Now Is the Time to Move Beyond Petroleum

    Never before has humanity been so overwhelmed by such massive and urgent concerns; climate chaos, economic crisis and explosive population growth. According to the UN, the world's population may reach 9 billion by 2050. As a result, the world's energy needs may increase by as much as 50% in the next fifteen years.

    Source: The Huffington Post, 7 October 2010.

    Bianca Jagger delivered this speech at the ASPO-USA Peak Oil Conference on 8 October 2010.

    Today we stand at a crossroads in history. The warnings from our most respected scientists are loud and clear, yet government leaders continue to ignore the scale of the threat. According to many scientists, we have less than a decade left to address the issue of climate change before we reach the “tipping point”, or the point of no return. The earth is perilously close to dramatic climate change that threatens to spiral way out of control. Scientists now generally accept that current pledges of 20% greenhouse gas emission reductions by 2020 are inadequate given the gravity of the current situation: we have already reached the threshold of dangerous climate change. The task now is to prevent catastrophic climate chaos. Failure to act effectively is likely to precipitate cataclysmic changes that may obliterate life on earth.

    Our addiction to oil is dangerous and unsustainable. Our oil supply is finite, and the dwindling reserves simply cannot cope with our ever increasing demand. To compensate for the diminishing supply, oil companies have been attempting to reach reserves in deeper and more dangerous waters – often with environmentally catastrophic consequences.

    If we remain locked into an inefficient, polluting, fossil-fuel based global economy, we will exhaust the Earth’s natural resources, cause irreversible environmental destruction and we will accelerate climate change. This will have a disastrous impact on communities, livelihoods, ecosystems and economies across the globe; it will leave a legacy of devastation for future generations. We can not maintain this status quo. Now is the time to decide if we are willing to die for fossil fuel, or if we have the courage and commitment to move beyond petroleum and shift from conventional to renewable energies, and embark upon what I call a new Copernican Revolution. It is vital if we are to bring the atmospheric concentration of CO² back down to safe levels.

    350 ppm

    Professor James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies observed in March 2009 that “eleven of the past twelve years rank among the twelve warmest years since records began.” He is emphatic about the urgency of reducing CO² levels, stressing the fact that “the safe upper limit for atmospheric CO² is no more than 350 parts per million (ppm).” As of today the planet already has a concentration of around 387 ppm. This number is rising by around 2 ppm every year. Professor Hansen is unequivocal that: “If you leave us at 450ppm for long enough it will probably melt all the ice – that’s a sea rise of 75 metres. What we have found is that the target we have all been aiming for is a disaster – a guaranteed disaster.”

    Time is running out. We must cut carbon emissions drastically, and immediately, to reduce the levels of CO² in the atmosphere to 350 ppm. The world situation is deteriorating faster than previously anticipated. In Professor Nicholas Stern’s words “Global emissions of greenhouse gases are growing more quickly than projected; the ability of the planet to absorb those gases now appears lower than was assumed, the potential increases in temperatures due to rising gas concentrations seem higher, and the physical impacts of a warming planet are appearing at a faster rate than expected”… Professor Stern has revised his initial estimate of the cost of keeping greenhouse gases from rising to dangerous levels. His 2006 report said countries needed to spend 1% of their GDP to prevent catastrophic climate change. In June 2008 he admitted that he had underestimated the threat and increased the cost to 2% of GDP. In 2009, Professor Stern endorsed the 350 ppm target as “a very sensible long-term target.”

    A report last month warned of complacency over the huge dislocation from a terminal decline in global oil production. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

    Never before has humanity been so overwhelmed by such massive and urgent concerns; climate chaos, economic crisis and explosive population growth. According to the UN, the world’s population may reach 9 billion by 2050. As a result, the world’s energy needs may increase by as much as 50% in the next fifteen years.

    Already more volatile and destructive climatic effects are becoming apparent – as we can see from Pakistan floods and the extreme temperatures in Russia this summer. Some of the world’s poorest, most vulnerable and least able to adapt are being worst affected, with small island states such as Kiribati and the Maldives and low-lying developing countries like Bangladesh already on the ‘frontlines’. The economic costs of these have been estimated by the Global Humanitarian Forum already to be $125 billion per annum and will nearly treble to $340 billion per annum by 2030.

    Climate change is not just an environmental threat but a critical human rights issue which touches every aspect of our lives: peace, security, poverty, hunger, health, mass migration and economics.

    Peak Oil

    Scientists have been predicting Peak Oil since 1956. Until recently, these prognostications have been perceived as distant threats or some sort of myth, rather than an immediate risk. The latest warning has come from the Joint Operating Environment report from the US Joint Forces command, released in April 2010, which warns, “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels (mb) per day.” Some individual countries have already reached their peak oil moments – among them, the USA in 1970 if you exclude Alaska, the UK in 1999. But the issue is now a global one.

    The International Energy Agency (IEA) has observed a decline rate of 5.1% per annum for 580 of the world’s largest oilfields. On present trends, just to replace oil reserves that will be exhausted and to meet the growth in demand, we will need 64 mb/day of new capacity between now and 2030 – that is 6 Saudi Arabias, or roughly 1 Saudi Arabia coming on-stream every 3 years.

    Surplus oil production capacity could disappear by 2012 a report from US Joint Forces Command, says. Photograph: Katja Buchholz/Getty Images

    There are some less pessimistic voices on Peak Oil. The UK Energy Research Centre found that a peak in conventional oil production before 2030 appeared likely, but with a significant risk that it would occur in the current decade. The pessimists operate on the thesis that the peak has already occurred – Kenneth Deffreys, author of Beyond Oil, claims that oil production peaked in December 2005. The CEO of Brazilian oil giant Petrobras, Mr. Gabrielli, gave a gloomy forecast in December 2009 saying oil production would peak this year (2010) and that a new Saudi Arabia was needed every 2 years.

    In order to maintain our current consumption rates, it will take vast amounts of oilfield discovery, investment and drilling. The Peak Oil debate often suggests a steep production decline will set in past the peak, but it may actually be more about how long the oil production ‘plateau’ will last. Regardless of the exact timing of the peak – past, present or future – the critical issue is growing demand. Chinese oil demand could double by 2030. Chinese car growth at 28% per annum over the last decade would, if it carried on, mean that their vehicle fleet will overtake the USA’s by 2017. John Mitchell, Associate Fellow at Chatham House, notes an interesting ‘tipping point’ in 2015 when Asian oil import demand will exceed the Middle East’s exportable oil surplus.

    In a rather perverse way, Peak Oil may be good news. It may be good news because we are sleep-walking our way to climate disaster. Small annual increases in atmospheric CO² concentration do not give us enough of a wake-up call. Peak Oil will. Prices will spike and become volatile, supply chains may be disrupted and our entire lifestyle based upon cheap and abundant fossil fuels will come under intense pressure. We have grown used to just-in-time global production, foodstuffs being flown all around the world and car-led suburbanisation. We need to get ready for a more localised world.

    However in our desperate scramble for new oil supplies, we are making dangerous moves – to ever deeper offshore drilling and to oil exploration in the Arctic. These activities contain not only immediate risks, but their long term consequences may threaten our survival and the survival of future generations.

    Crimes against Present and Future Generations

    In their irrational pursuit for our planet’s natural resources, multinational corporations, especially oil companies, have destroyed ecosystems and marine habitats, wiped out precious biodiversity, fauna and flora, and endangered the livelihood of communities worldwide. They have caused some of the worst environmental disasters and human rights abuses happening in our world today, for the most part, with total impunity. Now, more than ever, we need to hold these companies to account and put an end to their reckless exploitation of the environment, which is threatening to destroy our way of life.

    According to a study by the Vale Centre at Columbia University, there are over 2,600 bilateral investment treaties and another 250 free trade agreements that protect multinational corporations’ business interests. These treaties are supplemented by a number of other relevant multilateral agreements and customary international law, along with complementary principles applied by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

    In response to the lack of instruments which seek to protect local communities and the environment from the potentially harmful consequences of multinationals corporations’ activities, I have been working with a number of academics and legal experts to develop a legal framework and definition of Crimes against Present and Future Generations. Such crimes are ‘acts or conduct committed with the knowledge of their severe consequences to the health, safety, or means of survival of present and future generations of humans, and also to the survival of entire species or ecosystems.’

    I would like to present to you five case studies of what could amount to Crimes against Present and Future Generations, committed by oil companies. If Crimes against Present and Future Generations were recognised, and if appropriate mechanisms had existed, these companies could have been answerable to an international court of law.

    1. BP and the Gulf

    The recent BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one such example. It was, to quote President Obama “the greatest environmental disaster of its kind in history.”

    The spill is, to date, the US’s biggest accidental oil spill, and the long term ecological impact is still unknown. Every day, for 87 days, an estimated 53,000 to 62,000 barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico waters. To put this number into some context, every five days of flow equalled the Exxon Valdez spill. By the time a containment cap was fitted on the leaking wellhead on 16 July, around 4.9 million barrels of oil had flowed into the ocean. The well was finally plugged, by drilling a relief well and pumping in cement, on 19th September. The BP oil spill has highlighted the US government’s incestuous relationship with BP and other oil companies, and the wholly inadequate regulatory oversight of the oil industry. The BP 583-page disaster response document had been so shoddily put together that it included the telephone number of an expert on sea turtles who died in 2005 and identified saving walruses (which do not live in the Gulf!). The draft response plans prepared by Exxon, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhilips in case of an oil spill in the Gulf, are much the same. BP was named by Mother Jones Magazine as one of the “ten worst corporations” in both 2001 and 2005 based on its environmental and human rights records. In 1991 BP was cited as the most polluting company in the US based on Environmental Protection Agency toxic release data. According to research conducted by the Public Interest Research Group, between January 1997 and March 1998, BP was responsible for 104 oil spills.

    Throughout the incident, BP showed an appalling lack of transparency, withheld crucial data and conducted a relentless and costly PR campaign, spending $93 million on advertising between April and June (3 times their usual expenditure on PR), in an effort to mislead the public. Initially, BP released information which estimated the spill at just 1,000 barrels of oil per day.” Only after the US government conducted its own investigation did the company grudgingly admit that a far greater amount of oil was leaking in to the ocean. The announced flow rate was increased to 5,000 barrels of oil per day at the end of April, to 12,000 by the end of May and to the eventual true range of 53,000 to 62,000 barrels per day.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that of the 4.9m barrels spilled, about 0.8m barrels were siphoned off directly from the well. The NOAA concluded that around a quarter of the oil remained, after deducting the oil that had been skimmed, chemically dispersed, evaporated, burned or naturally dispersed by helpful oil-eating bacteria. However there are considerable doubts about these estimates, which have given the public a false sense of confidence that three-quarters of the oil in the Gulf was gone. A case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Concern still remains for the ecological damage to coastlines of the underwater oil – missing oil has been found in the form of large oil plumes, one the size of Manhattan, which do not appear to be biodegrading very fast. To put it into numbers we can all understand: one quarter of the oil spill represents over 50 million (US) gallons still in the sea – and some estimates go as high as 75 million gallons.

    At the end of May, the Obama administration imposed a 6-month moratorium on deep water drilling projects. It was opposed by District Judge Martin Feldman who upheld the plaintiffs’ argument that a moratorium would have a devastating effect on employment and livelihoods in the region. The US government appealed the decision. In the meantime, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced on 12 July a new 6 month moratorium on deep-water offshore drilling. It is expected to remain in place until the end of November but has been vigorously attacked by the oil industry giants, who have secured exemptions under special circumstances, i.e. if drillers show that safety concerns have been met. Worryingly, there are still about 400,000 ‘orphaned’ and supposedly sealed oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Many of these wellheads are old, made of steel and rusting: they too pose a long-term ecological threat.

    In the wake of BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster, governments across the world are becoming increasingly concerned about deepwater drilling. The British government is currently investigating the safety of the regime in the North Sea. While this is encouraging, it is not enough. We need to establish a permanent, global moratorium on offshore drilling and have a legally binding mechanism that prohibits companies from engaging in hazardous platform oil and natural gas drilling. Yet despite this catastrophe, drilling is currently being undertaken off the coast of Greenland – an environmentally sensitive area – with Cairn Energy recently reporting oil at a depth of 500m.

    Safety for BP does not seem to be a priority. The New Orleans Times-Picayune sums it up well: “Throughout the Gulf oil spill, BP’s high-ranking officials have touted what they call the firm’s culture of safety and responsibility. But that self-proclaimed culture of safety is not what’s reflected in the shortcuts BP engineers took on the Deepwater Horizon rig, ignoring warnings and leading to the death of 11 workers and the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.”

    2. Texaco/Chevron in Ecuador

    Actress Daryl Hannah tests oily water in Ecuadorean Amazon

    Other oil giants have an equally poor human rights record. Between 1971 and 1992, Texaco embarked upon reckless oil exploration, pumping 1.5 billion barrels of oil from Ecuador. Texaco carved over 350 oil wells in a rainforest area roughly three times the size of Manhattan and dumped approximately 18.5 billion gallons of oil contaminated water into some 1,000 unlined open toxic waste pits some just a few feet from the homes of residents. Highly toxic wastewater by-products of oil extraction from these pits contaminated the entire groundwater and ecosystem in one of the world’s most valuable rainforests. As there is no running water in the region 30,000 people, including thousands of children, have no alternative but to drink, bathe, and cook with poisoned water from streams, rivers, lagoons and swamps that have been contaminated by Texaco. Texaco saved an estimated $3 per barrel of oil produced by handling its toxic waste in Ecuador in ways that were unthinkable and illegal in the US. The Cabrera Report found that Texaco’s pollution caused 2,091 cases of cancer among residents and led to 1,401 deaths from 1985 to 1998. Ecosystems have been destroyed, crops have been damaged, farm animals killed, and diseases have proliferated. This is the toxic legacy left by Texaco for future generations. A billion dollar lawsuit has been moved from U.S. courts to Ecuador as Chevron (Texaco was acquired by Chevron in 2001) seeks to delay payment and avoid facing up to its responsibilities.

    3. Nigeria

    A similar example exists in the Niger delta in Nigeria where reckless oil exploitation by Shell, Chevron, Total, ExxonMobil and Eni has led to human rights abuses, death, disease, poverty and environmental destruction. Life expectancy in the region has fallen to just over 40 years of age. According to a May 2010 report by John Vidal, environment editor of the Guardian, “more oil is spilled from the Delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico.” On 1 May, a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline spilled more than a million gallons into the Niger Delta. Local people demonstrated against the company but claim they were attacked by security guards.

    Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni tribe from the Niger Delta states: “If this Gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention. This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta. The oil companies just ignore it. The lawmakers do not care and people must live with pollution daily. The situation is now worse than it was 30 years ago. Nothing is changing. When I see the efforts that are being made in the US I feel a great sense of sadness at the double standards. What they do in the US or in Europe is very different.”

    The Nigerian government is directly involved with oil exploitation and over the years has shown no political will to regulate the oil sector. The results of a 3 year investigation into oil pollution in the area, by the UN environment programme (UNEP) were released in August 2010. The report states only 10 % of the oil pollution in Ogoniland has been caused by company negligence, and concludes that 90 % of the spills area result of local people illegally stealing oil and sabotaging pipelines. Local environmental groups argued that the study, which was paid for by Shell and commissioned by the Nigerian government, who both have massive oil interests in the region, was unbalanced.

    4. The Timor Sea

    Further East, some 3,500 fishermen in Antralamor, Indonesia are preparing to migrate to Sumatra to find a new livelihood. Their fish catches from the Timor Sea have declined drastically since the waters were polluted by a major oil spill originating in Australian territory, after an explosion on an oil rig of Thai-based oil company PTTEP Australasia in the Montara oil field in the West Atlas Block in the Timor Sea in August 2009 which took 74 days to seal. The Indonesian government is now seeking compensation from PTTEP.