands represents everything that industrial society should be working to avoid, in order to avert climate disaster. Lastly, returning to the point that “it ain’t oil,” the tar sands development puts an enormous strain on the biosphere, particularly with respect to water, both upstream and downstream of production: competing with other users for processing, and contaminating the Athabasca watershed on a monumental scale. A fourth point could be added as well, which is that the tar sands puts an incredible strain on the industry itself, which must consume astounding amounts of energy to unlock this resource (more on this below).
Under our present leadership here in Canada, we will apparently ignore this information, and strive for progress the one way we know how: that vaunted intangible economic growth. In our case this growth is being conjured out of sand: that dubious natural endowment that I will always refer to as the tar sands. The industrial development surrounding the tar sands is in the realm of stupendous in scale – a force to be reckoned with. If you catch the propaganda about it, you’ll hear that this is good old fashioned economic development and job creation (a topic I’ll have to save for another post). With energy trade deals and pipelines pending, this resource is being pedalled as our ticket to freedom and prosperity. The thing is, like a lot of “growth” nowadays, the tar sands just ain’t what it’s stacked up to be – one way or another somebody really has to pay for it – through the nose.
You might say, wait a minute, it’s us Canadians who are reaping the benefits as exporters here: other countries will be paying. But that’s only part of the picture. In a predictable manner, following the script of classical economics, the downside of the development as a whole is externalised in at least two significant ways. As mentioned above, one is with respect to carbon emissions, the other pertains to water use and freshwater contamination. These “externalities” represent costs paid by people outside of the development, like first nations people downstream from production, as well as by future generations who will live through the consequences of unregulated carbon emissions and the depletion of underground aquifers.
For anyone familiar with the criticism of the tar sands this is not ground-breaking news, earth-shattering as it may be. For others it seems this kind of information has no effect. Perhaps they are truly dazzled by the big numbers attached to the tar sands deposit: “so many hundreds of billions of barrels of oil, and blah blah blah…”
One thing I have learned about this resource having read a fair bit, is that although you can talk in terms of hundreds of billions of barrels, when it comes down to it, the rate of extraction will only ever be a tiny fraction of the total. Tar sands doesn’t flow like crude oil, for obvious reasons, so even the most ambitious forecasts talk of maybe 5 million barrels of synthetic crude a day – a rate that is still many years away, by the way – is probably about where it will max out. How sustainable that output will be in the long run is yet another question.
Now I admit, 5 million barrels of oil is nothing to sneeze at. If we Canadians wanted to become energy independent we could try to distribute the resource from coast to coast and achieve this goal (albeit at considerable expense). This seems to be what many of the premiers have in mind. Please note however this is not what I consider a desirable alternative worth pursuing (again, this will have to wait for a future post).
Perhaps the most significant thing I have learned about the tar sands, which consistently passes under the radar of the news media, is that while development is justified economically now, on the grounds that $80/barrel prices allow developers and investors to turn a profit, the resource is fundamentally expensive in energy terms – beyond the question of money, which is just an abstract set of values. When measured in terms of net energy,  (or Energy return on energy invested – EROEI) since you must necessarily burn fuel in order to extract it, tar sands will never really be the same as crude oil, despite the propaganda and fanfare. Net energy is an important way of assessing all energy sources: How much energy do you have to exert to reap the surpluses you are seeking from a given resource? For the tar sands, the energy returned on energy invested is a pitiful ratio optimistically somewhere around 7:1 for extraction and drops to 3:1 after it has been upgraded and refined into something useful such as gasoline. How does this compare to other sources? Consider that at one time light sweet crude offered up an energy pay-off of about 100 to one. These numbers, if you choose not to ignore them, underscore just how different our current energy situation is in relation to the good ol’ days. This is the unfolding story of peak oil: the narrative of our times…
The obvious question about the promised future of Canadian tar sands development (remember that 5 million barrel/ day target?) is what is the net worth of that 5 million barrels when you’ve exhausted something like the equivalent of 3 million barrels just to process the stuff?
Current tar sands policy represents a fantasy that the poor choices we made in the past can be corrected by making even poorer ones today. Those poor choices involved buying in to the individually owned car/ consumer model for business as usual, including suburbanisation of cities and rampant disregard for the limits of an inherently finite resource (oil), and even more finite biosphere (which may not be able to absorb all the carbon contained in the remaining crude oil deposit). It all probably seemed like a very good idea at the time, I’m sure, but we should know by now that this business model is unsustainable. Tar sands development (itself environmentally risky) is an attempt at sustaining the unsustainable. Personally I’d like to vote for a different plan, sooner than later.
If these views strike you as extreme, please convince me that I am mistaken. Certainly critics of peak oil commentators have done an unconvincing job so far. Take Tim Worstall’s argument as one example of many. (The man appears to be utterly incapable of piecing together a rational argument). If I am not mistaken, and if these points I bring up remain marginalised as they are now, and we continue to ignore the major crises that science have already identified, we will one day fail as a society. Eventually, perhaps without ever noticing when the failure occurred, the cause for failure will become more and more apparent in retrospect.  Maybe we’ll finally get past the phony debates on climate change, peak oil and the economic downturn, roll up our sleeves and deal with our shit. Hopefully by then we won’t find ourselves too far past the crossroads of change, having rolled deep into the mud of the new era that began while we weren’t looking.
Above hyperlinks are the following:

Monday, November 12, 2012

So What is Kyoto Motors, Anyway?

I have gone on at some length recently about the price of gasoline, and why we all may need to examine the issue a bit more closely. In turn, I seem to have established the idea that KyotoMotors is not a “boycott Big Oil” project. There are a number of other things that Kyoto Motors is not. It’s not a commercial auto-makers website, for example (though it has fooled some, in its previous incarnation). Nor is it a think tank for the climate-change denial industries of big oil and the auto industry (obviously).

So what then is Kyoto Motors? 

The short answer is that, like the international protocol from whence the name was derived, Kyoto Motors is an utter failure. Originally conceived as an artistic project composed of two main branches of activity, Kyoto Motors exists today at best as the shell of its former self. Worse, it is a project that never quite came into being: artistically my biggest flop.(For more on the history of the Kyoto Motors project, see the link in the sidebar to the right).

But there is a silver lining. 

I may have driven the original project into the ground, but the attempted collaboration did initiate dialogue with unexpected peers and eventually a new collaborative project emerged. What started off as a handful of neighbourhood activists calling themselves Car Free Mile End, has evolved into a full-fledged non-profit organisation known as Rue Publique. Based in Montreal, this ecologically-minded group has a host of ambitions aimed at the improvement of the quality of life in their corner of the world. One of the main areas of focus is the promotion of and advocacy for the transportation alternatives to the personally owned automobile. These alternatives, in my mind represent the future of transportation in the emerging economy: By necessity society will have to make the shift to accommodate these alternatives. And although RuePublique has no associations or anything to do with Kyoto Motors whatsoever, I can say that my artistic flop helped in some way to get the ball rolling with regard to this excellent project, that truly has taken on a life of its own.

When Kyoto Motors was downgraded from full-fledged website to mere blog, I had in the back of my mind the idea of answering a couple of basic questions: what should a car company of the future look like? How can the automotive industry address the principles of sustainability and serve the interests of the biosphere?
Now, after so much time, it’s clear that too many car companies pretend to have taken care of answering these questions already. But the answers are never as easy, or as snappy, as the trendy commercials would have us believe. It turns out that an environmentally friendly automobile is an oxymoron; an ecological fallacy. And if a sustainable automotive industry is basically an impossibility, it is in large part because a business model predicated on the single owner/ driver principle has no place in a progressive, ecologically-minded vision of the future. It may not even have a viable future period – no matter what we think we’re “achieving” economically.

Meanwhile, the notion that Kyoto Motors might examine an alternative path for the auto sector, in my mind, has to be combined with alternatives to the auto sector. Rather than focusing on alternative vehicles, I’m more inclined to explore the idea of getting around without one, individually or collectively. Therefore, Kyoto Motors has become synonymous to me for everything to do with bicycles and walking as well as public transit. It really has nothing to do with “buying a car” whatsoever, but rather explores the reality of making do without one at all costs: the real Kyoto “motor” may well be your pair of legs, combined with the machinery and infrastructure of transportation systems and services. With Kyoto Motors I aspire to present a stream of thoughts and ideas that help to shape a meaningful response to global climate change.

It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time the monumental importance of this challenge before us. Recent articles I’ve come across there have underscored the extent to which global warming (and peak oil) are following some of the worst-case scenarios that forecasters imagined only a short while ago. These matters receive woefully little coverage in the mainstream press and political discourse, so if we’re even going to remember that there’s something there worth thinking about, some other avenues have to be pursued.*
I know that it’s easy, in the day-to-day business of life, to engage in countless activities that have no apparent immediate relation to this problem. These things require no especial awareness of the situation, and probably run smoother if no one brings it up. Welcome to the status quo. One effect of this is that the issue itself fades away, and becomes unreal, so long as the immediacy of the here and now keeps our attention away from the crisis. But just because we get out of the habit of thinking about global warming does not mean that the planet has begun to cool.
It’s a challenge to compete with the ideologies that would have us all pretend or otherwise believe that there is no global climate challenge caused by man-made industry. After all, industrial economic activity is spurred by marketing, itself an a global, hyper-charged and sophisticated industry bent on persuading you to do all those things that the “invisible hand” might fail to.

 The publicity and the spectacle of it all has insinuated itself into the contemporary mindscape about as thoroughly and completely as petroleum has worked its magic on the built environment and the physical economy of goods and services.
The cultural momentum is so enormous. Practically everywhere you turn, leaders and followers in every sector are busy not addressing climate change while they prop up their little corner of the system that engages them. It’s why I say that climate change is “baked-in” since it represents the logical outcome of the economic activity that we are all committed to. It is the rare exception to hear through the din of the status quo a voice from someone outlining the gravity of the situation. They exist, to be sure. Their message is often level-headed and clear, if also passionate and urgent. But where are the resources that would have this kind of message disseminated to the masses on a scale to rival the constant stream of commercial marketing?

At best Kyoto Motors has done well to satirize the kind of marketing that weaves an ideological fabric around our minds, but can only really be one voice striving to cut through this impediment. I hope that it’s a place where you will find meaningful discourse that may be worth sharing. Expanding the dialogue through every means possible is clearly an important process to promote. Who knows what positive changes may come as a result?

*One resource I have repeatedly referred my readers to is the Energy Bulletin, originally hosted by the Post Carbon Institute – a think-tank based in Santa Rosa, California. It appears that the PCI has restructured their web site, and will be channelling the same material at a new website they call . I recommend you check it out.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

My Own Personal Boycott

After having written the last couple of entries here at Kyoto Motors, you may have guessed that I am not about to instigate or otherwise attempt to orchestrate a global boycott of the fossil fuel industry. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea, but I know a Quixotic challenge when I see one. And so, I stay away from the fight on the grounds that it would be untenable in its scale, and ineffectual in its inability to charm and woo – boycotting Big Oil just ain’t sexy.  In this culture of abundance and entitlement, people want to tackle climate change without sacrifice, so a boycott is essentially a losing proposition. Instead, I prefer to focus my attention on local projects of ecological merit in their own right. In turn, the more I get involved in these, I find myself adhering to my own personal boycott of big oil all the same.
As it turns out, the boycott may not be sexy but it certainly has its benefits. Not owning a car, for example, is nothing but pleasure, and a sheer economic boon, to boot. I do not have to live in a cabin in the woods, and while most everything in my life has been touched in some way by fossil fuels, but I do not directly pay for gasoline on a typical day, and there is frankly, a great sense of satisfaction in that.
But this personal boycott is not intended as self gratification. It is rather just a by-product of abiding by convictions that stem from taking a serious look at the challenges of climate change and peak oil. While the global industrial debacle plays itself out, I have made a conscious attempt at attaining a more-than average degree of self-sufficiency, and resilience. The less complex the systems and technology I engage with, the more readily accessible the solutions when those systems and technologies fail, which they invariably do. This principle, which is my understanding of “appropriate technology” (by no means an exhaustive one, but…), often tends to be interpreted as an anticipation of an apocalyptic down-turn. To the contrary, it is rather, simply an understanding that downturns and failures can happen, big or small, at any time. It is the realisation that self-empowerment and community as opposed to dependence on faceless corporate global systems (such as supply chains), and deliberately overly-complex technologies, represents a refreshing kind of freedom. 
Mind you, that’s about as sexy as the boycott gets. Unfortunately, as easy as it is to get to the boycott, from there (as you might have guessed) it usually involves a lot of work. Indeed, the boycott leads you away from the lifestyle fantasies that you see in television commercials and magazine adverts. The boycott will take you off the conveyor belt aisle of Big Box Stores. The boycott will lift you out of the Parking Lot Freeway. The boycott will steer you away from the Tropical Airport get-away. And the Boycott it will plop you down in the middle of a crowded bus, hanging on to a strap sometimes for dear life; or onto a bicycle in the rain, at times pedalling uphill against the wind; or into a back-yard garden, hands covered in earth, with wafts of compost filling your nose. No sir, the boycott is definitely lacking in sex appeal, and so it’s a tough sell to the masses hopped up on instant this and throw-away that. People would rather believe that there must be another way. Perhaps we could keep our beautifully decorated cake, and stuff our little faces with it at the same time?
The popular justification for doing nothing on a personal level (apart from simply not wanting to sacrifice anything) is that there are solutions (there must be!) waiting in the wings in the form of alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Hydrogen fuel cells, electric plug-in hybrid cars, high-speed rail, carbon capture and storage, wind power, and solar, etc. etc. These possibilities, promises, and fantasies are varied both in their practical applications and more importantly, in their “sex” appeal.  I personally have been excited about all of the above and more, to varying degrees at one time or another. Some of them like wind power are clearly proven, effective pieces of the puzzle we have to put into practice (but of course the NIMBY effect proves that not even the “best” alternatives are free of drawbacks). Nonetheless, the reasoning continues, there will come a time when the invisible hand of the market will usher in these alternatives seamlessly and painlessly. Perhaps all we need to do is elect the right government into power, perhaps it is just a matter of time…
But of course the real world chugs along quite differently, and we change our narratives as we go, for them to match reality. Does anyone remember to what extent, for example, that the hydrogen economy was touted in the first years of G.W. Bush’s presidency? Projections, predictions and promises were made: the future was bright, and the horizon was but ten years away…And, well, not much of it came to pass at all – we’re not even a tenth of the way there. I don’t know a single person who owns a fuel cell car, and it is highly curious (to say the least) that more than a decade later there is less and less talk about this technological dream. The same thing can, should, or will soon be said for a host of other technological fantasies, and it is high time that we connect the dots. Such fantasies, from cold fusion to algae-derived bio-diesel to shale-oil and gas to perpetual motion machines, are all fantasies that we use to project our narrative of progress onto, because (the assumptions dictate) we have to come up with something, because we always believed we would. But what if it just isn’t in the bag? Is it not possible that the discovery and leveraging of fossil fuels was a one-time-only historical anomaly? …An exceptional period in the history of human endeavour?
If so (which, obviously I believe to be the case), there is good reason to expect little from a change in government. In the face of eventual energy shortages, policy can only do so much, if your promise is to sustain the unsustainable arrangements based on the fossil-fuel economy (the only economy politicians seem to know). Coming to terms with the economic implications of a pending energy predicament would be a start, but (returning to the theme of sex appeal) it’s hard to find a politician this side of Andromeda that would broach the subject in public.
Politics has almost by definition, become joined at the hip of the industrial global economy. As I have pointed out before, so many facets, aspects and habits in the modern world are shaped by petroleum that we can’t really conceive of altering that reality until it somehow needs to change itself. And so, despite the dual predicament of climate change and peak oil and all the associated problems, we have inherited a political system itself a product of the petroleum age, and therefore at the service of the petroleum economy.
Having said that, it is not impossible (using history as a guide) to imagine a political figure emerging from the current stagnating waters of the status quo, who manages to conjure up the moral imperative to proceed differently as a society. The likelihood of this being a future United States presidential candidate may be slim, but these personalities may already be active on a number of more local political arenas, serving local communities (as would be appropriate).
I happen to feel that climate change represents such an urgent challenge that I feel I must adjust my behaviour in response to it, particularly because it appears that waiting for governments to take decisive action is never going to be enough to avert the crisis. Similarly, it seems probable that no measure of political or popular organisation (like a boycott) is going to be up to the task, sad as this may be.
If it sounds to you that I’m resigned to the fact that quite probably catastrophe is already mixed into the batter, and the cake is in the oven, well I am. But it is precisely because we have collectively backed ourselves into the cul-de-sac of climate change and peak oil that my own reduced dependence on petroleum, complex technology and the systems that support it, may well translate into competitive advantage in the years ahead.  And so a measured, albeit partial, personal boycott strikes me as the best personal response to the present moment in history.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Boycotting Big Oil

Attention, well-informed citizens!
Coming to grips with climate change may well be a question of putting the oil industry in its proper place by curtailing the rate at which we consume their main product. Who better to do that than the daily users of the stuff?

It has become almost fashionable to note just how dependent we are on petroleum. It only takes a few seconds pause to come to realise how every last element of one’s immediate surroundings is or was in some way shaped by the stuff. Such is the nature of the modern, global-industrial experience.
If this is a point we can all agree on, it’s the conclusions that we draw from this observation that vary wildly. To some, petroleum is nothing but a good to be revered and celebrated. To others, it represents a source of misery, and further misery to come. To a great many in the middle it is perhaps at best, a necessary evil, or worse an evil necessity.
Until climate change became an issue, the problems posed by petroleum tended to be on the “easily solved” end of the spectrum (eliminating lead in fuel, and otherwise improving emissions based on California standards, for example). Now, global warming casts a whole new light on the situation, to such an extent that, so long as you are not in complete denial, our relationship to fossil fuels is profoundly problematic. So much so that so-called solutions from carbon taxes and off-setting payment schemes to fuel-rationing have been proposed, and in some cases implemented with varying success and a mixed-bag of intentions. Opponents to such measures usually point to the economic cost of added layers of complexity, and limitations. These detractors consistently must ignore the well-researched evidence that suggests the cost of doing nothing to curtail global warming will be far greater, but when it comes to feeling the immediate pinch, they have a point. Doing business as usual requires, well, the usual arrangements, which are the ones that got us where we are – in a pickle.
As far as I know, almost no-one is seriously considering a boycott of Big Oil across the board. Some perennially suggest a boycott of Shell, because for some reason they are more evil that the rest (?); then again, British Petroleum did a pretty good job at vying for that title with their bungled response to the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Meanwhile, oil from the tar sands of Alberta has rightfully been targeted as particularly “dirty” and worthy of trade restrictions. I would go further. Oil is oil. Once on the market, it matters little where it came from, since it is a fungible commodity, so arguably, every litre or gallon of gasoline pumped has a certain percentage of less desirable oil in it. As it happens dirty oil not bought in one jurisdiction will be bought by another to meet daily global demand. So, if we are going to do more than pretend to be serious about tackling climate change, we’re going to have to reduce that global demand. One effective strategy may well be a concerted global boycott of oil. It probably sounds impossible to your average pair of ears, but it’s an idea I would like to toss around here at Kyoto Motors for now, to see if it might have legs.
As mentioned in my previous post, a boycott cannot work if the objective is merely to achieve lower prices at the pump and a resumption of mindless economic expansion in the form of sprawl and other forms of economic overshoot. So what can a boycott achieve?  The objective would have to be to never return to a car-oriented economy again. This would reduce overall demand and free-up the resource (oil is the most energy-dense resource we’ve ever stumbled upon, after all) for more essential services that serve society at large (such as emergency vehicles, infrastructure & maintenance, construction, public transit, commercial transport and car-share programs, etc.). The effect of reduced consumption on the price of oil would be consumer-friendly, and could well stabilize the rising cost of living. The challenge would be to “stay the course” and not to rush back to indiscriminate use of the car once prices are low and the freeways run freely. Just think of how efficiently the transport sector might work if there were no commuters (single drivers in single vehicles) clogging up the system…
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we should consider first, to what extent a boycott is even possible? And what then, would it look like in practice?
As mentioned at the outset here, petroleum really has insinuated itself into practically every facet of our daily lives. Unless you’re a forager living in a cabin in the woods, you and your lifestyle are, to an overwhelming extent, a function of our principle source of energy on this planet: oil*. The food we eat generally represents a caloric investment from fossil fuels ten times the caloric value of the food itself (an equation that in a normal ecosystem would be a losing proposition). Of course the transportation of food, as well as all other consumer products requires huge and constant flows of the stuff. Meanwhile, mega-systems such as hydro-electric grids and the internet require support from machinery that runs on petroleum, not to mention the plastics that come from petroleum products that go into nearly every machine we make. A true boycott of Big Oil would amount to living in that cabin in the woods, foraging, hunting and gardening… it’s not a lifestyle I wish to put down by any stretch, after all there are tribal societies that still know how to flourish within these kinds of “limitations”. But I’m guessing that, most people reading this would only begin to consider a boycott of Big Oil if they knew it didn’t translate into a radical change of address and job description.
So a boycott would have to be a question of degrees; it could be as extreme as adhering to a hundred-mile or low-carbon diet, thereby minimizing drastically the transportation that goes into ones diet. It could amount to divorcing your car as advocated by author Katie Alvord, which translates into using a recipe of active transport, public transit and car-sharing services. Or you could be more radical and refuse ever to step into a car again. Similarly, one might consider never again boarding a jet plane. This radical measure, if taken up en masse could deal a death-blow to an industry that is responsible for one of the worst ways in which we inject GHG into the atmosphere.
Whatever the measures, by what degree, to boycott would be relative and subjective. One would presumably try to avoid supporting the oil industry whenever possible, and whenever realistic. It would depend entirely on what degree of sacrifice we are willing to make, and how well the alternatives make up for that sacrifice. In some cases, where physical exertion and healthier eating are involved, the benefits will surely outweigh the downside of so many old habits…
I would suggest as a start, that a boycott be defined by relinquishing one’s car, and replacing it with every possible necessity in its place, including car-sharing as a last resort. As a step in that direction, one could do some back of the envelope calculations to determine their current level of use, and set a target of cutting that amount by 50% within a year, and by another 50% the year after… But cold-turkey may be less painful!
The second main element would be to cut out air-travel. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, traveling by jet a couple of times a year can quickly outpace a commuter’s GHG emissions due to daily car use over the course of the same year. Here, a 50% reduction strategy as outlined above might be relatively easy. It’s quite likely that the pleasures of local vacationing will make up for the sense of sacrifice.
Still, I know this is a tall order for a great many. The pervasive sense of entitlement that is wrapped up in our mythologies about freedom tends to involve access to all modes of transportation whenever the fancy stikes. It’s not popular at all to consider that (so-called) freedom, cherished and celebrated as it is, might have a downside. Seeing the world is for sure a great and enriching experience, but at what point does meaningful travel deteriorate into another meaningless form of consumerism? But in order to steer clear of a very subjective analysis of the situation, let me simply suggest that when weighed against the reality of climate change, rampant freedom by jet plane may need a drastic re-think.
 If the two strategies I am suggesting were combined as a boycott on a large scale is a hopeful and promising thought in theory, there is at least one remaining, significant problem facing such a plan.
As we learned with high gasoline prices in 2007 – which had a cold blanket effect on the economy referred to as “demand destruction” – a relatively sudden curtailment in gasoline consumption has a recessionary effect on the economy which in turn reduces consumption. So long as economic activity and energy consumption are bound at the hip, a boycott of oil will always represent a threat to economic growth. And so a boycott would almost certainly prove to be an extremely contentious issue economically and politically speaking. Anyone who is heavily invested in the status quo, from the political class (on the left and the right) to the corporate class and the financial elite, would have the incentive and the means to counter such a strategy with marketing and other propaganda so thick, that the average citizen might begin to think that climate change has been solved by other means – I sometimes think this describes the daze we are in at present, but I digress. This may prove to be the tragic flaw that dooms the civilisation in the long run: just when the ruling bodies in society are needed to take charge and change direction, all leadership vanishes into thin air. People in power protect their power base, and nothing more.
I mention this because this strikes me as the most likely outcome in the years ahead (whether or not a boycott is ever attempted), based on the recent past. However, trying times have been known to inspire exceptional people to rise to the occasion, so the window of opportunity must be considered open by at least a crack.
So what might people in leadership roles do to help tackle climate change? Hypothetically speaking, in the event that a boycott of big oil took root, the political class (read: governments) could help make the boycott easier, and its economic effects less jarring by implementing various social reforms, meaningful public works projects and fostering improved community resilience. Obviously alternative modes of transportation (trains! buses! bikes!) for individuals, would have to be treated as paramount.
Just as important would be the message coming from the top, be it Parliament Hill or the Oval Office. As we are beginning to see with climate change as well as with peak oil, some degree of economic cost and hard limits to perpetual economic expansion await us no matter which way we choose to move forward – particularly if we hold on to the business-as-usual approach. This is a political hot-potato issue that an uninformed public does not want to hear. But since we’re well into the territory of the hypothetical, let’s entertain the thought – after all, if ever we got to the point of a widespread boycott of Big Oil, it would be because the electorate was finally prepared to receive such a message.
So while a concerted boycott of Big Oil might cause some economic hardship, particularly in carbon-intensive sectors, it will be important to remind ourselves that the economic contractions of peak oil and the consequences of rampant carbon emissions are and were already underway. Since this pain would likely be felt by a wide segment of the population, it would be important to remind ourselves of the big picture when dealing with the initial effects of “demand destruction.”
Back to reality
Sadly, a global boycott is the kind of “plan” contingent upon some pretty significant presumptions and downright wishful hopes. It’s hard to imagine getting from where we are today to a place where the truth about energy and the economy is aired out in public discourse (for a decent start, visit the Energy Bulletin!). It’s hard to imagine just how that discourse would inspire enough people for a boycott to get underway in the first place. And it’s hard to imagine a real-world perception of a boycott as being positive, even though the immediate drop in carbon emissions would only be good for the planet.
It’s equally hard to imagine replacing the current petroleum-based way of doing things with some magic, technological alternative overnight. But somehow this is precisely the fantasy that gets so much of the air time. And this is where I plan to pick up the discussion in my next post.
* Okay, arguably it’s the sun: as it has been pointed out by a great many that even crude oil is ultimately just concentrated solar power. Similarly, wind and hydro rely on the sun, which is responsible for the movements of air and water on the planet, but I digress…

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Really? A Call to Action?

The current economic climate may indeed require that we respond with meaningfull action. If driving over a cliff is not an option, maybe we should think about rock-climbing...
I wrote my last post in response to some radio commentary I heard on the subject of gas prices. A slew of typical complaints and predictable expressions of indignation came from each of the radio personalities on the air at the time, including the traffic reporter, the host and even the weatherman. This latter local celebrity decided to weigh in by calling for a political, grass-roots, popular revolt in response to the big “them” who conspire to oppress us and otherwise ruin our lives with price gouging at the pumps. My initial response took the form of a letter which I sent to the radio station, which I pasted here word-for word in the previous post. But I have to confess that I pulled a few punches partly in deference to diplomacy and decorum, but mainly for the sake of brevity.
Needless to say a more elaborate rebuttal is in order, and while I intend to maintain the level of decorum befitting a blog of some repute – which is what I aspire to at Kyotomotors – I am compelled to take this preposterous call to arms down a notch or two before people start to take it too seriously. Indeed, this particular point about a democratic uprising, should be addressed more directly, given the current context of the past six months.
From the perspective of someone who has spent considerable time understanding fossil fuels and our consumption/ dependence issues, comments like this would be largely laughable if they didn’t go so completely unchecked in the ensuing discourse. The fact that the revolutionary spirit of protest would manifest itself in such a self-centered, and lazy analysis of the situation can only be chalked up as a sorry sign of the times. This may not be obvious to the average listener, or to readers of this blog either, so I’m going to try to take the time to reflect on just how misguided this expression of protest and wished-for activism actually is.
Let’s start by imagining the wish realised: perhaps protestors from all the suburbs around Montreal would converge on the downtown arteries in their vehicles, possibly slowing to a stand-still bringing the city to a halt to demand lower prices! Perhaps from there they get out of their cars and march. Where do they go? The Government offices? Corporate headquarters of Shell or Esso or PetroCanada? These authorities have some power, and certainly don’t want the economy to grind to a halt. The question is then, does Big Oil move against their shareholders’ wishes and slash profits for the sake of the economy? If this seems too unlikely, let’s imagine an alternate path toward the same end: the Quebec government could nationalise Big Oil in the province (“PetroQuebec” perhaps?) and mandate that petroleum be provided to its citizens at a cut-rate a la Hugo Chavez, giving them a huge leg-up and decisive economic advantage on the world stage…From there, Quebeckers return to their happy motoring as though there was nothing wrong in the world as far a petroleum is concerned.
There are, of course several things wrong with this picture. The biggest problem perhaps is that this story of reform hinges on the demands of consumers not of citizens. I could go on at length here about the finer details that distinguish the two, but I’d rather stick to the basics for now: Consumers are by definition self-centred entities manipulated by marketing, who, in demanding their “freedom” in the market place, end up bolstering their dependence on commodities instead. Consumers conflate entitlement privileges with rights, responsibilities and obligations. These moral distinctions separate consumer desires from true social movements.
Another major problem is that Quebec happens not to have any oil of its own to speak of, so the Venezuela analogy (even if that brand of socialism were palatable here) falls on its ass. In the game of Big Oil it’s the importers who pay, especially in the era of peak oil. Add to this the fact that a major refining facility on the island of Montreal was closed down not too long ago, and you have to accept that when it comes to the Oil Game, Quebec is holding a bum hand.
So the protest that was conjured in the heat of high gas prices is a doomed prospect that could never achieve the motorist’s objective. Yes, motorists could boycott Big Oil, and perhaps they would succeed in forcing gas prices down as oil companies try to get them back behind the wheel. But for many reasons I pointed out in my previous blog, high prices would quickly return so long as a return to status quo (ie.daily commuting) is the objective. This is the painful truth we are trying to avoid: high gas prices are pretty much permanent under the current living arrangements and ways of doing business.
Meanwhile, for those who do hang on to the commuter habits and arrangements, such a protest is disingenuous because the intention to boycott is probably a ruse at best, given the insistence by so many that “they have no choice” while they line up for more expensive gas. At the end of the day, the public is resigned, and seems to be saying “nothing can be done!” and “what’s the use?! Evil prevails!”
But in fact something can be done. Which is to say I’m very interested in taking a closer look at boycotting the oil and gas industry…But I’ll save that for a future post.
One final thought here:
There is a sad irony that the “call to action” would come from a celebrity weatherman, who in the age of global warming should be somewhat sensitive toward the consequences of our consumption of petroleum. Higher gas prices do indeed offer the benefit of reduced consumption. Once we start looking at it as an opportunity to address global warming on a personal scale, we’ll perhaps be able to accept this economic reality as part and parcel of our responsibility to act with the greater good in mind.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Commentary on Gas Prices

It is understandable for someone to feel the pinch, and even to complain about it, however, a little perspective goes a long way

It is a popular habit among the majority of drivers to cite rising gas prices as a source of great frustration and even hardship. It seems to be just as popular to seek to blame some evil for this suffering.
Yes, it used to cost less to drive around, and yes, for a commuter, driving probably represents a large slice of the household economic pie.
Yes also to the fact that Big Oil is pretty close to evil, if you define evil as cornering a market and making stupendous profits. But hey, didn’t we embrace capitalism once and for all back in 1989?
I would not necessarily rule out blatant collusion when it comes to Montreal’s unique position of having prices above $1.50/L, however, in the big picture we are not all that unique. If I had told you in 2003 that the price of a litre of gas was headed north of a dollar, you’d have laughed at me along with the rest of 99% of the population. But that was in fact what I was saying to those who might have listened, and well, most people laughed, or just didn’t want to listen. We are all paying well above a dollar now – from coast to coast. And the 5 to 10 cent difference at the pumps is incidental.
Now, it’s not as though I am psychic or especially prescient. Nor am I an expert in petroleum geology, or economics. At best I am an environmentally-minded citizen cum avid energy geek: I am a mere lay-person who has taken it upon myself to look beyond the mainstream media (and industry-guided discourse) to answer some big questions about energy consumption and its consequences.
What I have learned has been no less than life-changing, in that I have come to see how incredibly and completely dependent our modern, technological lifestyle is upon our treasured black gold.
I have come to learn that this resource truly is finite, and that there is a geologically documented phenomenon known in the industry as “peak oil.”
Get to know this term.
Peak oil is complex and the interpretations are many, including outright denial from, you guessed it, Big Oil: those who don’t want anyone to have an incentive or need to reduce their consumption.
What peak oil means is that at some point, the world will no longer be able to produce as much oil as it did the previous year, and eventually the rate of depletion becomes significant enough to affect the economy (ie. “growth”).
Guess what? We seem to have entered the peak phase, which is best described as a plateau. During this period the more expensive methods of extraction become relatively viable: enter fracking & tar sands. While these are touted as miraculous solutions in the media, by industry and by governments (an extremely dubious claim, by the way), what they amount to is a desperate society’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. When you hear stories about these “new” sources of oil, try to remember that what you’re really hearing is the story of peak oil.
Similarly, when gas prices go up – and yes, they’ll generally continue to rise – remember you are again hearing the story of peak oil played out on the ground.

Further reading:
In fact, The Energy Bulletin is great hub of different authors on the subject is:
some of my favourites include: Richard Heinberg, Kurt Cobb, Tom Murphy, John Michael Greer, and Dmitry Orlov, to name a few.

See also Kenneth Deffeyes, Colin Campbell, and former Chief Economist at CIBC Jeff Rubin.
There is a so-called Peak Oil online community as well as the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), meeting this year in Austin Texas in November.