Category Archives: Environment

Crash in Oil Prices Should Bury Peak Oil Once and For All

by Arun Gupta Telesur January 29, 2015

In 1977 Isaac Asimov wrote of “The Nightmare Life Without Fuel.” Writing in the wake of the first Middle East oil shock, Asimov imagined cars and air conditioning becoming distant memories, cities mined for valuable minerals and hardware, and the last barrels of oil hoarded for agricultural and military purposes. A future of scarcity seemed in the cards after the 1979 revolution in Iran followed disrupted global supplies, reviving gas lines and rationing in the United States, and sending oil prices to a stratospheric $117 a barrel in today’s U.S. dollars.

The U.S. economy plunged into recession for the second time in a decade. Inflation, food prices and unemployment all shot up. Energy-importing Third World nations were devastated as expensive crude depleted their treasuries even as the U.S. Federal Reserve jacked interest rates, triggering the debt crises that remain unresolved to this day.

But high prices didn’t last long as Saudi Arabia opened its spigots to replace Iran as the West’s top oil supplier, oil exploration boomed in Texas, and vast new fields in the Gulf of MexicoNorth Sea and Alaska ramped up. By the mid-1980s two-hour lines at the filling station were a hazy childhood memory as I’d zip up to the pump and fill my gas-sipping Nissan Sentra for $5.

We are now replaying that era of energy shocks radiating from the Middle East, tight energy markets, expensive oil and an oversupply and bust. The cyclical nature of the fossil-fuel industry disapproves a concept that’s gained wide support, especially on the left, even though it’s flawed in every way: “peak oil.”

Asimov never used the term peak oil in his essay, but that was the underlying idea. Shell Oil geologist Marion King Hubbert developed peak oil theory in the 1950s, predicting domestic U.S. oil production would peak by 1970 and decline steadily thereafter. In exploiting an individual oil field, Hubbert contended, production ramps up quickly and hits a peak at about which time about half the recoverable oil has been extracted. As the oil becomes increasingly difficult and costly to pump out, the field goes into decline. Think of the production as a bell-shaped curve. The top point means half is gone and half is left. But because population and the economy continue to grow, so do energy needs. Hubbert held that his theory about an individual field was applicable to the continental U.S. oil production and even the entire world, which he predicted would peak around 2000.

After that, as one website describes, comes the nightmare future. “Worldwide demand for oil will outpace worldwide production of oil by a significant margin … the price will skyrocket, oil dependent economies are liable to crumble, and resource wars are liable to explode.”

Except panics over looming shortages are as old as the oil industry itself. One snake-oil salesman in 1855 implored buyers to purchase his petroleum-based cure-all “before this wonderful product is depleted from Nature’s laboratory.” The U.S. government warned numerous times in the 20th century that oil supplies would be depleted in a decade or two. The infamous 1972 Limits to Growth projected that by 2013 the world should have run out of “aluminum, copper, gold, lead, mercury, molybdenum, natural gas, oil, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc.” Peak-oil theorists like Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes, Richard Heinberg and James Howard Kunstler have been declaring peak oil for more than twenty years but production keeps rising.

Despite this dismal track record many leftists embraced peak oil during the Bush era. It was a secular version of end times in the post-9/11 world. If movement building seems insurmountable, then it’s tempting to find solace in building post-carbon, do-it-yourself communities and wait for the wells to run dry at which point everything from the “war on terror” to climate change is resolved.

Fervent peak oilers are neo-Malthusians, believing the relentless growth of population and society on their own will outstrip natural resources. While Malthus’s ideas were discredited on scientific, historical, and economic grounds in the 19th century, they live on in peak oil, peak waterpeak mineralspeak soilpeak food and peak everything.

From a scientific perspective, peak oil posits geology as determining oil supplies. Of course oil is a finite and non-renewable resource, but the last decade of spiraling oil prices was caused by Middle East wars, Wall Street commodities speculation, and ecological disasters like Hurricane Katrina, not by natural limits. It’s the socio-economic system that determines how much oil, along with every other commodity, is produced, distributed, and consumed. Grasping why peak oil and its variants are flawed offers a deeper understanding of the global energy order, the politics of climate change, and capitalism itself.

Even the term peak oil is problematic, obscuring how the energy industry works. We may imagine oil as gushing out of a steel derrick in a barren desert, but energy companies are after hydrocarbons in any form. Cars on a highway could be powered by fuel derived from tar sands, natural-gas or its condensates, shale oil, biofuels, heavy oil, or coal-to-liquid. One scenario by the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates such non-conventional sources could account for more than one-third of all oil produced by 2030.

Then there is the concept of a peak. Even though Hubbert was off by only one year—domestic production peaked in 1971—production looks nothing like his bell curve over time. It rose after each seventies shock, went into a twenty-year funk after the mid-eighties crash, and in the last five years it has soared to near its 1971 peak.

The inherent flaw of peak oil is that it naturalizes capitalism. Energy reserves are determined by price, investment and technology. The current oil boom, driven by innovations in fracking and drilling, tar-sands production, low-cost investment capital and persistently high oil prices, have smashed Hubbert’s theory to bits like brittle shale.

The inaccuracy of peak oil hasn’t stopped prominent figures like Paul Krugman and George Monbiot from flirting with the concept. Monbiot admitted his error in 2012, correctly noting the problem is not too little oil, but too much: “There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground.” On the left, Michael Klare has pushed versions of peak oil in books like Resource Wars and The Race for What’s Left. In 2005 Klare declared that “the world is headed for a severe and prolonged energy crunch in the not-too-distant future.” In 2008 Klare wrote that “the current energy crisis is almost certain to be long-lasting.” In 2012 he asserted that “oil prices are destined to remain high for a long time to come.”

Like the hardcore peak oilers, Klare confuses the energy economy with oil reserves rather than analyzing how economic, political, and technological forces turn tight markets into gluts, and booms into busts. While Klare tends not to endorse peak oil outright, he often quotes the ideas favorably. In recent years he has shifted to peak oil-lite, proclaiming the end of “cheap oil” or “easy oil.” Most any gas station these days refutes the “cheap oil” notion. The U.S. average is currently $2.03 for a gallon of gas, close to the inflation-adjusted average in the 1950s.

As for “easy oil,” that’s relative. In 1947 when the first commercial oil well was built out of the sight of land in the Gulf of Mexico it was an engineering marvel and in all of 18 feet of water. Today, Brazil has committed $82 billion to develop a “pre-salt basin” of oil under 6,900 feet of water and additional 17,000 feet of seabed. Japan is in uncharted waters with a pilot project to exploit methane hydrates, a form of frozen hydrocarbon on ocean floors that may be twenty-five times the size of all potential natural gas reserves. While there are uncertainties about these projects, especially methane hydrates, they show huge sums of investment are readily available to an energy industry that can rapidly innovate to develop profitable resources.

Klare, however, dismisses new hydrocarbon sources. He claims shale and tar sands oil is “tough oil” that “will have to overcome severe geological and environmental barriers.” The energy industry, however, doesn’t give a hoot about the environment. As Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything, puts it, “[Its] business model is fundamentally at war with life on earth.” And just as low gas prices refute the end of cheap oil, the output from Canada’s tar sands, more than 2.5 million barrels of synthetic crude a day, and U.S. shale formations, nearly 4 million barrels a day, proves tough oil is meaningless.

It’s the quest for hydrocarbons in general and geopolitical maneuvers that’s made the current oil crash rapid and steep. The last major crash was in the mid-eighties, and that taught Saudi Arabia to plan ahead. It’s amassed $750 billion in currency reserves and is pumping oil at full tilt rather than give up market share. The Saudis are willing to weather low prices to punish rivals like Iran and to force some unconventional black gold like shale and tar sands into the red. Conspiracy theorists see Washington’s hand because of the pain inflicted on Russia, Iran, and Venezuela, which all need high oil prices to meet their budgetary needs, but as the Socialist Worker points out, “Saudi Arabia’s decision not to prop up prices is the product of its rivalry with U.S. oil producers, not coordination with U.S. policymakers.” Daniel Yergin, author of The Prize, the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the oil industry, contends we may be entering a new oil era where the United States supplants Saudi Arabia as the “swing producer” that can exert direct control over oil markets.

Critics contend that given ever-increasing thirst for hydrocarbons historically, any assumption about future usage based on current supply is dicey. That’s true, but “proven reserves” of oil and natural gas, which is the most conservative category, keep rising. One figure that has remained consistent over decades is the “reserve-to-production” ratio. In 1995 the world had an estimated 51 years of oil supply based on consumption that year. After burning through half-a-trillion barrels of oil since then, the global reserve-to-production ratio in 2013 was at 53.3 years.

While peak oilers snipe that Middle East producers overstate their supply, the opposite is the case. Officially, Saudi Arabia has 267 billion barrels of oil, but in twenty years, Saudi Aramco estimates it will have 630 billion barrels of recoverable reserves. That’s on top of current production rates of 4 billion barrels annually. The same is true for the United States, Canada, Venezuela, Iran, and Iraq. They can potentially produce far more oil than what’s listed in their reserves. One study of U.S. oil fields found the actual production was more than seven times the initial reserves reported. Conservative estimates of Brazil’s pre-salt oil fields put it at 14 billion barrels, which means they would eventually produce more than 100 billion barrels.

State companies like Saudi Aramco, known as “nationals,” often resist U.S. pressure to pump more oil because that could lead to a price crash. The nationals control 90 percent of global reserves, so many large fields remain untapped. The “majors”—corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron—are left to grab what they can, such as shale oiltar sands, or search in extreme environments like the Arctic Ocean. This tendency only reflects the market imperative to maintain profitability, not a harbinger of the end of oil. But since Klare focuses mainly on the majors, his view is one in which oil is rapidly dwindling. In 2005 he wrote that “in the absence of major new discoveries, we face a gradual contraction in the global supply of petroleum” because “major private oil companies are failing to discover promising new sources of petroleum.” Yet since 2003 global proved reserves have increased by more than 350 billion barrels, and that is in addition to over 300 billion barrels consumed in the same period.

Shortfalls in supply often stem from U.S. policy to control the global spigot of oil. Obama told the U.N. General Assembly in 2013 that because “a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy,” he was prepared to use military force to “ensure the free flow of energy from the [Middle East] to the world.”

Since the 1990s, Washington has disrupted many major oil producers. This includes the invasion of Iraq, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, sanctions on Iran, and dirty tricks against Venezuela. Ironically these actions tightened the oil market such that domestic fracking and tar sands became profitable. But the world is not about some free for all scramble for oil as in Klare’s “resource wars.” He contends that “unsettled resource deposits—contested oil and gas fields, shared water systems, embattled diamond mines—provides a guide to likely conflict zones in the twenty-first century.”

Other than those countries Washington designates as rogue states—like Iran, Iraq, and North Korea—every state accepts, even if grudgingly, the U.S.-managed global oil order. Even countries on the out are looking for an in. The drop in oil prices helped create the conditions for a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, and it may be pushing Iran to reach a deal with the White House over its nuclear energy program.

A more accurate view of the global oil order is provided by physicist and geopolitical analyst Tom O’Donnell who terms it “one global barrel.” He argues that the pre-1973 oil system had no meaningful open market, making it a form of mercantilism. Back then the majors backed by Western states controlled the production of oil-rich countries. Supply disruptions to one company could affect an entire consuming country. The new system developed after Third World states nationalized oil companies. The global oil order now works through the market, mainly the London and New York commodities exchange, and is dominated by U.S.-protected Gulf States in OPEC and managed by international institutions such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Energy Agency. Above it all is the U.S. government.

Klare implies national interests still reign supreme and nations are constantly on the brink of war over shrinking energy supplies. While China may chafe at U.S. control and Russia and the United States are at odds, the global oil order is marked by conflict, competition and cooperation at the same time and often in the same place. In Russia, Western oil companies continue to do business despite sanctions. In Iraq some opponents of the war crowed that Russian and Chinese oil companies that won concessions there marked the “declining influence of American capitalism.” But the scope of revamping Iraq’s oil infrastructure is so large that much of the lucrative drilling and exploration work is going to U.S. oil services firms. More important, Washington policymakers are generally indifferent to who is producing Iraq’s oil as long as it flows freely into the global market and U.S. influence holds over the Iraqi state.

If we could fast forward through time to find when oil production and consumption peaks, that would tell us nothing about the social impact. The 1980s crash was due to an increase in supply and drop in demand. Oil consumption may seem to march in lockstep with population and economic growth, but it is elastic. A barrel of oil today generates three times as much economic activity as it did in 1976. Unbelievably, U.S. oil consumption was lower in the first half of 2014 than the high point in 1989. Factors include lower car usage and increasing fuel efficiency that hit a record of 23.6 miles per gallon in 2012. Yet most European economies produce 50 to 60 percent more economic activity per unit of energy as does the United States. We could slash our oil consumption in half in a decade with a concerted effort. It could keep going down until oil is reserved for far more valuable uses such as road building, metal making and specialized lubricants, chemicals, plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

Oil consumption needs to drop dramatically because of the dangerous planetary effects. But that has nothing to do with peak oil. It’s a matter of how we reorganize our society and economy on the surface of the earth so we stop using the stuff that’s under it.



Filed under Climate Change, Corporations, Economy, Energy, Environment

Disaster Capitalism Hits New York

By 2080, New York City could be fortified with a belt of steel--or ringed with wetlands, as in this architect’s vision.

By 2080, New York City could be fortified with a belt of steel–or ringed with wetlands, as in this architect’s vision.

The City Will Adapt to Flooding — but at the Expense of the Poor?

By Arun Gupta     In These Times      January 28, 2013

For more than a decade before Hurricane Sandy, oceanography professor Malcolm Bowman, head of the Storm Surge Research Group at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, warned that a superstorm would someday drown New York City. There were plenty of precedents, he noted, such as the 1992 nor’easter that crippled train lines and Tropical Storm Floyd in 1999, which dumped a foot of rain in 24 hours and caused flash flooding.

“My middle name is Noah,” laughs Bowman, who looks the part of an old salt, with a tanned complexion and trimmed white beard. “The flood’s coming, you better build the ark, get everybody aboard.”

In 2008, Bowman was asked to join Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York City Panel on Climate Change, and he recommended that the city build surge barriers like those protecting London and the Netherlands. But his advice wasn’t heeded. According to Bowman, “the panel thought that it was too ambitious, too expensive, too futuristic.”

Now, in the aftermath of the most devastating storm New York has ever seen—one that claimed more than 100 lives in the region, destroyed thousands of homes and businesses, and notched a record storm surge of 13.8 feet in Lower Manhattan—an idea that was once seen as implausible now seems inevitable. One poll found that 80 percent of the public favors fortifying the city with surge barriers. “Money shouldn’t be a problem,” declared the New York Times. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has thrown his weight behind barriers, as have the state’s top Congress members and New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the frontrunner in this year’s mayoral contest.

Bowman and his Storm Surge Research Group have sketched out a plan that could cost an estimated $25 billion and centers on a five-mile-long “Outer Harbor Gateway” between Sandy Hook, New Jersey and the Rockaway peninsula. The barrier would be a belt of landfill, stone and reinforced concrete, possibly topped with a highway that would provide an alternate route from the mid-Atlantic to New England. Thirty-foot-high sand berms would be piled on Sandy Hook and the Rockaways to prevent flood waters from circumventing the gateway. Another gate, this one a mile long, would be built in the upper East River to stop surges coming in from the Long Island Sound to the north.

Proponents say the funding question could be solved by making the highway bypass a toll road. The next step is for Congress to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study, which experts say could take five years and cost more than $20 million.

Despite the costs, storm barriers seem more a question of when, not if, given that risks of more powerful storms barreling in on higher sea levels will increase exponentially as the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt ever faster. Scientists say coastal cities should plan for sea levels to rise by seven feet by the year 2100. In Brooklyn and Queens alone, says Bowman, “you have to worry about the two to three million people who live less than six feet above high-tide level.” Since it would be virtually impossible for millions of people to abandon New York anytime soon, planners are trying to figure out the best way to hold the next hurricane at bay.

The ultimate gated community

To provide answers, the city tapped Jeroen Aerts, a professor of risk management and climate change at University of Amsterdam, to compile a cost-benefit analysis of flood-risk management strategies. Aerts says that, based on economic assets at risk, New York is the second most vulnerable port city in the world, after Miami. He cites an estimate that by 2080, the metropolitan area from New York to Newark, N.J. will contain about $2.15 trillion in assets that could be damaged by extreme storms. Compared to that—or even the $71 billion post-Sandy repair bill for New York and New Jersey—the $25 billion estimate for storm-surge protection looks like a bargain.

However, Aerts warns, “Don’t put everything on storm-surge barriers.” Because nothing is foolproof, he advocates “a multi-layered safety system.” This includes back-up measures such as updating zoning and building codes, strengthening insurance policies and committing more resources to evacuation if the barriers do fail, as they did in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Nonetheless, flood barriers will be the front line of coastal defense. Aerts maintains that barriers are not just about safeguarding glittery skyscrapers. “Everyone benefits from storm-surge barriers because the whole city is protected, not only the developers.”

So far in the cost-benefit calculations, however, some people have been given less consideration than others. When asked if New York’s poor, who comprise 41 percent of the city’s population based on living-wage standards (21 percent by federal guidelines), had been considered in the initial discussions, Aerts says, “That’s a new issue. We didn’t discuss it, no.” He adds that the thinking has changed after Sandy as planners realize low-income groups “are the most vulnerable not just because of the structures they live in, but because of their coping capacity.”

This is precisely what worries critics. “Chances are, public policy is going to support only those developments that are high end, and are able to muster the most sophisticated and advanced flood protections,” says Tom Angotti, director of the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development. “Everyone else, the one- and two-family homes, are not going to be able to make it, unless they’re mansion owners who have deep pockets.” Indeed, in early December, the city announced that it will “update its building code to require more stringent protection against floods,” such as by requiring all new and rebuilt homes to exceed federal guidelines on elevation, which will raise housing costs significantly.

This change will severely affect low-income people, Angotti says. “Many renters will find that there will be no more rental housing to afford because now it will be too expensive.” But it is public housing residents—79,000 of whom were trapped by Sandy in decrepit towers without electricity—who will be the big losers. Angotti says that because public housing is already on the road to privatization, “Sandy provides an opportunity for the closure of public housing in the Rockaways, Coney Island, possibly Red Hook, which would open up new opportunities for private real estate development.”

It’s all part of the “market mentality,” says Angotti. “Let the market handle it, and the market will exclude low-income people without them even having to say it. It will just be as if it were a natural thing.”

While everyone pays for flood works, individuals are left exposed to market forces, and big real estate developers reap the benefits. The invisible hand never pauses. After Sandy, one developer snatched up a publicly subsidized 1,093-apartment complex on the Rockaways and is counting on raising rents to profit from the investment—which means pushing out low-income tenants. Along the New York and New Jersey coast, speculators are preying on homeowners desperate to unload damaged houses for less than half their pre-storm value. Meanwhile, Arverne by the Sea, a billion-dollar luxury complex on the Rockaways, emerged virtually unscathed because it was designed to withstand hurricane forces.

Scientists say that by the time sea levels rise by one meter—which could take from 50 years to more than a century—barrier islands such as the Rockaways will have to be encircled by levees to survive. So until then, if left unchecked, wealthy homeowners and middle-income renters will continue to flock to these desirable waterfront regions.

Because adaptation focuses on protecting economic assets, and because coastal communities rely on the business, taxes and revenue that come with development, local building restrictions tend to crumble in the wake of storms like a sand castle at high tide. For example, after Hurricane Hugo pummeled South Carolina in 1989, regulations were eased to allow rebuilding on islands near Charleston such that “megastructures perched on fat pilings” have replaced small, modest homes, according to the Wall Street Journal. Despite the obvious dangers and devastation to barrier islands such as Fire Island, where Sandy caused 30 years’ worth of erosion overnight, Cuomo, Bloomberg, Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie all vowed, “We’re rebuilding.”

Meanwhile, high oceanside rents will push low-income workers to less expensive locales either outside the city or in remote neighborhoods, where they lack support networks and face overcrowding, underfunded services and hours of commuting.

If the free market goes unfettered, that two-pronged dystopian scenario could play out on a broader scale across the U.S. coast. While storm barriers can guard New York City’s flanks, it’s impossible to seal the 3,700 miles of Atlantic and Gulf coastline with seawalls and levees. Unique coastal cultures such as the Cajun in Louisiana, Seminoles in Florida and the Gullah and Geechee of the Southeast will likely vanish if their lands disappear beneath the waves. By the latter part of the 21st century, the wealthy will probably cluster in those seaside cities and resorts that can afford flood barriers and hardened towers. Coasts not armored against rising seas will push inland, and their developed areas may shift to live-at-your-own-risk ramshackle dwellings for middle- and low-income groups seeking seaside relief from deadly heat waves brought on by global warming.

Soft Infrastructure

An alternative proposal for climate-change adaptation, more complementary than competing, inserts the social back into the debate. If barriers and berms are “hard infrastructure,” then “soft infrastructure” is the flip side. Adam Yarinsky, a principal of the New York-based Architecture Research Office and co-author of On the Water: Palisade Bay, which developed the concept of soft infrastructure, says the idea is to “emulate the way nature responds to storm events [by building] in planted natural systems of shallow water as opposed to a vertical seawall that tries to define an absolute line between water and land. It allows for a more fluid, dynamic tidal zone, which has the benefit of dampening wave force from a storm surge.”

Yarinsky and his colleagues acknowledge that soft infrastructure cannot replace surge barriers. Aerts, the risk-management expert, explains, “If you have oyster banks or marshlands it doesn’t matter, the surge is going over it. Wetlands help to reduce the strength of waves, but it doesn’t reduce the height of the waves.”

But soft infrastructure can be an important complement to surge barriers by allowing for controlled flooding that can replace seawalls in some areas, cleaning up blighted ecosystems and serving as a blueprint for viable, mixed-income, mixed-use communities. Proposals reimagining New York’s waterfront, grouped in a recent exhibit titled “Rising Currents” at the Museum of Modern Art, include a working waterfront of sustainable oyster beds, fish farms and algal biofuels; seeding the bay with flood-tempering barrier islands, wetlands and breakwaters; and redesigning flood-prone areas with sunken forests, porous streets and hanging buildings to allow water to enter in a controlled fashion.

Soft infrastructure has the potential to address the failings of public housing, which warehoused the poor away from services, from jobs and from the civic and cultural life of the city. Building a “new aqueous city” of flood-resilient housing on the water, fringing the urban edges with parks and wetlands, and creating a working waterfront would result in desirable housing, recreation and jobs that are denied to many New Yorkers. While this has the potential to turn into boutique urban living, Yarinsky’s co-authors, architects Guy Nordenson and Catherine Seavitt, argue in favor of creating “flexible and democratic zoning formulae for coastal development that … increase community welfare and resilience to natural disasters.”

It’s an exciting vision, but democratizing urban planning is a difficult task at best, and it runs counter to how developers manipulate government to generate private wealth. Angotti points out that the rampant waterfront development of the last decade under Bloomberg has the government’s fingerprints all over it. Rezoning jacked land values “10, 20, 40 times” overnight while the city funneled subsidies, loans and tax breaks to private developers building on those lands.

If it isn’t a problem to find money for surge barriers, as the New York Times asserts, then, given the political will, money can surely be found to develop soft infrastructure that benefits more than developers and million-dollar condo owners. Angotti suggests that instead of burdening the public with the costs, big developers should be made to pay for barriers designed to fortify their “luxury enclaves” and to fund protection for the city’s most vulnerable communities. Taxing the wealthy, high-end developments and corporate skyscrapers would generate money for both hard and soft infrastructure.

But political will does not develop out of thin air. To achieve this vision will require broad-based social mobilization by the people who really make the city run. They must assert their right to remake urban space around communal, democratic, liberatory and cultural experiences, rather than ones based on individualism, consumption, spectacle and accumulation.

One thing is certain: Rather than allow the political conversation to revolve around cold cost-benefit calculations, we must redefine the problem in social and ecological terms to make people’s needs and natural approaches central to the solution.

Of course, neither hard nor soft infrastructure can hold back rising seas forever. Retreat is inevitable. Even the Dutch, who are at the forefront of adapting to rising seas (as 26 percent of their country is below sea level), plan to eventually abandon 20 percent of their land, according to scientists.

In the United States, says Orrin H. Pilkey, professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, “Virtually every port city up and down the East Coast is talking about getting gates.” But some cities are doomed. “Miami, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale are sitting on top of very porous limestone” that is as much as 75 feet thick, Pilkey says. A levee is “not going to make the slightest difference. The sea level is going to come up right inside behind it.” A two-meter rise will mean “a thousand-plus miles of shoreline will have to be abandoned,” he adds. Bowman says New Orleans is in a similar boat. Caught between “subsidence”—sinking land—and rising sea levels, “its days are numbered.”

By the year 2300, sea levels could easily be 12 feet higher, and if Greenland and Antarctica’s ice sheets melt entirely, sea levels will rise by 200 feet, entombing virtually all coastal cities under the ocean. In the meantime, says Bowman, “We need to look beyond the next election cycle, the next quarterly bottom line of the corporation. Let’s give it our best shot for, say, 200 years. Then maybe we have to abandon it and the city as you know it dies.”

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Filed under Climate Change, Environment, Inequality

What Happened to the Green New Deal?

by Arun Gupta

Out of the ashes of Obama’s green-collar vision, a worker-run business may point the way to the economy of the future.

Last election, Obama had an economic plan and wasn’t afraid to embrace government as a primary creator of jobs. With markets melting down, almost half a million people being fired a month, and automakers and banks emitting a death rattle, Obama presented a sweeping vision of tackling health care, global warming, a rogue Wall Street and reshaping the decaying industrial economy with a green-collar one. Liberals dubbed it a Green New Deal and fantasized about the land blossoming with solar panels, electric cars and high-speed trains as new regulations cut corporations down to size.

Obama botched the plan, however. He inflated hopes in 2008 that his policies would create 5 million green-collar jobs in a decade. He then skimped by allocating only $90 billion in stimulus money for clean energy, producing a measly 225,000 jobs after 18 months by the White House’s own estimates.

Republicans blasted Obama’s green economy as failed central planning imported from Europe. They believe the government that’s best is the one that governs the least. Its purpose is to spur the private sector, but how it does so is mysterious. This was Romney’s position, but it seems to have become Obama’s, as well. During the election campaign, the two mouthed the same invisible-hand mumbo-jumbo, offering little chance of reviving an ailing economy.

In the real world, corporations clasp onto the public teat like squealing piglets. Big business would starve if deprived of state-organized central banking, transport, electricity, water, sewage, courts, zoning, police, environmental remediation, customs and labor regulation. Pick an industry and you’ll find tailored public aid. Banks and car makers get bailouts; energy and forestry companies mine, drill and log public lands; the health care industry thrives thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), Medicare and Medicaid; agribusiness soaks up crop insurance and subsidies; home construction is built on Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Reserve; and perhaps the largest part of the economy – the military-surveillance-police-and-prison sector – is assembled piece by piece by government.

Clearly, government policies create many millions of jobs. (That’s not counting 22 million government employees and an estimated 14 million other jobs created by government contracting and consumer spending by public-sector workers.) This is known as industrial policy. Every country does it, and the United States is no exception. We just tend to do it worse because it is heresy to question the god of the free market. If the public realized how much big business depended on public support, then there might be a loud clamor for more activist government.

The lesson is not that the Obama administration did too much to spur a green economy; it did too little. Answers to why the green-collar economy withered and where its future may lie can be found in the story of Serious Energy and workers from the former Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago.

A New Era

Obama’s green jobs plan had one missing element – labor. A healthy economy requires plenty of good-paying, stable jobs with benefits. However, the titans of Wall Street aren’t going to voluntarily give up profits so the proles can get better wages and social programs; the proles have to fight for it.

As if on cue, a glimmer of labor’s revival emerged after Obama’s election. On December 5, 2008, 240 workers at Republic Windows and Doors staged a sit-down strike after receiving notice that their factory would be mothballed. The workers, members of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, raised expectations that a wave of labor militancy could turn the tide against runaway corporate power.

Soon, all the elements came together. Serious Materials, a clean-technology firm, purchased the bankrupt Republic plant, which specialized in manufacturing high-energy-efficiency windows. Serious Materials (since renamed Serious Energy) billed itself as a green-economy pioneer ready to revolutionize manufacturing with green products. Obama’s stimulus would open up the market for its goods. And Serious was intent on showing profits, sustainability and social responsibility were compatible by keeping the unionized workforce in place.

Serious was one of many companies that hitched its wagon to Obama’s plans to green old markets and catalyze new ones. Despite shifting business models, Serious flailed along with the green economy. Now, Serious is no Solyndra, the solar-panel manufacturer that defaulted on a $535 million taxpayer-backed loan. The Republicans successfully saddled Obama with Solyndra’s bankruptcy, turning it into “a case study of what can go wrong when a rigid government bureaucracy tries to play venture capitalist and jump-start a nascent, fast-changing market,” as he Washington Post called it. Serious shows the private sector can be just as wrong. Ten venture capital firms poured more than $140 million into Serious and have little to show for it.

But rising out of the ashes are the Republic workers. They’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase machine tools and lease factory space to open the New Era Windows Cooperative. Modeling themselves on cooperatives in Argentina’s recovered factory movement and Spain’s Mondragon, the New Era workers will collectively decide how to manage the business, what products to manufacture and what to do with the profits. While they make green windows, they hope to inspire other self-managed enterprises across the United States and could provide an alternative to free-market capitalism.

Ironically, if New Era succeeds, it will do so with zero government support. One might have expected both presidential candidates to heap praise on the cooperative. Romney could have touted the workers’ entrepreneurial initiative, while Obama could have pointed to it as a new model for domestic green manufacturing.

In terms of Serious and Solyndra, their breakdowns are par for the course. The clean-tech sector is littered with so many casualties it looks like a Civil War battlefield. It is an unavoidable part of the process, and the Obama administration made a big mistake in shrinking away from failures.

Josh Whitford, a professor of sociology at Columbia University who studies industrial policy, says, “Novel technologies are areas in which the rewards are very uncertain and where a lot of things will not pan out. Venture capitalists deal with this by funding lots and lots of companies in the hopes of hitting a winner. They expect a lot of their investments to fail. In fact, if none failed, they’d think they were too far from the ‘possibilities frontier.'”

Government’s goal, says Whitford, “is not to hit a big financial winner, but to promote policies judged to be socially beneficial. He explains, “In the case of industrial policy, the purpose is often to push a technological direction,” such as cutting-edge clean energy that benefits society by curbing greenhouse gasses. Government is up against the same constraints as venture capitalists, however. Whitford says it does not know which projects will succeed. “So, government should, like venture capitalists, be spreading resources around and betting on multiple horses in the hopes that some do win. If the government has no failures, it’s being too conservative.”

Windows of Opportunity

The story of Serious and the Republic workers begins in 2007. Serious Material was planning to market EcoRock, which it touted as requiring only 10 percent of the energy used to make standard drywall. It raised $50 million to build factories in the United States that could crank out 400 million square feet of EcoRock a year. It’s the type of project that excites wonks: Serious Materials would reinvent the archaic drywall industry, which spews out more than 20 billion pounds of carbon dioxide annually, with a stateside 100-kilowatt solar-power plant that would create hundreds of good-paying manufacturing jobs while eliminating nearly all greenhouse gas emissions.

To make the product viable, Serious was counting on Obama enacting a cap-and-refund carbon tax. As small-batch production of EcoRock costs nearly twice as much as regular gypsum drywall, it needed a carbon tax to entice contractors to use it. But the carbon-tax bill died in Congress, so EcoRock was doomed to the green-building niche. This added to Serious’ woes because it jumped into the building market just as the economy collapsed in 2008. Furthermore, EcoRock may be great for the environment, but not for the bottom line. As one report noted, it “does not insulate or curb power consumption in buildings.” In 2010, CEO Kevin Surace explained to Greentech media that Serious “never pulled the trigger” on constructing a full-scale factory because “Gypsum (drywall) plants are 75 vacant.”

“New construction is down 80 percent from the peak,” said Surace.

Flush with cash to build factories, Serious Materials pivoted to plan B: manufacture windows that slash heating and cooling by 40 percent. Even though home building was in the dumps, Serious calculated that it would “ramp up production [in 2009] by tenfold” because of anticipated demand. It had been in the windows business for a few years, and in 2008, it purchased Alpen Windows in Colorado. In 2009, it added the defunct Kensington Windows factory in Pennsylvania, where 150 workers had been booted out of work the previous year.

The real prize was the Republic factory. The workers there won $1.75 million in wages and benefits after a six-day-long sit-down strike. They were unemployed, however, joining more than 600,000 workers who lost their jobs in December 2008. With 4,000 news articles published on their fight, Serious was paying attention. At Serious’ headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, CEO Suracewatched the drama unfold and pondered riding to the rescue of the beleaguered facility.

An engineer and entrepreneur, Surace first considered the downside. He told Inc. magazine: “The workers were up in arms. The equipment had been pillaged. The computers were destroyed. The customers didn’t want to buy. The records weren’t accurate. There was no management team. No one but the craziest person on earth would take over that.”

At Serious Materials’ holiday party that December, co-founder Marc Porat pushed Surace to consider the upside: “Think what can happen! We’re creating green-collar jobs. We’re creating an energy-efficient product. We’re hitting climate change. And it’s Chicago!”

“It will come to the White House’s attention,” said Porat. “It’s a perfect expression of their policy.” According to a detailed account in Inc., which named Surace “Entrepreneur of the Year” for 2009, the board of Serious Materials approved the acquisition of the idle factory based on “owning one of the largest window-glass facilities in the country, with a seasoned work force and a fabulous location.”

Not lost on anyone was the “public relations potential” of aligning with the Obama administration’s plan for a green-collar economy. The stimulus included $5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program. Much of this was for tax credits for energy-efficient retrofits that included windows. Serious was eager to cash in because its windows exceeded Energy Star ratings by up to 400 percent.

Surace became a rock star in the clean tech field, hit the TED circuit and shared stages with politicians. He gave Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado) a tour of Serious Energy’s Boulder facility, wielded scissors with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell for a “green ribbon-cutting ceremony” at the Kensington plant, and basked in the limelight with Joe Biden as the vice president heaped praise on the re-opened Chicago factory. Surace was on a mission to save the world from climate change with green windows and drywall that would generate serious greenbacks for Serious Materials’ investors.

Despite the grim economy, Serious hauled in $60 million from investors in 2009, one of the largest venture capital deals of the year, and its backers were salivating. In a newsletter from 2009, the Chicago-based Mesirow Financial, which pumped $15 million into Serious that year, wrote glowingly of how its “private equity investors” would benefit because $10.5 billion of stimulus money was in the pipeline “for home weatherization and federal building efficiency retrofits.”

Everything was going according to plan. As Serious collected factories, it boasted of “creating green collar jobs in plants across the country including … the President’s home town of Chicago,” wrote an Inc. editor. Inc. noted: “The Republic rescue has paid off handsomely in publicity … Aspiring vendors, curious dealers, and assorted well-wishers began stopping by the plant after its reopening. These days, salespeople rarely need to introduce Serious Materials to their prospects; the White House has already done that for them.” Revenue in 2009 reportedly increased by 50 percent; the company was employing more than 300 people, and in March 2010, Serious landed a coveted contract to upgrade the Empire State Building’s 6,514 windows.

Best-Laid Plans

Cracks were appearing in the façade, however. By the end of 2009, only 20 workers had been hired back at the old Republic plant, and Serious was spending $100,000 a week to keep the space open, which could hold 600 workers. Surace admitted the company had erred in thinking “we’d be hot and heavy into weatherization of thousands of homes in the Chicago area.”

Serious put its chips on weatherization, but the recession weakened its hand. The Department of Energy inspector general found that by December 2009, only 8 percent of the money had been spent “and few homes had actually been weatherized.” Because the $4.73 billion in the pipeline was divided into 58 spigots to cover every US state and territory, “State hiring freezes, problems with resolving significant local budget shortfalls, and state-wide planned furloughs delayed various aspects of the program.” On top of that, little money was being spent on windows like those built by Serious because weatherization also covered furnaces, insulation, water heaters, weather stripping, cooling systems and storm doors.

By the summer of 2010, Serious was back on the PowerPoint circuit, imploring funders for $56 million to become a player in the building management market. Its new model – the third in three years – was software “for monitoring and lowering energy consumption in commercial buildings.” Serious was acquiring more companies – software firms like Valence Energy and Agilewaves. It boasted of 60 customers in the wings and products that could deliver “immediate energy savings of 10 to 15 percent with payback in one to two years.”

But Serious was trying to muscle in on the turf of heavyweights like Siemens, Honeywell and General Electric, so it was back to the drawing board. After changing its name, Serious Energy unveiled a new division and plan number four in November 2011. A spokesperson announced Serious Capital would finance energy efficiency retrofits of buildings for free: “We install, at no cost to customers, energy conservation measures that will save energy,” they said, “and we become the agent for utility bill payments.” Serious Energy figured the revenue stream would allow it to pay the bills and lenders and leave enough for a tidy profit. For the third time, it was eyeing a government angle, committing to perform $100 million in retrofits as part of Obama’s Better Buildings Initiative.

The initiative is one of those so-called “public-private partnerships” that are economic quackery. The Better Building Initiative promises to cure every ill – “creating jobs, growing our industries, improving businesses’ bottom lines, reducing our energy bills and consumption, and preserving our planet for future generations” – with no pain in the form of taxpayer financing or altering business as usual. For Serious, the initiative made little difference. As Greentech Media pointed out, it was unclear how it was going to “get the backing to meet its stated goal of $2 billion in potential project financing.” Plus it would need to buy insurance as a hedge in case the savings did not materialize.

Once exalted as the poster child for exemplifying Obama’s vision of “green-collar jobs at the hands of a resurgence in American innovation,” Serious Energy shriveled into a new economy shell reminiscent of Enron, chucking aside manufacturing for software, finance and hedging. The venture capital taps were also running dry. Serious raised less than $20 million of its 2010 goal of $56 million, and less than $3 million of a $33 million round in 2011.

The free retrofit plan unraveled in weeks. In February 2012, Surace was canned, and Serious announced it was closing the Chicago factory. On February 23, it summoned the 38 remaining workers to “the offices of the notorious union-busting law firm Seyfarth and Shaw,” as Labor Notes put it. The workers were told they would get their 60 days pay under the law, but the factory would be cannibalized and the machines shipped to Serious’ plants in Pennsylvania and Colorado. Not given to taking things lying down, the workers sat down once more. Less than 12 hours later, they emerged victorious with a written agreement that the factory would operate for 90 days longer while Serious Energy looked for a buyer. As for Serious Energy, Porat says it is returning to its roots of producing soundproof drywall, a business he admits has very little to do with clean tech.

Working World

UE Local 1110 had no illusions that a white knight was in the wings, however. During a visit last May to the headquarters in Chicago, local President Armando Robles confided: “Nobody is going to buy the factory after two occupations. They don’t want troublemakers there.” Having shown themselves to be innovative risk-takers by winning two sit-down strikes that were technically illegal, the workers decided they would run the factory themselves. They joined forces with The Working World, which provides “investment capital and technical support for worker cooperatives,” and raised the money to buy the window-making equipment and establish the worker-run and -owned business.

The cooperative is still in the works. The big question is, can it blaze a path for labor to revive manufacturing? Small, worker-run cooperatives can’t replace an advanced industrial base, but they could democratize the US economy and employ millions in stable, living-wage jobs.

Networks of cooperatives could also provide a model to supplant the warmed-over Keynesianism beloved by liberals. Stimulating demand or creating public-works programs would still be effective today; Obama has done far too little of it. Trying to reshape the industrial base as happened under FDR (and that’s mainly because of World War II) is far more difficult because back then, US capital had limited options beyond the domestic market for consumers, factories and workers. That’s not the case in the globalized economy. The biggest US employer, Walmart, pays poverty-level wages to most of its 1.4 million workers. The most valuable corporation in the world, Apple, has only 13,000 US-based employees outside of its retail stores. And both source most of their goods from China.

The free-market solution is to subsidize corporations, a point upon which Romney and Obama agreed. For instance, states like Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi already gift $300 million or more to automakers opening plants they were planning to build. Imagine if instead of padding the profits of Fortune 500 companies, the public sector funded tens of thousands of worker-run cooperatives. Many would go bankrupt, but that’s the price of innovation. The upside would be successful worker-run cooperatives rooted in communities. Such enterprises would be unable to move operations to Mexico or Malaysia, while abuse of employees that is far too common here would be almost impossible in democratic workplaces.

A new economy demands new answers, not the failed free market or nostalgia for a past that no longer exists. The New Era Windows Cooperative might just provide some of those answers.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.


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