Arctic Oil Hubris

Black treasure (2014) blown glass Artist: Antoine Brodin

Black treasure (2014) blown glass
Artist: Antoine Brodin

The U.S. government has approved plans by Royal Dutch Shell to begin drilling for oil off the Alaskan coast this summer. This comes after years of industry lobbying to explore what some estimate to be major oil deposits in the Chukchi Sea. Some estimates run up to 15 billion barrels.

On the one hand, the U.S. administration has followed a course of promoting environmental responsibility.

On the other, this administration has pursued a policy of domestic production and self-reliance. Unfortunately, that self-reliance has been pegged to oil and gas production, including fracking. Despite the inevitable oil spills (and no matter what the companies say, they are inevitable) and the damage done by drilling and fracking, fossil fuel exploitation continues unabated.

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper Artist: Antoine Brodin

Meduse.X (2014), ink on paper
Artist: Antoine Brodin

Despite common knowledge that carbon-based fuels are leading to rapid and irreversible changes in the Earth’s atmosphere (and no matter what a few voices say, the knowledge is common and the scientific consensus is resounding), the U.S. government and others continue to subsidize, promote, and approve fossil fuel development.

The word that comes to mind is ‘hubris’. In modern usage, hubris means exaggerated confidence or pride.

Shell is one of the most powerful companies in the world, as well as one of the richest. It also has a long track record of overestimating oil reserves, of regular oil spills on a large scale, of inconsistent safety for workers, inhabitants and environment alike. Shell oversaw oil spills in Nigeria that were the size of the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill – not just once, but annually over the course of years.

Hubris implies arrogance so great that suffering or humiliation will follow.

Usually, though, the humiliation or suffering is experienced by the party demonstrating hubris.

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted Photo: Antoine Brodin

Birdy (2014), blown glass, sandblasted
Photo: Antoine Brodin

In the case of Shell, the humiliation is never experienced by the company. Not by the individual decision-makers, not by the company as a whole.

The humiliation and suffering is experienced by anything affected by the inevitable oil spills and the damage done by exploitation and drilling. People can argue in favor of jobs or for energy independence, but in the end, it is the company that makes the money by using the resources, land and environment that should belong to everyone.

While these lands and waters are being exploited, they belong to the company exploiting them – at least until the inevitable spill.

When it comes to the damage and clean-up, suddenly the soiled lands and seas belong to all of us again.

Corolla (2014) blown glass Photo: Antoine Brodin

Corolla (2014) blown glass
Photo: Antoine Brodin

It’s like a gambler who only gambles with someone else’s money, keeps any winnings, and assigns any losses to the foolish lender.

In ancient Greek, the word ‘hubris’ implied an shameful act perpetrated for personal gratification that brought shame upon both the victim and the perpetrator. Its contemporary equivalents might be closer to what we think of as ‘contempt’ or ‘insolence’.

And considering this decision to drill in the Arctic, a region under severe environmental pressure already due to carbon emissions, perhaps the ancient Greek version of hubris is more suitable. This plan shows genuine contempt for the Arctic, for the environment, and for anything that doesn’t turn a profit.

If only a company could feel shame.

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted Artist: Antoine Brodin

Hubris (2014) Hot glass sculpted
Artist: Antoine Brodin



Carbon Non-Neutrality

Balancing rocks Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Zone

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

U.S. President Obama, 25 June 2013

It was good to hear the U.S President make a broad speech on climate change and how he sees the role of the United States vis-a-vis climate change challenges.

It was also good to hear him speak directly to the ongoing controversy regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil extracted from Canadian tar sands through the United States.

What was disappointing was the mention of the Keystone XL in conjunction with any notion of carbon neutrality. Even if every single aspect of the Keystone XL pipeline itself were able to meet some definition of being ‘carbon neutral’, i.e. by “achieving net zero carbon emissions by balancing a measured amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference“*, and even if the extraction of the oil from the tar sands wasn’t included in the calculation, the fact of the matter is that this pipeline is just one more way of delivering our energy drug of choice – oil – into the U.S. energy cycle.

Rapeseed field

Rapeseed field

Way back when, before 2008, people were still talking about ‘peak oil’ and subsidies abounded for renewable alternatives. If there was one good aspect to the notion of running out of oil, it was the acknowledgement that most alternatives released less CO2 into the atmosphere over the long term.

Then came the financial meltdowns, and the miraculous discoveries of new oil reserves. And now we find ourselves talking more about adaptation and resignation to fossil-fuel use as the main path towards energy independence.

Overall, the President’s speech was promising and left little doubt that under Barack Obama, climate change issues are being taken seriously. It is a welcome call to action from one of the world’s largest economies, and one of its most influential polluters.

Yet there’s still that support of oil as a main source of American energy independence.

I am not neutral when it comes to the use of fossil fuels: ‘Carbon neutral’ refers to a balance that is hard to achieve in the best of circumstances, and impossible when talking about the traditional fossil fuel economy.

Every major federal investment made into the exploitation of this fuel source is an investment that wasn’t made into a better, cleaner, renewable solution.

It’s an investment into the past, not the future.

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

Artist: Michael Grab via Amazing Art

*Definition from Wikipedia. There are many variations of what ‘carbon neutral’ actually means in various contexts, but this one seemed the most straightforward.

Transcript of the full speech here.

It’s a start…

Map courtesy the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment

Map: Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks….

We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect.”

President Barack H. Obama, Inaugural Address, January 2013


131 years of global warming in 26 seconds