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OPEC Turns 60: An Oil Cartel on Life Support
By Ashutosh Pandey
In 1973, a handful of oil-rich countries, led by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, brought the mighty U.S. economy to its knees by slapping an oil embargo on Washington and its allies. The suspension of oil shipments from the Middle East to the U.S. and steep production cuts in retaliation for the Americans' support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy, leading to fuel shortages and causing oil prices to go through the roof.
The ban was lifted within months following hectic negotiations, but not before it pushed the U.S. economy into its worst recession since World War II. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which until then had maintained a relatively low profile, mainly negotiating higher oil prices from major oil companies for its members, had emerged as a force to reckon with.
Nearly five decades later, OPEC remains only a pale shadow of its past glory, weakened by infighting within its ranks, the rise of the United States as a major oil exporter thanks to a shale boom, and a global push for renewable sources of energy amid climate change worries.
"OPEC is significant primarily as a political club. It fails economically as a cartel, but it does boost the prestige and standing of its members, most of whom would not otherwise have a seat at the table in world affairs," said Jeff Colgan, a professor at Brown University who authored the book Petro-Aggression: When Oil Causes War. "A functional cartel needs to set tough limits to production and stick to them. OPEC sets easy targets and still often fails to meet them," he told DW.
The bloc has seen its market share progressively diminish over the years, in part thanks to its efforts to artificially boost oil prices by holding back its own production. OPEC's share of the global oil market has fallen to around 30% from above 50% in 1973. It has also been hurt by involuntary losses in war-torn Libya and the fallout from U.S. sanctions in both Iran and Venezuela.
It was OPEC's weakness amid the rise of the U.S. as a major oil producer that prompted the once exclusive club to join hands with Russia and some other oil producers to form OPEC+ and attempt to balance the oil markets. The alliance's inception in 2016 was preceded by a disastrous campaign by the Saudi-led bloc to force weaker U.S. shale players out of business, which caused oil prices to collapse to around $30 a barrel. U.S. shale players then proved to be more resilient than the Saudis had expected — strong enough to push the U.S. to become the world's biggest oil producer.
Peak Oil Debate Heats Up Amid COVID-19 Crisis
The bloc's waning influence has coincided with oil's fall from grace. The fossil fuel has seen its share in the global energy mix diminish to about 33% from a peak of 50% in 1973, according to estimates by BP, as governments and companies shift to cleaner energy sources to combat climate change. By contrast, renewables, mostly from solar and wind, have seen their share rise, accounting for over 40% of global energy growth last year, according to BP's data.
"Oil isn't as significant or visible as it used to be. For example, do you know who the head of Exxon is? Probably not. Do you know who the head of Tesla is? Yes, Elon Musk," said Philippe Benoit, from consultancy Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further dimmed oil's prospects. Global lockdowns brought cars, planes and trains to a screeching halt, causing oil consumption to drop by a quarter and oil prices to crash to multiyear lows, even trading below $0 a barrel in the US at one point. Transportation accounts for close to a third of the global oil demand.
Experts don't see the automobile and aviation sectors returning to their pre-pandemic levels for the next 3-5 years at least. The airline industry was touted to be the biggest growth engine for oil, riding on demand from people getting richer, but that now looks unlikely, especially over the next few years.
Oil industry leaders, including BP's chief executive, Bernard Looney, and Royal Dutch Shell's boss Ben van Beurden, have said the current crisis may cause the oil demand to peak sooner than expected.
"The backdrop of declining demand means that the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] and its Gulf allies would find it increasingly difficult to manipulate supply and boost prices for any length of time," Jason Tuvey, of Capital Economics, wrote in a note to clients. "If prices are kept artificially high for an extended period, oil demand will end up declining at an even faster pace and the nimbleness of U.S. shale production means that non-OPEC supply will expand."
'OPEC Is a Saudi Mouthpiece'
OPEC was founded in Baghdad in September 1960 by Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The bloc, which has expanded and contracted over the years, has been plagued by squabbles over strategy and regional power struggles, which have occasionally turned into full-blown conflicts like the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Saudi Arabia, which produces a third of OPEC's oil, has remained the de facto leader of the bloc since the 1990s, when conflicts, corruption and poor management wrecked production in other member countries, including regional rivals Iran and Iraq.
Riyadh has oscillated between propping up crude oil prices and shielding its market share, often unilaterally. "OPEC is a Saudi mouthpiece," Colgan said. In March, when OPEC+ negotiations to cut output in response to the pandemic collapsed, Saudi Arabia launched a price war against Russia — much to the dismay of weaker OPEC members such as Nigeria and Angola, already bleeding due to low oil prices caused by Riyadh's 2015-16 misadventure.
Despite all its sway, Saudi Arabia has struggled to rein in the bloc's so-called cheaters, including Nigeria and Iraq, which have been notorious for failing to comply with pledged output cuts aimed at propping up oil prices. Riyadh, which is more vulnerable to low oil prices than other major oil producers with its break-even oil price exceeding $80 a barrel, has ended up doing much of the heavy lifting to ensure overall compliance.
Tuvey of Capital Economics says in the medium-term Saudi Arabia will scale back its efforts to prop up oil prices and revert to the strategy of shielding its market share at any cost to avoid leaving substantial quantities of oil stranded amid falling demand.
"Such a shift in policy, particularly if it were sudden and unexpected, would put some downward pressure on oil prices. But this is unlikely to be too troubling for the kingdom, and the government has proven its willingness to impose harsh fiscal austerity," Tuvey said. "Saudi policymakers won't have much sympathy for other producers that fail to adjust their economies to low oil prices."
Bigger Role for OPEC?
Yet it may be too early to write an obituary for the bloc, which has survived many crises in the past 60 years, eliciting comparisons to the proverbial cat with nine lives. Oil is likely to remain the world's most important commodity for years to come.
"Paradoxically, OPEC as an aggregator, a point of meeting for many producing nations, could potentially play a bigger role in managing the tensions of a contracting market among those oil producers," Benoit said.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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Plain Naturals is making waves in the CBD space with a new product line for retail customers looking for high potency CBD products at industry-low prices.
Is More CBD Really Better?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODQyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzYxMDMzN30.6B08i5QYW_Iq5bUf3qtm8oK8o6FKsRUZ74gdakgJ_TY/img.jpg?width=980" id="0ef5b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bac86abf3ce246742b18b0dc4052f4dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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The Truth About CBD Product Potency<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODMyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDc2NTg1N30.OAm3iOTO_pKZLXi7KdJ7n0DGOFMdOmIYuG4ArGooFC4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d657c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee016a81b29caa699b9185b64ce345d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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