Archive for September, 2012

ExxonMobil The Evil Empire

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

After waiting years to get permission, Royal Dutch Shell finally began drilling its first exploration well in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaskan coast this past summer. Tests of its safety equipment have not gone well, and wind-driven sea ice has threatened the operation. Any further drilling of the exploration well has now been postponed until next summer.

Shell’s Noble Discoverer drilling rig on the Chukchi Sea, seen from the deck of the Tor Viking icebreaker. (Royal Dutch Shell, latimes.com))

This has been a benign season in the Arctic, and still the result is failure. This does not bode well for Arctic drilling, but if we can be sure of anything in this uncertain world, we can expect Shell, and BP, and Chevron, and the biggest of them all, ExxonMobil – as well as the Norwegian and Russian oil companies – to explore the Arctic and then to drill it over the next decades.

A recent book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll tells the tale of ExxonMobil from the catastrophic spill by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, through its rise in reach, power and wealth to become the most profitable of global corporations, to its present belated enthusiasm for fracking. It is an extraordinary tale of bald self-interest and cynicism.

Steve Coll’s book, published in 2012, is long, detailed, short on reflection, and frightening (nytimes.com)

Over the past 20 years, ExxonMobil has moved slowly and reluctantly through a series of attitudes about climate change. Of course it denied the reality of global warming for as long as possible, and funded the research of the skeptics. Then, eventually, it agreed that burning carbon-based fuels was in fact warming the planet – but its own analysis determined that the global demand for energy is growing so fast that even if alternate sources are available, they will only fill a small part of the need. We will remain dependent on ExxonMobil and the other oil companies for oil and natural gas for the next decades.

Seeing how the wind is now blowing in the US, ExxonMobil now supports the call for energy independence and even says that it could tolerate a carbon tax – but it believes in neither taxes nor the need for US energy independence.

ExxonMobil is a huge global corporation whose products are natural gas and oil, and whose sole motive is profit. It is present in 200 countries, extracting oil and gas from dozens of them. It is resistant to any action that might decrease its global access and profit. Its influence in US flows through through the efforts of lobbyists working on congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents. Access is never denied.

No government can resist the oil companies, not even the US. Coll’s book is very sobering.

Meanwhile, despite the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, offshore exploration and drilling is expanding around the world. Taking the risks, especially in the Arctic, is madness. Unfortunately, the oil companies, in their endless quest for more profits from more exploitable oil and gas deposits, remain indifferent to the long-term impact of what they do.

ExxonMobil has drilled a well offshore California that extends more than six miles horizontally and more than 7,000 ft below sea level. It was drilled from the Heritage platform using the company’s Fast Drill technology. (drillingcontractor.org)

The only concern ExxonMobil and the other oil companies express is that at some point the nations of the planet finally will become really afraid of the effects of global warming and agree to take concerted, major action.

Our challenge then is to bring that about now, not decades from now. We can start with the current US election – although neither party talks about climate change, at least President Obama understands that it exists and that it poses great dangers. In Canada we can try to constrain the development of the Alberta oil sands and the exploration for oil and gas in Canada’s Arctic.

And we can push back against the oil companies. They need our encouragement to do the right thing.

As do our governments.

Lobster Glut

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

The Gulf of Maine, kept relatively cold by the Labrador Current and the tides of the Bay of Fundy, is largely enclosed by the fishing banks (gulfofmaine-census.org)

There have been too many lobsters on the coast of Maine this year.

Lobstermen set their many thousands of traps, and far too easily caught far too many. They had to sell them for about $2 per lb, and for many that barely paid for their fuel. Some quit for the season, feeling they couldn’t make any money. Others have just sold their catch for whatever they could get.

Lobster traps piled high on the dock of a lobster co-op in Friendship, Maine (photo Deborah Berrill)

In a world where most fish populations have been overfished, the lobster fisheries on the coast of Maine is a true anomaly, more now than it has ever been.

Why are lobsters so abundant, when other fisheries are in such bad shape?

One reason is historical. Long ago, Maine lobstermen established unusual conservation rules – undersized and oversized individuals can’t be kept when caught, and a female caught with eggs has her tail notched and becomes protected forever as a breeding female. But these regulations are nothing new. They may help, but they aren’t the cause.

Large lobsters (this one weighed 27 pounds) in the Gulf of Maine have no predators, not even human, and can live for many decades, breeding every couple of years (wazzup2day.com)

Another reason is the loss of predatory groundfish – few bottom feeding fish are left to prey on small and still vulnerable juveniles. Again, this is nothing new.

There’s more. In the past decade, sea urchins have been so overfished (the Japanese savor their gonads) that it’s hard to find any now. They show little sign of recovery. As a result kelp beds have flourished in the absence of sea urchin grazing, providing lobsters with unlimited cover. But this has also happened before.

The lobsters are also very well fed, for the lobstermen of the gulf bait their traps with herring, and lobsters feed well in the traps until they molt to a size large enough to be harvested.

And then of course the Gulf of Maine has warmed by a couple of degrees centigrade over the past decade, modifying lobster growth rates, molting cycles, and wandering behavior.

Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have been gradually rising. The warmest on record ever occurred in the summer of 2012 (neisa.unh.edu)

Do all these add up to enough to account for the current glut of lobsters? We don’t know.

A couple of weeks ago, in letters to the governors of New England coastal states, the US Secretary of Commerce wrote:
“I have determined that a fisheries failure due to a fishery resource disaster will exist for the Northeast Multispecies Groundfish Fishery ..it seems unlikely that all economic impacts of the proposed catch limits for 2013 can be mitigated solely through fisheries management measures. While the precise cause of stock declines is unclear,’undetermined causes’ is an allowable cause for disaster relief.”

Undetermined causes. We speculate about the causes, but we actually don’t know why the groundfish have not recovered. We don’t why the sea urchins have not recovered. We don’t know why lobsters have become to abundant.

The Gulf of Maine is not unique. It’s just a well documented example of what is happening globally.

Uncertainty, ever-present in our understanding of ecosystems, grows ever greater. We are on a new trajectory, into a world of increasing uncertainty that we we can try to monitor but that we cannot predict.