Why We Can't Frack Ourselves Out of an Energy Crisis
By Alex Kirby
Jeremy Leggett, a former Greenpeace staff member who founded a successful solar energy company, has been invited to the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting this week in Davos. The theme of the meeting is "The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business."
Leggett told the Climate News Network: "The WEF likes to deal in big ideas, and last year one of its ideas was to argue that the world can frack its way to prosperity. There are large numbers of would-be frackers in Davos.
"I'm a squeaky wheel within the system. I'm in Davos to put the counter-arguments to big energy, and I'll tell them: 'You're in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the financial services industry in pushing a hyped narrative.' This refers to the way in which banking leaders had "their particular comforting narrative catastrophically wrong, until the proof came along in the shape of the financial crash."
Leggett founded Solarcentury, the UK’s fastest-growing solar electric company since 2000. He also established the charity SolarAid which aims to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by 2020, and chairs the Carbon Tracker Initiative. His book, Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis was published in 2005, and his latest, The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, in 2013.
Leggett says the conventional oil industry is facing an imminent crisis, because existing crude oil reserves are declining fast, it is having to find the money for soaring capital expenditure, and the amount of oil available for export is falling.
"Big Oil is still extremely powerful and well-capitalized", he says, "but it is fast approaching sunset. The profitability of the big international groups—like Exxon, Shell and BP—is a real worry for investors, and they've been largely locked out of the easy oil controlled by national companies—just look at BP and Russia.
"Gas? Unless the price goes up, the whole U.S. shale gas industry is in danger of becoming a bubble, even a Ponzi scheme. All but one of the biggest production regions have peaked already, and losses are piling up. This is an industry that's in grave danger of committing financial suicide."
A linked message that Leggett will deliver is that there is a growing danger of a carbon bubble building up in the capital markets. He says investors who think governments may agree stringent and strictly-enforced limits on greenhouse gas emissions might decide their investments in oil and gas are at risk of becoming worthless.
Crunch next year?
There is little sign yet that such limits are likely any time soon. But Leggett says that is to miss the point: "You don't have to wait until agreement is close, or even probable. You have to believe only that there's a realistic chance of policymaking which means assets might be stranded."
He will also tell his audience "to take out insurance on the risk of an oil crisis, by accelerating the very things we need to deal with climate change". Chief among these, he says, is the need to channel funds withdrawn from oil, gas, and coal into clean energy instead—though he acknowledges that, as a renewable energy entrepreneur himself, he may be accused of self-interest.
Leggett fears a world oil crisis could occur as early as 2015. And when it comes, it will certainly mean "ruinously high prices," for a start. But it will mean something more, he says. Last December he worked with a U.S. national security expert, Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, to organize the Transatlantic Energy Security Dialogue. Leggett has a regard for the views of people like Davis.
"The military are better than your average politician or consultant to big energy at spotting systemic risk," he says.
Leggett says military think-tanks have tended to side with those who distrust "the cornucopian narrative" of the oil industry. One 2008 study, by the German Army, says: "Psychological barriers cause indisputable facts to be blanked out and lead to almost instinctively refusing to look into this difficult subject in detail. Peak oil, however, is unavoidable."
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From Greta Thunberg to Sir David Attenborough, the headline-grabbing climate change activists and environmentalists of today are predominantly white. But like many areas of society, those whose voices are heard most often are not necessarily representative of the whole.
1. Wangari Maathai<p>In 2004, Professor Maathai made history as the <a href="https://www.nobelpeaceprize.org/Prize-winners/Prizewinner-documentation/Wangari-Maathai" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize</a> for her dedication to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She started the <a href="http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Green Belt Movement</a>, a community-based tree planting initiative that aims to reduce poverty and encourage conservation, in 1977. More than 51 million trees have been planted helping build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls. Her environmental work is celebrated every year on <a href="http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/node/955" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Wangari Maathai Day on 3 March</a>.</p>
2. Robert Bullard<p>Known as the 'father of environmental justice,' Dr Bullard has <a href="https://www.unep.org/championsofearth/laureates/2020/robert-bullard" target="_blank">campaigned against harmful waste</a> being dumped in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the southern states of the U.S. since the 1970s. His first book, Dumping in Dixie, highlighted the link between systemic racism and environmental oppression, showing how the descendants of slaves were exposed to higher-than-average levels of pollutants. In 1994, his work led to the signing of the <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/albert-huang/20th-anniversary-president-clintons-executive-order-12898-environmental-justice" target="_blank">Executive Order on Environmental Justice</a>, which the <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/" target="_blank">Biden administration is building on</a>.<br></p>
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Pollution has a race problem. Elizabethwarren.com
3. John Francis<p>Helping the clean-up operation after an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in January 1971 inspired Francis to <a href="https://planetwalk.org/about-john/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stop taking motorized transport</a>. Instead, for 22 years, he walked everywhere. He also took a vow of silence that lasted 17 years, so he could listen to others. He has walked the width of the U.S. and sailed and walked through South America, earning the nickname "Planetwalker," and raising awareness of how interconnected people are with the environment.</p>
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4. Dr. Warren Washington<p>A meteorology and climate pioneer, Dr. Washington was one of the first people to develop atmospheric computer models in the 1960s, which have helped scientists understand climate change. These models now also incorporate the oceans and sea ice, surface water and vegetation. In 2007, the <a href="https://www.cgd.ucar.edu/pcm/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Parallel Climate Model (PCM)</a> and <a href="https://www.cesm.ucar.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Community Earth System Model (CESM)</a>, earned Dr. Washington and his colleagues the <a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2007/summary/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nobel Peace Prize</a>, as part of the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change</a>.</p>
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5. Angelou Ezeilo<p>Huge trees and hikes to pick berries during her childhood in upstate New York inspired Ezeilo to become an environmentalist and set up the <a href="https://gyfoundation.org/staff/Angelou-Ezeilo" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Greening Youth Foundation</a>, to educate future generations about the importance of preservation. Through its schools program and Youth Conservation Corps, the social enterprise provides access to nature to disadvantaged children and young people in the U.S. and West Africa. In 2019, Ezeilo published her book <em>Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders</em>, co-written by her Pulitzer Prize-winning brother Nick Chiles.</p>
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