Sunday, November 29, 2015

Climate change is our grand narrative now

There is the story of our personal lives: our family, our friends, our jobs, our hobbies. There is the story of our communities: our civic, religious, business, artistic and recreational lives. There is the story of our nations: their internal political struggles and their struggles with each other.

But now, there is one grand narrative which ties us all together, whether we want to be connected or not, whether we are preoccupied with our personal, community or national narratives or not. That is the narrative of our changing climate and the resulting threat to the continuity of our world civilization. The upcoming climate talks in Paris this week are but one expression of this new reality.

Even people who oppose doing anything about climate change are forced to talk about it. Even people who somehow have convinced themselves that climate change is not happening and oddly, in the same breath, claim that humans have nothing to do with this thing that is not happening--even those people confirm by their very framing of the issue that they are firmly situated inside this narrative.

Climate change is now the grand narrative because what happens to climate and what we do about it will be a worldwide story which no one can ignore. As such there will be few people without an opinion on the issue of climate change. Increasingly, it will reach down into our national, community and personal lives in ways we had hoped would wait until we are gone. The droughts, the heat, the floods, the damage to crops, the lengthening summer, the late fall, and the early spring--none of them can escape our notice.

We are forced to incorporate the changing climate into our everyday conversations. It is already a big topic among anyone who gardens and certainly anyone who farms. Among those in touch with plants the evidence of a changing climate is incontrovertible.

The grand tension will be how to address climate change without giving up the abundant energy, food and technology that have given us such comfort, ease, mobility and opportunity. Neither side in the debate over what to do wants to relinquish the hope that we will have to give up almost nothing.

One side says we should continue to burn fossil fuels, to raze the forests, and to farm the fields in ways that release carbon from the soil into the air...and that we will continue to be able to live the modern industrial life we've become used to. Any consequences of climate change will be manageable (an argument that becomes less plausible with each passing day).

The other side implores us to embrace carbon-free energy sources, move toward better care of the forests and the soil, sip what energy we use instead of gulping it, adjust our habits and lifestyles...and we will continue to be able to live a green version of the modern industrial life we've become used to.

But underneath it all, we fear and suspect that either path will involve some loss, some sacrifice. And, it is that fear and suspicion which prevents us from committing to do what we must do to save the best parts of our culture and society while letting go of the worst. It is the fear of change and the fear of loss which is holding us back from truly addressing the existential threat of climate change.

If someone were holding a gun to our heads, it would be clear that we were in danger. But, climate change creeps into our lives gradually. Few people can see that climate now has a seat at every negotiating table, that climate has become a political actor with an unyielding, non-negotiable position. We can choose to think of climate change as a brutal, remorseless malefactor with no sympathy for humankind. But we can also choose to think of climate change as a messenger, a symptom like a recurrent fever, telling us that our society has overstepped its bounds and needs to rethink its way of life to regain its health--or face worse consequences.

It is in the evolutionary makeup of humans to seek to maximize their power intake. In fact, it is in the evolutionary makeup of every organism to do so. By maximizing the power available to us we increase our chances of survival as individuals and as a species. But, this impulse is at the heart of our climate difficulties.

Like a pioneer species in a clearcut forest, humans expanded rapidly after the broad deployment of fossil fuels. But, pioneer species ultimately give way to mature forests which reach optimum rates of energy, mineral and water cycling--rates that can maintain the balance of the forest over very long periods. The forest enters a less dynamic, but stable equilibrium that makes longevity possible.

To borrow from economist Herman Daly, we now live in a "full world" and we must come to grips with that new reality. Human society cannot grow its consumption of energy and resources forever. But we can grow in our social, artistic, intellectual and spiritual lives indefinitely.

Climate change is giving us the first universally understood signal that it is time to reconsider our collective future. Will we risk the destruction of all that we hold dear in exchange for a few more decades of a fossil fuel party that is undermining our health and the health of the planet? Or will we choose to embrace not only changes in the physical infrastructure upon which we base our material lives, but also a new vision that can endlessly engage our hearts, minds and spirits in the kind of growth that has no limit?

Our answers represent the climax in the new grand narrative of climate change--essentially a choice that will be reflected in our individual daily acts and in the collective acts of our communities and our nations.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Genetically engineered salmon: What could possibly go wrong?

As U.S. regulators cleared genetically engineered salmon for sale in the United States last week, they opened the door to what many scientists already feel is inevitable: The escape and reproduction of GE salmon in the wild and the possible destruction of competing wild species.

Under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved application, the company behind the so-called AquAdvantage Salmon, Aqua Bounty, can only raise such salmon in land-based tanks with "multiple and redundant levels of physical barriers to prevent eggs and fish from escaping." These barriers are described in detail and suggest that it will be very difficult for any eggs or fish to escape into waterways.

The FDA said it considered four interrelated questions about confinement of the fish:

  1. What is the likelihood that AquAdvantage Salmon will escape the conditions of confinement?
  2. What is the likelihood that AquAdvantage Salmon will survive and disperse if they escape the conditions of confinement?
  3. What is the likelihood that AquAdvantage Salmon will reproduce and establish if they escape the conditions of confinement?
  4. What are the likely consequences to, or effects on, the environment of the United States should AquAdvantage Salmon escape the conditions of confinement?

Right away we can see that the FDA is asking these questions in the wrong way because it misunderstands the risks involved. It should be asking if there is ANY LIKELIHOOD WHATSOEVER that the salmon will escape, survive, disperse, reproduce and establish populations in the wild.

Why is it important to ask the question in this way? Because although the salmon are sterilized, the "sterilization technique is not foolproof," according to The New York Times.

So, here is the relevant principle: Any invention with a nonzero risk of systemic ruin and which is produced and deployed long enough will with almost 100 percent certainty create that ruin. Put more informally, if you keep repeating something that each time you repeat it has a small chance of creating catastrophe, eventually you will produce catastrophic conditions, that is, systemic ruin. Systemic ruin in this case would be the ruination of the wild salmon fisheries overrun by the GE type.

And, the damage might include other harmful effects to waterways and their associated wildlife that we cannot now anticipate. Remember, this is a fish that we've never seen operate in any existing ecosystem. We have no empirical data about its possible effects; and, releasing such fish into the wild to obtain that data risks the very ruin we wish to avoid.

Now, there is one final question which the FDA asks: "What are the likely consequences to, or effects on, the environment of the United States should AquAdvantage Salmon escape the conditions of confinement?"

Again, this is the wrong way to ask the question. The effects would not be confined to the United States since the escape of one unsuccessfully sterilized salmon into the wild could lead to a worldwide infestation. (In any case, the facilities approved for farming the salmon are in Prince Edward Island, Canada and in Panama. But apparently, only the possible environmental effects in the United States were considered.)

Anything that is novel cannot by definition have a history to draw on. A novel invention might not alter the environment very much or it might alter it radically. We cannot know. To say that we should subject the world's salmon fisheries to the possibility of ruin in order to find out reveals a failure to understand that self-propagating, worldwide dangers do not lend themselves to cost-benefit analysis.

When the cost is the complete ruination of a system, we must judge costs to be incalculable. The complete destruction of the global wild salmon population is not 10 times worse than the destruction of 10 percent of that population. It is infinitely worse. It is infinitely worse because you cannot repopulate the world with an extinct species (except perhaps in science fiction movies). There is no remedy.

And, we must keep in mind that we do not now know how many other facilities like those built by Aqua Bounty will be constructed. The danger of release grows with each added facility. And, of course, we must assume that Aqua Bounty wants to expand as a company which implies many more facilities should the company become successful. Also, keep in mind that such facilities, although on land, must have extensive plumbing and drains which must ultimately connect with the external world. Is it rational to believe that GE salmon or salmon eggs will never, ever make it into a waterway and survive, an event which must happen only once for a possible cascade of destruction of wild species to take place?

So, we should say that the risk is real and the scope and severity, if realized, would be catastrophic.

Understanding this allows us to see why the precautionary principle applies in this situation and in the cases of all genetically engineered plants and animals. Anything that is novel, self-propagating and worldwide in reach has the possibility of creating systemic ruin. Which leads us to another key principle: It does not matter how many times something succeeds if failure is too great to bear.* In other words, it does not matter if millions upon millions of GE salmon are produced without any release into the environment when the inevitable release of one (by mistake, carelessness, accident or poor design) could create ruinous global consequences. (And, if the GE salmon industry grows, it is difficult to believe that there will be only one inadvertent release over time. Accidents happen--even when we think we have designed foolproof systems.)

Whether such a fish is safe for human consumption is not the key question--though the FDA answers that it is safe. That's what makes the announcement of the approval so misleading. What difference does it make if this GE salmon is safe to eat if, in the event of escape and propagation, it ultimately destroys the entire wild salmon fishery and has other unforeseen and catastrophic effects on marine life.


*This formulation comes from author and risk expert Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and many other works on risk.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Syria, climate change and the horror in Paris

As the world mourns those who died in Paris last week in a killing spree for which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility, reporters and commentators have been discussing the motivations behind the attacks. I'm not sure that any so far has considered whether one can draw a straight line from a severe drought in Syria to these mass killings. My own answer is that if the line is there--and I think it is--then it has taken many twists and turns before arriving in Paris.

Even so, it might be worthwhile for those who will soon be gathering in this bereaved city in order to negotiate a new worldwide climate treaty to understand any such connection. For in the background behind these events, there is a Syria starved of water almost surely because of climate change.

A study released earlier this year suggested that the first link in the causal chain that led to the current conflict in Syria was a severe drought lasting from 2006 through 2009, a drought that yielded some of the strongest evidence yet for the link between climate change and increasingly extreme droughts.

As The New York Times reported last March:

Some social scientists, policy makers and others have previously suggested that the drought played a role in the Syrian unrest, and the researchers addressed this as well, saying the drought "had a catalytic effect." They cited studies that showed that the extreme dryness, combined with other factors, including misguided agricultural and water-use policies of the Syrian government, caused crop failures that led to the migration of as many as 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. This in turn added to social stresses that eventually resulted in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

So, climate change is not a sufficient explanation for the Syrian conflict nor for the ugly and brutal attacks on French civilians. In fact, ISIS had been threatening France long before the French military joined the conflict in late September. Nevertheless, climate change appears to be the first link in a long chain of events involving a myriad of groups and countries that ultimately led to the attacks in Paris, attacks believed to be in retaliation for French airstrikes on ISIS.

It is not that climate change causes people to be violent so much as it exacerbates their violent tendencies. Lack of water and the failure of harvests can make people very, very angry--angry and susceptible to those who promise revenge against the perceived perpetrators of their problems.

But, one cannot fight climate change with guns. So, when the guns come out, they get pointed at people for reasons few trace back to climate change. Simmering grievances, old and new, can find their expression, it seems, in armed conflict when the heat from global warming is turned up this high.

The paramount concern in Paris now is for the safety of those thousands of scientists, policymakers, businesspeople, reporters and world leaders who will be descending on the city for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change between November 30 and December 11. Will it enter the attendees' minds that the savage attacks in Paris are in some way linked to climate change? Will the broader public worldwide see the link?

We humans have a natural proclivity to fight over things we want and need such as water, food, and energy resources. Climate change will make our ability to obtain all of these in sufficient quantities either more difficult (food and water) or more problematic (greenhouse gases from fossil fuel energy resources).

More conflict over these basics that is linked to climate change cannot be far in the future. And, that means that the upcoming climate talks in Paris will not just be about climate. They will also be about conflict and peace. Without substantial progress on climate change we are likely to see ever more conflicts that begin with deprivation brought on by climate change, but which quickly spiral into wars with ideological, ethnic and religious dimensions that engulf entire regions.

Many readers may know the old adage about the relationship between peace and justice: "If you want peace, work for justice." To that we must now add a new variation: "If you want peace, you must work for policies and practices that seriously address climate change."

May the Paris negotiators find the courage to do just that.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Getting it wrong on recycling

Let's see what those disparaging America's rate of recycling as "too high" either get completely wrong or fail to understand. You can read recent commentary suggesting that the recycling rate is too high here, here and here.

The number one complaint is that it costs more to recycle some categories of waste than to put them into a landfill. What the critics fail to comprehend is that unlike a couple of generations ago when most landfills were owned and run by local governments, today most are run by profit-making enterprises such as Waste Management Inc. and Republic Services Inc. which haul some 80 percent of the nation's refuse. Those enterprises developed their large centralized landfills for the purpose of keeping down their disposal costs.

Since the private waste disposal industry has organized its infrastructure around cheap landfill disposal, it's no wonder that landfilling seems like the most cost-effective option. It follows that if we Americans had built a waste infrastructure with the goal of zero waste as Germany did, our infrastructure would naturally have delivered lower costs for recycling than it does.

The Germans landfill about 1 percent of their waste compared to America's 68 percent. Germans recycle about 70 percent of their waste and burn almost all the rest to produce energy. Americans recycle about 25 percent of their waste and burn about 7 percent.

Consider this analogy. You can make your house energy-efficient in two ways. You can build it to be energy-efficient in the first place. Or, you can add energy-efficient features later on. Which do you think would be more cost-effective?

That's what we've been facing with the boom in recycling. We are retrofitting a system designed for cheap landfilling rather than building a system designed for cheap recycling (which ought to be our goal).

But we must also consider that the narrowly defined cost of landfilling waste does not take into account the long-term costs of monitoring and mitigating damage to soil and water from closed landfills far into the future. Private landfill operators are responsible for what happens for the first 30 years. After that, taxpayers pick up the bill. But only if officials decide to. Otherwise, the cost to human and animal health and the loss of value for properties affected is simply absorbed by those unlucky enough to live or work near a closed landfill.

Now, this is important: Current landfill technology which lines waste pits will not keep pollutants from leaking out forever. In the long run, whatever goes into landfills will eventually seep out with rainwater or sink into the soil below once the lining deteriorates.

Finally, landfills are a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, produced by rotting organic matter in the waste. Some of that methane is being captured and burned as fuel. But some of it is released into the atmosphere where it is driving climate change.

When we say that landfilling is cheaper, what we really mean is that landfilling is cheaper for us--not for those who come after us who will have to clean up the mess that keeps on giving.

The howls over the costs of recycling tend to reappear periodically when commodity prices sink as they have done so dramatically in the last year.

That's because recycled materials such as paper, plastic and metals compete with newly harvested or mined materials. When commodity prices are high, recycled material is in demand because it is cost-competitive with virgin materials. During such periods nobody seems to complain about the supposed burdensome costs of recycling because recycled materials are fetching such healthy prices. (Consequently, at such times the nation's editorial pages tend to be silent on the topic of trash.)

When prices are low, the recyclers complain that they cannot earn enough for their recycled materials which must compete with low-priced virgin material being dumped on the market by suppliers desperate for cash. (Predictably, the nation's editorial pages start to take a closer look at trash when this is the case.)

But just like forestry, oil and gas and mining companies and the manufacturers who rely on their raw materials, recyclers ought to have business plans that take into account the full commodity price cycle. Weyerhaeuser Company, the forestry giant, doesn't just close its doors when wood product prices are low. It has a plan for getting through to the next upswing.

While there is room for debate about what materials are currently most cost-effective and environmentally important to recycle, that should not distract us from the goal of creating a cradle-to-cradle society, that is, one in which all products are designed to be converted into other materials or products at the end of their useful lives. The consequence of such design is practically zero waste.

Of course, it's no wonder that waste haulers are not particularly interested in a zero landfill goal since it would leave their existing landfills without customers.

But one simple policy change could make recycling much more attractive, even in times of low commodity prices. Tax trash. Tax anything that is dumped in a landfill. The higher the tax, the more likely someone will figure out how to 1) minimize waste in the first place and 2) recycle what waste remains more efficiently.

Any mention of a tax on trash would undoubtedly cause the lobbyists for waste haulers to darken the skies over Washington, state capitols or city halls where the mention was made. But that doesn't make a trash tax any less of a good idea as a way to get us all focused on the real goal: less trash, more recycling, and, with what we cannot currently recycle, energy generation using best practices.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Exxon: We knew climate change was a real threat (but we didn't want you to)

One of the big complaints about climate change deniers is that they don't fund any genuine primary scientific research into climate change.

We are used to deniers extracting out-of-context passages from existing legitimate climate research and pretending those passages support the denialist position. But wait...we now know, thanks to recent coverage by Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, that at least one climate change denier did fund a great deal of legitimate climate research.

And, what did that research show? It showed that climate change is real, is caused in great measure by human activities and has the potential to disrupt human society significantly. To be fair, when Exxon Corp. (now Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest publicly traded oil company) engaged in this research in the 1970s and 1980s, it was genuinely trying to understand the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. During that time Exxon scientists collaborated openly with prominent academic and government researchers and were even praised for their commitment and professionalism.

But, as we all know, that openness did not last. As the scientific findings became more alarming, the company began to see the findings from climate research as a threat to its business. Exxon launched a public relations offensive to dispute what climate researchers around the world were discovering, an offensive that lasted until 2008 when the company announced that it would end its support for the vast network of climate change denial organizations it had helped to build. (Whether the company did, in fact, end that support is disputed.)

You can read all the gory and disturbing details concerning this turnabout at the sites linked above. Some might consider this old news. Those who keep up on climate news are certainly familiar with the large denialist apparatus of front groups, fake think tanks and public relations firms supported by Exxon and others.

What's new is the revelation about how deeply committed Exxon was to actual legitimate scientific investigation and how much it did to further our understanding of climate change--including creating some of the most sophisticated climate modeling of the time. Those models are similar to models used by climate scientists today. But the company now derides such models as "useless."

Given all this, it is hard to overstate how brazen and cynical Exxon's leaders became. In the early 1990s, even while Exxon spokespersons and Exxon-funded front groups were decrying the inadequacy of climate models and downplaying the threat of climate change, the company was sponsoring a team of scientists to evaluate how a warming planet might affect exploration opportunities in the arctic as the sea ice melted. The prognosis looked good over the long term for turning arctic prospects--then inaccessible and risky--into profitable operations once the ice began to melt (as it has now started to do). The company was also interested in how melting permafrost would affect its pipelines and processing facilities which might be in danger of sinking into a landscape softened by warming.

But here's the real kicker: The team used climate models developed by Environment Canada, the Canadian government's environmental agency, to create its positive assessments about the eventual accessibility of underwater arctic oil and natural gas deposits. So, while the company was disparaging climate models, it was simultaneously salivating over the oil and gas profits that those very models predicted a warming arctic would make possible from the company's arctic leases. And, of course, the main ingredient for the warming represented in those models was the very carbon dioxide produced when Exxon's oil and natural gas was burned by its millions of customers.

Exxon has long used models to predict what it will find underground wherever it is thinking about drilling. It uses them to manage its existing oil and natural gas reservoirs. It uses models to calculate its reserves and implores its investors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to believe the numbers its models spit out. For this reason, it is completely obvious that Exxon has no genuine objection to models of the physical world--except when those models might undermine the company's profitability.

Based on the latest revelations, climate action group is calling for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Just what crime Exxon perpetrated is not specified. But, it's understandable that what the company did feels like a crime.

The closest analogy is the cover-up by tobacco companies of research they did into the harmful health effects of smoking, but which they lied about to the public for many years. Those companies ended up getting sued by individuals, states and the federal government for health costs associated with smoking. But the tobacco companies are still in business and doing quite well.

I think those supporting an investigation of Exxon are hoping for criminal charges. There is a feeling that the company perpetrated a fraud on the public, that it lied about the dangers of its products while insisting on their safety. Fraud is indeed a crime. However, people mostly end up getting sued for it. Only a few actually go to jail.

It seems doubtful that such a prosecution could ever succeed. Exxon makes legal products that work as advertised. And so far, it's not illegal to do things which change the world's climate. It's true that the company has been trying to confuse policymakers and the public about the nature of the scientific research on climate change. But the First Amendment protects even people and companies who lie about matters of public policy--so long as companies don't lie about their products to the people who buy them.

Exxon never explicitly promised that burning oil and natural gas would not affect the world's climate. The company merely adopted the legally safe position of saying that the uncertainties surrounding climate change research were great. And, of course, it funded front groups to make it seem as if this message of uncertainty was coming from many places, not just one. But, none of this appears illegal, even if it is unseemly.

If I worked in the higher echelons of Exxon Mobil today or at any time in the last couple of decades, I'd be much more worried about being brought before some future international court to answer for what are called "crimes against humanity." In such a court, the protections afforded by U.S. law would be irrelevant. And, with the damage inflicted by climate change, say, by 2030, the public appetite for someone to blame might well be insatiable.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Public health, endocrine disruption and the precautionary principle

Several years ago over lunch a medical researcher I know told me that industrial chemicals were disrupting the human endocrine system leading to widespread obesity and diabetes. He said his research had revealed an important cause--the decline in the production of testosterone in both men and women (yes, women produce a little testosterone) due to this disruption. When this deficiency was reversed, patients experienced significant improvement in both obesity and diabetes.

That's not all. He explained that most people believe that poor diet and little exercise are the central cause of obesity and diabetes. No doubt poor diet and exercise are important contributing factors. But when the body's signaling system fails to indicate when it has had enough to eat, it's hard for most people to recognize that they need to stop eating. How many of us know people who say that they are hungry all the time? A normal human being with a normal endocrine system should not feel "hungry all the time."

The link between what has become a sweeping twin epidemic and man-made chemicals is getting wider notice these days. But the link between endocrine disruption, obesity and diabetes is still absent from popular medical accounts such as those found on WebMD for obesity or on official sites such as that of the World Health Organization.

Endocrine disruption has also been linked to cancer, reproductive failure, neurological disorders and developmental problems in fetuses, problems that can lead to illness later in life. In fact, industrial chemicals known to disrupt endocrine function are found in humans and animals worldwide.

The subject of endocrine disruption first burst into the public mind with the publication of Our Stolen Future in 1996 by three scientific researchers. They sought to make the issue more accessible to the public in order to galvanize action.

A few companies have voluntarily eliminated a known disruptor from the linings of food cans and in plastic bottles and containers. But the disruptor, bisphenol A, commonly referred to as BPA, while banned from baby bottles, continues to be used widely.

Just this year European regulators affirmed the safety of BPA at low levels for adult exposures. The problem, of course, is that human endocrine compounds perform their signaling in the body at extremely low levels, parts per trillion or even parts per quadrillion. As a result the idea that there is an acceptable low dose is questionable.

And, therein lies a difficult regulatory problem. Since known endocrine-disrupting chemicals do their disrupting at extremely low concentrations, nothing short of a complete ban would likely keep them from affecting humans and animals.

What this means is the entire human and animal population of the planet is now involved in an uncontrolled experiment courtesy of the chemical industry. We are all exposed to a soup of man-made chemicals every day, some of them endocrine disruptors.

The industry says it is up to the public to prove somehow that these so-called disruptors are present and dangerous. How the public would build the expensive facilities and pay the high-level personnel needed for such a task is ignored. Government regulatory agencies and a few university laboratories have taken up some of this work.

But this puts the burden of proof in the wrong place. It should be the industry which proves that novel chemicals put into food or released into the environment are safe for humans and animals.

This approach is commonly known as the precautionary principle. It essentially places the burden on the company to prove a novel chemical is safe BEFORE it is introduced into society and the environment. The European regulatory authorities implemented such an approach in 2007 called REACH over the loud objections of the chemical industry. The authorities have put the industry on notice that chemicals of "very high concern" will either have to be shown to be safe or be phased out. (That REACH does not classify BPA as dangerous to adults shows that even cautious European regulators don't understand that very low doses can be damaging.)

The precautionary principle embodied in REACH is simple. If you are going to expose anyone in the public to a man-made substance without explicit consent, you need to prove that the substance is benign or of such great benefit to society that the risks associated with exposure are worth the danger. This is a very high bar to clear, and many toxic chemicals won't make the cut under the European rules.

Partly, this is because regulators granted a 10-year grace period during which chemical makers have had an opportunity to find less toxic or nontoxic substitutes. Without REACH, it is doubtful the industry would have bothered to do so.

Estimates of the number of man-made chemicals vary. The number 80,000 is frequently cited. A more recent piece claims the number is 143,000 with only 800 tested for endocrine disruption.

So-called "green chemistry" is one response in an effort to find chemicals that minimize environmental and health impacts.

Meanwhile, the public health effects of endocrine disruption are growing, undermining the health and happiness of millions across the planet. And, the costs are mounting for the treatment of obesity, diabetes, cancer and a host of other health problems related to the great global chemical experiment in which we are all participants, whether we wish to be or not.

The chemical industry is risking nothing short of a rebellion by the public and governmental authorities if it continues to fight sensible precautionary regulation. Will the day come when there will be enough evidence to link obesity or diabetes or both more directly to chemical exposures? If that day comes, it will be the beginning of the end of impunity for the chemical industry as the legal establishment feasts on the toxic profits of the companies at the center of the epidemic.

The World Health Organization estimates that 9 percent of all adults over 18 have diabetes. I couldn't find global population figures for those 18 and older. But of those 25 and older, that must mean that approximately 372 million have diabetes worldwide. If the fight over diabetes becomes a legal battle similar to that experienced by tobacco companies, the plantiffs' lawyers will run out of chemical companies to sue long before they run out of clients.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Goldilocks and the three prices of oil

We all know Goldilocks from the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which the young maiden wanders into the home of the bears and samples some porridge that happens to be sitting on the dinner table. The first bowl is too hot, the second is too cold and the third is just right.

Like a corporate version of Goldilocks, the oil industry has been wandering into the world marketplace in recent years often finding an oil price that is either too high such as in 2008 and therefore puts the brakes on economic growth undermining demand and ultimately crashing the price as it did in 2009. Or it finds the price too low as it is today therefore making it impossible to earn profits necessary for exploiting the high-cost oil that remains to be extracted from the Earth's crust. Oil that hovered around $100 per barrel from 2011 through much of 2014 seemed to be just right. But those prices are now long gone.

Violent swings in the price of oil in the last decade have made it difficult for the industry to plan long term to produce consistent supplies at moderate prices. This has important implications for future supplies which I will discuss later.

The great political power of the oil industry has led many to conclude erroneously that the industry must also somehow control the price of oil. If the industry has such power, it is doing a really lousy job of using it.

It is true that in times of robust demand, OPEC can maintain high prices by limiting oil production in member countries. But when demand softens, OPEC rarely exhibits the necessary discipline as a group to cut production. Typically, Saudi Arabia shoulders most of the burden of reduced production under such circumstances.

Which is why it was so shocking when, during this most recent swoon in the oil price, the desert kingdom responded with an emphatic "no." No, Saudi Arabia will not curtail its production. And, since all the other OPEC members are unable to challenge Saudi Arabia's power--which consists of the ability to add production to counter cuts by others--the price of oil has stayed low.

The stated reason for this move is that Saudi Arabia wants to undermine American tight oil production. And, low prices are doing just that. The U.S. oil rig count peaked in October last year at 1609. In the week just passed that number was 595.

The low-price strategy seems to be knocking the competition out of the game. And, it's difficult to imagine investors in the future dumping great gobs of new money so freely into tight oil wells and the companies that drill them after having been thoroughly burned this time around. And, that's probably true even if the price of oil recovers significantly. There will always be the fear that Saudi Arabia will flood the market with oil and crash the price. (This is not, in fact, what Saudi Arabia has done so far. In the most recent oil price rout, the Saudis simply refused to cut the kingdom's then current production level--as it had regularly done in the past--even as demand softened and prices fell.)

Probably one of the best illustrations of the problematic future of oil supply is the recent abandonment of a multi-billion dollar arctic oil drilling project by Shell Oil Company, the American arm of the European-based Royal Dutch Shell PLC. Shell called its arctic discoveries "marginal" and indicated that it would cease drilling there for the "foreseeable future."

This emphasizes that the remaining oil available for extraction is both difficult-to-get and high-cost. It turns out that the oil discovered by Shell's arctic project comes in small packages instead of the giant reservoirs which have powered the oil industry and modern civilization up to now.

What this implies is that limitations on future supplies may result from the price of oil being too low. Contrary to the public perception that such limits would be accompanied by high prices, it is precisely high prices that make it possible to exploit the marginal deposits that are unprofitable today.

Analyst Gail Tverberg has elaborated this thesis in considerable detail on her blog Our Finite World starting as far back as 2007. Similar ideas have also been advanced by energy analyst and consultant Steven Kopits. (A 2014 presentation by Kopits is available here.) Tverberg's analysis is that high energy prices, particularly high oil prices, tend to suppress economic growth leading to recession and price declines. The lower incomes and lack of employment that accompany recessions make oil--despite its lower price--less affordable than is generally recognized. Lack of demand is partly the result of crimped living standards--which keep prices low, which, in turn, make it unprofitable to exploit high-cost oil.

Now, oil demand actually went up somewhat in the face of recent lower prices. But if Tverberg's thesis is correct, then demand won't hold up when the economy sinks into a recession or stalls close to zero growth. If the world economy shrinks or merely stalls, as it now appears to be doing, we may be in for a long stagnation for other reasons as the world works off debt built up previously in a long 30-year credit boom.

It seems only logical that if world oil production drops as a result of low demand and low prices, at some point shortages will appear and prices will rise even if the world economy remains in a slump. That may happen, but the big question will be this: Just how high can those prices rise before financially strapped consumers can't afford to pay more?

If that price turns out to be somewhat less than $100 a barrel, very few deposits of unconventional oil such as arctic and deepwater oil, tight oil from deep shale deposits, and tar sands will be profitable to produce. And these unconventional sources have been virtually the only engines of oil production growth in recent years. The International Energy Agency, a consortium of 29 countries which tracks energy developments, is already on record saying that conventional oil production peaked in 2006.

With violent swings in oil prices continuing, it's hard to imagine world markets delivering an oil price indefinitely above $100--which would encourage growth in unconventional oil production--but not above, say, $130, which could easily send the economy into recession and lower prices below the point of profitability for unconventional oil. It seems that either Tverberg's stagnation scenario will limit production because of low prices or that a return to robust economic growth will be doomed to be short-lived because oil prices rise above what the world economy can bear.

It's always possible that some technological breakthrough will allow us to get out of this cycle. But we should not count on this soon. As I have pointed out, the most recently touted "new" technology, the technology that opened the deep shale deposits in the United States for oil drilling, has a 60-year history of development:

For those who point to hydraulic fracturing as a recent technological breakthrough, they need to do a little research. Hydraulic fracturing was first used in 1947. More than 30 years later in the early 1980s, building on government research, George Mitchell and his company Mitchell Energy and Development began pursuing natural gas in deep shale deposits. It took Mitchell 20 years of experimentation, government help and government incentives to perfect the type of hydraulic fracturing which is now used to release both natural gas and oil from deep shales. It took another 10 years for his methods to be widely deployed by the oil and gas industry.

For truly revolutionary technology to make an important contribution to the world's oil supply over the next 20 years, that technology would have to be available today, but not yet widely deployed. The cycles of innovation in the oil industry do not move nearly as quickly as those in, say, the semiconductor industry. Major breakthroughs in oil extraction require long lead times, and there doesn't seem to be anything but marginal improvements in some existing techniques in prospect for many years to come.

For now, we may be experiencing limits in oil production that are not absolute, but relative to what the world economy can afford. Of course, we could rework our infrastructure and daily practices to use less oil or even to begin to phase it out altogether. But, don't look for that kind of dramatic move anytime soon, either.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at