By Kayleigh Long
A court in Tehran last week delivered a guilty verdict in the case of eight Iranian conservationists accused of spying, with sentences ranging from four to 10 years. The eight were all affiliated with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation (PWHF), a Tehran-based conservation organization that works to save the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) and other species.
Foreign and Domestic Responses<p>The group's jailing in 2018 met with international criticism, and news of the verdict and sentences sparked a fresh outcry from human rights and conservation organizations, including the New York-based <a href="https://newsroom.wcs.org/News-Releases/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/13505/WCS-Issues-Statement-on-the-Unjust-Sentencing-of-Innocent-Wildlife-Conservationists-Imprisoned-in-Iran.aspx" target="_blank">Wildlife Conservation Society</a>, <a href="https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/22/iran-environmentalists-sentenced" target="_blank">Human Rights Watch</a>, and the <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/secretariat/201911/statement-iucn-acting-director-general-dr-grethel-aguilar-sentencing-iran-conservationists" target="_blank">IUCN</a>.</p><p>"Sentencing innocent wildlife conservationists to long jail sentences in the absence of evidence is a travesty of justice and a violation of multiple human rights," said David Boyd, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment, in a statement emailed to Mongabay. "In the context of a global biodiversity crisis the work of these conservationists should be admired, not condemned. An appeal should be expedited and their sentences should be overturned."</p><p>The secretary-general of the Geneva-based human rights NGO the International Commission of Jurists, Sam Zarifi, said that while his group hadn't been able to monitor the case due to access restrictions, it did appear there were flaws in the judicial process. "Based on publicly available material, their trial at Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court suffered from serious due process problems, including defendants' lack of access to lawyers of their choosing, lack of access to the indictment and underlying evidence, and claims by the defendants that they were tortured in order to provide false confessions," Zarifi told Mongabay by email.</p>
Political Connections<p>While no evidence has been made public, one key line of pursuit during interrogations was reportedly the link between PWHF and the founder of the world's largest big cat conservation organization, Panthera, headquartered in New York. PWHF staff occasionally worked alongside experts from Panthera, using camera traps to monitor cheetah populations. The conservation community has spoken out strongly against the notion that low-quality motion-sensor camera traps could serve any espionage purpose.</p><p>The founder of Panthera, U.S. billionaire Thomas Kaplan, is active in and provides funding to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a New York-based lobby group that advocates for tough sanctions and regime change in Iran. The group pushed for the U.S. to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which it did in May 2018.</p><p>In late 2017, PWHF staff reportedly sought to distance themselves from Panthera following a speech by Kaplan that comprised his first major public show of support for UANI. A letter from PWHF to Panthera voiced "alarm and consternation" at his political activities. Panthera has issued no response to the arrests or verdict and did not respond to requests from Mongabay for comment.</p>
Conservation Work<p>PWHF's central mission was the conservation of the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah. Just 50 remain in the world, all of them in Iran. Jowkar, the jailed PWHF cheetah researcher, led the latest IUCN assessment of the species, in 2008. He, Ghadirian and Khaleghi Hamidi were members of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, and PWHF had been instrumental in highlighting the plight of the species through a project funded by Iran's Department of Environment and the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP).</p><p>The jailed conservationists also worked to protect other species and to raise awareness on environmental issues in a country beset by drought. Ghadirian, PWHF's consultant on large mammals from 2014 to 2017, undertook population surveys of leopards, wolves and bears using camera traps, tracking, urine and other signs. He worked with herders to find solutions to human-animal conflict.</p>
The Iranian tanker was carrying 150,000 tons, or nearly 1 million barrels, of condensate crude oil when it collided with the CF Crystal on Saturday. Condensate is an ultra-light hydrocarbon that is highly toxic and much more explosive than regular crude oil.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By John Buell
Last winter when President-elect Trump tweeted: "United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes," the tweet was portrayed as shockingly new and threatening. As president, Trump continues his inflammatory rhetoric. Nonetheless, his nuclear posture is closer to his predecessors than is commonly recognized. It has long been U.S. policy and practice to seek and rely on nuclear superiority. The U.S. led every step in the arms race. That arms race remains the greatest immediate threat to the survival of human civilization and other living beings. That threat has persisted under every president from Truman to Trump.
By Jake Johnson
Rescue teams in Iran and Iraq continued urgently searching through the rubble of collapsed buildings Monday after a powerful 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck the nations' border region Sunday night, killing more than 300 people and injuring thousands.
More than 100 aftershocks reportedly followed the quake, which forced thousands to flee from their homes and subsequently sparked landslides that hindered rescue efforts.
According to Iranian Red Crescent, a disaster relief organization, the earthquake and its aftermath has left more than 70,000 people in need of emergency shelter.
By Joe McCarthy
There's a heat wave, and then there's 129 degree weather—one is uncomfortable, the other is deadly.
As countries around the world face rising temperatures from climate change, parts of Iran are getting scorched.
By Geoffrey Sea
In a triple-whammy to uranium supplier USEC Inc., the last operating nuclear reactor in Japan was switched off for maintenance, Russia completed its final delivery of uranium to USEC under the 20-year Megatons to Megawatts program and USEC’s market capitalization fell below the minimum required for listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Meanwhile, fission products of the fuel that USEC supplied for the Fukushima reactors continue to pour into the Pacific Ocean, a hot metaphor for the global dissolution of the dream of atomic power.
If the radioactive currents awaken Godzilla from his undersea lair, it would be the only scripted outcome.
The news does get worse for USEC. In contrast to Iran, which announced its centrifuge venture at the same time as USEC and has now opened a second cascade of over 3,000 third-generation machines, no USEC centrifuge has produced a gram of commercial uranium. Its untested AC-100 centrifuge machines, which are the be-all and end-all of the company, have just passed the 35th anniversary of their unfortunate invention under the Carter Administration. Meanwhile, General Electric’s state-of the-art SILEX enrichment technology is running rings around USEC’s antiquated nondeployed centrifuges by every measure.
And here’s the kicker: USEC’s eight-year overdue test array of showpiece centrifuges in Ohio, for which the federal government has had to pay 80 percent of costs, are not being tested with uranium, so they are producing no useful data. USEC cannot be trusted to run uranium after an embarrassing crash of six centrifuges at Piketon in June 2011. (USEC advertised that catastrophe as maintaining public safety with no release of radiation, failing to clarify that the machines had not been running uranium during the crash.)
The Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee program—fantasy material on which USEC relies at night like a castaway clutching pornography (USEC has already been turned down twice.)—is under renewed attack by even the most pronuclear conservatives. That means that the company has no imaginable way to fund construction of a new centrifuge plant, which USEC needs to remain in the enrichment industry since its old production plant in Paducah, KY, has permanently closed.
USEC should ditch the uranium enrichment business entirely and play to its demonstrated competence in fields like Internet gambling or telemarketing to members of Congress. That would be the company’s preference, too, if not for infernal federal laws and regulations that bind it to the pretense of uranium enrichment as justification for billions of federal dollars down the drain.
USEC’s stated financial plan is to supplement hypothetical DOE loan guarantee funding with a one or two billion-dollar loan from Japanese international banks, about as feasible as a fine arts grant from Bashar Al-Assad. With the Japanese defending themselves against cartoons of three-armed sumo wrestlers at the 2020 Olympics, they are not exactly hot to trot on funding a uranium enrichment plant in Ohio, the product of which has caused them only grief. Perhaps USEC will entice the Japanese by becoming an Olympic sponsor of the Hot Potato Throw or the Strontium-90 Meter Sprint?
Meanwhile, three competitors including Russian TENEX, French AREVA and Euro-American URENCO are spinning out uranium on centrifuges for old USEC customers, and even Iran may work a deal under new leadership to give up its A-Bomb aspirations in exchange for a slice of USEC’s old commercial market. Call it Atoms for Peace with a vengeance.
And it gets worse for USEC. Closure of the San Onofre and Vermont Yankee reactors, with more closures expected, means that the domestic market for enriched uranium on which USEC relies is shrinking, not expanding. That comes just as USEC’s old supply monopoly in that market has given way to a free-for-all, with the lifting of bans on the direct-marketing of Russian uranium and new domestic enrichment projects by competitors in New Mexico, Idaho and North Carolina. Since uranium supply contracts cover periods as long as a decade, USEC’s long delays in deploying new production will mean that even a hypothetical new USEC plant would come online with no market for its product. In addition, the shrinking domestic market undercuts the government’s rationale to support a new plant and invalidates the market forecasts that USEC used to obtain licenses and argue for denied federal loan guarantees. That opens up any renewed USEC commercial venture to serious legal challenges.
But it gets worse for USEC. USEC has had no quarter of net profit in years, accruing over a billion dollars in debt all told. The company’s only pockets of profit have depended on DOE-subsidized or Russian-supplied programs that now have ended.
USEC’s long intentional delay in completing a technical demonstration of its AC-100 machines—a delay necessary to forestall conclusions that the ludicrous technology is not commercially viable—have run the company up against hard deadlines. This month, USEC must renew its credit facility with a consortium of banks led by J.P. Morgan, at a time when that institution is facing major allegations of failure to conduct proper risk-analysis of applicants in jeopardy of bankruptcy just like USEC.
On Oct. 1, USEC will have just twelve months to make good on $530 million of bond debt, incurred in 2007 on the promise that the funds would be used to complete a commercial centrifuge plant with time to generate enough income from the plant to pay off the bonds. Here we are at the twelve-month marker, however, and USEC has spent the cash it received from the bonds without financing the plant. With no other means to pay off the bonds, some kind of bankruptcy shield for USEC is a necessity, though the company uses the euphemism of “restructuring” to describe that coming process.
If USEC cannot renew its credit facility, it will lose the ability to pay bills and salaries, creating an interesting nuclear safety dilemma at Paducah, where USEC has continuing cleanup responsibilities. Likewise, if USEC’s general condition keeps its share price from rising, then the company will be delisted from the stock exchange, at which point the $530 million of bond debt becomes immediately due by terms of the issuance. That would necessitate an immediate bankruptcy filing. USEC has been using the threat of potential nuclear consequences to stave off the wolves at the door, but that kind of blackmail threat grows tiresome with age and with the realization that USEC’s radioactive messes are going to wind up on the public’s hands in any case.
Needless to say, the prospect of sudden unplanned insolvency did not occur to the congressional authors of the USEC Privatization Act, the regulators at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), or the bureaucrats at the DOE, none of whom has a plan for what to do about the nuclear materials and facilities entrusted to USEC’s care given the company’s financial meltdown. Or perhaps the prospect did occur to them and they just didn’t care. “Financial capacity” requirements of NRC and DOE were paperwork hilarities, specifically waived to accommodate USEC as soon as the company headed into trouble.
USEC had intended to cure its crushing bond debt over the summer, but then something truly terrible happened to the company: Its stock shot up.
It started as a modest pump’n’dump operation, after the share price hit an all-time low of $2.60 on July 8 (down from $641 per share in 2007). USEC needed to edge its market capitalization above the $50 million NYSE minimum to avert immediate delisting. It accomplished that by tailoring the news to fool investors, with a robust report of cash on hand while neglecting to mention in news releases that USEC had not yet paid for the latest big shipment of Russian uranium. By such chicanery, USEC managed to triple its share price in mid-July.
But then over the weekend of July 27, the USEC-TEPCO partnership at Fukushima hit a wall, or failed to hit a wall, as the case may be. Massive uncontrolled radioactive seepage into the ocean raised fears that the worst may be ahead of us, at least in terms of nuclear public relations, and that was before a typhoon hit the Japanese site on Sept. 16, making matters even worse.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped in to announce that the government was taking control of the cleanup operation, and that was misinterpreted by delusional nuclear industry investors as meaning that a nuclear revival in Japan might be imminent and that TEPCO and USEC might escape some potential liabilities for the catastrophe.
By Monday, July 29, Asian investors unfamiliar with USEC’s scamming history were hot on the stock as it looked to be rising from rock-bottom prices. They started a buying stampede, which tripped a circuit breaker at NYSE, briefly halting trading in the security on Monday afternoon. That blockade only fed the frenzy as automated trades kept upping the virtual price of the stock in a frustrated machine attempt to out-buy other machines. It was a real-life nuclear escalation as depicted in the movie War Games, where stupendous competitive human error is magnified by computer programs.
USEC stock closed on July 29 at $29.02, up 1,016 percent over its recent all-time low. USEC ‘s “phenomenal surge” made it the rising star of Internet investment pseudo-journalism as traders assumed there was some there there, when all was naught but air.
A third of the share-price rise was rapidly corrected, creating the first of three meaningless spikes on USEC’s stock chart, each with a surge-plummet profile resembling the Empire State Building. That extreme volatility (a bad bad word in the normal investment community) attracted day-traders to the otherwise worthless company, on the premise that many bucks could be made by micro-forecasting when USEC stock would entertain its bombastic highs and lows. All of this vapid financial gaming was invited and subsidized by the Obama Administration with support of both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
As a tug of war between day-traders inflating the share price and short-sellers betting on the stock’s decline, USEC’s stock, which is supposed to be a market indicator of the company’s performance and worth, became totally detached from fundamentals. USEC itself is transforming into a company that sells only flimflam, producing and marketing no real product. Correspondingly, its stock has become a pure speculative instrument—like investing in modern art or pet rocks—a profit-making device for technologically-enabled traders, different from other financial scams only by its government endorsement and apparent immunity from securities laws. It’s Uncle Sam’s atomic unregulated cyber-casino. The theory of USEC’s 1998 privatization—that the “free market” would do a better job of guiding the enterprise than government planning—has been stood on its head, as USEC’s actual owners, its shareholders, have lost any real-world connection to the property they own.
The sentiment of investors was captured best by a one-word comment on the leading USEC shareholder message board in August: “FukUSECshima.”
Day-traders and short-sellers are the bottom-feeders of the stock market. They undermine the logic of capitalist markets since they profit off material dysfunction, and measures to restrict or ban both practices have occasionally been implemented. But USEC has become a target tool of these parasites, with short-sellers accounting for between 15 and 30 percent of all USEC shareholders in past years.
Day-traders make money not by long-term investment but by repeat trading to exploit micro-trends on a minute-by-minute basis. The extent to which they now dominate the trade in USEC stock is indicated by five days in late July when over three million shares were traded each day, although there are only 4.95 million shares of USEC stock outstanding. Were a majority of USEC shares changing hands? Of course not. Only a tiny percentage of shares were being bought and sold, over and over again, each day. The bizarreness of this pattern has become just one of USEC’s unique peculiarities, a sign that usual securities laws and rules are being violated flagrantly, with no sign of enforcement. Where are the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigations, the NYSE delisting crackdowns or the penalties imposed by USEC’s credit lenders?
Many are under the false impression that higher stock price necessarily helps a company. That is true for enterprises operating in some real marketplace with tangible assets, positive net worth and effective shareholder control. It is not true for USEC, which has crushing debts, no business plan and only paper assets, all of which remain controlled by the government despite titular privatization. USEC needed a small rise in share price to cure its NYSE listing deficiency, but the huge spike generated by forces internal to the trading world created an enormous problem for USEC on the ground.
USEC’s biggest hurdle staying in business is its bond debt. To eliminate that debt, USEC needed to buy out the bond holders with common shares in what is known as a debt-equity swap. But the July 29 share-price spike made it ten times as expensive to buy back those bonds with common shares, a price that USEC simply cannot afford. Ironically, by killing a debt-equity swap, the share-price rise may have killed the company. $530 million in bond debt that cannot be paid remains on the books, and the clock is ticking.
In this topsy-turvy environment, USEC managers probably have sat back hoping against fiduciary obligation that share price would fall, and they haven’t been disappointed. Other than two false-rumor day-trader spikes, the stock has lost all of its July 29 gains in perfect linear decline, zipping through the $16, $15, $14, $13, $12, $11 and $10 ranges to close at $9.55 per share on Tuesday, Sept. 17. That puts USEC in the worst of all possible worlds. Market capitalization is back below the $50 million minimum required for listing on NYSE, but the stock is still too expensive for USEC to afford a debt-equity swap, meaning that the bond debt along with coupon payments are coming due, imminently if the stock is delisted.
On a family trip to Puerto Rico when I was young, my father had booked discount rooms at a posh resort, as described in the advertisements, only for us to discover on arrival that the place was in dire financial distress and had been placed in foreclosure for tax non-payment, with a union picket-line in front. Its glitzy neon-mirror-ball casino, known as a hangout for local Mafiosi, was then technically owned by the U.S, government, a federally-sponsored crapshoot on the skids—perfect preparation for my current understanding of USEC.
Despite what was called privatization, the enrichment plants in Ohio and Kentucky always remained under government ownership. USEC’s centrifuges—built with a government technology license for which USEC owes an outstanding royalty of $100 million that will never be paid—were repossessed by the government in the summer of 2012, in preparation for the end of the USEC world. Even USEC’s depleted uranium waste cylinders have reverted to government ownership in a scheme that permitted USEC to cash in its waste disposal surety bonds so bills could be paid.
In effect, USEC privatization has been undone by the DOE without congressional authorization, in explicit violation of the USEC Privatization Act, raising profound constitutional questions. Even though the federal government now owns the entire USEC operation, the company remains almost wholly unregulated as to its payment of lavish executive salaries and proprietary decisions about the disposition of government property, such as its unilateral decision to close the Paducah plant. No “government stake” in the company’s management has been granted, as in the automaker bailouts, because no politician on any level wants any part of USEC’s coming collapse.
The government will be left, however, with future use decisions about the Piketon and Paducah sites. What does the Obama administration or the Congress have planned for the big empty “American Centrifuge” buildings on expensive federal real estate in Ohio’s highest-unemployment county?
Not a thing. It’s too politically sensitive. Piketon is the epicenter of the most critical swing region in Ohio, with a history of tipping presidential and gubernatorial elections. Any move by any agency of the government to apply standing federal law to USEC would bring the roof down on the fraudulent enterprise, risking a backlash against the responsible political party, amounting to acknowledgement that the many billions of taxpayer dollars lavished on USEC have been a scandal and a waste. Or so goes the “off the record” fear.
Just the energy bill for maintaining USEC on artificial respiration has been enormous—the dirtiest energy from Ohio Valley coal plants to keep the smokestacks puffing at USEC’s Paducah and Piketon operations—while the amount of total atomic power produced by USEC’s fifteen-year “advanced technology” rigmarole will in the end be zero.
On the other hand, a lame-duck administration is the time to get this done, and Ohioans would welcome some political candor, since it’s not a state secret any longer that the thousands of centrifuge jobs promised a decade ago will not be coming ever.
USEC acknowledged as much in its last bombshell 10Q filing with the SEC, submitted appropriately on the 68th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6. There, USEC finally admitted that various problems may (read “will”) necessitate that the “American Centrifuge” project be “demobilized “ (read “canceled”) at the end of its government-funded demonstration project (read “delay mechanism”) which is scheduled to terminate in December of this year.
Assuming it remains in business, USEC will not give up its cost-free lease of the Piketon site, however. It will retain that statutory lease-hold indefinitely in hopes that “market conditions” will someday improve. (Why not? The government foots the bills.) That would be at least a decade according to widely-available data, at which time the age of USEC’s technology will be approaching half a century.
Unless the company is killed-off by creditors or regulators who find their spines, alteration of that community-killing schedule would depend on repeal of the USEC Privatization Act by Congress. And with Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), a major USEC donee whose congressional district neighbors that of Piketon, as Speaker of the House, any move by Congress to pull the plug on “the American Centrifuge” will be thwarted, no matter how condemning of the whole American system that project has become.
All that remains of USEC’s centrifuge business is runaround.
When it comes to energy and economics in the climate-change era, nothing is what it seems. Most of us believe (or want to believe) that the second carbon era, the Age of Oil, will soon be superseded by the Age of Renewables, just as oil had long since superseded the Age of Coal. President Obama offered exactly this vision in a much-praised June address on climate change. True, fossil fuels will be needed a little bit longer, he indicated, but soon enough they will be overtaken by renewable forms of energy.
Many other experts share this view, assuring us that increased reliance on “clean” natural gas combined with expanded investments in wind and solar power will permit a smooth transition to a green energy future in which humanity will no longer be pouring carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. All this sounds promising indeed. There is only one fly in the ointment: it is not, in fact, the path we are presently headed down. The energy industry is not investing in any significant way in renewables. Instead, it is pouring its historic profits into new fossil-fuel projects, mainly involving the exploitation of what are called “unconventional” oil and gas reserves.
The result is indisputable: humanity is not entering a period that will be dominated by renewables. Instead, it is pioneering the third great carbon era, the Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas.
That we are embarking on a new carbon era is increasingly evident and should unnerve us all. Hydro-fracking—the use of high-pressure water columns to shatter underground shale formations and liberate the oil and natural gas supplies trapped within them—is being undertaken in ever more regions of the U.S. and in a growing number of foreign countries. In the meantime, the exploitation of carbon-dirty heavy oil and tar sands formations is accelerating in Canada, Venezuela and elsewhere.
It’s true that ever more wind farms and solar arrays are being built, but here’s the kicker: investment in unconventional fossil-fuel extraction and distribution is now expected to outpace spending on renewables by a ratio of at least three-to-one in the decades ahead.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an inter-governmental research organization based in Paris, cumulative worldwide investment in new fossil-fuel extraction and processing will total an estimated $22.87 trillion between 2012 and 2035, while investment in renewables, hydropower and nuclear energy will amount to only $7.32 trillion. In these years, investment in oil alone, at an estimated $10.32 trillion, is expected to exceed spending on wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, hydro, nuclear and every other form of renewable energy combined.
In addition, as the IEA explains, an ever-increasing share of that staggering investment in fossil fuels will be devoted to unconventional forms of oil and gas: Canadian tar sands, Venezuelan extra-heavy crude, shale oil and gas, Arctic and deep-offshore energy deposits, and other hydrocarbons derived from previously inaccessible reserves of energy. The explanation for this is simple enough. The world’s supply of conventional oil and gas—fuels derived from easily accessible reservoirs and requiring a minimum of processing—is rapidly disappearing. With global demand for fossil fuels expected to rise by 26 percent between now and 2035, more and more of the world’s energy supply will have to be provided by unconventional fuels.
In such a world, one thing is guaranteed: global carbon emissions will soar far beyond our current worst-case assumptions, meaning intense heat waves will become commonplace and our few remaining wilderness areas will be eviscerated. Planet Earth will be a far—possibly unimaginably—harsher and more blistering place. In that light, it’s worth exploring in greater depth just how we ended up in such a predicament, one carbon age at a time.
The First Carbon Era
The first carbon era began in the late 1800s, with the introduction of coal-powered steam engines and their widespread application to all manner of industrial enterprises. Initially used to power textile mills and industrial plants, coal was also employed in transportation (steam-powered ships and railroads), mining and the large-scale production of iron. Indeed, what we now call the Industrial Revolution was largely comprised of the widening application of coal and steam power to productive activities. Eventually, coal would also be used to generate electricity, a field in which it remains dominant today.
This was the era in which vast armies of hard-pressed workers built continent-spanning railroads and mammoth textile mills as factory towns proliferated and cities grew. It was the era, above all, of the expansion of the British Empire. For a time, Great Britain was the biggest producer and consumer of coal, the world’s leading manufacturer, its top industrial innovator and its dominant power—and all of these attributes were inextricably connected. By mastering the technology of coal, a small island off the coast of Europe was able to accumulate vast wealth, develop the world’s most advanced weaponry and control the global sea-lanes.
The same coal technology that gave Britain such global advantages also brought great misery in its wake. As noted by energy analyst Paul Roberts in The End of Oil, the coal then being consumed in England was of the brown lignite variety, “chock full of sulfur and other impurities.” When burned, “it produced an acrid, choking smoke that stung the eyes and lungs and blackened walls and clothes.” By the end of the nineteenth century, the air in London and other coal-powered cities was so polluted that “trees died, marble facades dissolved, and respiratory ailments became epidemic.”
For Great Britain and other early industrial powers, the substitution of oil and gas for coal was a godsend, allowing improved air quality, the restoration of cities and a reduction in respiratory ailments. In many parts of the world, of course, the Age of Coal is not over. In China and India, among other places, coal remains the principal source of energy, condemning their cities and populations to a twenty-first-century version of nineteenth-century London and Manchester.
The Second Carbon Era
The Age of Oil got its start in 1859 when commercial production began in western Pennsylvania, but only truly took off after World War II, with the explosive growth of automobile ownership. Before 1940, oil played an important role in illumination and lubrication, among other applications, but remained subordinate to coal; after the war, oil became the world’s principal source of energy. From 10 million barrels per day in 1950, global consumption soared to 77 million in 2000, a half-century bacchanalia of fossil fuel burning.
Driving the global ascendancy of petroleum was its close association with the internal combustion engine (ICE). Due to oil’s superior portability and energy intensity (that is, the amount of energy it releases per unit of volume), it makes the ideal fuel for mobile, versatile ICEs. Just as coal rose to prominence by fueling steam engines, so oil came to prominence by fueling the world’s growing fleets of cars, trucks, planes, trains and ships. Today, petroleum supplies about 97 percent of all energy used in transportation worldwide.
Oil’s prominence was also assured by its growing utilization in agriculture and warfare. In a relatively short period of time, oil-powered tractors and other agricultural machines replaced animals as the primary source of power on farms around the world. A similar transition occurred on the modern battlefield, with oil-powered tanks and planes replacing the cavalry as the main source of offensive power.
These were the years of mass automobile ownership, continent-spanning highways, endless suburbs, giant malls, cheap flights, mechanized agriculture, artificial fibers and—above all else—the global expansion of American power. Because the U.S. possessed mammoth reserves of oil, was the first to master the technology of oil extraction and refining, and the most successful at utilizing petroleum in transportation, manufacturing, agriculture and war, it emerged as the richest and most powerful country of the twenty-first century, a saga told with great relish by energy historian Daniel Yergin in The Prize. Thanks to the technology of oil, the U.S. was able to accumulate staggering levels of wealth, deploy armies and military bases to every continent and control the global air and sea-lanes—extending its power to every corner of the planet.
However, just as Britain experienced negative consequences from its excessive reliance on coal, so the U.S.—and the rest of the world—has suffered in various ways from its reliance on oil. To ensure the safety of its overseas sources of supply, Washington has established tortuous relationships with foreign oil suppliers and has fought several costly, debilitating wars in the Persian Gulf region, a sordid history I recount in Blood and Oil. Over-reliance on motor vehicles for personal and commercial transportation has left the country ill-equipped to deal with periodic supply disruptions and price spikes. Most of all, the vast increase in oil consumption—here and elsewhere—has produced a corresponding increase in carbon dioxide emissions, accelerating planetary warming (a process begun during the first carbon era) and exposing the country to the ever more devastating effects of climate change.
The Age of Unconventional Oil and Gas
The explosive growth of automotive and aviation travel, the suburbanization of significant parts of the planet, the mechanization of agriculture and warfare, the global supremacy of the U.S. and the onset of climate change: these were the hallmarks of the exploitation of conventional petroleum. At present, most of the world’s oil is still obtained from a few hundred giant onshore fields in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. and Venezuela, among other countries; some additional oil is acquired from offshore fields in the North Sea, the Gulf of Guinea and the Gulf of Mexico. This oil comes out of the ground in liquid form and requires relatively little processing before being refined into commercial fuels.
But such conventional oil is disappearing. According to the IEA, the major fields that currently provide the lion’s share of global petroleum will lose two-thirds of their production over the next 25 years, with their net output plunging from 68 million barrels per day in 2009 to a mere 26 million barrels in 2035. The IEA assures us that new oil will be found to replace those lost supplies, but most of this will be of an unconventional nature. In the coming decades, unconventional oils will account for a growing share of the global petroleum inventory, eventually becoming our main source of supply.
The same is true for natural gas, the second most important source of world energy. The global supply of conventional gas, like conventional oil, is shrinking, and we are becoming increasingly dependent on unconventional sources of supply—especially from the Arctic, the deep oceans and shale rock via fracking.
In certain ways, unconventional hydrocarbons are akin to conventional fuels. Both are largely composed of hydrogen and carbon, and can be burned to produce heat and energy. But in time the differences between them will make an ever-greater difference to us. Unconventional fuels—especially heavy oils and tar sands—tend to possess a higher proportion of carbon to hydrogen than conventional oil, and so release more CO2 when burned. Arctic and deep-offshore oil require more energy to extract, and so produce higher carbon emissions in their very production.
“Many new breeds of petroleum fuels are nothing like conventional oil,” Deborah Gordon, a specialist on the topic at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in 2012. “Unconventional oils tend to be heavy, complex, carbon laden, and locked up deep in the earth, tightly trapped between or bound to sand, tar, and rock.”
By far the most worrisome consequence of the distinctive nature of unconventional fuels is their extreme impact on the environment. Because they are often characterized by higher ratios of carbon to hydrogen, and generally require more energy to extract and be converted into usable materials, they produce more CO2 emissions per unit of energy released. In addition, the process that produces shale gas, hailed as a “clean” fossil fuel, is believed by many scientists to cause widespread releases of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
All of this means that, as the consumption of fossil fuels grows, increasing, not decreasing, amounts of CO2 and methane will be released into the atmosphere and, instead of slowing, global warming will speed up.
And here’s another problem associated with the third carbon age: the production of unconventional oil and gas turns out to require vast amounts of water—for fracking operations, to extract tar sands and extra-heavy oil, and to facilitate the transport and refining of such fuels. This is producing a growing threat of water contamination, especially in areas of intense fracking and tar sands production, along with competition over access to water supplies among drillers, farmers, municipal water authorities and others. As climate change intensifies, drought will become the norm in many areas and so this competition will only grow fiercer.
Along with these and other environmental impacts, the transition from conventional to unconventional fuels will have economic and geopolitical consequences hard to fully assess at this moment. As a start, the exploitation of unconventional oil and gas reserves from previously inaccessible regions involves the introduction of novel production technologies, including deep-sea and Arctic drilling, hydro-fracking and tar-sands upgrading. One result has been a shakeup in the global energy industry, with the emergence of innovative companies possessing the skills and determination to exploit the new unconventional resources—much as occurred during the early years of the petroleum era when new firms arose to exploit the world’s oil reserves.
This has been especially evident in the development of shale oil and gas. In many cases, the breakthrough technologies in this field were devised and deployed by smaller, risk-taking firms like Cabot Oil and Gas, Devon Energy Corporation, Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation and XTO Energy. These and similar companies pioneered the use of hydro-fracking to extract oil and gas from shale formations in Arkansas, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Texas, and later sparked a stampede by larger energy firms to obtain stakes of their own in these areas. To augment those stakes, the giant firms are gobbling up many of the smaller and mid-sized ones. Among the most conspicuous takeovers was ExxonMobil’s 2009 purchase of XTO for $41 billion.
That deal highlights an especially worrisome feature of this new era: the deployment of massive funds by giant energy firms and their financial backers to acquire stakes in the production of unconventional forms of oil and gas—in amounts far exceeding comparable investments in either conventional hydrocarbons or renewable energy. It’s clear that, for these companies, unconventional energy is the next big thing and, as among the most profitable firms in history, they are prepared to spend astronomical sums to ensure that they continue to be so. If this means investment in renewable energy is shortchanged, so be it. “Without a concerted policymaking effort” to favor the development of renewables, Carnegie’s Gordon warns, future investments in the energy field “will likely continue to flow disproportionately toward unconventional oil.”
In other words, there will be an increasingly entrenched institutional bias among energy firms, banks, lending agencies and governments toward next-generation fossil-fuel production, only increasing the difficulty of establishing national and international curbs on carbon emissions. This is evident, for example, in the Obama administration’s undiminished support for deep-offshore drilling and shale gas development, despite its purported commitment to reduce carbon emissions. It is likewise evident in the growing international interest in the development of shale and heavy-oil reserves, even as fresh investment in green energy is being cut back.
As in the environmental and economic fields, the transition from conventional to unconventional oil and gas will have a substantial, if still largely undefined, impact on political and military affairs.
U.S. and Canadian companies are playing a decisive role in the development of many of the vital new unconventional fossil-fuel technologies; in addition, some of the world’s largest unconventional oil and gas reserves are located in North America. The effect of this is to bolster U.S. global power at the expense of rival energy producers like Russia and Venezuela, which face rising competition from North American companies, and energy-importing states like China and India, which lack the resources and technology to produce unconventional fuels.
At the same time, Washington appears more inclined to counter the rise of China by seeking to dominate the global sea lanes and bolster its military ties with regional allies like Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. Many factors are contributing to this strategic shift, but from their statements it is clear enough that top American officials see it as stemming in significant part from America’s growing self-sufficiency in energy production and its early mastery of the latest production technologies.
“America’s new energy posture allows us to engage [the world] from a position of greater strength,” National Security Advisor Tom Donilon asserted in an April speech at Columbia University. “Increasing U.S. energy supplies act as a cushion that helps reduce our vulnerability to global supply disruptions [and] affords us a stronger hand in pursuing and implementing our international security goals.”
For the time being, the U.S. leaders can afford to boast of their “stronger hand” in world affairs, as no other country possesses the capabilities to exploit unconventional resources on such a large scale. By seeking to extract geopolitical benefits from a growing world reliance on such fuels, however, Washington inevitably invites countermoves of various sorts. Rival powers, fearful and resentful of its geopolitical assertiveness, will bolster their capacity to resist American power—a trend already evident in China’s accelerating naval and missile buildup.
At the same time, other states will seek to develop their own capacity to exploit unconventional resources in what might be considered a fossil-fuels version of an arms race. This will require considerable effort, but such resources are widely distributed across the planet and in time other major producers of unconventional fuels are bound to emerge, challenging America’s advantage in this realm (even as they increase the staying power and global destructiveness of the third age of carbon). Sooner or later, much of international relations will revolve around these issues.
Surviving the Third Carbon Era
Barring unforeseen shifts in global policies and behavior, the world will become increasingly dependent on the exploitation of unconventional energy. This, in turn, means an increase in the buildup of greenhouse gases with little possibility of averting the onset of catastrophic climate effects. Yes, we will also witness progress in the development and installation of renewable forms of energy, but these will play a subordinate role to the development of unconventional oil and gas.
Life in the third carbon era will not be without its benefits. Those who rely on fossil fuels for transportation, heating and the like can perhaps take comfort from the fact that oil and natural gas will not run out soon, as was predicted by many energy analysts in the early years of this century. Banks, the energy corporations and other economic interests will undoubtedly amass staggering profits from the explosive expansion of the unconventional oil business and global increases in the consumption of these fuels. But most of us won’t be rewarded. Quite the opposite. Instead, we’ll experience the discomfort and suffering accompanying the heating of the planet, the scarcity of contested water supplies in many regions and the evisceration of the natural landscape.
What can be done to cut short the third carbon era and avert the worst of these outcomes? Calling for greater investment in green energy is essential but insufficient at a moment when the powers that be are emphasizing the development of unconventional fuels. Campaigning for curbs on carbon emissions is necessary, but will undoubtedly prove problematic, given an increasingly deeply embedded institutional bias toward unconventional energy.
Needed, in addition to such efforts, is a drive to expose the distinctiveness and the dangers of unconventional energy and to demonize those who choose to invest in these fuels rather than their green alternatives. Some efforts of this sort are already underway, including student-initiated campaigns to persuade or compel college and university trustees to divest from any investments in fossil-fuel companies. These, however, still fall short of a systemic drive to identify and resist those responsible for our growing reliance on unconventional fuels.
For all President Obama’s talk of a green technology revolution, we remain deeply entrenched in a world dominated by fossil fuels, with the only true revolution now underway involving the shift from one class of such fuels to another. Without a doubt, this is a formula for global catastrophe. To survive this era, humanity must become much smarter about this new kind of energy and then take the steps necessary to compress the third carbon era and hasten in the Age of Renewables before we burn ourselves off this planet.
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By Noam Chomsky
What is the future likely to bring? A reasonable stance might be to try to look at the human species from the outside. So, imagine that you’re an extraterrestrial observer who is trying to figure out what’s happening here or, for that matter, imagine you’re an historian 100 years from now—assuming there are any historians 100 years from now, which is not obvious—and you’re looking back at what’s happening today. You’d see something quite remarkable.
For the first time in the history of the human species, we have clearly developed the capacity to destroy ourselves. That’s been true since 1945. It’s now being finally recognized that there are more long-term processes like environmental destruction leading in the same direction, maybe not to total destruction, but at least to the destruction of the capacity for a decent existence.
And there are other dangers like pandemics, which have to do with globalization and interaction. So there are processes underway and institutions right in place, like nuclear weapons systems, which could lead to a serious blow to, or maybe the termination of, an organized existence.
How to Destroy a Planet Without Really Trying
The question is: What are people doing about it? None of this is a secret. It’s all perfectly open. In fact, you have to make an effort not to see it.
There have been a range of reactions. There are those who are trying hard to do something about these threats, and others who are acting to escalate them. If you look at who they are, this future historian or extraterrestrial observer would see something strange indeed. Trying to mitigate or overcome these threats are the least developed societies, the indigenous populations, or the remnants of them, tribal societies and first nations in Canada. They’re not talking about nuclear war but environmental disaster, and they’re really trying to do something about it.
In fact, all over the world—Australia, India, South America—there are battles going on, sometimes wars. In India, it’s a major war over direct environmental destruction, with tribal societies trying to resist resource extraction operations that are extremely harmful locally, but also in their general consequences. In societies where indigenous populations have an influence, many are taking a strong stand. The strongest of any country with regard to global warming is in Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority and constitutional requirements that protect the “rights of nature.”
Ecuador, which also has a large indigenous population, is the only oil exporter I know of where the government is seeking aid to help keep that oil in the ground, instead of producing and exporting it—and the ground is where it ought to be.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died recently and was the object of mockery, insult and hatred throughout the Western world, attended a session of the United Nations General Assembly a few years ago where he elicited all sorts of ridicule for calling President George W. Bush a devil. He also gave a speech there that was quite interesting. Of course, Venezuela is a major oil producer. Oil is practically their whole gross domestic product. In that speech, he warned of the dangers of the overuse of fossil fuels and urged producer and consumer countries to get together and try to work out ways to reduce fossil fuel use. That was pretty amazing on the part of an oil producer. You know, he was part Indian, of indigenous background. Unlike the funny things he did, this aspect of his actions at the UN was never even reported.
So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster. At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the U.S. and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible. Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed.
Both political parties, President Obama, the media and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the U.S. Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside. What they mean is: We’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.
And that’s pretty much the case everywhere. Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is doing something. Meanwhile, the U.S., the richest and most powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100 relevant ones that doesn’t have a national policy for restricting the use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t even have renewable energy targets. It’s not because the population doesn’t want it. Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their concern about global warming. It’s institutional structures that block change. Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.
So that’s what the future historian—if there is one—would see. He might also read today’s scientific journals. Just about every one you open has a more dire prediction than the last.
“The Most Dangerous Moment in History”
The other issue is nuclear war. It’s been known for a long time that if there were to be a first strike by a major power, even with no retaliation, it would probably destroy civilization just because of the nuclear-winter consequences that would follow. You can read about it in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It’s well understood. So the danger has always been a lot worse than we thought it was.
We’ve just passed the 50 year anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was called "the most dangerous moment in history" by historian Arthur Schlesinger, President John F. Kennedy’s advisor. Which it was. It was a very close call, and not the only time either. In some ways, however, the worst aspect of these grim events is that the lessons haven’t been learned.
What happened in the missile crisis in October 1962 has been prettified to make it look as if acts of courage and thoughtfulness abounded. The truth is that the whole episode was almost insane. There was a point, as the missile crisis was reaching its peak, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev wrote to Kennedy offering to settle it by a public announcement of a withdrawal of Russian missiles from Cuba and U.S. missiles from Turkey. Actually, Kennedy hadn’t even known that the U.S. had missiles in Turkey at the time. They were being withdrawn anyway, because they were being replaced by more lethal Polaris nuclear submarines, which were invulnerable.
So that was the offer. Kennedy and his advisors considered it—and rejected it. At the time, Kennedy himself was estimating the likelihood of nuclear war at a third to a half. So Kennedy was willing to accept a very high risk of massive destruction in order to establish the principle that we—and only we—have the right to offensive missiles beyond our borders, in fact anywhere we like, no matter what the risk to others—and to ourselves, if matters fall out of control. We have that right, but no one else does.
Kennedy did, however, accept a secret agreement to withdraw the missiles the U.S. was already withdrawing, as long as it was never made public. Khrushchev, in other words, had to openly withdraw the Russian missiles while the U.S. secretly withdrew its obsolete ones; that is, Khrushchev had to be humiliated and Kennedy had to maintain his macho image. He’s greatly praised for this: Courage and coolness under threat, and so on. The horror of his decisions is not even mentioned—try to find it on the record.
And to add a little more, a couple of months before the crisis blew up, the U.S. had sent missiles with nuclear warheads to Okinawa, Japan. These were aimed at China during a period of great regional tension.
Well, who cares? We have the right to do anything we want anywhere in the world. That was one grim lesson from that era, but there were others to come.
Ten years after that, in 1973, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called a high-level nuclear alert. It was his way of warning the Russians not to interfere in the ongoing Israel-Arab war and, in particular, not to interfere after he had informed the Israelis that they could violate a ceasefire the U.S. and Russia had just agreed upon. Fortunately, nothing happened.
Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan was in office. Soon after he entered the White House, he and his advisors had the Air Force start penetrating Russian air space to try to elicit information about Russian warning systems, Operation Able Archer. Essentially, these were mock attacks. The Russians were uncertain, some high-level officials fearing that this was a step towards a real first strike. Fortunately, they didn’t react, though it was a close call. And it goes on like that.
What to Make of the Iranian and North Korean Nuclear Crises
At the moment, the nuclear issue is regularly on front pages in the cases of North Korea and Iran. There are ways to deal with these ongoing crises. Maybe they wouldn’t work, but at least you could try. They are, however, not even being considered, not even reported.
Take the case of Iran, which is considered in the West—not in the Arab world, not in Asia—the gravest threat to world peace. It’s a Western obsession, and it’s interesting to look into the reasons for it, but I’ll put that aside here. Is there a way to deal with the supposed gravest threat to world peace? Actually, there are quite a few. One way, a pretty sensible one, was proposed a couple of months ago at a meeting of the non-aligned countries in Tehran. In fact, they were just reiterating a proposal that’s been around for decades, pressed particularly by Egypt, and has been approved by the UN General Assembly.
The proposal is to move toward establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. That wouldn’t be the answer to everything, but it would be a pretty significant step forward. And there were ways to proceed. Under UN auspices, there was to be an international conference in Finland last December to try to implement plans to move toward this. What happened?
You won’t read about it in the newspapers because it wasn’t reported—only in specialist journals. In early November, Iran agreed to attend the meeting. A couple of days later President Obama cancelled the meeting, saying the time wasn’t right. The European Parliament issued a statement calling for it to continue, as did the Arab states. Nothing resulted. So we’ll move toward ever-harsher sanctions against the Iranian population—it doesn’t hurt the regime—and maybe war. Who knows what will happen?
In Northeast Asia, it’s the same sort of thing. North Korea may be the craziest country in the world. It’s certainly a good competitor for that title. But it does make sense to try to figure out what’s in the minds of people when they’re acting in crazy ways. Why would they behave the way they do? Just imagine ourselves in their situation. Imagine what it meant in the Korean War years of the early 1950s for your country to be totally leveled, everything destroyed by a huge superpower, which furthermore was gloating about what it was doing. Imagine the imprint that would leave behind.
Bear in mind that the North Korean leadership is likely to have read the public military journals of this superpower at that time explaining that, since everything else in North Korea had been destroyed, the Air Force was sent to destroy North Korea’s dams, huge dams that controlled the water supply—a war crime, by the way, for which people were hanged in Nuremberg. And these official journals were talking excitedly about how wonderful it was to see the water pouring down, digging out the valleys, and the Asians scurrying around trying to survive. The journals were exulting in what this meant to those “Asians,” horrors beyond our imagination. It meant the destruction of their rice crop, which in turn meant starvation and death. How magnificent! It’s not in our memory, but it’s in their memory.
Let’s turn to the present. There’s an interesting recent history. In 1993, Israel and North Korea were moving towards an agreement in which North Korea would stop sending any missiles or military technology to the Middle East and Israel would recognize that country. President Clinton intervened and blocked it. Shortly after that, in retaliation, North Korea carried out a minor missile test. The U.S. and North Korea did then reach a framework agreement in 1994 that halted its nuclear work and was more or less honored by both sides. When George W. Bush came into office, North Korea had maybe one nuclear weapon and verifiably wasn’t producing any more.
Bush immediately launched his aggressive militarism, threatening North Korea—“axis of evil” and all that—so North Korea got back to work on its nuclear program. By the time Bush left office, they had eight to 10 nuclear weapons and a missile system, another great neocon achievement. In between, other things happened. In 2005, the U.S. and North Korea actually reached an agreement in which North Korea was to end all nuclear weapons and missile development. In return, the West, but mainly the U.S., was to provide a light-water reactor for its medical needs and end aggressive statements. They would then form a nonaggression pact and move toward accommodation.
It was pretty promising, but almost immediately Bush undermined it. He withdrew the offer of the light-water reactor and initiated programs to compel banks to stop handling any North Korean transactions, even perfectly legal ones. The North Koreans reacted by reviving their nuclear weapons program. And that’s the way it’s been going.
It’s well known. You can read it in straight, mainstream American scholarship. What they say is: It’s a pretty crazy regime, but it’s also following a kind of tit-for-tat policy. You make a hostile gesture and we’ll respond with some crazy gesture of our own. You make an accommodating gesture and we’ll reciprocate in some way.
Lately, for instance, there have been South Korean-U.S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula which, from the North’s point of view, have got to look threatening. We’d think they were threatening if they were going on in Canada and aimed at us. In the course of these, the most advanced bombers in history, Stealth B-2s and B-52s, are carrying out simulated nuclear bombing attacks right on North Korea’s borders.
This surely sets off alarm bells from the past. They remember that past, so they’re reacting in a very aggressive, extreme way. Well, what comes to the West from all this is how crazy and how awful the North Korean leaders are. Yes, they are. But that’s hardly the whole story, and this is the way the world is going.
It’s not that there are no alternatives. The alternatives just aren’t being taken. That’s dangerous. So if you ask what the world is going to look like, it’s not a pretty picture. Unless people do something about it. We always can.
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Although oil remains the world’s leading energy source, coal and natural gas continue to grow in significance, according to new research conducted by the Worldwatch Institute for its Vital Signs Online service. Global consumption of coal increased 5.4 percent in 2011, to 3.72 billion tons of oil equivalent, while natural gas use grew 2.2 percent, to 2.91 billion tons of oil equivalent. Both are primary fuels for the world’s electricity market, and because they are often used as substitutes for one other, their trends need to be examined together, write report authors Matt Lucky and Reese Rogers.
The bulk of coal use is for power generation, with smaller amounts being used in steelmaking. Spurred mainly by rising demand in China and India, coal’s share in the global primary energy mix reached 28 percent in 2011—its highest point since the International Energy Agency began keeping statistics in 1971. Although the U.S. remains one of the world’s largest coal users, just over 70 percent of global demand in 2011 was in countries outside of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), including China and India. Consumption in non-OECD countries grew 8 percent in 2011 to 2.63 billion tons of oil equivalent.
China alone accounted for nearly half of all coal use in 2011. India is the second largest contributor to rising coal demand and is the world’s third largest coal consumer, after surpassing the European Union in 2009. The U.S. remains the second largest coal user, even though U.S. demand decreased by around 5 percent in 2011 and continued to fall in 2012 due to the shale gas boom and the abundance of cheap natural gas. Even with declining demand, the U.S. still accounts for 45 percent of coal demand within the OECD.
Coal production, like consumption, is concentrated mainly in China. But the U.S. holds the largest proved coal reserves, with 28 percent of the global total, followed by Russia at 18 percent, China at 13 percent, Australia at 9 percent, and India at 7 percent. Together, these five countries accounted for three-quarters of proved coal reserves as well as three-quarters of global coal production in 2011.
In the case of natural gas, global consumption grew at a slower rate than coal—2.2 percent—to reach 2.91 billion tons of oil equivalent in 2011. Usage grew in all regions except the European Union, which experienced a 9.9 percent decline in natural gas consumption—the largest on record and due mainly to a struggling economy and high natural gas prices.
Natural gas accounted for nearly 23.7 percent of global primary energy consumption in 2011, down slightly from 23.8 percent in 2010. Consumption increased most significantly in East Asia, led by China (21.5 percent) and Japan (11.6 percent).
Natural gas production increased at a higher rate than consumption—3.1 percent—reaching 2.96 billion tons of oil equivalent in 2011. The U.S. and Russia accounted for nearly 40 percent of the world’s output in 2011, contributing 20 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively, followed by Canada, Iran, and Qatar at 4–5 percent each.
Continued strong growth in the global coal and natural gas sectors depends on numerous factors. Demand for coal could stagnate with the introduction of new technologies in the power sector, or with the adoption of policies to reduce the environmental and health impacts of coal combustion. Increasing global concern about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change could lead to a greater transition from coal to natural gas. Other factors that could change the equation include rising environmental and other concerns about hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) and the possibility that cheap natural gas might undermine growth in renewable energy.
Further highlights from the report:
- Over the period 2001–11, China accounted for 80 percent of the global increase in coal demand. China alone accounted for 49.5 percent of global coal production in 2011.
- U.S. coal exports are growing at a rate not seen since the 1979–81 export boom, and 2012 exports are projected to be more than double those in 2009, according to data as of August 2012.
- The greatest growth in natural gas production in 2011 occurred in Yemen (51.3 percent), Iraq (42.0 percent), Turkmenistan (40.6 percent) and Qatar (25.8 percent).
- Liquefied natural gas’s share of the total natural gas trade grew to 32.2 percent in 2011, up from 30 percent in 2010.
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By Bob Keefe
Used with permission of NRDC – Switchboard
Fossil fuel lobbyists and their allies in Congress continue to dispute the need to support development of more renewable energy in America.
Never mind that more than 90 percent of Americans say developing renewable energy should be a national priority.
Never mind that renewable energy, led by the solar industry, is among the fastest-growing and most promising job sectors in our economy.
Never mind that with every solar panel or wind turbine we install, we reduce emissions from coal, oil and other fossil fuels that pollute our air, warm our planet and in turn, foster more climate-related disasters.
Need more reasons for why we need to support development of renewable energy in America?
Scan the headlines—like these from just the past few days:
WASHINGTON—A senior Iranian official on Tuesday delivered a sharp threat in response to economic sanctions being readied by the United States, saying his country would retaliate against any crackdown by blocking all oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, a vital artery for transporting about one-fifth of the world’s oil supply.
LAGOS, Nigeria—An oil spill near the coast of Nigeria is probably the worst to hit those waters in a decade, a government official said Thursday, as slicks from the Royal Dutch Shell PLC spill approached the country's southern shoreline.
The slick from Shell's Bonga field has affected 115 miles of ocean near Nigeria's coast, Peter Idabor, who leads the National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency, told the Associated Press. Idabor said the slick continued to move toward shore Thursday night, putting at risk birds, fish and other wildlife in the area.
The most expensive year ever for gasoline purchases in the U.S. is heading to a close—but not without another dig at motorists' wallets.
Pain levels at the pump rose again over the last week in California and across most of the nation, assuring that 2011 will mark the second year in a row that prices have posted record December highs.
The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in California hit $3.576, up 2 cents since Dec. 19, according to the Energy Department's weekly survey of service stations. That shattered—by 28.9 cents—the old record of $3.287 a gallon set in December 2007 and was tied in December 2010.
Nationally, the numbers told a similar story. The U.S. average for a gallon of regular gasoline rose 2.9 cents over the last week to $3.258. That was 20.6 cents a gallon higher than a year earlier and 20.5 cents higher than the record high set in December 2007.
Three more reasons, taken from just a few days' worth of news, why America needs to keep pressing forward on renewable energy development.
Iran can’t block the sun from shining on solar panels or the wind from blowing on turbines in America. Cars that get better mileage or run on renewable fuels mean we save money at the pump. Less dependence on fossil fuels means fewer environmental disasters like those in Nigeria or in the Gulf of Mexico.
Some say we don’t need to support development of more renewable energy in America. Why?
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In November, the Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper was awarded a grant from the U.K.-based Rufford Small Grants Foundation to conduct a threat assessment of the Lesser Zab River in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq and develop action plans for addressing the important problems on the river. The Lesser Zab River has its origins in Iran, where two small streams join together to from the Chami Kalveh in the Azarbayjane-Gharbi region of Iran. For part of its travels the river forms the border between Iraq and Iran, and it is here that it is eventually joined by the Siwayl River (flowing entirely in Iraq). It eventually leaves the border and flows northwest to the wide Dukan basin (now a reservoir, controlled by the only major dam on the river, the Dukan Dam). From the dam it flows 402 km west-southwest to meet the Tigris River near the town of Bayji. One of the key rivers within the jurisdiction of the Iraq Upper Tigris Waterkeeper, the Lesser Zab faces a host of threats that include fuel spills from smuggling activities, water diversion and irrigation projects, dam construction, gravel mining operations, municipal sewage and solid waste impacts, and issues from some industrial activities such as oil exploration, but most of these impacts have simply not been documented.
There has never been any comprehensive or consistent monitoring of the river until Nature Iraq, an Iraqi conservation organization, started water quality sampling there in 2007. Funding such activities within a post-conflict country like Iraq has been difficult, as most support is focused on reconstruction, development and the hallowed but narrowly-defined concept favored by international development agencies—“democracy building." The environment usually gets put on the back burner as being outside of these issues. Because of lacks of funds, Nature Iraq was not able to continue its water quality monitoring effort after 2009. But in the following year Nature Iraq initiated efforts to form a Waterkeeper program and affiliate with the international WATERKEEPER® Alliance. Formal acceptance into the Alliance took place in 2011 and the Waterkeeper, Nabil Musa, began work primarily getting familiar with the rivers under his jurisdiction and conducting a number of clean-up, outreach and educational projects.
With the assistance of the Rufford Small Grant, in 2012 the Waterkeeper will start the first comprehensive survey of one of his key rivers from the point it enters Iraq to the point it joins the Tigris River. He will utilize a specific threat assessment methodology utilized by Nature Iraq in past survey work that will identify areas along the river with the highest threats and allow us to prioritize the different issues facing the watershed. The main goal will be to develop a list of strategies and action plans designed to mitigate or resolve these threats, which the Waterkeeper can use to guide his future activities and focus, but which can also be provided to local municipalities along the river as well as the Iraqi and the Kurdistan regional governments to persuade, encourage, and/or cajole them into also taking actions to address the many problems on the river.
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