Monkey Business

NI logoFirst Things First: The American “century” began 150 years ago today, when a salt water drill slipped into a crevice 69 feet below the surface, essentially striking oil for “Colonel” Edward Drake and the backers of his unlikely expedition. The find made Titusville, Penn., the first global capital of the oil industry.

After Drake & Co., the earliest winners in the rise of the oil industry were, of course, the whales, who had always selfishly preferred to use their illuminating oil as a buoyancy-control mechanism. But after them, hundreds of millions of people, billions, would win with oil. The small decisions of individuals, families, and businesses lifted many from subsistence agriculture to lives better than much of history’s royalty. In the process, it created what may be our thorniest “tragedy of the commons,” as Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz writes in his recent essay, “Tyranny for the Commons Man.”

Many solutions to the “tragedy” are well known and often discussed, such as the transition from oil addiction to “energy independence.” That medicine goes down only with heavy swallowing in the original Saudi Arabia of energy: Saudi Arabia. Former U.S. and U.K. ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal pens a defense of his nation during the price escalations of recent years, instead blaming, “civil strife, failed investments, or in the case of Iraq, a U.S. invasion,” and hedge fund managers. Production trends in 1998 suggested that by 2008, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, and Venezuela would together produce 18.4 million barrels per day. Last year, they managed 10.2 million barrels. Parts of his essay resonate with U.S. energy pundits, who point out that what’s attainable is “energy security,” not “energy independence,” which is much harder.

Hello, Goodbye: The article appears amid a star-studded lineup in Foreign Policy‘s Special Report, “Oil: The Long Goodbye.” Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates and author of The Prize, writes the magazine’s lead piece, and looks at new trends in the oil industry since the early 90s. Two developments dominate: the rise of oil not only as a commodity, but as a financial instrument; and the challenge of climate change.

The U.S. energy industry continues to gird for a fight in the Senate. The American Petroleum Institute funded a study [slide show pdf] that concluded climate legislation would shrink jobs and U.S. investment in the sector, which famously hasn’t built a new refinery in 30 years. These effects would cause the U.S. to demand more, not less, oil from foreign producers. In Brazil, modern wildcatters celebrated the approach of the Drake anniversary by making the biggest Western Hemisphere oil discovery in 30 years.

Look Who’s Talking: “Oil is not even the most important energy issue between China and the United States. It is coal,” Yergin says in his FP story. In a carbon-constrained global economy, the two largest polluters must find a way out of their own prisoner’s dilemma. They are working hard at it.

China and the U.S. may be tip-toeing toward some kind of deal, though it likely wouldn’t be as monumental as environmentalists hope. Developing nations are extremely unlikely to cap their greenhouse gas emissions, but might take on stronger efficiency and renewable power standards. Domestically, some Chinese firms are taking their own baby steps. This month saw the first time a Chinese company bought carbon credits, a laudable, but not earth-shattering development. (More than half of the offsets that feed into the Kyoto carbon trading system originate in China.)

China is investing in renewables at an accelerating rate, even as it builds coal-burning power plants and cars. Keith Bradsher of the New York Times continues to document these trends, this week with a look at how China is running ahead in solar power. Many news gathering operations can no longer afford to staff overseas offices, and many lack the interest in foreign news if they could. This means that there are fewer “eyes on the ground” competing with each other to explain what’s going on. In their absence, blogging observers can fill in gaps.

In international talks, as in physics, a three-body problem is always much harder than a two-body problem. India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, announced in Beijing–after the two nations’ first ministerial climate talks–that he and his counterparts agreed to coordinate their positions before major climate negotiations. They also admonished against trade protectionism of the sort included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the House in June. The Hindu notes that the only conciliatory flicker toward the West was a reference to “looking at peaking [of emissions] some time in the future.”

The international conversation is heard in Washington. Two U.S. Cabinet secretaries, Gary Locke at Commerce and Tom Vilsack at Agriculture, told visiting groups that the U.S. needs a climate bill to take to the Copenhagen negotiations in December. The administration sent a confusing signal this week to legislators. The president’s revised budget proposal maintained a line for $627 billion in income from 2012 to 2019 from the auctioning of greenhouse gas emission permits. During his presidential campaign, then-Senator Barack Obama pledged to sell all carbon credits at auction. That proved too difficult a goal for Democratic legislators in the House to meet, and the Waxman-Markey climate bill freely allocates about 85 percent of the credits.

MmmmmBiodiesel: During these hot summer weeks, nothing could be more refreshing than plunging our choppers into a juicy slice of thick, pink watermelon. And now, cars can enjoy the same simple pleasures of summer. Sort of. Perhaps watermelon diesel can be more successful than salmon diesel. Perhaps not. Either way, let’s hope fuel crops don’t take over every inch of earth, as the farmers would have to cut down their apparently still-sizable tree cover.

Inherit the Trade Wind: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a public hearing about its proposed finding that greenhouse gas accumulation presents a mortal danger to Americans. If the agency fails to do so, the Chamber is threatening “the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century,” according to William Kovacs, senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. The case would put climate science on trial in a fashion as spectacular as the proceedings that inspired the play and movie, Inherit the Wind. In 1925, school instructor John Scopes was put on trial for violating a prohibition on teaching evolution. Clarence Darrow unsuccessfully defended Scopes against William Jennings Bryan, who demonstrated to the court that evolution is Biblically false.

Credit where credit is due. With this lawsuit threat, the Chamber has opened a door not only to greater public understanding of global warming, but to a greater understanding of humanity as evolution’s current greatest show on Earth. Scientists are only beginning to understand how changing living conditions, on land, in the sea and air, could affect many of the world’s 1.8 million or so known species, for better and for worse. Arthur Weis of the University of California, Irvine, has shown that mustard seeds gathered in 1997 and preserved grow more robustly than seeds from 2004 grown under the same conditions. His conclusion: Some organisms might be able to evolve more quickly than others to changing conditions.

Let’s hope our economy is one of them.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist.