Repost from The Benicia Herald
[Editor: Benicia’s own Grant Cooke has written a highly significant three-part series for The Benicia Herald, outlining the impending fall of the fossil fuel industry and concluding with good advice for the City of Benicia and other cities dependent on refineries for a major portion of their local revenue stream. This is the first of three parts. Read part part two by CLICKING HERE and part three by CLICKING HERE and . – RS]
Grant Cooke: Big Oil’s endgame has begun
September 28, 2014 by Grant Cooke
Editor’s note: First of three parts to run on consecutive Sundays.
“THE STONE AGE CAME TO AN END, not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil,” said Sheikh Ahmed-Zaki Yamani. The former Saudi oil minister is arguably the world’s foremost expert on the oil industry. In 2000, he introduced this extraordinary observation with an even more prescient one — to wit, “Thirty years from now there will be a huge amount of oil — and no buyers. Oil will be left in the ground,” he told the UK’s Telegraph.
A decade and half later, we are coming to the end of Big Oil, and the domination of the world’s geopolitics and economy by the fossil-fuel interests for the past century. Correspondingly, the carbon- and nuclear-powered centralized utility industry that was started by Thomas Edison in 1882 when he flipped the switch at the Pearl Street substation in Manhattan has begun its decline.
Over the years, Big Oil and its related industries and supporters have disrupted the way humans manage their affairs, and wreaked havoc on our environmentally fragile planet. Today, the loss of a major section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet from global warming caused by excessive carbon-generated heat appears unstoppable.
That hasn’t stopped the dead-enders from fighting on. In February, North Carolina’s Republican governor turned his administration into a joke with a clumsy attempt to help Duke Energy, the nation’s largest utility, avoid cleaning up 39,000 tons of coal ash that was spilled into the Dan River. The Duke ash coal spill came a month after 10,000 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanols, or MCHM, spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, ruining the water supply of Charleston, the state’s capital. A second chemical, a mix of polyglycol ethers known as PPH, was part of the leak, the company involved, Freedom Industries, told federal regulators. The company uses the chemicals to wash coal prior to shipping for coal-powered utilities. More than 300,000 West Virginians were impacted and several hundred residents were hospitalized with various symptoms.
Closer to home in Northern California, we had the massive 2012 Chevron fire that sent toxic chemicals billowing into the air and caused respiratory problems for 15,000 Richmond residents. Chevron admitted to negligence as the cause of the fire. In 2010, PG&E’s neglect led to the horrific San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that killed eight, injured 66 and destroyed 38 homes. The California Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $2.5 billion, the largest fine in U.S. utility history. PG&E now faces federal charges that it violated the U.S. Pipeline Safety Act.
For several years, U.S. oil oligarchs Charles and David Koch have made a mockery of American democracy by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into smear campaigns against scientists, environmentalists and liberal politicians. More than any others in recent memory, the Koch brothers have manage to replace consensus and compromise with vitriol and dysfunction in U.S. politics.
Oil madness is not a strictly U.S. disease. Vladimir Putin, channeling the ghost of Joseph Stalin, recently swept up a huge chunk of Ukraine and threatened an astonished Europe that if it opposed him, the result would be a shutdown of the Russian natural gas that many see as vital to the EU’s economic recovery. And the world seems to have grown accustomed to Mideast mayhem, where the biggest transfer of wealth in world history — from the oil users to the oil suppliers — has led to social and political chaos, repression, suffering and death.
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EVEN AFTER A CENTURY OF SUPPORT, the U.S. federal government grants the oil industry, the world’s richest, with about $4 billion a year in tax subsidies, and Exxon Mobil Corporation (the largest grossing company in the world) minimizes the taxes it pays by using 20 wholly owned subsidiaries in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands to legally shelter cash from its operations in Angola, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi.
The coal industry is also favored with tax breaks, public land loopholes and subsidized railroads. A 2013 Harvard University study concluded that the total real economic costs from U.S. coal amounted to $345.3 billion, adding close to 17.8 cents per kilowatt hour to the cost of electricity generated from coal. Called “external costs, or externalities,” these costs are borne by the U.S. public.
Now the carbon-based industries, which include coal, oil, natural gas and related industries like centralized utilities and transmission line companies, are coming to the end of their socially useful cycle. Their resources are aging beyond economic justification and their business models are too inflexible to adapt to a new industrial era with a different energy model.
This new era of energy generation, storage and sharing is upon us. We call it the Green Industrial Revolution, and it is emerging as the next significant political, social and economic era in world history. As it takes hold, it will result in a complete restructuring of the way energy is generated, supplied and used. It will be a revolutionary time of extraordinary potential and opportunity, with remarkable innovations in science and energy that will lead to new ones in sustainable, smart and carbon-less economies powered by nonpolluting technologies like wind, geothermal, wave, river and solar, with their advanced technologies like flywheels, regenerative and maglev systems, and hydrogen fuel cells.
Community-based and on-site renewable energy generation will replace massive fossil fuel and nuclear-powered central plant utilities. New advances in efficient recyclable batteries and fuel cells will store energy for when it is needed. Smart green grids will share electricity effortlessly. Additive manufacturing will minimize wasted resources, and new sciences like nanotechnology will have a profound impact on business, careers, human health and the global economy.
This new era encompasses changes in technology, economics, business, manufacturing, jobs and consumer lifestyles. The transition will be as complete as when the steam-driven First Industrial Revolution gave way to the fossil fuel-driven Second Industrial Revolution. It is a monumental shift that is already under way and spreading rapidly around the world.
Industrial revolutions occur when a new energy source intersects with a new form of communication. In the First Industrial Revolution, steam was the energy source and the printing press provided the means to disseminate new ideas that accelerated scientific breakthroughs and the adoption of inventions. In the Second Industrial Revolution, the fossil fuel-driven internal combustion engine was the power source and analog communication provided the channel for new ideas and technologies.
Today, the digital age, with Internet access to almost all scientific knowledge and Facebook and Twitter-led social media, has intersected with renewable energy generation, hydrogen storage and smart grids. While vast fortunes were made in the fossil-fuel era by extracting natural resources and despoiling the environment, wealth in this new green era will come from digital and IT breakthroughs, intelligent machines and a host of environmentally sensitive inventions.
Many factors are coming together to hasten the Green Industrial Revolution. Putin’s march on Ukraine shocked Europe and stirred the region’s efforts to generate more renewable energy and cut ties to fossil fuel. Forty percent of Scotland’s domestic electricity generation comes from renewable sources, mostly tidal and wind. Denmark and other Nordic nations intend to generate 100 percent of their energy by mid-century. Germany’s Energiewende (Energy Transformation), which aims to power the country almost entirely on renewables by 2050, is accelerating.
Almost daily, scientists in university and national research laboratories are making breakthroughs in developing non-carbon energy sources. The chemistry department of the University of California-Davis recently figured out how to make carbon-less gasoline from straw. Advancements in nanotechnology are making electricity usage much more efficient.
China is considering a ban on new cars that run on fossil fuels, and major cities across the globe have limited the use of autos in downtown areas. Several nations — and California, too — are creating hydrogen highways. Norway, Sweden and Germany have them; California will open its hydrogen highway in 2016. Daimler, Honda, Chevrolet and most other major automobile manufacturers have hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars ready to go.
Grant Cooke is a long-time Benicia resident and CEO of Sustainable Energy Associates. He is co-author, with Nobel Peace Prize winner Woodrow Clark, of “The Green Industrial Revolution: Energy, Engineering and Economics,” to be released in October by Elsevier, of which this column is excerpted.