Tag Archives: #oil

Divestment Transparency

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Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Lotus (ca. 1930), vintage gelatin silver print. All images are x-rays of single flowers taken by Dr. Dain L. Tasker, radiologist.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

We like to think we can see the true nature of the world around us, or at least, that we have a chance of understanding it. In February, the Irish government took a big step towards revealing how the fossil fuel infrastructure really works. How? By halting all public investment in fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas from the €8 billion (US$8.6 billion) Ireland Strategic Investment Fund.

When it comes to the environment and protecting it for our own health as well as that of the planet, it helps to try and see through the obvious arguments about why we are still using so much fossil fuel, even though we know the damage it does to the climate. After all, Shell Oil made a film about that damage to the climate by fossil fuel use back in 1991, so none of this is new.

So after decades of discussions, why aren’t we further down the road to renewable energy use?

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Fuchsia (1938), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

One key reason is because some of the largest modern governments are so profoundly intertwined with the fossil fuel industry. Massive subsidies go towards supporting supply security, but also fund environmental protection by reducing emissions. A 2016 report published in World Development estimated that direct fossil fuel subsidies averaged 6.5% of the global GDP in the years 2013-2015, with over half the subsidies going to coal (China is the largest subsidizing country by far).

Subsidies of renewable energies are a small fraction of this amount, particularly if one folds in the indirect subsidies of maintaining fossil-fuel infrastructures, and the lack of holding fossil fuel companies all along the production chain financially accountable for damage done – for example, clean-ups of damaged water systems or land polluted in oil spills, or ecosystem rebuilding following mining activities.

These subsidies are public funds that are paid to support what is already one of the most profitable industries on the planet.

By becoming the first country in the world to fully divest from fossil fuel subsidies, Ireland shines a light on how the system really works. Knowing how much any given government is paying to support fossil fuel use instead of more sustainable energies can provide real insight into policy decisions – and if that country is a representative democracy, that knowledge can guide voters’ choices.

This divestment gets down to the hidden structures that keep a dangerous addiction both strong and intact.

Untitled, (lily)  (1932), vintage gelatin silver print. Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via oseph Bellows Gallery

Untitled, (lily) (1932), vintage gelatin silver print.
Photo: Dr. Dain L. Tasker via Joseph Bellows Gallery

 

Fueling Fossil Feelings

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Over the past year, a variety of elections, polls and movements have demonstrated that, for all the endless access we have to information, we are entering an era that emphasizes acting on emotions and fears rather than weighing facts.

Maybe it’s because the constant tsunami of facts threaten to overturn our personal vessels – it’s easier to pilot the waters on ‘what feels right’ rather than take on board a slew of uncomfortable realities that might swamp us.

Screenshot, 'This Moment, and Beyond', an ad promoting Fueling U.S. Forward. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward/YouTube

Screenshot, ‘This Moment, and Beyond’, an ad promoting Fueling U.S. Forward.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward/YouTube

And for every moment of uncertainty, there are those who are ready to exploit fear in the name of profit.

It appears that a new initiative to promote the fossil fuel industry is one such undertaking. At a time when the effects of climate change are measurably underway, with each successive year being the latest ‘hottest on record’ and higher CO2 levels impacting everything from polar ice levels to drought, you might think that people would applaud rising renewable energy use, improving technologies and lowered costs.

But Fueling U.S. Forward, a public relations group funded by the oil and petrochemical conglomerate of Koch Industries, is a large-scale outreach program in the grand tradition of the tobacco and soft drinks industries: When threatened with scientific information that could negatively impact long-term profits, a multi-pronged approach is taken of discrediting critics and promoting all the benefits of the industry’s products to specific groups.

In the case of Fueling U.S. Forward, the goal is to undermine the proliferation of alternative energies and technologies (such as electric cars and solar panels) by casting them as damaging to the financial interests of minorities and millenials – and at the same time, promote the familiarity of fossil fuels while intentionally obscuring the widely known dangers inherent in their continued use.

A blog post implying that without fossil-fuel based energy, citizens will lose access to the Internet, entertainment, and connectivity. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

A blog post implying that without fossil-fuel based energy, citizens will lose access to the Internet, entertainment, and connectivity.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Through soft marketing in the form of concerts and events with ‘informational aspects’ and funding to activist groups, Fueling U.S. Forward promotes the well-established Koch agenda of rolling back support for renewable energies, legislation and regulation.

This is a perfect moment for this kind of strategy. Emotions are high, fear is rampant, and fossil fuels are what we know. It should matter that polls show the majority of U.S. citizens support clean air regulations. But given that the incoming U.S. administration has drawn heavily from Koch allies for a variety of key posts, including climate change skeptics and people with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry, policy-making and public messaging is likely to fall in line with the oil industry goals.

Screenshot from Fueling U.S. Forward. Innovation is portrayed as impossible without fossil fuels. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Screenshot from Fueling U.S. Forward. Innovation is portrayed as impossible without fossil fuels.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Fueling U.S. Forward’s President and CEO Charles Drevna has called burning fossil fuels the ‘pro-human’ solution. One need only look to the ongoing smog crisis in China to see the effects of unregulated burning of fossil fuels (mainly coal) and vehicle emissions – over a million deaths were attributed to poor air quality in 2012 alone. Unless you are a climate change skeptic (and if you are, thank you for giving champagnewhisky a look!), it might be hard to comprehend how an industry can focus so intently on continued profits in the face of generating so much verifiable damage to human health and the environment. But the simple fact is, for these folks, profits determine their view of the world, and not the other way around.

Statistics are implemented to imply that without fossil fuels, economic security is at risk - and with it, health and standards of living. Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

Statistics are implemented to imply that without fossil fuels, economic security is at risk – and with it, health and standards of living.
Source: Fueling U.S. Forward

We can acknowledge the debt we owe fossil fuels in the history of human progress without being bound to them for the foreseeable future.

We can also acknowledge that in this emotional era, vigilance and determination to focus on long-term goals of sustainability and the insistence on hard facts to achieve those goals will count more than ever before in fighting something that is as dangerous as climate change: the intentional instigation of fear in the name of profit.

What We Do In The Dark

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Almost everything about fossil fuels, by definition, happens in the dark. The organisms that form coal, gas and oil form in the dark; they are extracted from deep dark places that are under water, under mountains, beneath broad plains. From well to tank, most oil never sees the light of day unless there’s a leak, or a spill.

And then, by the time we find it, damage has already been done.

All paintings - oil on canvas Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

All paintings – oil on canvas
Artist: i wayan sudarsana yansen

Back in 2013, the one of the largest on-land spills in the United States took place beneath a remote piece of crop land near Tioga, North Dakota. It took several days for the farmer who owned the property to discover the spill and then report it. It took several more days to stop the spill, which was due to a leaking pipe. And it took another week or so for the authorities to report the spill to the press. The spill was estimated at 865,000 gallons (20,000 barrels).

That spill necessitated a clean-up effort that is still ongoing. The most recent cost estimate I could find online put the cost at $42 million – and that was over a year ago, when approximately one-third of the spill had been removed. From the most recent article I could find on the spill, on Oil Price.com: “The 2013 spill contaminated around 15 acres of cropland, but the cleanup site grew to 35 acres to accommodate excavated soil stockpiles from digging 50 feet deep and then baking hydrocarbons out of the soil.” The Oil Price article was actually on another, more recent spill, that of 17,000 gallons (400 barrels) of oil and 120,000 gallons of toxic drilling wastewater near Marmath.

Overall, there have been over 300 oil spills in North Dakota alone in less than two years, most of them unreported. And that doesn’t include the Dec. 5 spill into the Ash Coulee Creek of 176,000 gallons (4100 barrels) approximately 150 miles from where Standing Rock protesters have been demonstrating against an oil pipeline they say will endanger their water source.

North Dakota can stand in here as a microcosm of oil-drilling locations around the world.

In general, oil spills are like the proverbial tree falling in a forest where there’s no one to hear it – if there’s no one around to witness a spill, then as far as authorities and oil companies are concerned, it might as well not have happened. Compiling a global list of incidents in which oil escapes its pipelines, even just the known offshore and onshore spills, would be a virtually impossible task, even if oil companies were ready and willing to expose the underbelly of the business.

This opacity when it comes to the collateral damage of our oil dependency extends to other aspects of the oil industry, from the funding of climate change skeptics through ‘dark money’ to the fighting of environmental regulations around the world.

So, what to make of the nomination of an oil company chief to the United States’ highest diplomatic post, that of Secretary of State, key advisor on foreign policy and fourth in line to the Presidency? Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil (largest U.S. oil company by revenue), is undoubtedly an extremely able individual, manager and businessman. He is also the person who said, just a couple of months before the big spill in North Dakota, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers? (…) My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do (…) The rest is risk management.”

The question is, where does the management begin, and where does it end? How much of this management will truly be brought to light?

Scrapping Rigs

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There’s something mesmerizing about scrap yards. Especially the big ones.

All those big objects, the sum of an equation involving perceived requirement, raw materials, engineering and time. So much time.

Time at the front end of process, in extracting the materials for production, time in the production itself, time in the use of those objects, and then, perhaps longest of all, the time they spend idle, after their usefulness has ended.

Some are re-purposed, broken down into the materials that can be used elsewhere.

Many are just left as monuments to outdated necessity.

Vehicle graveyard, post WWII. Source: LIFE/G503

Trailer graveyard, post WWII.
Source: LIFE/G503

In the case of offshore oil rigs, the necessity has a strong correlation to the price of oil. And as that has been falling steadily since 2014, from a previous ‘psychologically important’ USD 100 to the current USD 30, the oil rig graveyards have been growing at the highest rate in 20 years.

Added to this is the glut of old rigs long past their prime, many of which are idled, or ‘cold-stacked.’ A cold-stacked rig costs millions of dollars to maintain, and there’s a current glut of new generation rigs waiting for oil prices to rise and buyers to return.

The Cromarty Firth, north of Inverness, is currently packed with more unused rigs than it has been at any point in the last decade Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3410415/The-oil-rig-graveyard-dozen-thousand-tonne-structures-parked-unused-Scottish-firth-market-swamped-cheap-crude-demand-drilling-drops.html#ixzz4GrmKAQVN Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

The Cromarty Firth, north of Inverness, is currently packed with more unused rigs than it has been at any point in the last decade.
Source: DailyMail

These days, getting a decommissioned oil rig to its final destination is more of a challenge than it used to be.

Of course, what we used to do with them was simply drop them somewhere on the ocean floor where they were out of the way of shipping lines. Relatively easy, relatively cheap.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Controlled sinking of an oil rig. Source: desdemonadespair

Controlled sinking of an oil rig.
Source: desdemonadespair

Since 1998, oil rigs – at least the topside, at least in the northern Atlantic region – must be dismantled, towed, scrubbed of hazardous waste, and scrapped. Bases must be reduced to a level that makes them safe for navigation and shipping, the wells completely capped.

Built for the ages, scrapped after a decade or two. Or maybe three. Hundreds of oil rigs all over the world currently await scrapping instead of sinking.

We humans are pretty good at building things to last, even if we don’t need them forever. Cars. Oil rigs. Oil habits.

We aren’t very good at getting rid of them quite so thoroughly.

 

Glacial Flight

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My visit to Alaska last week, to attend a memorial for a young friend, was marked by both tears and laughter.

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska. All photos: PKR

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska.
All photos: PKR

Tears because of his tragic and early death, laughter in memory of his brilliant and raucously funny spirit.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

In the midst of this, I was offered a chance to take a flight over the glaciers of the Chugach Mountains.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

Here are so many textures of harsh beauty. It was hard to take in the vast and wild views – whether viewed from above or below, the landscape defies easy comprehension.

There are 25,000 glaciers across the territory defined as Alaska – all but five of those glaciers are in retreat. The ones that end in water are famous for their spectacular loss of ice in calving events. But the glaciers we flew over were mostly mountain glaciers, most of which end in land – and which are also retreating very rapidly.

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines. Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines.
Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

According to a recent release published by the American Geophysical Union, “Mountain glaciers hold less than 1 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice volume. The rest is held in ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland.

“However, the rapid shrinking of mountain glaciers causes nearly one-third of current sea level rise.”IMG_1772

Meanwhile, as I wrote in a recent post, retreating ice offers a multitude of possibilities in terms of transportation and resource exploitation.

As a New York Times article put it, whether Alaska becomes “an ecological preserve or an economic engine, an area of international cooperation or confrontation — is now the question at the center of the unfolding geopolitical competition.”

With glaciers as far as the eye can see, it’s hard to believe that formations so old and so large, and that took so long to develop, could disappear in a few short decades. IMG_1770I wasn’t in Alaska as a tourist. I went to remember and celebrate someone who departed far too young, and whose absence has left us all in shock.

So my state of mind on this visit was one of treasuring what we have in life, and mourning the treasures we lose too early.

This unexpected, awe-inspiring and melancholy flight over the rugged, ancient glaciers of southern Alaska – which was paid with a bottle of whisky when the pilot wouldn’t accept any fuel money – was well in keeping with the rest of my short journey there.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

Deficit Day

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According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), today marks the point at which “humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year.” They call it Overshoot Day.

Most of the analogies I see in the press use financial lingo and banking talk to describe this very new phenomenon.

After all, we only starting using more timber, fish stocks and arable land than could be replaced by natural processes in the 1970s. The same is true for the levels of human-generated carbon emissions in relation to how much the planet can naturally process over the course of a year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

It used to be that this ‘deficit spending’ of resources only began late in the year. For 2015, it already arrives six days earlier than one year ago.

But financial descriptions don’t really persuade me, especially in these days of banking institutions that seem to teeter on the edge of financial volcanoes without ever actually falling in.

After all, deficit spending is what we humans, as individuals and communities and nations, do all the time. We live on credit and debt is a shadow dancer for most adults.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

There was a time in human history when we lived like most other species on the planet. If we ate all our stocks and there was nothing left to hunt or gather, we either moved on or we perished.

Animals and plants with an overpopulation in their habitat, faced with a lack of food or resources and made vulnerable to hunger and disease, see their populations shrink in the most unpicturesque manner.

We humans have mostly managed to get around these fundamental restrictions with ingenuity, intelligence, an overwhelming desire for more and sometimes, just dumb luck.

It’s estimated that we now ‘consume’ resources equivalent to 1.6 of Earth’s capacity, i.e. we use what it would take almost two Earth’s to produce and process, every year.

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911] From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Botanische Wandtafeln – Leopold Kny [1874-1911]
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed via Dataisnature

Regardless of how we describe this process of overuse – as a deficit, as improvidence, as thoughtless or as greedy – what is profoundly different between the banking world and the natural world is that, at some point, no bailout tactics will be available.

Banking analogies? We should be so lucky.

No matter what humans might think of ourselves and our vast creativity, we are not too big to fail.

Acorus calamus. From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 - 1960. Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

Acorus calamus.
From The art of knowledge: educational botanical wall charts 1870 – 1960.
Source: Stichting Academisch Erfgoed

 

Shifting Outlines

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How a map is drawn says more about the interests and intentions of the cartographers than it does about the space it describes.

Take, for example, these various maps of the Arctic. For most of human existence, the Arctic has been a place of myth, fascination and exploration. For a very few, it’s been home.

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606). Source: Wikipedia

Mercator-Hondius Map of the Arctic (1606).
Source: Wikipedia

This first map is perhaps more interesting for its cartographical innovations (the use of the Mercator Projection) than its speculative geography that posits a whirlpool swirling around a black rock that represented the magnetic north pole. Note how closely identified and labeled the claimed territories are, how open and blank the rest is from the perspective of a European map maker.

This next one gets closer to my point of discussion today.

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit. Source: Canadian Geographic

1715 map by Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit.
Source: Canadian Geographic

It shows outlines of the Arctic continent based on survey reports, and leaves out the parts that likely were not yet verified. More intriguing than the map itself are the surrounding illustrations of the riches to be found in the territory. Whales. It’s no surprise that this map is of Dutch origin.

Around the beginning of the 18th century, the Dutch moved many of their whaling operations from bays into the open sea. The Arctic, territory of ice and water, had a major energy resource for that era: whale blubber.

It was only later, when cheaper fuels took its place, that whale oil lost its primacy as an energy source (although it was still being used until the 1970s as, for example, automatic transmission oil in the United States and as a base for margarine).

Which brings me to this map, newly released by National Geographic. Actually, it’s modern and informative for a couple of reasons.

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time. Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map. Caption/Image: National Geographic

A GIF of National Geographic atlases from 1999 through 2014 shows how Arctic ice has melted over time.
Go here for a discussion of the criteria used to create this map.
Caption/Image: National Geographic

First of all, in its GIF presentation, it shows a trend rather than a static snapshot.

Second, that trend is concerned with the shrinking size of the Arctic, which makes this map a pointed commentary on climate change as much as it is a description of territory.

How that commentary is interpreted in other maps again illustrates our interests and desires.

Because the Arctic is shrinking, many assumptions made over the centuries can be re-evaluated. For example, the existence of a Northwest Passage, the long-sought sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that is only now becoming truly navigable by large ships.

The ice shrinkage also means that more is accessible than new waterways. The sea bed, buried under ice, is now available for exploration. More importantly, for exploitation.

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.  Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Ocean Seafloor Features Map: International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean annotated with the names of seafloor features.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

The Arctic has always been subject to territorial claims, but climate change renders those claims much more interesting to the five Arctic-bordering nations: United States, Denmark, Canada, Russia and Norway. All have been in the process of staking out the extent of their extended continental shelves for some time now, some more vociferously than others.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), these five countries can claim an extended continental shelf. If the claims are validated, the countries gain exclusive rights to resources on or below the seabed of their respective extended shelf area.

Which brings me to this map, which outlines potential oil and gas reserves on the Arctic sea bed.

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic's oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces. Caption/Image: Geology.com

Arctic Oil and Natural Gas Provinces Map: The United States Geological Survey estimates that over 87% of the Arctic’s oil and natural gas resource (about 360 billion barrels oil equivalent) is located in seven Arctic basin provinces.
Caption/Image: Geology.com

And this, really, is what it’s all about.

The Arctic region has been estimated to hold up to one-quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves – energy resources almost as outdated as whale oil.

Small surprise, then, that Russia dropped a flag on the Arctic sea bed in 2007. The country has been pushing to claim 1.2 million sq km (463,000 sq miles) of the Arctic shelf.

Which is to say, all of it.

What better way to take advantage of the effects of climate change in the Arctic than by mining it for the very fuels that are causing climate change in the first place?

It looks like the changing Arctic outlines could force a redrawing of the maps in more ways than one.

Arctic Oil Hubris

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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

 

 

The Shape of Absence

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Absence of information has the curious characteristic of being innocuous as long as it goes unnoticed, and undeniably intriguing once it becomes apparent. Once you notice something is missing, you can’t stop looking at the hole where it should be and wondering what should actually be there.

For example, a recent report published by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows just how little data is publicly available on the subject of oil and gas company spills and other violations in the United States.

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould (1873/ 2014),  from the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image. Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Great Auk: After John Gould
(1873/ 2014)
From the series Frameworks of Absence, a collection of historic prints and publications printed at the time in history when the depicted species became extinct, with the extinct species cut out of the image.
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

I noticed this some time ago when I posted comments on the large 2013 Tesoro oil spill in North Dakota that took over a week to report to the press (and which is still in the clean-up process, 18 months and $20 million later).

I looked for data on oil spills across the 36 U.S. states with active oil and gas installations, but information was difficult to find. I attributed that difficulty to my own lack of time and online savvy, but as it turns out, the reason runs deeper.

Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies provide this data in any consistent form, and if corporations have extensive monitoring and data on spills, they are keeping it to themselves for the most part.

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby (1897/ 2014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

RIP Sloane’s Urania Butterfly: After W.F. Kirby
(1897/ 2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

According to the NRDC study, many violations are never reported at all. It should be added that many violations aren’t considered report-worthy because of lax standards and enforcement found in many states.

What happens when no consistent records are kept?

There can be no true accountability of the impact of oil and gas industry operations and activities on the communities and environments in which they conduct business. Noncompliance with safety standards and construction requirements becomes difficult to enforce due to the lack of a track record. The same goes for on-site worker safety regulations and compliance.

Companies with an (invisible) history of violations can skirt notice and supervision. The true boundaries of pollution and damage can be minimized or even denied.

The NRDC report makes for interesting reading and now I can’t stop looking at the empty space where all the information should be.

'RIP Audubon's Bighorn Sheep' (18492014) Frameworks of Absence Artist: Brandon Ballengée

‘RIP Audubon’s Bighorn Sheep’ (1849/2014)
Frameworks of Absence
Artist: Brandon Ballengée

 

Subterranean Lines

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A fracking well at the surface. Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

A fracking well at the surface.
Photo: Eugene Richards/National Geographic

The bulk of the fracking boom currently underway in the United States is not only in one of the least populated and remote states, North Dakota (population 724,000 – and it’s only that large because of the fracking boom and all the new workers there), but it also takes place mostly underground. Sure, there are the ominous towers of gas flames and the torn up ground at the extraction points, but the real action takes place so far beneath the topsoil layer as to render it abstract.

The gap between what fracking looks like from above, and what it looks like from below, reminds me of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s drawings in The Little Prince. What everyone initially takes to be a sketch of hat is actually a rendering of something completely different, namely, an elephant inside a snake.

From The Little Prince By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From The Little Prince
By: Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

We humans are creatures of visual dependence. Or rather, what we can see tends to make the most conscious impression upon us, ahead of the more subtle senses of sound, taste, smell and touch.

And often, what is out of sight is truly out of mind. If we can’t see it, we have a hard time even thinking about it.

Well locations around New Town, N.D. Source: Fractracker

Well locations around New Town, N.D.
Source: Fractracker

These various maps and renderings of fracking in North Dakota attempt to make the underground activity more tangible, to show us the elephant inside the hat.

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota. Source: Mason Inman/Wired

Underground fracking lines, drawn from the well, with horizontal underground lines marking the extent of each well. New Town, North Dakota, from Mapping a Fracking Boom in North Dakota.
Source: Mason Inman/Wired

According to Mason Inman over at Map Labs, who created the map above, “Each well travels down about two miles, then turns horizontally and snakes through the rock formation for another two miles. There were 8,406 of these Bakken wells, as of North Dakota’s latest count. If you lined them all up—including their vertical and horizontal parts—they’d loop all the way around the Earth.”

The New York Times took the added step of inverting the wells as if they were above ground, the long vertical drills standing like slender trunks one or two miles high, with only one or two branches of equal length suspended in the air, a high forest of activity.

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT

The area around New Town, North Dakota, from What North Dakota Would Look Like if Its Oil Drilling Lines Were Aboveground
Source: Gregor Aisch/NYT