Tag Archives: climate

Our increasingly dull song of praise for oil

You can just smell the methane

You can just smell the methane

One public page of the member-driven website, Geo-Help Inc., which bills itself as “The Virtual Geology Department providing Geological Expertise and Services to the Oil and Gas Industry in Canada,” offers a collection of quotes that reaffirms man’s (though, interestingly, not even one woman’s) abiding love affair with liquid, black gold down through the decades.

Odes have been written to exalt the substance, including this one, sponsored by Seneca Oil and published in 1850:

“The healthful balm, from Nature’s secret spring/ The bloom of health, and life, to man will bring/ As from her depths the magic liquid flows/ To calm our sufferings, and assuage our woes.”

Others, like Kansas geologist Wallace Pratt (1885-1981), also recognized the allure when he said, “Where oil is first found is in the minds of men.” Men, presumably, like American industrialist J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) who once declared that his formula for success was to “rise early, work hard, strike oil.”

The quotes are not uniformly laudatory. One describes oil as “the excrement of the devil.” Another complains, “You can’t get the grease without a lease.”

And some are way off the mark, as is one attributed to the Director of Anglo Persian Oil Company who, in 1926, observed, “Saudi Arabia appears devoid of all prospects for oil.”

Historically, though, our preoccupation with the stuff has been, until quite recently, laced with positive connotations. And this strikes me as somewhat paradoxical, because unless you happen to be an industry executive or petroleum geologist, the chances are very good that you, like me, find oil to be. . .well, pedestrian.

Or, if you will pardon the pun, boring.

Whenever a fixation becomes mundane, it has a tendency to subdue the other faculties of mind – imagination, ingenuity, creativity – that can, quite often, improve social, political and economic conditions.

This might help explain New Brunswick’s current circumstances. The rut the province is in – fiscally, commercially, even demographically – could well be related to, if not actually derive from, our single-minded focus on the promise of a pipeline from Alberta’s oil patch and the putative promise (and danger) of a fully functioning shale gas industry in the future.

I would never suggest that we should dismiss these projects for the sake of our becoming less tedious people. But it might profit us to pull our heads from the sand and take a look at what other jurisdictions around the world are doing with energy development. (A well-known writer – though, his name escapes me – on the industry from, of all places, Calgary made a similar observation on New Brunswick CBC Radio’s rolling-home show last week).

Science Daily reports, “It’s less costly to get electricity from wind turbines and solar panels than coal-fired power plants when climate change costs and other health impacts are factored in, according to a new study published in Springer’s Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

“In fact – using the official U.S. government estimates of health and environmental costs from burning fossil fuels – the study shows it’s cheaper to replace a typical existing coal-fired power plant with a wind turbine than to keep the old plant running. And new electricity generation from wind could be more economically efficient than natural gas.”

Meanwhile, also according to Science Daily, “High school and college students got a recruiting call. . .to join the Solar Army and help solve one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific challenges: finding the dirt-cheap ingredients that would make sunlight a practical alternative to oil, coal and other traditional sources of energy.

‘Enough sunlight falls on Earth in one hour to provide all of the world’s energy – for 7 billion people – for an entire year,’ said Harry B. Gray, Ph.D., leader of the army. He is the Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and Founding Director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. ‘If we can capture that energy and use it to split water, burning coal, gasoline and other fossil fuels will be history.’

Maybe. Maybe not. But even the thought is inspirational – which is more than I can say about oil.

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We’re forever blowing (and bursting) bubbles

What goes up, must come down

What goes up, must come down

The increasingly trustworthy Wikipedia defines a bubble as “a globule of one substance in another, usually gas in a liquid.” Thanks to something called the “Marangoni effect – the mass transfer along an interface between two fluids due to surface tension gradient – bubbles may remain intact when they reach the surface of the immersive substance.”

Ultimately, however, the laws of the universe will not be denied. All bubbles burst. It’s just a matter of when.

One need not hold an advanced degree in fluid dynamics to recognize that we infuse society with bubbles every day. We create them from the fabric of our fads, which soon become crazes and, finally, business as usual. That’s why when they pop – as, inevitably, they must – we are left owning little to fill our empty pockets.

In this fine, early summertime, bubbles dance about our ears.

An interesting commentary from Keith Helmuth, a member of the Woodstock Sustainable Energy Group (published by the Telegraph-Journal the other day), describes the coming “carbon bubble,” which now worries economists and environmentalists, alike.

“If the nations of the world act to constrain carbon emissions, as they are pledged to do,” he writes, “the asset base of the hydrocarbon industry will suddenly contract by an enormous amount, leaving oil and gas companies with ‘stranded assets.’ Unfortunately, the industry debt load of $1.5 trillion will remain on the books.”

Why is that “unfortunate?” As Gwynne Dyer explains in one of his recent columns, “If you liked the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in 2008, you’ll positively love this one. . .It’s a grim choice: either financial meltdown if we act decisively to halt climate change, or physical meltdown if we don’t.”

Pop!

Meanwhile, the venerable Economist outlines the dimension of a more familiar bubble. “Housing markets are notoriously prone to boom and bust,” it declares in a report published two months ago. “To judge whether prices are at sustainable levels we use two yardsticks. One is the ratio of prices to disposable income per person, a measure of affordability. The other is the price-to-rent ratio.

“On this basis, Canada’s market is especially vulnerable. A large bubble now looks set to burst. Home sales in March were 15 per cent down on a year earlier. Buyers are in short supply. A recent poll showed that only 15 per cent of Canadians are likely to buy a home in the next two years, down from 27 per cent last year – the steepest decline in the 20-year history of the survey. After a big boom, the housing bust will be a wrenching affair.”

That’s indisputably good news if you’re in the market to buy, not sell. But to buy, you’ll need a good, steady job. And to get one of those, you’ll need a graduate degree in something other than applied basket weaving. Or, do you? An item by Jordan Weissmann, entitled “The Grad-School Bubble is Set to Burst,” in the July issue of The Atlantic begs to differ.

“The economic benefits of a graduate degree are dwindling,” the magazine contends. “While unemployment is still low among graduate- and professional-degree holders, underemployment seems to be rising in some fields. Nine months after graduation, for instance, barely more than half of 2012 law-school grads had found full-time, long-term jobs that required their typically six-figure J.D. And even graduates who do find decent jobs face stagnating wages and skyrocketing student loan debt.”

All of which leads him to conclude that “the grad-school bubble is one that may actually pop.”

As Jeff Jeff Kosnett is a senior editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance writes in his blog, “The original bubble, the blowup of the South Sea Company, lured Englishmen in 1720 to bet their spare pounds in a failed scheme to get rich trading with South America. South Sea shares soared some 800 per cent in months and collapsed even more quickly. The affair led to hostilities between Britain and Spain as well as an economic meltdown.”

Of course, the world has come a long way since then. Today’s bubbles are far more sophisticated, if no less fragile.

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