One of my favourite quotes is from Oscar Wilde, who said that there are two great tragedies in life: Not getting your heart’s desire and getting it. I’ve used it before to describe Big Green NGO’s attitude towards shale energy. They’ve constantly lobbied for low cost, sustainable, local and lower carbon energy solutions, but they weren’t expecting natural gas -and now local oil - to provide them. All of a sudden, the low-carbon future they sought a few years ago has been replaced with seeking a no carbon at all destiny.
The true tragedy of Big Green is not achieving low carbon aims, but to have their business model overturned. Greenpeace,et al exist not to cut carbon, but to talk about cutting carbon. To raise awareness of cutting carbon. To organise a new bureaucracy that provides a good living hugging the problem- but not the hard part of solving it. In this respect they are no different from another of the great scourges of our age, management consultants.
Greenpeace, in most cases, aren't in it for the money, as many of their members have no need for it.The prize is feeling righteous, a more valuable commodity to those already rich. Greenpeace have been getting a lot of mileage recently, along with inadvertent Gulag accommodation points, from opposing Arctic oil drilling. While they haven’t yet plumbed the depths of the WWF, who have made the transition from wild animal protection into online toy shop, Greenpeace did steal their using the environment of cute animals to attract attention to their environment: An environment where they can play childish pranks unfurling (natural gas based) plastic banners all over the world, and make either a good living at it, or, more importantly, feel better about themselves doing so. But what if protesting about Arctic oil, is actually pointless? Today’s oil and gas reality not only disrupts peak oil scenarios, but also shatters the “extreme energy” narrative the UK Co-op once pushed on it’s members in a possibly drug addled confusion between oil shales and shale gas. The Co-op seems to have dropped that campaign by the way, but it lives on here.
The success of the shale oil revolution in the US is causing such rapid changes in the world oil industry that few people outside of the industry are aware of them. Essentially, the stunning success of US shale oil makes the Arctic irrelevant. I had the pleasure of meeting long time reader Robin Mills of Manaar Energy of Dubai earlier this year and his piece from The National underlines, from a conventional Mid East energy perspective, how shale has made Arctic energy, if not yet Greenpeace, besides the point:
The US geological survey estimated in 2008 the Arctic held 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 per cent of its undiscovered gas. But this picture has now been changed by the emergence of shale gas and oil in more comfortable climes in the US, and probably onshore in West Siberia. Offshore Arctic resources will eventually play a significant role – but they will be costly, technically frustrating and slow to come to market.
Environmentalist campaigns against Arctic drilling, perhaps intentionally, muddle two issues. Climate change is a grave threat to the region’s ecosystems and communities, and ice melting can accelerate warming of the rest of the Earth. The local environmental effect of mineral extraction has to be carefully regulated – but a barrel of oil has the same effect on the climate whether from Alaska or Angola. And Arctic oil – or even better, gas – is preferable to Canada’s high-carbon oil sands.
So, like the petroleum-rich Caspian in the 1990s, the Arctic may be fascinating, a treasure trove for corporations, generals and scholars alike – but it is ultimately a sideshow.
This theme is becoming especially clear closer to the Arctic itself, as the Alaska Dispatch notes:
“The central Arctic Ocean is exceedingly remote, thousands of miles from any port, from any community, it is subject to extremely hostile weather, complete darkness for several months each winter.
“I could go on. But it is probably the most expensive place in the entire world to drill for oil,” says Michael Byers, author of Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North.
...there is a significant contingent of researchers who believe the quest for resources is too optimistic.
“Everybody’s looking down the road, but I think there are some sober second thoughts about how much we’re going to be able to extract from the Arctic,” says Grant.
In an essay entitled “The Questionable Arctic Bonanza,” Kathrin Keil of the Arctic Institute in Washington, D.C., laments “the never-ending glut of stories about the Arctic ‘treasure chamber.’”
In her view, “the picture of an Arctic as ‘prime real estate’ of global significance is exaggerated.”
Huebert acknowledges that “we have no economic means of actually being able to exploit [Arctic resources] in the current state of technology and world prices.”
But he says there have been a number of recent technological innovations that have allowed us to extract fossil fuel deposits that would have once been thought unattainable.
He cites hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has been used to access massive shale oil and gas reserves in certain U.S. states in particular.
“I mean, who would have thought that North Dakota would emerge as the largest energy-producing state in the U.S., and that by 2020 the country would be energy self-sufficient?” he asks.
Simply put, there are more certain opportunities for energy closer to home, in fact closer to most people’s homes. This means that the Greenpeace debate should move closer to energy users' homes as well, but is that somewhere where greens will be less comfortable? That may mean a debate not about renewable energy in theory, but as practical alternative for example.
One of the most interesting aspects of the shale revolution is that it confronts people with local consequences of their own energy usage. Would we waste so much energy if see it coming from our own backyards? Everyone has been very comfortable with the benefits of oil and natural gas while tsk-tsking about the Arctic, oil-sands, offshore or the Amazon. Suddenly, more and more of us have the choice of using our energy instead of that of far away people that we either demonise (Iran) or idolise (the Inuit). The US gas and oil experience is not a geological fluke. We’ll all soon have the option to make a significant impact on oil use worldwide through local action.
We also have an opportunity to use carbon fuels far more efficiently by using them locally. The parallels with food are obvious.The narrative of local food, sustainably produced without high-carbon food miles, creating local employment and enriching ourselves instead of endangering others is attractive to people on a gut level. We need to start explaining energy consequences in food terms, starting with energy obesity but then continuing towards explaining why local energy is good energy - not extreme energy
For pragmatic greens, the choice for a low carbon future is going to involve reaching out across the energy industry of all types. A pragmatic approach to shale, enables renewables. For purist greens, the quote from Wilde may be useful to consider, but they seem intent on choosing the words from that other Anglo Irish libertine, Morrissey:
We hate it when our friends become successful,
And if they're northern
That makes it even worse and
If we can destroy them
You bet your life we will destroy them.