Tag Archives: fossil fuels

Energy giants claim to focus on clean energy. This study says they’re lying

The climate discourse and pledges by the energy giants BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell are high and mighty — but their actions don’t back it up. Researchers reviewed 12-years’ worth of data and found none of the companies is on the way to a clean energy transition, with a long way to go to reduce their emissions and a big gap between what the companies are saying and what they’re actually doing.

Image credit: Flickr / Ivan Radic.

Fossil fuel companies have played a big role in driving the climate crisis. Twenty companies are responsible for 35% of all energy-related emissions worldwide since 1965. The leading emitter is Chevron, followed by Exxon, BP, and Shell, accounting for over 10% of global carbon emissions since 1965, according to a previous study. You could make a very solid argument that big oil companies have a responsibility to reduce their climate impact.

As the world moves away from fossil fuels to reduce emissions, oil companies are under even more pressure, as they have to deal with the possibility of a decreased demand for hydrocarbons and reduced profits. Developments such as the electrification of road transport and climate policies targeting fossil fuel extraction and use suggest a transition to clean energy sources.

But the dance that fossil fuel giants do is one step forward and one step back. Some have begun investing in renewables and low-carbon technology and many have announced various targets to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. However, the historical behavior of these companies suggests that the authenticity of these claims has to be examined, researchers argue.

Mei Li of Tohoku University, Japan, and colleagues focused on two leading fossil fuel companies from the US (Chevron and ExxonMobil) and two from Europe (BP and Shell). They reviewed their business strategies and investments, financial data, and keywords related to the transition in annual reports spanning the years 2009 to 2020 to see how their actions compare to their public announcements.

A news article in 2019 showed suspicion to the clean energy and transition claims of the oil majors. We decided to follow this up with a comprehensive and objective study that compared transition progress of the four largest investor owned oil majors, and compare their words to their actions and investments,” the researchers told ZME Science.

A slow energy transition

The study showed that companies’ annual reports used an increasing number of keywords related to the climate crisis, such as “low-carbon” and “transition”, especially for BP and Shell. There was also a big contrast with their US counterparts in the business strategy, with BP and Shell largely acknowledging the climate science, while Exxon and Chevron went to great lengths to deny it as much as possible.

Chevron and ExxonMobil continuously exhibited defensive attitudes to renewables investment and the need to shift from fossil fuels, explicitly stating ambitions to grow rather than reduce hydrocarbon production. Leaving aside these differences, none of the four companies formulated strategies to translate pledges into concrete actions.

This especially concerns intentions to curb the production of fossil fuels as well as reduce exploration and new developments. None of the companies are transitioning its core business model away from fossil fuels, the researchers argued, identifying no trend toward lower fossil fuel production and higher investment in renewables.

“Claims about efforts to transition to clean energy are not supported by actions and investments,” the researchers told ZME. “Until there is a larger and sustained increase of concrete actions to transform business strategies and invest in carbon-free or renewable energy, accusations of greenwashing appear to be well substantiated.”

The researchers suggested a set of improvements the companies could make to match their words with action, such as: communicating an awareness that mitigating climate change requires cutting down fossil fuel production, publishing a roadmap of how fossil fuel investment will be downscaled, and releasing data on clean energy spending in a consistent way.

The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Fossil fuel giant Total knew about climate change since 1971

Not only are fossil fuel companies responsible for greenhouse gas emissions causing the climate crisis, but it seems they’ve known about their responsibility for a really long time — and yet intentionally chose to hide this from the wider public. 

Image credit: Flickr / Arbyreed.

In the past few years, we’ve learned that the world’s largest oil company (ExxonMobil) not only knew about climate change for 50 years — but also purposely hid it from the public. Another giant fossil fuel company, Shell, also knew decades ago. Now, in a new study, researchers looked at the history of French oil Total and guess what? They also knew.

A new study suggests that the company knew at least 50 years ago that there was a link between burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil) and global warming.

Total Deception

A group of three historians looked at the alleged efforts by Total to cast doubt over climate science in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s while pushing against emissions reductions. Total “became informed” about climate change in the 1980s, “promoted doubt” about climate science in the 1980s and acknowledged it in 1990, but promoted policies against it, the researchers explain. 

The findings come at a difficult time for the fossil fuel sector, as many companies seek to change their image and make it greener. Total, for example, recently rebranded itself as Total Energies, and expressed its “ambition” to focus on renewable energy, as it predicts oil products to fall from 55% to 30% of sales, with the difference coming from renewable energy sources.

But this is too little too late, and suggests economic incentives rather than environmental motivation, climate NGOs say.

“These revelations provide proof that TotalEnergies and the other oil and gas majors have stolen the precious time of a generation to stem the climate crisis. The dire consequences of climate change we are now experiencing could have been avoided if Total executives fifty years ago had decided that the future of the planet is more important than their profits,” said 350.org, an international environmental organization addressing the climate crisis.

The researchers found that people working in Total were warned about the potential for “catastrophic global warming from its products” by at least 1971. Back then, the company published a letter in its magazine, Total Information, warning that temperatures could increase from 1 to 1.5ºC if consumption of fossil fuels continued at the same pace. 

“Since the 19th century, humans have been burning increasing amounts of fossil fuels. This results in the release of enormous quantities of carbon dioxide. The overall amount of carbon dioxide presents in the atmosphere, therefore, has increased significantly,” the letter, included in the researcher’s paper in the journal Global Environmental Change, reads. 

Part of the problem

Despite this, Total remained largely silent on climate change for the next two decades. The researchers went through editions of Total’s magazine from 1965 to 2010 and couldn’t find another reference to climate change until 1989. In the meantime, Total raised doubt on the link between climate change and fossil fuels alongside other companies, the researchers said. 

Total hosted in 1988 its headquarters a meeting of the global oil and gas industry group IPIECA. The fossil fuel companies created then a “working group” on climate change chaired by a scientist from Exxon. The group published a policy paper the following year, in which they recommended emphasizing uncertainties in climate science. 

The approach then changed in the late 1990s. The company shifted away from openly disputing climate science but continued to expand its investments in fossil fuels and used “rhetorical strategies” to highlight uncertainty and downplay urgency. This then changed in the mid 2000s, when Total officially endorsed climate science. 

“The history of Total highlights the multidimensional and graded character of positions regarding climate science, such as publicly embracing climate science while deflecting attention away from fossil fuel products. Examining these multidimensional postures may aid in understanding historical and ongoing responses to global warming,” the researchers wrote. 

For now, though, large fossil fuel companies are not doing nearly enough to address the problem they too have helped caused — even as they seem to have been aware of it for half a century.

The study was published in the journal Global Environmental Change. 

Keep the oil in the soil: at least 60% of fossil fuel reserves have to remain untapped to meet climate targets

After decades of growth, the rate of production and use of fossil fuels will need to reverse and decline very rapidly to meet internationally agreed climate goals, according to a new study.

Image credit: Flickr / Matt Brown

Researchers found that nearly 60% of proven oil and gas reserves and almost 90% of coal reserves have to remain on the ground in order to limit global warming below 1.5ºC compared to pre-industrial levels – one of the targets included in the 2015 Paris Agreement of climate change signed by almost every country.

This means that production of oil and gas would have to fall by 3% every year globally until 2050, with most regions peaking production now or during the next decade. Still, this scenario, the researchers said, is “very probably” an underestimate of what’s actually required, meaning production “would need to be curtailed even faster.”

The study from University College London (UCL) is the latest report warning over the dangers of unregulated fossil fuel production. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of climate experts, called last month for significant and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, especially targeting the energy sector. 

“We stress that our estimates of unextractable reserves and production decline rates are likely underestimates,” lead author Dan Welsby told Euronews. “However, assuming the political will is present to fulfil the commitments made in Paris, the reductions in fossil fuels suggested in our work are entirely feasible.”

Keep them in the ground

The study builds on one previously published in 2015, which estimated that one-third of oil reserves, almost half of fossil methane gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves should remain in the ground in 2050 to limit warming to 2ºC. The increase in the new study is down to a stronger assumed climate ambition and changes in the outlooks for renewables. 

The new figures mean, for example, that 62% of the oil in the Middle East would have to remain in the ground. Canada would be the most affected territory in percentage terms, as 83% of its oil reserves would have to stay untouched. Canada is also the most affected when it comes to natural gas, with 81% of its reserves being out of limits.

Image credit: The researchers.

Fossil fuels are still the main driver of the global energy system, accounting for 81% of primary energy demand. Still, there are some promising signs, the researchers argue. Global coal production peaked in 2013 and oil output is estimated to have peaked in 2019 or to be nearing peak demand. This means that at least some fossil fuel reserves will probably never be extracted for economic reasons.

“This has important implications for producers who may be banking on monetizing those reserves in the future, and current and prospective investors,” the researchers wrote. “There continues to be a disconnect between the production outlook of different countries and corporate entities and the necessary pathway to limit average temperature increases.”

Governments who have historically benefited from fossil fuels such as the US should take the lead in developing an energy transition to non-conventional renewable energy sources, the researchers said. Other countries that have a high dependency on fossil fuels but a low capacity for a transition have to be supported to follow suit and further exploit renewables. 

There are really no excuses, especially as the costs of renewables are going down fast. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that two-thirds of wind and solar plants that were installed last year will generate cheaper electricity than fossil fuel options. Renewables will become the backbone of the electricity system, IRENA said in the report. 

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Electric cars will likely be as cheap as regular ones by 2024

In just three years, the cost of manufacturing an electric car could be the same as that of a conventional car (with internal combustion engines), according to a report by the investment bank UBS. While this could mean that the shift away from fossil fuel vehicles is closer than expected, some challenges remain.

Credit Flickr Open Grid

The extra cost of manufacturing batteries for electric cars versus their fossil fuel equivalents will drop to $1.900 per car by 2002 and disappear completely by 2024, according to the analysis done by UBS. This is based on a detailed analysis of batteries from the seven largest manufacturers in the world.

Matching the cost of batteries with that of internal combustion engines (ICE) is considered a big milestone in the world’s transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Carmakers have so far been reluctant to stop producing ICE and move to electric cars due to the high cost of batteries, which are mainly produced by Asian companies.

Batteries account for between a quarter and two-fifths of the cost of the entire vehicle. UBS said it expected battery costs to drop to below $100 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) by 2022. Carmakers that hang on to ICE sales risk being left behind by rivals who are betting on electric cars such as Tesla and Volkswagen, the bank argued.

“There are not many reasons left to buy an ICE car after 2025,” Tim Bush, a UBS analyst, told the Guardian. He said that the drop in the costs of batteries will make hybrid vehicles, which combine a battery and a conventional engine, irrelevant based on a financial point of view.

A fast drop in battery costs, as well as fleet tracking software, are expected to promote a faster switch to electric vehicles than previously expected. Sales of electric cars are booming in Europe and China, even despite the pandemic. Matthias Schmidt, an independent car analyst, told The Guardian a million electric and hybrid cars will be sold in the EU in 2020 out of 11 million.

More than seven million electric vehicles are currently operational around the world. That’s a big step from the 20,000 that were in use a decade ago. Governments are betting on their expansion. Norway plans to ban sales of new internal combustion engines by 2025, with the Netherlands following suit by 2030.

Still, there are several barriers to overcome apart from cost. A study earlier this year showed a fleet of 350 million EVs would increase annual electricity demand by 41% of current levels. This would require a major investment in new infrastructure and new power plants, some of which would run without fossil fuels.

The shift to EVs would also impact the demand curve, which shows how demand for electricity rises and falls throughout the day, which would make the management of the national grid more difficult. At the same time, the researchers said there could be technical challenges regarding the supply of materials such as lithium needed for the vehicle’s batteries.

Have we passed peak oil demand? The world might never use as much oil again, experts say

The oil industry’s hopes for a resurgent demand are quickly fading away after reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and OPEC warned the market’s outlook is more fragile than expected. The upsurge in the number of coronavirus cases and weakened market sentiments are putting the industry in a difficult spot.

Credit Flickr JoiseShowwa

The EIA cut its forecast for 2020 oil demand growth to 91.7 million barrels per day, claiming there’s a “treacherous” path ahead. This represents a contraction of 8.4 million bpd year-on-year, more than the 8.1 million bpd contraction predicted in the agency’s August report. To make matters worse for the industry, oil prices have dropped around 40% since the start of the year.

“We expect the recovery in oil demand to decelerate markedly in the second half of 2020, with most of the easy gains already achieved,” the IEA said in its report. “The economic slowdown will take months to reverse completely, while certain sectors such as aviation are unlikely to return to their pre-pandemic levels of consumption even next year.”

The IEA said “renewed weakness” in India reflected a cause for concern. However, China, which emerged from lockdown sooner than other countries, continued to recover “strongly.” The global health crisis has coincided with an unparalleled energy demand shock this year, with the IEA previously warning the fall in oil demand growth this year could be the largest in history.

The report comes shortly after OPEC, which groups 13 oil-producing countries, cut its forecast for oil demand growth in 2020, citing a weaker recovery in India and Asian countries. The group revised its outlook to an average of 90.2 million barrels per day, which is a 40.000-bpd reduction from the previous month’s estimate and of 9.5 million bpd year-on-year.

“Risks remain elevated and skewed to the downside, particularly in relation to the development of Covid-19 infection cases and potential vaccines,” the group said in the report. “Furthermore, the speed of recovery in economic activities and oil demand growth potential in Other Asian countries, including India, remains uncertain,” it added.

From the industry’s perspective, the decline seen so far this year is destabilizing and very significant. Producers around the world are rethinking their production plans, pausing new projects and shutting down drilling rigs. In the US producers have gone bankrupt, while Saudi Arabia, has been pushing OPEC to cut its output and drag prices up out of the doldrums.

The disruptions come as investors, regulators and energy giants anticipate big changes in oil demand in the next few years, as the world takes action to limit the consequences of climate change. BP and Shell have already pledged to reshape their business to focus on zero-carbon energy sources. Total even acknowledged that the shift from fossil fuels will cause its oil investments to become stranded assets.

BP recently published its annual energy outlook and set up three scenarios for the future of oil demand. In two of them, the world takes action on climate change and the current drop in oil demand becomes the pivot point leading to a low-emissions future. In the third path, with the world continuing with business as usual, oil demand would increase slightly but peak within a decade.

Fall in plastic demand could be disastrous for oil companies

The global efforts to tackle plastic waste a leading environmental problem could result in up to $400 billion of stranded petrochemical assets for the oil industry, as the companies are betting on sustained demand for plastics to compensate for declining oil and gas demand.

Credit Ivan Radic. Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The report “The Future’s Not in Plastics” by the think tank Carbon Tracker and the consultancy SYSTEMIQ found that demand for virgin plastics could drop from 4% per year to below 1%, with a peak of demand in 2027.

This would lead to large losses for fossil fuel investors, already dealing with low crude prices.

“The plastics industry, in its assumption of a doubling of demand for plastics in the next 10, 20 years or so, is making a bet that society will fail to find any solutions to reduce, substitute or recycle plastic,” report author Kingsmill Bond, energy strategist at Carbon Tracker, told AFP.

The production of plastics has expanded about 4% every year since 2000, according to the report, with most companies expecting that growth to continue thanks to emerging economies.

While plastics represent less than 9% of the oil demand, they are the main component of oil demand growth, the report added.

The oil sector is planning to invest at least $400 billion in the next five years to expand the supply for virgin plastics by a quarter. The International Energy Agency estimated earlier this year that plastics will be the main driver of oil demand growth in the coming years.

But a lower consumption by consumers would throw a wrench into the companies’ plans, while simultaneously benefitting the environment.

The widespread use of plastic has created a global pollution crisis. About eight million tons reach the oceans every year, affecting wildlife and even entering our organisms through seafood. This has led governments to take action, improving recycling, imposing strict rules on waste disposal, and introducing bans on single-use items. However, action from companies has been rather underwhelming.

“For far too long there has been this delusional narrative coming from the fossil fuel industry to invest hundreds of billions of pounds to grow the supply of virgin plastics by a quarter over the next five years. This is all in the name of compensating for the impact of clean energy technologies which are driving their profits down, Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, said in a statement.

The hidden costs

Plastics impose what is called a “massive untaxed externality” on society — a negative consequence generated by economic activity (such as emitting greenhouse gas emissions and generating pollution), which is unaccounted for. The authors of the report estimate the plastic externality at $1,000 per ton or $350 billion a year due to health costs, collection costs and ocean pollution.

The report also calculated the carbon footprint of the plastics sector, estimating it at about five tons of CO2 per ton of plastic, more if it’s burned and less if it’s landfilled. That’s twice the emissions generated by a ton of oil. If plastic demand grows, annual emissions of plastics would double by mid-century. But that’s not even the whole story. The report also described the plastic industry as extremely wasteful.

About 36% of plastic is produced for single-use applications and 40% of it is mismanaged, ending in the ocean and terrestrial leakage. Recycling rates in the industry are also very low, as only 20% of plastics are sent for recycling.

Such high costs of the industry are leading to a large concern of the public and government officials. An IPSOS poll last year, for example, found that between 70% and 80% of the public wants to reduce plastics and force industry to go along, including a ban on single-use plastics.

As governments get serious on the issue, there is a set of existing solutions, much cheaper than maintaining the status quo, according to the report.

These include reducing demand through design, reuse, and new delivery models; substituting other products like compostables or paper; and better recycling.

Don’t bail out fossil fuel companies, Democrat lawmakers insist

The US already agreed to use US$2 trillion to support those economic sectors and workers most affected by the coronavirus lockdown. But how should that money be used? Not on fossil fuels, at least according to these Democrats.

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A group of more than 40 Democratic lawmakers argue that fossil fuel companies should not be able to receive any assistance from the aid package recently passed by Congress. The aid is intended to support “struggling families, workers, businesses, states, and municipalities.”

“Giving that money to the fossil fuel industry will do nothing to stop the spread of the deadly virus or provide relief to those in need. It will only artificially inflate the fossil fuel industry’s balance sheets,” lawmakers wrote in a letter.

Global markets have taken a large plunge amid the coronavirus, including the price of oil, reaching record lows. Nevertheless, democrats argued fossil fuel firms shouldn’t receive any assistance. The Trump administration had also tried to secure a US$3 million package just for the sector.

“We call on you to ignore the pleas of big oil lobbyists, put consideration of this corporate bailout aside, and instead focus on supporting the workers and small businesses who truly need assistance due to the coronavirus public health emergency,” they added.

The American Petroleum Institute (API), a lobby group that represents oil companies, replied to the claim by the Democrats, saying they are not interested in the money.

Nevertheless, they rejected the letter, claiming it’s “harmful” to workers and “opportunistic — asking the Trump administration to dismiss the claim.

Back in the 2008 economic crisis, former US President Barack Obama passed a stimulus package with the aim of moving forward with clean energy. Nevertheless, on this new package, renewable energy advocates have struggled to be included.

In a joint letter, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) asked members of Congress to extend their credits so as to “allow our member companies to hire thousands of additional workers and inject billions in the U.S. economy.”

Without further help, SEIA estimates the solar industry could see as much as 50% of residential solar jobs lost this year due to the pandemic. At the same time, AWEA estimates $43 billion dollars of investments and payments, mostly in the rural communities, is at risk.

Environmental and climate activists are asking all governments to focus the COVID-19 economic stimulus in zero-emissions sectors such as renewable energy and electric transportation, which can actually create millions of jobs and help the transition from polluting industries.

Air pollution shortens global life expectancy by three years, study shows

Air pollution shortens life expectancy by almost three years, which is more than tobacco, AIDS, wars or diseases such as malaria, according to a new study.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

The results of the report (carried out among others by the Max Planck Institute and the University of Mainz, both in Germany) suggest that “the world is facing a ‘pandemic’ of air pollution,” according to a statement from the European Society of Cardiology.

The study points out that poor air quality especially affects older people and overall, about two-thirds of premature deaths due to air pollution are attributable to people generated sources, mainly due to the use of fossil fuels.

Using a new method to model the effects of various sources of air pollution on mortality rates, the researchers estimated that global air pollution caused 8.8 million additional premature deaths in 2015. This represents a shorter life expectancy of almost three years for everyone in the world.

There are, however, large regional differences due to the diversity of emissions, the study said. In East Asia, the reduction in life expectancy is an average of 3.9 years; in Africa of 3.1; in Europe 2.2 years; in North America of 1.4 and in South America, around 1 year.

By comparison, tobacco use shortens life expectancy by an average of 2.2 years (7.2 million deaths), HIV/AIDS by 0.7 years (1 million deaths), diseases such as malaria transmitted by parasites or insects 0.6 years (600,000 deaths), and all forms of violence, including deaths in wars, for 0.3 years (530,000 deaths).

The researchers analyzed the effect of air pollution on six categories of diseases: lower respiratory tract infection, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke that leads to stroke and other noncommunicable diseases, including pathologies such as hypertension and diabetes.

They discovered that cardiovascular diseases are responsible for the largest proportion of lives shortened by air pollution: 43% of the loss of life expectancy worldwide. Air pollution causes damage to blood vessels, which in turn causes increases in blood pressure, diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, and heart failure.

Poor air quality has a great effect on reducing the life expectancy of older people, the study showed. It is estimated that 75% of deaths attributed to air pollution are from people over 60 years. The only exception is the deaths of children under five in low-income countries in Africa and Southeast Asia.

One of the authors, Thomas Münzel, of the University of Mainz, said: “About two-thirds of premature deaths can be attributed to man-made air pollution, mainly from the use of fossil fuels, a figure that reaches up to 80% in high-income countries. Five and a half million annual deaths in the world are potentially preventable.”

Nine out of ten people are now breathing polluted air and the cities that are struggling the most are located in India in China, according to the World Air Quality Report. Bangladesh was found to be the country with the most air pollution on the planet, South Korea within the OECD and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Europe.

The study was published in the journal Cardiovascular Research.

Saudi oil company Aramco prepares for $1.5 trillion IPO

Following a long delay, Saudi Arabia has authorized the sale of the state-owned oil company Aramco. It will be the biggest stock market flotation in history and the market debut could value Saudi Aramco at $1.5 trillion, significantly below initial expectations of up to $2 trillion.

Credit Wikipedia Commons

Nevertheless, Aramco’s initial public offering will be the biggest in history, raising $40bn-$45 billion, surpassing the record $25 billion raised by China’s tech firm Alibaba in 2015. The precise details of the offer won’t be released until November 9th.

Only a small portion of shares will be released on to the Riyadh market, likely to be in the range of 1% to 3% of the total stock, according to estimations. The size and scale of Aramco are likely to require the financial liquidity only available on the globe’s biggest exchanges, such as Wall Street or London.

Apple is now the world’s most valuable company, surpassing Microsoft last Friday. Apple’s stock has surged in recent weeks as numerous analysts have predicted better-than-expected iPhone 11 sales. Many firms had anticipated that people would skip out on Apple’s latest phone lineup to wait for iPhones released in 2020.

Yasir al-Rumayyan, the chairman of Saudi Aramco, said: “Today marks a significant milestone in the history of the company and important progress towards delivering Saudi Vision 2030, the kingdom’s blueprint for sustained economic diversification and growth.”

The company is responsible for 13% of the world’s oil, and this year it revealed half-year profits of $46.9 billion – more than the next six biggest oil companies combined. Saudi Arabia is expected to use the listing to leverage its vast fossil fuel reserves to help modernize its economy and gain international acceptance.

The sale of the state-owned company is controversial among environmentalists and campaigners pushing to keep fossil fuels from being burned. A recent report showed Aramco has been responsible for 4.38% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965 and named it as the biggest corporate polluter in the world.

Green groups say the company’s IPO undermines global efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Aramco counters with data that a spokesperson said showed that it had the smallest carbon footprint of any of the oil majors per unit of output.

The company “lifts” 11.6m barrels of oil every day and has reserves of 227 million barrels. It costs just $2.80 for the company to lift each barrel of oil, compared with the $62 price per barrel on world markets, resulting in vast profits. It said its operating cash flow in 2018 was $121 billion and it would pay out dividend’s worth $75 billion this year.

The Saudi government said it would forego its share of dividends in the event of an oil price collapse, effectively creating a company that guarantees dividends of $75 billion a year. The documents also reveal that the drone attack on Aramco’s facilities in September cost it $28 million, a sum that is so insignificant to the company’s scale that it was not material to the accounts.

Why Exxon is on trial in the US

It’s only the second climate change trial in the US but its consequences could be big. Oil and gas giant ExxonMobil is at court, accused of defrauding shareholders and the public because of misrepresenting how carbon regulation would affect the company’s financial outlook in the future.

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The trial, which could last three weeks, will debate whether material damage occurred as a result of Exxon’s deceptions. Regardless of the verdict, Exxon is likely to come out an overall loser. The state has accessed a wealth of documents showing how the corporation conducts business, and allegedly mislead and defrauded investors.

“If the investors had known what the real cost of climate change regulations would be, they might not have invested in Exxon,” Patrick Parenteau, a professor of law and senior counsel in the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic at Vermont Law School, said in a statement to PBS

Looking back

The case goes back to 2015 when stories by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times found that while Exxon’s scientists were inwardly researching climate change to plan its operations, the company was outwardly casting doubt on global warming.

Those reports spurred investigations in New York and Massachusetts, which just filed its own suit. “There’s nothing wrong with advocating for your own company. What you’re not allowed to do is commit fraud,” then-New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told PBS NewsHour.

The case is before the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan and is being prosecuted by Letitia James, who was elected state attorney general last year. New York argues that Exxon used two different ways to calculate carbon costs and wasn’t clear when it was using one or the other.

The fraud cost investors as much US$1.6 billion, the attorney general’s office alleges. Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was the CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016, during the years in question, and will testify in the trial, according to a company attorney.

A number of oil firms assume future climate policies like a carbon tax or market will come into play, and they build that “price” into their analysis of whether fossil fuel projects can make money or not. Exxon said it priced carbon at US$80 per ton for all of its projects, which is much more aggressive than the current carbon pricing mechanism. Internally, the company priced carbon much lower.

In New York’s 91-page complaint, the state cites a number of ways Exxon misguided investors, particularly by grossly underestimating how much it would cost to extract oil from 14 oil sand projects in Alberta, Canada — one the largest oil reserves on Earth. Exxon lowballed these costs by a whopping US$25 billion, argued the state.

“Exxon provided false and misleading assurances that it is effectively managing the economic risks posed to its business by the increasingly stringent policies and regulations that it expects governments to adopt to address climate change,” the state wrote in a complaint last year.

That would be a violation of a New York statute known as the Martin Act, which grants the state’s attorney general the authority to pursue investigations and actions against those it suspects of securities fraud. It’s the same law that has been used by previous attorneys general in the state to bring charges against big financial firms.

Exxon says the lawsuit is politically motivated and driven by anti-fossil fuel activists. The company says it was honest with shareholders about how it calculated carbon costs, dismissing any wrongdoing.

“The New York Attorney General’s allegations are false,” Steven Soper of Exxon’s Corporate Media Relations said to PBS. “We tell investors through regular disclosures how the company accounts for risks associated with climate change. We are confident in the facts and look forward to seeing our company exonerated in court.”

What’s at stake?

If Exxon loses the case, they’ll have to pay damages to the state of New York. But the company has to worry about more than a payout and a hit to its reputation. Exxon could also face additional legal challenges from other states, and possibly even at the federal level, according to Mark Latham of Vermont Law School.

The fallout could impact many other companies, too. “It’s a big deal,” said Latham to BuzzFeed, adding that any company “that generally downplayed the risk of climate in public documents they disclosed to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and others” would be at risk of future litigation if Exxon loses.

Exxon faces busy times

Following the case in New York, ExxonMobil was also affected by the second lawsuit in Massachusetts, where the Attorney General is accusing the company of defrauding investors and threatening the world economy.

The oil and gas firm is accused of a broad sweep of misconduct that includes using deceptive advertising to mislead consumers in the state about the central role its fossil fuel products play in causing climate change, and intentionally misleading Massachusetts investors about material climate-driven risks to its business.

Attorney General Maura Healey also upbraids Exxon in the lawsuit for an on-going “greenwashing” marketing campaign that she says falsely touts the company as a leader in clean energy research and climate action. The company “hypocritically” highlighted its environmental role while being among the largest corporate contributors to global warming, the complaint reads.

“Collectively, as with its historic and ongoing deception campaigns about the science, the objective of ExxonMobil’s efforts is to preserve the company’s short-term profits in a carbon-dominated world economy no matter the dire long-term consequences for the company’s investors or for the consumers who buy its products,” the 211-page complaint states.

While the New York case rests exclusively on investor fraud allegations, the Massachusetts one more broadly includes consumer fraud allegations based on Exxon’s failure to fully disclose information that would have allowed consumers to make informed decisions to purchase Exxon oil and gasoline products.

The case focuses on whether past statements Exxon made questioning climate change science and downplaying its risks to the company constituted a form of fraud against the public and its shareholders. It also alleges that Exxon hid from investors its decades-long knowledge that fossil fuels would have a negative impact on the climate.

“In the coming decades, these catastrophic ‘systemic’ impacts threaten to impose ruinous societal costs, cascade throughout the world’s economies, and decimate the overall value of the world’s financial markets, and with them, ExxonMobil’s global business and the holdings of the company’s Massachusetts investors,” the complaint said.

Exxon’s climate past

By the late 1980s, every major oil company understood the risk of global warming was coming, and that its advent promised regulations imperiling investments in fossil fuels, science historian Spencer Weart, author of The Discovery of Global Warming, told BuzzFeed News.

Internal Exxon memos have shown the company’s marketing strategy involved publicly casting doubt on the science, such as placing a full-page advertisement in the New York Times titled “Unsettled Science,” according to the new report “America Misled” by climate communication and historian researchers from George Mason University, Harvard University, and the University of Bristol.

Meanwhile, the company privately funded climate denial campaigns, bankrolling advocacy groups that sought to cast uncertainty over climate science, even after pledging to stop funding climate deniers.

“We know that this was deliberate,” Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and co-author on the recent report, told BuzzFeed News. “Given multiple opportunities to correct the record, they declined those opportunities, and continued business as usual.”

Other companies make the news

The city of Baltimore sued BP and 26 other oil majors that also include Exxon, Shell, Marathon, Chevron, and more. The city is seeking money to deal with, among other things, the rising sea levels, more intense heat waves, and more heavy downpours. The suit alleges the companies “have known for half a century” how their products have befouled the climate.

The suit was filed last year, and the oil companies have since tried to get it dismissed, including petitioning the United States Supreme Court for a stay and moving the case from state to federal court. The Supreme Court denied the stay on Tuesday meaning the case can proceed to discovery while attorneys haggle over whether it stays in the state court system or gets moved to the federal one.

Last year, a group of Colorado counties filed the first non-coastal climate lawsuit against a fossil fuel company. Like the Baltimore case, it’s focused on getting Big Oil to pay for climate damages, though Colorado’s concerns are a bit different. While coastal areas are worried about rising seas, the Mountain West will have to contend with disappearing snowpack and its impact on water supplies.

Exxon is again a defendant in this case along with the Canadian tar sand company Suncor. And like the Baltimore case, the defendants tried to get the case bumped to federal court to no avail; and just last week, they tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.

Fossil fuel companies campaigned to raise doubt about climate crisis

Fossil fuel companies actively campaigned to create doubt about the climate crisis and the steps needed to undo the damage, according to a report by an international group of scientists – revealed on the same day the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil is set to face trial for lying to its shareholders.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Researchers from Harvard, George Mason University and the University of Bristol looked at more than a decade of peer-reviewed research and concluded internal corporate documents show that the fossil fuel industry has known about human-caused climate change for decades.

The response of the companies, the research showed, was to actively arrange and fund denial and disinformation to suppress action and protect its status quo business operations. Companies used different tactics such as championing conspiracy theories, promoting fake experts and cherry-picking scientific evidence.

“For 60 years, the fossil fuel industry has known about the potential global warming dangers of their products,” said Geoffrey Supran, the study author. “But instead of warning the public or doing something about it, they turned around and orchestrated a massive campaign of denial and delay designed to protect profits.”

The report showed that companies attacked at the scientific consensus behind climate change, with over 97% of the scientists agreeing it’s a man-made problem. Companies carried out market research to confuse the public on that consensus, despite they knew regarding climate change since 1950.

“Disinformation about climate change has a straightforward purpose—to block action on climate change. In America, it has largely succeeded, with policies to mitigate climate change stymied or delayed for decades,” the report reads. “Meanwhile, climate change has intensified, causing impacts.”

Lawsuit on Exxon

Oil industry giant Exxon Mobil went to court today in the US to face charges that the company lied to shareholders and to the public about the costs and consequences of climate change. It’s the second climate-change lawsuit to reach trial in the country.

The company is claimed to have kept a secret set of financial books that seriously underestimated the costs of potential climate change regulation while claiming publicly that it was taking such factors into account.

Exxon has fought the charges, arguing that they were politically motivated and should have been thrown out. It maintains that the government’s theory of its financial tools is flawed at best and, at worst, disingenuous.

Exxon has long conducted research into climate change and published much of it in the scientific literature. In 2015, Inside Climate News and The Los Angeles Times used materials from corporate archives to show the extent of that research and how it was used in long-term planning, even while the company was funding groups that sought to spread doubt about climate science.

More than 1,000 climate change lawsuits have been filed in the United States, said Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at the Columbia University Law School. The first was brought more than a decade ago by automotive industry companies to challenge Vermont’s ability to set emissions standards.

These twenty companies are behind a third of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions

While countries have a major role to play, climate action also requires the involvement of the private sector — especially the largest oil, gas, and coal companies, which can be directly linked to one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era, according to a new study.

The dataset published by the Climate Accountability Institute showed that the twenty largest investor-owned and state-owned fossil fuel companies produced carbon fuels that emitted 35% of the global total from 1965 to 2018.

Looking at the entire historical data, the full database of fossil fuel and cement entities showed they were responsible for 69.8% of the global emissions since 1751. The list includes companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell.

“These companies have significant moral, the financial, and legal responsibility for the climate crisis, and a commensurate burden to help address the problem,” Climate Accountability Institute said. “The climate crisis is worsening, global emissions are still rising, and they must peak immediately.”

Image credits; Climate Accountability.

Twelve of the top 20 companies are state-owned and together their extractions are responsible for 20% of total emissions in the same period. The leading state-owned polluter is Saudi Aramco, which has produced 4.38% of the global emissions total on its own, the data showed.

The global polluters’ list developed by the Climate Accountability Institute uses company-reported annual production of oil, natural gas, and coal and then calculates how much of the carbon and methane in the produced fuels is emitted to the atmosphere throughout the supply chain, from extraction to end-use.

“It is incumbent on companies that value their social license to operate to respect climate science, manage corporate risks, accordingly, commit to reducing future production of carbon fuels and their emissions in alignment with the Paris Agreement pathway under 1.5 °C,” the institute said.

The role of fossil-fuel emissions

Virtually all scientists agree that burning fossil fuels is the cause of the current climate heating. The world is now 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, with severe consequences worldwide.

Some gases in the Earth’s atmosphere act like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping the sun’s heat and stopping it from leaking back into space. Many of these gases occur naturally, but human activity is increasing the concentrations of some of them in the atmosphere, in particular, carbon dioxide (C02).

CO2 is the greenhouse gas most commonly produced by human activities and it is responsible for 64% of man-made global warming. Its concentration in the atmosphere is currently 40% higher than it was when industrialization began. Other greenhouse gases are emitted in smaller quantities, but they trap heat far more effectively than CO2, and in some cases are thousands of times stronger.

According to research published in 2017 by the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US, CO2 and methane emissions from the 90 biggest industrial carbon producers were responsible for almost half the rise in global temperature and close to a third of the sea level rise between 1880 and 2010.

Wind power.

Gov. Brown doubles-down on California’s already ambitious pledge — it will be carbon-neutral by 2045

Earlier this month, we were telling you how California’s pledge to generate 100% green energy for its grid by 2045 made it past the state’s Senate. All it needed to be enshrined into law was Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature. I’m very pleased to announce that Gov. Brown went above and beyond the signature of duty.

Wind power.

Image credits Peter Wiegel.

After approving the bill (on Monday), today Brown went on to issue an executive order by which he required the state to become carbon-neutral by 2045. The move essentially takes California’s pledge to the next level  — whereas, originally, the goal was to power the grid exclusively through renewable energy, the golden state now has to remove as much greenhouse gas as it pumps out in the atmosphere.

Brown’s green push

“The achievement of carbon neutrality will require both significant reductions in carbon pollution and removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including sequestration in forests, soils, and other natural landscapes,” Brown’s executive order states.

The move definitely propels California to the forefront of decarbonization efforts. It is the second U.S. state to formally include such a pledge in its legislation (the first one was Hawaii). It’s also one of the most populous U.S. states and the most powerful economy in the world to embark on such a dramatic ecological campaign to date.

Still, that’s not to say it’s going to be a walk in the park. Although California has phased coal out of its statewide energy mix, it still draws massively on natural gas plants for its electricity needs. For it to have any chance of achieving the desired target by 2045, the state will need to draw heavily on wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power. Seeing as the state recently moved to close its last nuclear power plant, it’s unlikely atom-splitting will help power California.

On the other hand, it will also have to increase its energy capacity and design incentive schemes to improve energy efficiency at all levels — industrial, commercial, as well as residential.

The exact wording of the original bill also leaves officials a much-needed fallback space. It states that electricity production has to be zero-emissions so, in theory, it could use carbon capture technologies to still reach that goal should the state run into any problems decommissioning its natural gas plants. Despite leaving them some room to maneuver, the bill doesn’t leave officials any room to cheat — the bill specifically forbids California from increasing the carbon emissions of another state to get cheap energy.

So, for example, the state could buy power from a coal plant based in Nevada if that electricity had been supplied prior to the bill’s passing, but not from a new gas-powered source in Arizona.

Needless to say, it’s a mammoth undertaking from an economy larger than the UK‘s. Gov. Brown’s executive order only makes it that more ambitious. Pile the order’s express requirement that “all policies and programs undertaken to achieve carbon neutrality shall seek to improve air quality and support the health and economic resiliency of urban and rural communities, particularly low-income and disadvantaged communities,” on top, and you get a seemingly insurmountable task.

And yet, it feels like the right thing to do, doesn’t it?

How long before the world runs out of fossil fuels?

Fossil fuels are the main source of energy in the world, powering much of modern civilization as we know it, from transportation to industrial applications. But this paradigm can’t last forever.

Millions of years to make, only hundreds of years to spend

Fossil fuels have formed over an extensive period of time from the remains of plants and animal that lived hundreds of millions of years ago. Humans have been using them in ample amounts since the 19th century and with our current rate of consumption, fossil fuel resources are depleting much faster than their formation. Naturally, the question arises: how long before we run out?

In the 1950s, geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that the world will experience an economically damaging scarcity of fossil fuels. This idea has remained in the collective consciousness as the Peak Oil theory, according to which the production of oil, as a finite resource, will peak at some point and ultimately decline and deplete. According to some researchers, Hubbert included, Peak Oil is already behind us, and we are now living in a decline.

So, how long before we run out of fossil fuels? In order to project how much time we have left before the world runs out of oil, gas, and coal, one method is measuring the R/P ratios — that is the ratio of reserves to current rates of production. At the current rates of production, oil will run out in 53 years, natural gas in 54, and coal in 110. This is bearing in mind a 2015 World Energy Outlook study by the International Energy Agency, which predicted fossil fuels will constitute 59% of the total primary energy demand in 2040, even despite aggressive climate action policies.

Other researchers, organizations, and governments have different deadlines for fossil fuel exhaustion, depending on the data and assumptions that they make, as well as political affiliation and interests. The American Petroleum Institute estimated in 1999 the world’s oil supply would be depleted between 2062 and 2094, assuming total world oil reserves at between 1.4 and 2 trillion barrels. In 2006, however, the Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) predicted that 3.74 trillion barrels of oil remained in the Earth — three times the number estimated by peak oil proponents.

Is Peak Oil behind us? Not clear

While we know for sure that the exploitation of fossil fuels is limited, estimates can vary wildly because new deposits are sometimes found and new technology enables access to previously untapped oil or gas fields or allows more efficient extraction. So, the challenge in estimating a timescale for fossil fuel depletion lies in the fact that new resources are added fairly regularly. Therefore, we have to keep in mind that all of these estimates are based on R/P ratios and thereby only consider proven reserves, not probable or possible reserves of resources. For instance, in 1980, the R/P ratio suggested only 32 years of oil production from existing reserves.  

A 1977 report issued by the Energy Information Administration concluded that the United States could only access 32 billion barrels of oil reserves and 207 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. But from then to 2010, the country extracted 84 billion barrels of oil (2.6 times more than the initial estimate) and 610 trillion cubic feet of gas (2.9 times the initial reserve estimate). What’s more, reserves are growing. Today, the U.S. has increased the size of its reserves by a third since 2011 thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking which enable access to oil and gas trapped in underground rock formation. Previously, it wasn’t economically feasible to extract these resources.

As technology continues to improve, both governments and oil & gas companies will be able to access new reserves — some that can’t currently be exploited and others that are still unidentified.

Japan, for instance, is planning to one day extract methane from undersea hydrate deposits — these types of deposits may contain more than twice the amount of carbon as Earth’s fossil fuels. Elsewhere, climate change is opening corridors in the Arctic — ironically facilitated by the burning of fossil fuels — that enable extraction of oil that was previously logistically impossible to undertake. It was Russian company Gazprom that brought home the first barrels of oil from the Arctic in 2014, and more have followed since. Again Russia, this time in partnership with France’s Total and China’s CNPC, wants to start drilling the Arctic in 2019 for natural gas. The $27 billion plant is expected to extract 16.5 million tonnes of natural gas per year.

Keep the oil in the soil

Some might fear that we’ll run out of oil and coal before we get the chance to replace them with renewable energy, thereby triggering a planetary-wide collapse of human civilization. But that’s an unlikely scenario. First of all, if we burn even 50% of the world’s reserves, we’re screwed. Forget about the prospect of not being able to turn the lights for a second, and think greater perils: runaway climate change.

Despite having used only a small fraction of fossil fuels, the planet’s atmosphere is already around one degree Celsius warmer on average than it was prior to the Industrial Revolution. A 2016 study published in Nature Climate Change assessed what would happen if we burned all the fossil fuels known to exist on Earth. Assuming a scenario where there are no efforts to curb global warming, by 2300 CO2 would stabilize at roughly 2,000 parts per million (ppm), five times higher than today’s level (~408ppm) — resulting in a total of 5tn tons of carbon dioxide finding its way into the atmosphere. In this nightmare scenario, global average temperatures would be pushed by 8 degrees Celsius past Industrial levels, with the Arctic bearing the grunt of warming, experiencing temperatures rising by as much as 17 degrees Celsius.

As such, the limiting factor on humans’ fossil fuel use is not the depletion of recoverable fossil fuels, but the crossing of a dangerous threshold past which the planet is no longer able to withstand the byproducts of burning fossil fuels.

Knowing oil and gas won’t ever run out in your lifetime shouldn’t be an excuse to keep using them. Rather, knowing this, we should all take action to ensure that our children and grandchildren actually have a future.

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

Book Review: ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.


“Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve”
By Ian Morris
Princeton University Press, 400pp | Buy on Amazon

What we consider as ‘right’ or ‘just’ isn’t set in stone — far from it. In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, Stanford University’s Willard Professor of Classics Ian Morris weaves together several strands of science, most notably history, anthropology, archeology, and biology, to show how our values change to meet a single overriding human need: energy.

Do you think your boss should be considered better than you in the eyes of the law? Is it ok to stab someone over an insult? Or for your country’s military to shell some other country back to the stone age just because they’re ‘the enemy’? Do leaders get their mandate from the people, from god, or is power something to be taken by force? Is it ok to own people? Should women tend to home and family only, or can they pick their own way in life?

Your answers and the answers of someone living in the stone age, the dark age, or even somebody from a Mad-Men-esque 1960’s USA wouldn’t look the same. In fact, your answers and the answers of someone else living today in a different place likely won’t be the same.

Values derive from culture

They’ll be different because a lot of disparate factors weigh in on how we think about these issues. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll bundle all of them up under the umbrella-term of ‘culture’, taken to mean “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” I know what you’ll answer in broad lines because I can take a look at Google Analytics and see that most of you come from developed, industrialized countries which (for the most part) are quite secular and have solid education systems. That makes most of you quite WEIRD — western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

As we’re all so very weird, our cultures tend to differ a bit on the surface (we speak different languages and each have our own national dessert, for example). The really deep stuff, however — the frameworks on which our cultures revolve —  these tend to align pretty well (we see equality as good, violence as being bad, to name a few). In other words, we’re a bit different but we all share a core of identical values. Kind of like Christmass time, when everybody has very similar trees but decorates them differently, WEIRD cultures are variations on the same pattern.

It’s not the only pattern out there by any means, but it’s one of the (surprisingly) few that seem to work. Drawing on his own experience of culture shock working as an anthropologist and archaeologist in non-WEIRD countries, Professor Morris mixes in a bird’s eye view of history with biology and helpings from other fields of science to show how the dominant source of energy a society draws on forces them to clump into one of three cultural patterns — hunter-gatherers, farmers (which he names Agraria), and fossil-fuel users (Industria).

Energy dictates culture

In broad lines, Morris looks at culture as a society’s way to adapt to sources of energy capture. The better adapted they become, the bigger the slice of available energy they can extract, and the better equipped they will be to displace other cultures — be them on the same developmental level or not. This process can have ramifications in seemingly unrelated ways we go about our lives.

To get an idea of how Morris attacks the issue, let’s take a very narrow look at Chapter 2, where he talks about prehistoric and current hunter-gatherer cultural patterns. Morris shows how they “share a striking set of egalitarian values,” and overall “take an extremely negative view of political and economic hierarchy, but accept fairly mild forms of gender hierarchy and recognize that there is a time and place for violence.”

This cultural pattern stems from a society which extracts energy from its surroundings without exercising any “deliberate alterations of the gene pool of harvested resources.” Since everything was harvested from the wild and there was no way to store it, there was a general expectation to share food with the group. Certain manufactured goods did have an owner, but because people had to move around to survive, accumulating wealth beyond trinkets or tools to pass on was basically impossible, and organized government was impractical. Finally, gender roles only went as far as biological constraints — men were better tailored to hunt, so they were the ones that hunted, for example. But the work of a male hunter or a female gatherer were equally important to assuring a family’s or group’s caloric needs were met — as such, society had equal expectations and provided almost the same level of freedom and the same rights for everyone, regardless of sex. There was one area, however, where foragers weren’t so egalitarian:

“Abused wives regularly walk away from their husbands without much fuss or criticism [in foraging societies],” Morris writes, something which would be unthinkable in the coming Agraria.

“Forager equalitarianism partially breaks down, though, when it comes to gender hierarchy. Social scientists continue to argue why men normally hold the upper hand in foarger societies. After all, […] biology seems to have dealt women better cards. Sperm are abundant […] and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce […] and therefore expensive. Women ought to be able to demand all kinds of services from men in return for access to their eggs,” Morris explains in another paragraph. “To some extent, this does happen,” he adds, noting that male foragers participate “substantially more in childrearing than […] our closest genetic neighbours.”

But political or economic authority is something they can almost never demand from the males. This, Morris writes, is because “semen is not the only thing male foragers are selling.”

“Because [males] are also the main providers of violence, women need to bargain for protection; because men are the main hunters, women need to bargain for meat; and because hunting often trains men to cooperate and trust one another, individual women often find themselves negotiating with cartels of men,” he explains.

This is only a sliver of a chapter. You can expect to see this sort of in-depth commentary of how energy capture dictates the shape of societies across the span of time throughout the 400-page book. I don’t want to spoil the rest of it, since it really is an enjoyable read so I’ll give you the immensely-summed-up version:

Farmers / Agraria exercise some genetic modifications in other species (domestication), tolerate huge political, economic, and gender hierarchies, and are somewhat tolerant of violence (but less than foragers). Fossil-fuelers / Industria was made possible by an “energy bonanza,” and are very intolerant of political hierarchies, gender hierarchy, and violence, but are somewhat tolerant of economic hierarchies (less than Agrarians).

These sets of values ‘stuck’ because they maximised societies’ ability to harvest energy at each developmental level. Societies which could draw on more energy could impose themselves on others (through technology, culture, economy, warfare), eventually displacing them or making these other societies adopt the same values in an effort to compete.

Should I read it?

Definitely. Morris’ is a very Darwinian take on culture, and he links this underlying principle with cultural forms in a very pleasant style that hits the delicate balance of staying comprehensive without being boring, accessible without feeling dumbed down.

The theory is not without its shortcomings, and the book even has four chapters devoted to very smart people (University of Exter professor emeritus of classics and ancient history Richard Seaford, former Sterling Professor of History at Yale University Jonathan D. Spence, Harvard University Professor of Philosophy Christine Korsgaard, and The Handmaiden’s Tale’s own Margaret Atwood) slicing the theory and bashing it about for all its flaws. Which I very much do appreciate, as in Morris’ own words, debates “raise all kinds of questions that I would not have thought of by myself.” Questions which the author does not leave unanswered.

All in all, it’s a book I couldn’t more warmly recommend. I’ve been putting off this review for weeks now, simply because I liked it so much, I wanted to make sure I do it some tiny bit of justice. It’s the product of a lifetime’s personal experience, mixed with a vast body of research, then distilled through the hand of a gifted wordsmith. It’s a book that will help you understand how values — and with them, the world we know today — came to be, and how they evolved through time. It’ll give you a new pair of (not always rose-tinted) glasses through which to view human cultures, whether you’re in your home neighborhood or vacationing halfway across the world.

But most of all, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels will show you that apart from a few biologically “hardwired” ones it’s the daily churn of society, not some ultimate authority or moral compass, that dictates our values — that’s a very liberating realization. It means we’re free to decide for ourselves which are important, which are not, and what we should strive for to change our society for the better. Especially now that new sources of energy are knocking at our door.

What is petroleum, and where does it come from?

If you’re reading something related to fossil fuels here on ZME Science, chances are it somehow ties into the issue of pollution or global warming. Both are really important topics of discussion, especially right now as people all over the world band together to fix the very real, very dangerous consequences our fossil-fuel-centric economies are having on the climate.

Oil barrels.

Image credits Flickr / Olle Svensson.

But it’s undeniable that fossil fuels allowed our societies to dramatically change in a very short span of time. Using them, people could bring much more energy to bear in shaping our environment than previously possible. Energy means tractors pull plows instead of oxen, cars instead of carriages, steel mills instead of blacksmiths, iPhones instead of carrier pigeons. More available energy makes everybody richer, better fed, and longer-living than ever before.

We’re now at a point where we can/should opt out of fossil fuels and into other, cleaner and more efficient sources of energy; but we’re not going to talk about that right now. Today we’re going to take a look at what fossil fuels are to understand why they had such an effect on society. And we’ll be starting with the one we’re probably most familiar with in our day-to-day life.

What is petroleum

Petroleum (from the old Greek petra, meaning stone and oleum meaning oil), also known as crude oil, is a fluid mix of liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons, inorganic chemical elements, and physical impurities. It usually comes laced with a hearty serving of bacteria to boot. While romantic images or old-timey movies about daring derrickmen show all crude oil to be pitch-black, it’s not uncommon to see dark brown oil or for it to take yellow, red, even green hues based on its chemical composition.

Green petroleum from McClintock Well 1, the oldest oil well still in production.
Image credits Drake Well Museum.

Oil composition actually varies so widely that one of the most used crude oil classification standards is by production area (e.g. Oman-Tapis oil, West Texas Intermediate oil, so on). Two other important classifications systems rely on density (light/heavy oil) or sulfur content (sweet/sour).

Crude oil is one of the most important hydrocarbons today, and it literally keeps our industries running both as an energy source and a critical raw material. It forms deep underground, and (generally) only rarely makes an appearance topside without our help. Its choice of neighborhood, chemical composition, and the fact that crude oil has a bit of a body odor issue, all come down to:

How it forms

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”The short of it:” footer=””]

    1. Deposition: a large quantity of organic matter winds up in a (geologically-speaking) confined area.
    2. Burial: this matter gets buried under sediment, and subsequently ‘sinks’ lower into the crust.
    3. Diagenesis: subjected to extreme pressure and high temperatures, this matter gets cooked into kerogen — a wax-like substance which is basically baby-crude-oil.
    4. Catagenesis / Cracking: if the right window of pressure and heat is maintained on the kerogen, it will be further cooked into fluid hydrocarbons (oil and gas).
    5. Reservoir formation: these new hydrocarbons, being fluid and less dense, are pumped up by the weight of rocks pressing down on them — until they hit a rock they can’t pass through and form a deposit.


Steps 1&2 — Deposition and Burial

Like all other fossil fuels, crude oil is formed from things which used to be alive a long time ago. In theory, any dead plant or animal can turn into petroleum over millions of years but it’s mostly algae, plankton, and zooplankton which formed the crude oil we use today. What those three have in common (and lends them well to oil-formation) is that they’re aquatic. Living in the ocean helps a lot with points 1. and 2.: on the one hand, marine environments are teeming with nutrients and usually support a lot of biomass. On the other hand, there’s more sediment in watery environments than on dry land (think of how much new soil the Nile deposits every time it floods).

Mississippi Delta Sediment Plume.

Or the Mississippi, even when it’s not flooding.
Image credits NASA Earth Observatory.

Making crude oil is kinda similar to making wine in that you need to let it sit but not breathe, or it will spoil — so both of these factors are critical for its formation. The process needs a lot of fresh (well, fresh-ish) organic matter. Since there are so many critters living in oceans, these environments can deliver the huge quantities of biomass needed (things die and sink to the bottom faster than bacteria can decompose them). Oceans can also muster the sediments required to cover biomass before it rots away in less-abundant areas. So overall, virtually all of the most important oil deposits formed on the bottom of ancient oceans and seas (which may be dry land today).

While there’s nothing explicitly prohibiting dry land environments from forming oil, the odds are stacked very highly against them. The main problem is that sediment mobility is severely limited on land compared to the ocean, so there’s nothing to insulate dead biomass from oxygen. For crude oil to form on land, you generally need a fast movement of sediments — think massive floods, landslides, mudflows, that sort of thing — or watery, muddy areas such as lakes and marshes. Plant resin can also kerogenize. However, deposits formed on dry land generally tend to form coal (from harder-to-decompose wood,) and their share in the global crude oil reserve is likely modest.

Step 3 — Diagenesis

As new sediments fall to the ocean’s floor over millions of years, their weight pushes down on our intrepid biomass deposit formed in steps 1&2. We’re talking pretty big pressures here — imagine holding a column of rock, gravel, sand a few kilometers/miles high on your shoulders, topped by an even higher column of water — which compress that matter hard enough for it to heat up. Under such conditions, the chemical bonds in the biomass start to break down and re-form into new, more heat-and-pressure-stable compounds.

Chlorophyll V-porphyrin.

Vanadium porphyrin in petroleum (left) and chlorophyll a (right).
Image via Wikimedia.

Long-chain biopolymers (such as those in proteins or carbohydrates) are the first ones to break down. The resulting bits then go on to mix with sediments to form rocks rich in organic carbon or shed water and simple hydrocarbon molecules (such as methanol), and condense into new polymers. As time passes, certain elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and sulphur tend to be weeded out of the mix, and the polymers tend towards aromatization (they form rings). These are denser (same material in a smaller space,) so they can better withstand the pressure. Then, the rings stack onto each other in sheets, increasing density even more.

This early stage of transformation results in a waxy substance known as kerogen, and a tar-like material known as bitumen.

Step 4 — Catagenesis / Cracking

A structure rich in kerogen and bitumen is known as a ‘source rock’ because this is where the oil will come from. As it keeps sinking lower into the crust, the kerogen in our source rock gets subjected to even more pressure, but that’s OK because it’s so dense that it can take it. However, it also gets hotter, and that’s what will finally turn it into petroleum.

Crude oils.

Light and medium crude oils from the Caucasus, the Middle East, Arabia, and France.
Image credits Wikimedia / Glasbruch2007.

What we perceive as heat is a motion of particles — the hotter something is, the more its atoms will bounce around and into each other. Heat is, if you zoom in close enough, kinetic energy. So when you pump heat into the nicely-stacked sheets of polymers in our kerogen, you make their atoms want to move around.  Eventually, if you pump enough heat into them, the structures become too energetic to remain stable and break apart into progressively smaller bits — heat “cracks” them open.

Ambiental pressure and temperature during the cracking process determine what the kerogen does: if temperatures are too low, nothing cracks. If temperatures are too high, oil gets shredded into short polymers and you get natural gas. The sweet-spot, or “oil window” for geologists, is somewhere between 50-150°C (122-302°F) depending on things like pressure and how rapidly the rock is warmed up.

Step 5 — Reservoir formation

At this point, the oil and gas are both liquid and mixed together, like an unopened can of soda. Being fluid and much less dense than the rocks around them, this hydrocarbon cocktail resulted from cracking will try to work its way upwards above to the surface.

Surface oil seep Slovakia.

Natural petroleum spring in Slovakia.
Image credits Wikimedia / Branork.

There are rocks all around it, however, so the oil can’t form lakes or rivers per say but has to travel through the pores and cracks of surrounding rocks in its merry way to the surface. Some rocks, such as sandstone or limestone, are especially porous and lend themselves well to transporting crude oil.

What usually happens, however, is that oil gets trapped under a layer of rock it can’t pass through, and will wait there until a drill head comes a-knocking.

To sum it up

So, to go from a dinosaur (more likely from a bunch of plankton) all the way to petroleum, you need a lot of time and quite a fortunate series of events: first, you need a lot of stuff to die in just the right spot and get buried under sediment in a hurry. This stack of biomass needs to get squished and baked into a source rock full of juicy bitumen and kerogen and then heated up — but not too much — to form oil. All of this needs to take place under a porous and permeable (meaning the pores are connected to each other so they can act like tiny pipelines) rock for the oil to travel through and accumulate in. And everything has to be covered with a cap rock (a seal), or some other mechanism has to be in place to prevent this oil from spilling up to the surface.

The good and bad about petroleum

So you know how plants like to hang around and photosynthesize and all that? Well, think of burning fossil fuels as reverse photosynthesis and you’re not far off from the mark. That’s what makes fossil fuels both awesome and awful at the same time, and here’s why:

A burning oil well in the Rumaila oilfields, Kuwait.

It’s because this thing burns with a blaze.
Kuwaiti firefighters fight to secure a burning oil well in the Rumaila oilfields, set ablaze by Iraqi military forces, 2003.
Image credits United States Marine Corps.

Photosynthesis requires a lot of energy: since oxygen loves binding to stuff and carbon is pretty into being bound, too, it takes a lot of oomph to pull them apart. What plants do is use solar energy to break CO2, munch on the carbon atom, and throw out the oxygen. This creates an energy imbalance since that oxygen really wants to get back with his old spark, the carbon atom — so plant matter, in effect, acts like a battery for carbon and the energy used in photosynthesis.

Any decent-sized petroleum deposit is formed from immense quantities of biomass, totaling millions possibly even trillions hours’ worth of photosynthesis, and the sum energy imbalance generated through them. When we burn oil, we re-combine carbon with oxygen and take that energy back.

The good news is that you extract the lion’s share of that initial energy (stored over the plants’ entire lifetimes) in a few moments — so fossil fuels are a very dense source of energy, an order of magnitude more powerful than what firewood or muscle can generate. The bad news is that you also release all those carbon atoms (stored over the plants’ entire lifetimes) in a few moments — so fossil fuels are a very dense source of greenhouse gasses.

Apart from use as fuel, petroleum is a cornerstone in industry. The pharmaceutical, chemical, and material industries, in particular, rely heavily on crude oil as the main source of a wide range of organic compounds. So even if we decouple our energy sector from oil, we’re sure to see it around for a long time to come.

Putin also said that emissions aren’t causing global warming

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, just said that climate change is unstoppable and not caused by human activity.

It’s OK guys, global warming isn’t happening. Putin just remembered a story. Image via Pixabay.

After visiting the Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic, Putin claimed that human activity is not connected in any way to global warming, saying:

“The warming, it had already started by the 1930s,” Putin said in comments broadcast from an Arctic forum held in the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk. “That’s when there were no such anthropological factors, such emissions, and the warming had already started.”

Turn captions on.

Needless to say, that’s complete and utter nonsense. For starters, humans were emitting emissions in the 1930s (in fact, ever since the start of the industrial age), though at a much lower rate. It’s debatable whether or not climate change was having noticeable effects in the 1930s. But Putin’s statement gets even better.

He supported his argument by saying that an Austrian explorer who had a “photographic memory” visited the Franz Josef Land archipelago “in the 1930s.” He didn’t say who this mysterious explorer is, but then he added that 20 years later, this explorer was shown photographs from another expedition “by the future king of Italy” and concluded that “there were fewer icebergs there,” Putin said. This whole thing reeks of baloney, but once again, it gets even better. Let alone that his “evidence” was the “photographic memory” of a mysterious explorer, but back then, Italy didn’t even have a king.

So… yeah. Let’s all just ignore what decades and decades of research are concluding, what some of the world’s brightest minds are saying, with a 97% consensus — Putin just recalled a story with two characters (one unnamed, the other inexistent) which invalidates all that science.

Previously, Putin has hailed global warming as a good thing, saying that with two or three degrees more, Russians wouldn’t need fur coats. He was also thrilled that global warming was melting the ice and exposing natural resources and transport routes which had long been too expensive to exploit. It should also be said that Russia is the world’s largest natural gas exporter and the country’s economy greatly relies on fossil fuels.

Hey, at the very least, the presidents of the US and Russia are getting along on something, that should be worth something, isn’t it? Trump has called climate change fake and has tweeted that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”

Charles and David Koch - The Koch Brothers. Credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey.

What are abundant and sustainable fuels? “Folks, that’s of course the fossil fuels,” says President of Koch-funded shill group

Charles and David Koch - The Koch Brothers. Credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey.

Charles and David Koch – The Koch Brothers. Credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey.

This weekend, Fueling U.S. Forward  — an organization that aims to shine the fossil fuel industry in a positive light and is openly funded by the Koch brothers — launched publically at the 2016  Red State Gathering. There, its president and CEO, Charles Drevna, held a speech that would have left any reasonable person scratching their heads at the all backward nonsense.

“We need a sustainable energy to ensure the future of the country,” Mr. Drevna told the audience, alluding to a source that is “reliable, abundant, efficient and sustainable fuels.”

“Folks, that’s of course the fossil fuels,” he immediately added, Desmog reported.

Here’s how the Cambridge Dictionary defines sustainable energy.

sustainable energy, noun: NATURAL RESOURCES, ENVIRONMENT energy that is produced using the sun, wind, etc., or from crops, rather than using fuels such as oil or coal which cannot be replaced.

Charles Drevna seated for a 2013 interview. Credit: Youtube

Charles Drevna seated for a 2013 interview. Credit: Youtube

So, it seems the fossil industry’s rhetoric not only defies logic and facts but the English language also. Concerning the Fueling U.S. Forward meeting, Drevna said the movement will be less about educating the public with facts and statistics, and more about reaching out to their emotional side.

“We’ve got to take this to the emotional and personal level,” Mr. Drevna, a former D.C. lobbyist and Sunoco executive, told the crowd. “Oil and natural gas, they’re not the fuels of the past and maybe the present or a necessary evil, they are the future.”

A new tactic will also involve reaching out to minorities.

“We’re partnering with other organizations too, especially non-traditional allies like the minority community,” Mr. Drevna told the nearly all-white crowd. “Who in the heck gets hit hardest and fastest when there’s an energy crisis and prices go up? They do.”

Earlier this year, the Huffington Post revealed that Mr. Drevna and a Koch Industries board member were about to launch a $10 million-a-year effort that might boost petroleum-based transportation fuels. Six months later, we’ve got Fueling U.S. Forward. What the Huffington Post report also revealed was that this organization, then still in preparations, would also have the mission of undermining electric vehicles in the eye of the public by following the government subsidies angle. Indeed, at the Red State Gathering, Drevna “repeatedly cited Tesla Motors as an example of government subsidies gone awry,” Desmog reported.

The Young Turks have a great report on this.

You can watch Drevna’s presentation below.

COP talks tackle the issue of biggest polluters — wolves in sheep’s clothing

Should dirty energy companies have a voice in climate talks? Can government figures, known to receive money from the oil and gas industry, be trusted to represent the best interests of the planet over those of the people that fund their campaigns? That was one of the key points that today’s conference on great polluters debated on.

Left to right:  Tamar Lawrence-Samuel, Olivier Hoedeman, Asad Rehman speaking at today's conference.

Left to right:
Tamar Lawrence-Samuel, Olivier Hoedeman, Asad Rehman speaking at today’s conference.

Traditionally, fossil fuel companies are invited to participate in climate and energy talks being viewed as central figures in the process of climate change.

“75% of the meetings of the EU comissions with energy companies were with fossil fuel companies,” said Campaign Coordinator Olivier Hoedeman from the Corporate Europe Observatory earlier today at the conference.

They’re not only some of the biggest economic entities embroiled in it, but also from scientific point of view. Boasting some of the most advanced understanding of the substances they work with, their research teams have been called upon time and time again to come up with solutions to address the issue, trusting them to have the interest of humanity as a whole at heart, and not to company profits. Unsurprisingly, that was a loosing bet.

“That’s the opposite of what should happen,” he added.

A strong parallel was drawn between Big Oil today and Big Tobacco in its glory days by Corporate Accountability International‘s Associate Research Director Tamar Lawrence-Samuel. She warned that just as the case was then, until fossil fuel companies aren’t kicked out of the talks, a real consensus can’t be reached and an efficient solution to climate change won’t be agreed upon. Fossil fuel companies will continue (very efficiently) to delay, weaken and even block progress in these talks for one very simple reason, she says: they make a huge amount of money, a paradigm shift away from fossil would stop them from making said money, and they’re willing to spend — gaining them a lot of pull in the political world.

“Senators who voted against an amendment that expressed the view that human activities were significantly contributing to climate change received on average 7.1 more money from Oil and Gas industry than those voting yes on that amendment,” she added.

We’ve recently covered how climate denial groups’ funding can be traced back to Big Oil, ExxonMobile and Kock in particular, and I agree with Tamar. There’s no way anyone would agree to policy that directly undermines their income.There’s an old saying, warning one “not to cut the branch from under your feet,” and those on fossil fuel payrolls know fully well who their branch is.

“So, one of the reasons why we can’t agree on a fair and just climate change is that there are forces fighting against this goal, and corporations and fossil fuel companies in particular play a key role,” Tamar concluded.

Asad Rehman, representing Friends of the Earth also advocated for removal of fossil fuel companies from the negotiation table, and expresses his concers even regarding the current talks:

“You see Engie and BNP sponsoring this COP, and they are responsible for many of today’s emissions!” he said.

“Putting corporates in the driving seat for climate negotiations is like putting Dracula in a blood bank,” concluded Asad.

That’s a good line, but don’t let his humor fool you — fossil fuel companies will do their damned best to keep their product in demand. And hey, that’s understandable, they’re companies after all, and profit is the only god that companies bow to.

But we have to wake up, and see this for what it is — an irreconcilable conflict of interests. Take dirty energy corporates out of the talks, find a workable solution, and implement is as fast as we possibly can or start looking for deals on boats.

Solar Power Today and Tomorrow

Solar power is one of the most efficient yet clean sources of energy we have access to. There are no increased fuel costs or dependencies, no ties to pollutants, and it’s both reliable and affordable. Of course, in order to harness solar power you need access to specific technology. This tech relies on either small-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, large-scale solar photovoltaic systems, or concentrating solar power (CSP) systems to capture solar energy.

Once harnessed, the system can use this solar energy to power anything you could imagine such as appliances, vehicles, consumer electronics, lighting, heat and A/C systems, and much more. When used in combination with a modern power connection (hardwired), it can even help cut your bill in half—if not down to a third of the cost.

Most people believe that solar power and the related technology to harness it is prohibitively expensive, so it remains out of their reach. However, such beliefs couldn’t be any further from the truth, as each year, all around the world, it becomes more and more affordable to make the switch.

How Affordable is Solar Energy?

One of the most common systems used to harness solar energy is a small-scale rooftop-based solar photovoltaic system. Solar capturing panels are placed on top of the roof of a residence, building, or business, and then feeds collected energy to a conversion system. Even just a small system used to be ridiculously expensive, but prices have declined considerably over the past few years. From 2010 to 2013, prices for rooftop-based PV systems have dropped more than 29%, and this includes installation costs.

When you combine falling installation costs with the promise of tax credits and money saved on energy bills, you have no shortage of reasons to get involved. Most states offer tax credits, rebates, grants, and more that could decrease the total cost of a rooftop-based PV system to below $10,000. In addition, customers are able to finance these costs through leasing agreements and power purchase contracts, the latter of which requires them to continue using the system for an extended period of time at fixed rates.

While this is all great news for consumers who are looking to power their homes, it doesn’t offer much for business owners who generally have larger structures with higher demands. The good news is that large-scale PV systems have also dropped in price, more so than household ones. In fact, large-scale systems are an average of 60 percent lower in price than residential solar systems if you take a look at the per-wattage costs.

Concentrated solar power systems (a method that uses mirrors to direct thermal energy) are much more expensive and have not seen the same reduction in prices, but they have one particular advantage over the other two types. CV systems can be used to store the sun’s energy as they collect heat, which means they are still capable of producing electricity when there’s no sunlight.

Where Can Solar Energy Be Used, and Where is it Most Efficient?

Considering solar energy relies on a good supply of sunlight and UV rays, it’s not exactly efficient everywhere. In the United States, southwestern regions are the most reliable as the sun often shines the strongest there. Even so, in areas where sunlight is not as prominent, the amount available for energy generation only varies by less than 30 percent across the entire country. In laymen’s terms, it can be used pretty much anywhere with a small reduction in total energy generation in areas with less sunlight.

For example: a solar panel array installed in Portland, Maine would generate only about 85% of the energy that a similar system would produce out in California, 95% of the total energy it would generate in Miami, and 6% more than it would in Houston, Texas.

The typical efficiency rating for a single solar panel is about 11-15%, depending on where it’s installed. To break it down, this rating measures the percentage of sunlight that hits the panel, which can be turned into usable energy. While that may seem low at the onset, consider that a system generally uses a multitude of panels working in tandem. In this respect, a rooftop-based panel system can generate enough energy to power an entire home from top to bottom throughout the day. Since most consumer based solar systems are photovoltaic, they do not store or produce energy at night when the sunlight is gone.

As for how the system works in tandem with traditional power, it’s set up like this: If your solar energy system produces more power during the day than you consume, the excess energy is sold back to the grid as “store credit.” On days or nights where you use more energy, this store credit is purchased back from the grid. If you produce much more on average and you have lots of extra energy at the end of the month, it carries over to the next, just like roll-over minutes for a cell phone.

How Fast is Solar Energy Use Expanding?

Thanks to the ever-lower barriers to entry, increased reliability in newer solar energy systems, and the rising costs of traditional power consumption, the industry is growing exponentially. Back in 2009, Al Gore had the right of it when he said that solving climate change with renewable energy constitutes the “single biggest business opportunity in history.”

From 2010 to 2013, the amount of solar photovoltaic systems installed in the US jumped more than 485%. By 2014, the United States had more than 480,000 total solar systems installed, which produced up to 13,400 megawatts (MW). To put that into perspective, it’s enough to power nearly 2.4 million US households.

It’s not just consumers looking into solar power, either. Many businesses and companies have installed solar energy systems to improve their efficiency and lower their total operating costs. The installed capacity of photovoltaic systems in the US commercial sector grew from about 2,000 megawatts in 2010 to well over 6,000 megawatts in 2013.

The commercial world is beginning to see the light. So to speak.

What Must Be Done to Continue This Growth?

All that aside, even with recent growth there’s no guarantee that solar energy will continue this upward trend in usage. There are a handful of things that must be done in order to ensure the industry continues to see this same level of innovation and growth.

States that offer solar support should do their best to maintain and better regulate the use of renewable energy. That is, they must ensure that solar powered systems continue to offer the same cost benefits, if not more so. Perhaps more legislation should be put into place to encourage and support the use of these systems in modern homes and businesses. To add to this, more states should consider jumping on the solar support bandwagon.

At the end of 2016, the current tax credit offered to solar energy system owners will decline from 30 percent to 10, resulting in less federal investment in the solar sector. This is one of the most important reasons why consumers and commercial owners decided to have a system installed. Hopefully, this will be remedied by the necessary parties increasing that tax break once again. If there’s anything we know about human behavior, it’s that much of it is influenced by our wallets.

The rise of energy storage technologies will help ensure that solar energy can become even more reliable, and capable of providing electricity when there’s no sunlight, or during periods of increased demand for power. But beyond that, innovation and R&D in every field of renewable energy (geothermal, anyone?), will help reduce total costs of these systems by introducing new technologies into the marketplace. From where we stand, it’s difficult to imagine where our ability to harness the natural world safely will take us in the future. There are so many endless possibilities that nearly anything could come of innovation in the market.

Dare we speak of the Dyson sphere? This long-prophesied, but still largely hypothetical power system would encase an entire star and harness most, if not all, of the power it gives off.

Who knows where we’ll be by the time something like that is produced. But until then, we’ll have to be content with baby steps.