The Crumbling of America

Crumbling America

Directed by Henry Schipper (2009)

Film Review

This is a compelling, though somewhat melodramatic, documentary about crumbling US infrastructure – especially its bridges, roads, levees, dams, water delivery systems, sewage systems, and power grid. The US presently spends less on infrastructure (2% of GDP) than the developing countries China (9%) and India (8%). The percentage of GDP Americans spend on infrastructure has declined from 12% in 1960.

Most bridges, superhighways and water and sewage pipes are designed to last 50 years, and many are approaching or have exceeded their expected lifespan. There are no programs to repair vital levees along the Mississippi River and in California. A 6.9 earthquake would totally destroy San Francisco’s earthwork levees, contaminating all southern California’s drinking water, as well as destroying acres of prime agricultural land.

Shoddy maintenance of urban water and sewage systems leads to hundreds of thousands of leaks per year, especially in eastern rust belt cities. While parts of the national electrical grid are subject to ever more frequent and lengthy power failures due to poor maintenance and obsolete switches, sensors, data systems and transformers and rotting utility poles.

Reaching the Wrong Conclusion

Despite the wealth of data they present, I strongly disagree with the filmmakers’ conclusion: that taxpayers need to front up with trillions of dollars to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure. I strongly believe this massive decay presents a unique opportunity to replace 100-year-old technologies with cheaper, more efficient, people-friendly 21st century technology.

For example, I totally disagree with their assertion that the electrical grid was “the greatest infrastructure achievement of the 20th century.”  Besides being one of the most inefficient infrastructure projects ever invented (according to the EPA the US power system loses approximately 67% of the power it creates), the grid was never intended to serve the public – it was intended to increase the sale of electricity and electrical products, as well as consolidating the control of production and distribution in the hands of Wall Street corporations (see Reclain the Commons: Take Back the Grid). The renewable energy revolution, which enables households and neighborhood to produce their own solar energy, also allows ordinary people to control its destruction.

Likewise our totally gridlocked super highways don’t need to be rebuilt – they need to be replaced with cheaper and more efficient and climate-friendly high speed and computer trains and buses.

While inefficient and unhealthy (adding chlorine to our water creates a variety of dangerous chlorinated organic compounds) water delivery and sewage systems need to be replaced with more modern technologies that allow us to recycle our water instead of pouring it down the drain.

The EU and the Colonization of Europe

The Forbidden Colony

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

This Al Jazeera documentary examines the undemocratic nature of the European Union and it’s role in allowing banks and multinational corporations to colonize Europe. It begins by focusing on the EU Parliament, which meets in secret and bans public observation of its proceedings. Elected members of the EU Parliament lack the authority to initiate legislation. They can only rubber stamp laws proposed by the non-elected European Commission.

Croatian philosopher Srecko Horbat examines the right and left wing movements that have arisen in reaction in response to the massive economic dislocation (job loss, low wages, high housing costs) people have experienced following the creation of the EU.

The far right tends to campaign against the massive influx of migrants, which they blame for their declining standard of living. The left, in contrast, is more focused on rebuilding European democracy from the ground up.

For me, the most interesting part of the film was its examination of various European experiments in direct democracy. Examples include

  • The grassroots movements in Hamburg and 170 other German cities and towns that have bought back electric power companies from private companies to hasten their transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
  • Ada Colau, the radical mayor of Barcelona,* who is working to transform squats into cooperatives and forcing banks to make vacant buildings available for social housing.
  • Greece’s parallel economy, which operatives massive “no middlemen” food markets in reaction to price gouging by corporate supermarket chains.

*The capitol of Catalonia, which is organizing a popular referendum to declare independence from Spain – see Showdown in Spain

The End of Oil

end-of-oil

The End of Oil

by Paul Roberts

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (20014)

Book Review

Although fourteen years old, The End of Oil offers an invaluable historical analysis about the absolute link between cheap fossil fuels and the development of industrial capitalism. Roberts starts his analysis with the first century Persians who first distilled surface petroleum for use as lamp fuel. According to Roberts, widespread use of oil as a fuel was impossible until drill technology became available in the 19th century to drill for it at deep levels.

Roberts identifies coal mining as the first really capital intensive industry requiring extensive external funding. Building the infrastructure to mine and process all three fossil fuels is always extremely capital intensive. The fact that a coal or gas-fired power plant takes three or four decades to pay off is one of the main reasons fossil fuel companies, and the banks and governments that subsidize them, are so reluctant to replace them with renewable energy infrastructure. The End of Oil also emphasizes the absolute importance of cheap fossil fuel to the economic health of industrialized countries, Between1945 and 2004 (when the book was published), there were six big spikes in the price of oil – each was accompanies by a major economic recession.

Roberts maintains the cheap, easily accessible oil is all used up, explaining its steady price increase since the late 70s. Russian oil, which is fairly costly to mine, only became economically viable when the price of oil hit $35 a barrel in 1980.

Prior to the final chapters, which review the economics of various forms of renewal energy, the book also discusses the geopolitics of oil. Roberts leaves absolutely no doubt that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was an effort by neoconservatives Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz et al to control the volatile price of oil and the devastating effects of this lability on the US economy. Although the US wars in Libya, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen occurred after the book’s publication, Roberts’s analysis left me with no doubt whatsoever they were driven by similar geopolitical objectives.

Roberts also discusses the geopolitical threats posed by China, India and Southeast Asian countries as their growing middle classes put pressure on a finite supply of oil. He also explores the threat the growing political/military alliance between Russian and Iran creates. Between them, the two countries control half the world supply of natural gas. He leaves no doubt, in other words, that the current US military threats against China, Russia and Iran are also about fossil fuel security, just like the war on Iraq.

Four States Investigating Exxon for Fraud Over Climate Denial

The following is a presentation by climate activist Bill McKibben about the global Break Free from Fossil Fuels movement. This is a global civil disobedience campaign directed at fossil fuel companies rather than government policy. Its aim is to pressure these companies to leave untapped coal, oil and gas reserves in the ground.

It’s a bad news/good news presentation. First McKibben gives us the bad news: despite all the hype, the outcome of the Paris climate change conference in 2015 was pure rhetoric. The treaty signed at the conference won’t lower carbon emissions sufficiently to prevent catastrophic climate change. See Global Civil Disobedience

However there is good news on two fronts: the speed at which many countries are transitioning to renewable energy and the remarkable success of the global Break Free campaign.

Among the successful actions McKibben describes: the 2015 Keystone civil disobedience at the White House that persuaded Obama to cancel the pipeline; the Australian campaign that blocked construction of the largest coal mine in the world; the Washington State campaign blocking construction of coal terminals in Longview and Cherry Point; the Seattle blockade of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig; and the global anti-fracking movement, which has led to a ban on fracking in New York, Quebec, Wales, Scotland and France.

The best part of the presentation concerns the recent Columbia School of Journalism expose revealing Exxon knew about climate change in 1977 and funded a massive public relations scam to convince the public it was a hoax. According to McKibben, the attorney generals of New York, California, Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands are investigating Exxon for fraud over their role in the climate denial movement.

Q&A’s start at 46:00.

Falling Oil Prices: a Saudi Viewpoint

Inside Story – What’s Behind the Falling Oil Prices

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

A most revealing documentary. Unlike western pundits who speculate about conspiracies to wipe out shale oil producers (ie fracking) and the oil  economies of Russia and Venezuela, these Middle East analysts stick to economic fundamentals.

The three analysts identify three main factors behind the present oil glut: shale gas production, a big increase in renewable energy production and dropping demand by emerging economies such as China.

They maintain Saudi Arabia’s primary motivation for current output levels is fear of losing “market share” if they unilaterally cut oil production.

There’s also an interesting discussion about the Saudi plan to introduce taxation to help reduce their $98 billion deficit.

The Renewable Energy Revolution

The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People

By Maximilian Dearman and Missy Lahren (2015)

Film Review

This film takes its title from Jeremy Rifkin’s 2011 book The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World. The students who crowdfunded this documentary are clearly influenced by Rifkin’s relative blindness to the realities of class society. That being said, the film presents much valuable information about key players in the renewable energy revolution.

The video sets out to prove Rifkin’s thesis that “revolution” inevitably occurs when there are major simultaneous breakthroughs in energy production and communication. According to Rifkin, the first industrial revolution occurred in 1820, with the simultaneous development of coal-based steam power and letter-press printing; the second in 1900 with the simultaneous development of the combustion engine and electronic communication (telephone, radio and TV). He asserts the third industrial revolution has already started, owing to the simultaneous rise of renewable energy and the Internet. He’s convinced that the combined efforts of the business community and the nonprofit sector have already put the US on track to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2050 – regardless of government inactivity on climate change.

The filmmakers are clear converts to Rifkin’s views on market-based solar energy conversion. They argue the above trajectory is inevitable now that solar energy has become cheaper than fossil fuels. They erroneously attribute the price drop for solar photo voltaic cells (PVCs) to an “economy of scale” effect (ie high demand for an item allows you to mass produce it and the price drops). They also argue the cost of renewable energy will continue to fall, while fossil fuel costs will increase as finite resources diminish.

A more realistic analysis would attribute the current low cost of PVCs to low production costs – in Chinese sweatshops using super cheap electricity from coal-fired power plants. These costs will increase exponentially as Chinese wages continue to improve and as China’s government reduces their reliance on dirty coal.

On the other hand, the film is chock full of useful information about US cities that have already switched to 100% renewable energy, as well as numerous groups and programs that have helped make this possible:

Grid Alternatives – a national nonprofit organization that installs free solar panels in low income communities, while simultaneously low income volunteers to become solar technicians.
Community Choice Aggregation – a system adopted into law in the states of Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Illinois which allows cities and counties to aggregate the buying power of individual customers within a defined jurisdiction in order to secure alternative energy supply contracts on a community-wide basis. Energy will always be cheaper, more efficient and more planet-friendly when it stays in the communities where it’s produced and is controlled by those communities.
• Green for All – a national organization founded to ensure that low income communities and communities of color have access to renewable energy technology and jobs.
B-Corporations – a framework and certification for corporations wishing to benefit their communities, as well as their shareholders.
Mosaic – a conduit for small renewable energy entrepreneurs to obtain financing when banks refuse to loan them money.
• Power Shift, Cool the Earth, Alliance for Climate Education – national groups working to get rood information about renewable energy alternatives into schools.
• Longevity – a 20 year solar lease program for families who can’t afford to pay $7,000 upfront for their solar energy panels.

 


Oil Economics Made Easy

Afterburn Society: Beyond Fossil Fuels

Richard Heinberg (2015)

Film Review

Afterburn Society is about the economics of energy, specifically the energy produced by fossil fuels. The subject of economics is like bad-tasting medicine for a lot of people. However Post Carbon Institute Fellow Richard Heinberg’s jargonless, down-to-earth delivery makes the experience quite painless and even pleasurable.

Heinberg begins by tracing the history of agriculture and manufacturing. Prior to the late 19th century, there were only two sources of energy. People either relied on their own muscle power or they employed traction animals or slaves (ironic, isn’t it, how fossil fuels replaced slavery?).

In contrast, our modern-day food industry relies heavily on fossil fuels to run farm machinery, for plastic packaging (derived from oil), to transport food to market, for nitrogen fertilizer (derived from natural gas) and as a source of herbicides and pesticides (derived from oil).

It takes 350 gallons of oil a year to feed one American and seven Calories* of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Heinberg goes on to explain the law of diminishing returns as it pertains to oil production. Over the last eight years investment in oil production has soared, while output per dollar invested has steeply declined. From 1997-2005, oil companies spent $1.5 trillion to produce 86 million barrels of oil a day. Between 2005-2013, they spent $4 trillion to produce 3 million barrels a day.

Industry data reveals conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and has been declining ever since. Most of the new oil production has come from more costly and risky technologies, such as fracking and deep sea oil drilling. The use of these new technologies has increased the cost of oil extraction. This, in turn, has led the price of oil to skyrocket from $27 a barrel in 2000 to $100 a barrel in 2014.

The higher price of oil means a higher return for oil companies. This, in turn, enabled more costly and controversial technologies, such as fracking and deep sea oil drilling have come onboard. They only became economically viable when the price of oil passed $70-80 a barrel.

EROEI

Oil production costs aren’t only increasing in dollar terms, but in terms of the energy required to extract new oil. Heinberg predicts that by mid-century, it will require as much energy to extract a unit of oil and natural gas as that unit will produce when it’s burned. At that point, fossil fuels will cease to be a viable energy source, though they may continue to be useful in producing plastics, synthetic fabrics and other petroleum byproducts.

Overall surplus energy will steeply decline when this happens, as renewable energy technologies have a much lower EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) than fossil fuels. For example, solar energy has an EROEI of 2.5-5 to 1 (2.5-5 units returned for every unit invested), in contrast to oil’s EROEI of 30 to 1. Biofuels, with an EROEI of 1 to 1, are even worse. Their only purpose is to return a profit to government subsidized biofuel merchants like Archer Daniels Midland. They’re useless as an energy source.

The steep decline in surplus energy will translate into major social change, as nearly all of our energy use will be geared towards producing new energy (i.e. food production).

The Recent Drop in Oil Prices

In my view, the only shortcoming in this presentation was Heinberg’s failure to address the steep drop in oil prices that began in June 2014 (from $100 to $48 a barrel, recently leveling off around $60 a barrel). He does discuss it in a December 19, 2014 article The Oil Price Crash of 2014

In brief he attributes the temporary price drop to a decrease in demand (due to deepening recession in China, Japan and Europe), coupled with increasing supply (due to the frantic pace of fracking in the US). Normally when there’s a mismatch in supply and demand, it falls on Saudi Arabia (the world’s top oil exporter) to ramp down production. This time the Saudis have refused to cut back production.

Their motivation is a matter of speculation. According to Heinberg, the most likely reasons are a desire to destroy the US fracking industry (small fracking companies are going bankrupt in droves – they’re up to their eyeballs in debt and fracked oil is only profitable above $70-80 a barrel) – and to punish Russia and Iran (whose economies are totally dependent on oil and gas exports) for meddling in Syria and Iraq.


*A measure of energy, a Calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Centigrade.