Sunday, November 29, 2020

Low prices batter oil industry (and later the rest of us)

It is a sign of the times that the largest oil company in the world, Saudi Aramco, the state oil company of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, must borrow money to pay its shareholder dividend. I have written about the twice-delayed and often troubled initial public offering of the company previously (here and here).

Now it seems that the cash which the company is generating from operations is far less than the dividend payout—which leaves nothing for new drilling to replace reserves and other capital expenditures needed to keep the company going. Hence, the need to borrow.

All of this is due, in part, to low oil prices. And, the Saudis are not the only ones suffering, of course. U.S. producers, mostly those focused on high-cost shale deposits, continue to head toward bankruptcy or merge with other stronger companies. Another part of the equation is heavy debt. Naive investors kept handing over fresh capital, oblivious to the fact that the shale oil and gas industry as a whole has been free cash flow negative for years. That's okay for a few years, but as a long-run strategy it means a company is simply consuming the capital of its investors.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Nature on the ballot and the 'parliament of things'

There were some obvious and even historic ways in which nature was on the ballot this year in the United States:

  • Orange County, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a charter amendment to give rights to two rivers to be free from pollution. By a margin of 89 percent, voters approved "the right to sue corporate polluters in court, without having to show they have been personally harmed, as state law requires." The state legislature's preemption of local jurisdiction regarding rights of nature may not be an obstacle if it is ruled unconstitutional in a case currently before the courts.
  • American participation in the Paris Agreement, the climate accord reached by the world's governments in 2015, was also on the ballot indirectly. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement. Trump's opponent, Joe Biden, pledged to have the United States rejoin.
  • Numerous conservation millages, like this one in Washtenaw County, Michigan, were approved by voters for various conservation projects such as tree planting, protecting habitat and assisting efforts to keep surface and groundwater clean.

What we may not realize is that nature is always on the ballot everywhere. But our awareness of that fact is only now bubbling to the surface of political consciousness. Even those who have no wish to accommodate the supposed needs of nature are actually acknowledging those needs by opposing them—usually by saying that human needs are more important.

But therein lies the contradiction in our thinking. For surely we humans are as much a part of nature and everything we attribute to it. As I've written before, one of tenets of the crumbling system of modernism is that humans are in one category and nature is in another. Now the word "nature" has been much abused and misused. So, we need something else. French thinker Bruno Latour has suggested "parliament of things."

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, November 22.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Is Denmark about to export a more dangerous form of COVID-19?

Denmark is famous for its exports of cheese and pork. Less known is the country's role as the world's largest producer of mink skins and therefore, not surprisingly, the "global hub for the fur trade." Unfortunately for the minks and the mink industry, the Danish government has now pledged to kill every mink in Denmark is order to eradicate a mutant strain of COVID-19 carried by mink that is transmissible to humans. That would mean dispatching some 17 million animals in short order.

Why are the Danes so panicked? Because this mutant strain "is not readily stopped by antibodies to the dominant strain of the virus." That could mean that vaccines currently being developed for this dominant strain will be of little or no value in treating people with the mutant strain.

The number of human cases so far is small, 12 cases in workers on one farm.  It is worth remembering that on February 26 this year, President Trump told the public that there were only 15 cases in the United States, that drastic steps to contain the virus such as shutdowns were not yet necessary and that "15 [cases] within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero." By the end of March, much of the country was in a state of emergency as infections were skyrocketing. And even now, new daily infections in the United States are reaching new records as the long anticipated seasonal uptick in COVID-19 cases arrives.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Ransomware attacks and biodiversity: A possible lesson from nature

As I read about recent ransomware attacks on hospitals, I was reminded of a seemingly unremarkable event years ago when I was still using a computer with the Windows operating system. I was working with a medical doctor turned medical IT specialist. His preferred operating system—though not that of the hospitals he worked for—was the one on his Apple computer. When he loaded files from a flash drive onto his machine in my presence, I asked why he didn't check for viruses first. He had a one-word answer: biodiversity.

He was, of course, using the metaphor of biodiversity to refer to the fact that the vast majority of computer viruses and malware targeted Windows systems at that time, something that is still true today. Very few threats targeted the Apple operating system, and because of its design the system was (and is) more resistant to such attacks.

Every student of biology—which naturally includes doctors and health care workers—ought to be aware of the advantages of biodiversity in natural systems. Biodiversity brings resilience to species and to entire ecosystems. Variations in members of a species make it more likely that some will survive to propagate. Variations across species that inhabit an ecosystem make it more likely that the system will survive as a coherent unit when some, but not all of a particular species die out.