Obama's Security Chief From Big Oil?

Which way will Obama go on energy policy? Many of us are anxious to see whether Bush’s replacement will bring real change to one of the most important files on the presidential desk.

Now comes news that Obama will name retired General James Jones to be his National Security Adviser.

This is not good news.

Jones is currently a director of Chevron Oil. He also heads of the Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy - a group lobbying on energy issues in DC and described by the Grist as “part of the Republican machine, dominated by -- and lobbying fiercely for the interests of -- Big Oil, Big Auto, Big Pharma, and other such Bigs.”

As their president, Jones has made a number of troubling blog postings calling for the repeal of restrictions of off-shore drilling, scaled up oil sands development, coal extraction, coal-to-liquids, nuclear energy, and waiving various environmental protections.

When he is National Security Adviser to Obama, Jones will be in a powerful position to make these environmental roll-backs happen.

Have a look at this recent post General Jones made on the importance of scaling up production of dirty oil from the Alberta tar sands:

“We must continue to invest jointly in the technologies that will allow us to use oil sands and oil shale in an environmentally responsible way. It is estimated that by 2030, production from Canadian oil sands will reach 3.6 million barrels a day. This represents a promising new source of energy at a time when many existing oil fields are in decline. An important step for the United States to take is the repeal of Section 526 of the Energy Independence and Security Act, which prevents the federal government from utilizing non-traditional fuel sources, such as oil shale, for its vehicles and aircrafts.”

General Jones goes on to tout the virtues of carbon capture and storage as a way to have our oily cake and eat it too:

“We must work together to increase investments in carbon capture and sequestration technologies to ensure its viability for harnessing the coal and oil sands that our countries have in abundance. Technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration offer the potential to meet energy demands while promoting environmental stewardship.”

This sunny evaluation is spite of a secret Alberta government memo showing that decision makers have known since at least the spring of 2008 that carbon capture at the tar sands on a meaningful scale remains impossible. This of course has not stopped politicians from telling the public exactly the opposite.

General Jones also holds forth on the a series of other issues that will be music to the ears of the oil, nuke and coal industries:

- Permanently end the moratorium on exploration and production of America’s oil and natural gas resources.

- Expand the federal Loan Guarantee Program to increase the construction of emission-free nuclear power plants.

- Increase federal investments in clean coal technology to $20 billion over ten years, with half coming from the federal government and half from the private sector through a small fee on fossil-based utilities.

Will Obama will bring “real change” to DC? We'll be watching closely.


DSCOVR Article in Nature

I was contacted this month by Nature – the most prestigious science journal in the world – about my latest posting on the Deep Space Climate Observatory.

It seems their editors were interested in the news I broke that the Air Force was considering launching this $100 million mothballed spacecraft – minus the Earth observing instruments.

Last week they published an 800 word article based on information I provided to them about this bizarre story.

Alas, my extensive research on the DSCOVR mission was not mentioned in the Nature article, but such is the lot of a blogger.

More importantly, the exposure provided by this piece in one of the premier journals in the world will hopefully light a fire under NASA to not to kill this vital mission.

According to Nature, NASA “is now in talks with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Air Force about finally getting the probe off the ground. But the negotiations might mean that the spacecraft loses its Earth-observing instruments and instead goes into orbit with a remit to stare only at the Sun. An Earth-observing satellite that can see the whole planet is described as 'crucial' to climate research."

Lead researchers pull no punches when asked about the idiotic idea of blinding the spacecraft by removing the Earth observing instruments prior to launch.

“Stripping the two Earth-monitoring systems from DSCOVR to save money is an "appalling" idea, says Francisco Valero, the mission's principal investigator at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.”

The piece goes on to describe the unique perspective that DSCOVR would provide researchers studying climate change.

“Satellites in low-Earth orbit make similar energy measurements but can observe only small sections of Earth at a time. DSCOVR would offer a "global, rather than myopic, perspective of the planet", Valero says. One of its Earth-monitoring instruments, a spectroradiometer, would indirectly measure variables such as ozone levels, aerosols, cloud thickness and water vapour. The other, a radiometer, would measure reflected and emitted radiation for the whole planet.”

However the clock is ticking on saving this mission from powerful people that want to destroy the spacecraft. Many scientists are starting to publicly voice their support for this critical mission and the data it would provide from vantage of Lagrangian point L1, one million miles away.

"In March 2008, the Ernst Strüngmann Foundation in Frankfurt, Germany, held an invitation-only forum for 44 top climate scientists. Many participants, none of whom was directly involved with DSCOVR, agreed that satellite observations of Earth from L-1 are essential for assessing changes in cloud cover and climate.”

I will continue to rake up more muck on this incredible story, and it seems like we are getting somewhere. My last posting on DSCOVR at Desmog Blog.com was read 32,000 times.


Putting Global Warming Laggards on Trial


That is perhaps best word to describe a class action lawsuit filed this week in the International Criminal Court in The Hague in Holland against national governments refusing to act on reducing carbon emissions.

The suit was filed by climate activist Danny Bloom who is asking for "US$1 billion dollars in damages on behalf of future generations of human beings on Earth - if there are any"

No Joke

The lawsuit is specifically seeking damages from "all world leaders for intent to commit manslaughter against future generations of human beings by allowing murderous amounts of fossil fuels to be harvested, burned and sent into the atmosphere as CO2, causing possible apocalyptic harm to the Earth's ecosystem and the very future of the human species.

The point of the suit of course is not to wring money out of carbon emitters, but to embarrass the legions of laggard governments in advance of upcoming international climate negotiations next month in Poland.

According to Bloom, the legal action "is about trying to protect future generations of mankind, humankind, and a positive judgment in this case will help prod more people to take the issues of climate change and global warming more seriously. We fully intend to make all world leaders of today responsible for their actions in the present day and age."

This case is a legal long shot no doubt, but Bloom's team said ""it's up to the court to decide whether this case has any merit. We fully expect the court to agree to at least hear the case and make a responsible and measured decision later."

It would also be the first case of its kind to seek to act on behalf of future generations for the irresponsibility of their ancestors.

The need to put world leaders on the hot seat is very real. International climate talks like the one happening next month in Poland have happening for over a decade yet global emissions just keep climbing. A recent report showed that in spite of international commitments, carbon emissions of 40 industrialized countries rose by 2.3 percent between 2000 and 2006.

That said, those countries that signed Kyoto saw their overall emissions fall by 17% below 1990. The disgraceful outlier among those nations is Canada, whose emissions ballooned by over 20% in spite of having ratifying Kyoto.

Canada's Prime Minister Harper has called Kyoto a "mistake" and he seems openly contemptuous of such international efforts to reduce greenhouse gases. Mr. Harper is of course not alone in the responsibility for Canada' terrible climate change record. The Canadian public recently handed him another mandate in a general election.

Back to Mr. Bloom. His lawsuit seems directly targeted towards such irresponsible nations like Canada that have refused to take this issue seriously. If he wins, Bloom is planning to donate the $1 billion in damages to the Nobel winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Godspeed Mr. Bloom.


Bad News for Big Oil

Oil industry insiders are sweating bullets over whether the incoming Obama Administration will be keen to buy “dirty oil” from Alberta tar sands. The early news for them is not good.

The president-elect last week sent Jason Grumet, a policy adviser mentioned for a possible energy post, to an environmental conference in Washington to offer reassurances that there would be swift movement on climate change legislation. Observers feel this is an early sign that Obama is taking a hard line on carbon.

"The whole transition team felt it important to be here," Grumet said. "I think it is going to be a very very busy 2009, and I think we are going to need all of you to be on top of your game."

Grumet is also no fan of the filthy oil coming from the tar sands. In June, he told reporters, "The amount of energy that you have to use to get that [tar sands] oil out of the ground is such that it actually creates a much greater impact on climate change."

"We [Obama's team] are going to support resources... that meet our long-term obligations to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. And I think it's an open question as to whether or not the Canadian resources are going to meet those tests," said Grumet.

You can almost feel posteriors puckering across the Alberta oil patch. After all, what good is the world’s largest capital project, if the US doesn’t want to buy what it produces?

So far over $200 billion has been sunk into this bitumen boondoggle. Flagging oil prices, a slowing economy and now a new Administration committed to a green energy future all add up to bad news for big oil.

No surprise then that Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper virtually lunged at the newly elected Obama with a protect-the-oil-sands-plan almost before the victory confetti had hit the ground in Chicago.

According to analyst Gwen Dyer, Harper's strategy is transparent. He wants a climate-change pact with the United States in which Alberta's "dirty oil" is exempted from controls on the grounds that it contributes to that other American national goal, "energy independence."

Dyer points out that the boogieman of an oil embargo of the kind that traumatized the US in 1973 has long since become a red herring. Why? Because since ’73 oil-exporting nations such as Saudi Arabia have become as addicted to selling the west their oil as we have become at buying it.

Saudi Arabia seen its population triple in the last thirty five years. Even with this massive increase in people, their per capita GDP has also risen by a stunning 556% between 1973 and 2006. Yet as of 2007, non-oil manufacturing contributed a mere 10% to Saudi Arabian GDP and less than 6% of total employment. If America has an oil monkey on its back, so do the Saudis.

Real “energy independence” has much more to do with reducing carbon emissions and avoiding shoveling billions of dollars into someone else's economy. Canada would of course enjoy the US pouring all that cash into our coffers instead, but that will not help the American trade balance much more than buying Saudi crude.

According to Dyer, Stephen Harper is appealing to the stupid version of the energy independence policy: Maybe the Ay-rabs won't sell you their oil, but the Canadians always will. It will be instructive to see if Obama falls for it.”

Who would have thought that Canada could only be dragged into global moral alignment by Uncle Sam on the most important issue of the 21st century? Roll over Pierre.


Canada's Ethical Deficit

I have president envy. Here in Canada we are stuck with Prime Minister Steven Harper – a leader so un-inspirational he could be mistaken for Mr. Rogers on sedatives. The United States on the other hand now has a president-elect who has electrified the world.

But this envy is not merely about charisma. The United States seems well on the road to finally getting serious about climate change. Canada under Harper now has perhaps the worst climate policy of any country in the developed world. In fact, had John McCain prevailed instead, Canada would still be trailing the US in carbon reduction targets.

Worse still, Mr. Harper is trying to drag the US down with us. Just this week, Harper proposed to Obama that Canada and the US enter into a climate agreement that would guarantee the continued pell-mell development of the Alberta tar sands. To Obama’s credit, and our shame, the US very likely won’t collude with us to the detriment of our the planet’s atmosphere.

During the campaign, Obama’s team was highly critical of the US’s continued reliance on “dirty oil”. That is a widely perceived to be a code word for oil originating from the Alberta tar sands.

So energy intensive are these very low-grade deposits that 700 million cubic of relatively clean natural gas are burnt each day just to extract tar from rock. This is enough to heat more than 3.7 million Canadian homes.

It is not just the massive emissions resulting from separating tar from sand. The only reason you produce oil is to refine it and burn it in vehicles. This precludes the very oversold concept of “carbon capture”, unless of course you trail a very long hose behind your car.

Production and downstream emissions for Alberta synthetic crude are 638 kg carbon dioxide per barrel – much higher than conventional oil.

Based on extractable reserves of 175 billion barrels, the oil sands will eventually contribute an incredible 112 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the planet’s atmosphere – equivalent to all fossil fuel and industrial emissions worldwide combined over a period of more than four years.

Released all at once, these emissions would single handedly bump atmospheric CO2 concentrations close to 400 ppm. This is perilously close to potential catastrophic tipping points identified by the scientific community. It’s hard to imagine meaningful emissions targets that would not limit the development of the Alberta oil sands.

Back to Barack. He has committed the United States to a U-turn on climate policy, including strict carbon caps. That of course would be a disaster for oil-addled Alberta – Harper’s political power base. After all, what good is the world’s largest capital project, if our biggest trading partner doesn’t want to buy what it produces?

Watching the US for the last eight years has been like watching an old friend with a drinking problem. Just as Uncle Sam seems ready to sober up, Canada is trying to hand him another bottle.

Expect to see Harper try to take our country and the US even farther on the wrong side of history. Expect the US to say no.


My Crappy Country

The “smug” is officially off being Canadian. With the stunning victory of Barak Obama this week, the well-worn pastime of self-righteously comparing ourselves to US may be coming to an end. Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on exactly how progressive our own country is.

Most of Canada cheered when Obama prevailed but the fact is that even if John McCain had been elected president, the United States would now have far more ambitious carbon reduction goals than Canada.

Our country seems well on the road to becoming a politically compromised petro-state and now trails the developed world in dealing with the greatest issue to face humanity

A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada shows that Canada now has among the worst environmental records of 17 of our major trading partners, ranking only slightly above Australia and the US.

These are only the latest in a series of shameful embarrassments on the world stage that would make Pierre Trudeau spin in his crypt.

Consider Canada’s outrageous flogging of cancer causing asbestos to the poorest countries in the world. The Canadian Medical Association Journal recently compared Canada’s aggressive promotion of our asbestos industry to the “international arms trade”.

Last week Ottawa succeeded in preventing Canadian asbestos from being included in the Rotterdam Convention. This agreement would merely require informing impoverished nations of the well-known human health risks of using this deadly substance.

Rather than defending this heinous position to international community, the Canadian government instead cut a quiet deal behind closed doors with such moral luminaries as Zimbabwe and Russia.

Our country is also become closely aligned with the worst of George Bush’s foreign policy. We have spent close to $20 billion intervening in impoverished Afghanistan, but less than 10% of this was aid. The vast majority of there has instead been on aggressive counter-insurgency.

This, while our military allies are plainly stating that international troops are now "part of the problem, not part of the solution".

Meanwhile, a humanitarian crisis unfolds largely unnoticed in the Congo that may rival the Holocaust in loss of human life.

The UN is pleading for peacekeepers, a vocation that was invented by Canadians. Yet in 2006, the number of Canadian peacekeepers worldwide could fit on a school bus. The genocide in Rwanda only fifteen years ago is apparently ancient history.

Canada’s perennial inability or unwillingness to deal with aboriginal living conditions, homelessness, child poverty, world poverty or universal day care speak volumes about what kind of country we have become.

While many Canadians enjoy absolving themselves by instead slagging Stephen Harper, at least he is honest in his disdain for such apparently naïve causes as environmental protection and peacekeeping.

More Canadians voted for his party than any other, and he won the election fair and square on a clear campaign of lower taxes and cheaper fuel. Had he also thrown in free cable, a grateful nation might well have handed him a majority.

The political Left in Canada remains far more committed to partisan gains than egalitarian principles. The provincial NDP’s brazen opposition to the BC carbon tax is a sickening case in point. Jack Layton successfully fear-mongered the proposed Liberal carbon tax in apparent collusion with the Tories.

Both parties maintained that this was an untried experiment though both knew very well that such taxes had been successfully employed in Europe for almost twenty years.

Sweden brought in a carbon tax seventeen years ago and has reduced absolute carbon emissions by 9% below 1990 levels while their economy grew by 44%. Here in the bumpkin backwater of Canada, emissions have ballooned by over 20% with no end (or concern) in sight.

Meanwhile the Green Party succeeded in wasting almost one million progressive votes and have ambitious plans for even more counter-productive lunacy.

For their part, the Liberals immediately threw the hapless Stephane Dion under the bus, and new leadership contenders are rapidly distancing themselves from the political plutonium of meaningful environmental policy.

Even with such stark choices in the last federal election, less than 60% of eligible Canadian voters bothered to exercise their democratic rights that many Canadian veterans gave their lives for. This is the worst voter turn out since confederation.

Electoral reform is one potential route out of this morass but that issue seems dead as a doornail in our jerkwater country.

Every other developed nation in the world besides Canada, the US and the UK have rejected the ancient first past the post system that was a museum piece when we inherited it from the British 150 years ago.

Provincial referenda on electoral reform have failed so far in BC, PEI, and most recently in Ontario where more than 60% of the public rejected the idea with the strident support of such supposedly progressive newspapers as the Toronto Star.

I do not enjoy writing these words but they are true. These and other issues have pushed me in sad transition from proud Canadian to someone who is increasingly ashamed of my country. The fact is that our international reputation was forged over 40 years ago and very little has happened since.

We can of course do much better but for the time being, and foreseeable future, we have chosen not to. It is not surprising that no leader remotely approaching the stature of Obama or Trudeau has appeared on the Canadian landscape. They would wither in the stripmall worldview that has become our new Canadian character.

Is our country capable of picking up the inspirational gauntlet that has been cast down by our southern neighbours? I sincerely doubt it, but would be delighted to be proven wrong.