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



Nest Egg Protection

It’s been fifty years since a watershed report was released in the United States, the 1964 U.S. Surgeon General’s report on the effect of tobacco and smoking on health.

A recent study estimated that as a result of this 1964 report, 50 million lives were saved worldwide that would have otherwise been lost to tobacco-related disease. The number of adults who smoke has been reduced by half – from 40% to 20% – between the 1960s and now.

With the publication of the report, the U.S. and other countries began to implement a broad variety of measures to counter widespread addiction to cigarettes.

What was the reaction of the powerful tobacco industry?

Protecting the nest egg Photo: Brian Klaus

Protecting the nest egg
Photo: Brian Klaus

From before the report was published, and well into the 1990s, the industry countered with independent research that questioned the direct links drawn between using tobacco products and various diseases; new markets with fewer impending regulations were opened; new restrictions were met with litigation and arguments about consumer rights and choices; new forms of cigarettes were presented as less harmful.

Books and studies have dissected the tactics used by a large-scale, highly profitable and powerful industry to save itself. One very thorough book, The Cigarette Papers, quotes press statements released by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee over the course of decades. A sampling:

The tobacco industry recognizes that it has a special responsibility to help find the true facts about tobacco and health. Since 1954, it has been supporting a program of independent research through the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC)…images

The TIRC emphasizes that many clinical and experimental factors still need to be identified, investigated, and evaluated regarding the origin of lung cancer and other diseases. Actually, the number of suspects under study in lung cancer has broadened and now includes viruses, previous lung ailments, air pollutants, heredity, stress and strain, and other factors.

While these [TIRC-funded] research studies have increased our factual knowledge, they have at the same time continued to make clear and to emphasize the great and critical gaps in that knowledge.

We accept an interest in people’s health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business.

As the book’s authors state, the goal here wasn’t to discover facts, it was to perpetuate controversy about the adverse effects of tobacco, and in the interim, continue to remain an economic force.

And in all fairness, the industry can’t be blamed for trying to protect its interests, nor can those supporters who saw the tobacco industry in terms of employment, industry and taxes.images-1

The fact remains that smoking is harmful for anyone except the tobacco industry itself.

None of this, really, is news except for the part about how many lives were saved due to the Surgeon General’s report and its aftermath.

What I wondered, while I was reading all this and revisiting the ads proclaiming a ‘safer cigarette’ was this:

There have been countless reports on the effects of fossil-fuel consumption on health, the environment, and the climate. The oil industry has reacted in much the same way as the tobacco industry – to the point that numerous financial companies draw parallels between the plight of the two industries for investment purposes.

When it comes to damaging products and industries, it might take time, but regulation, awareness campaigns and alternatives work.

So, when will we have our watershed moment when the majority of us learn to kick the habit?Shell2

Ebb & Flow

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

The slow meltback of all the snow we’ve had over the past couple of months is advancing day-by-day. No rain, not much wind, chilly temperatures, and yet the thick snow pulls back to reveal the ground beneath. The ground is no longer solid with winter ice; it’s softer, a bit muddied, undecided. This dry creek bed near our house will be a fat torrent in just a few weeks, but for now the water remains frozen in ponds, higher up in the mountains, on the pastures. We might even get a late snowfall. Ebb and flow. It wouldn’t be the first time, and ‘Spring’ is officially still almost three weeks away. We’ve had heavy snows as late as April, when the apple trees were in full blossom.

Last week, Shell suspended oil exploration activities in Alaska – after eight years and $5 billion in preparation, the 2012 season was a slow stream of mechanical failure and breakdowns in harsh weather. Ships became unmoored and drifted, oil containment facilities were crushed, an oil rig ran aground. Environmental groups praise Shell’s shut-down as a period during which the entire concept of Arctic drilling can be reassessed, a window for further discussion of alternatives. Shell remains firm in its commitment to continue exploration for Arctic oil.

Also last week, the U.S. State Department released the results of its analysis regarding the safety of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, an energy infrastructure project that would carry¬† 830,000 barrels a day of tar sands fuel and oil from shale rock formations located in Alberta, Canada down across the U.S.-Canada border, across six Great Plains states and into refineries in Illinois, Oklahoma and, in later phases, in Texas. Those supporting the pipeline say it will add jobs, increase energy security and lower fuel prices. Opponents argue against the pipeline on a variety of fronts: environmental, political, financial, and cultural in that pipeline traverses areas important to no fewer that 150 Native American groups.¬† The State Department’s report concludes that the pipeline project would be ‘environmentally sound’ and that its completion wouldn’t significantly alter climate change. President Obama’s administration has committed itself to a focus on confronting climate change by fostering sustainable energy sources, particularly following the impact of climate change forerunners like Hurricane Sandy. On the day of a major anti-pipeline rally in Washington DC, President Obama was golfing in Florida with oil executives from Texas and Oklahoma.

There are long-term commitments to reducing reliance on carbon-based fuel. There are long-term commitments to supporting a reliance on carbon-based fuel.

The ground feels muddy, like it could thaw and welcome spring, or freeze over again in a last gasp of winter.