Dear Fossil Fuel, I want a divorce!

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Dear Fossil Fuel,

There is no easy way to do this, so I’ll just say it: I want a divorce!

Writing this letter is very painful for me, but the contents will not come as a great surprise to you. Our relationship has been wondrous at times, with ups and downs like every marriage. But you’ve been abusive for too long and pushed me to the limit. It’s taken decades of counselling to build up the courage to leave you, but after 300 years together I’ve decided it is time I grew up and faced the future as a responsible adult.

Let me start by saying: I don’t think you ever had evil intentions at heart. Your character flaws are in your basic chemistry, and that’s not your fault. You’ve had a difficult life, unloved by all except me. Your parents – Sun and Earth – were ashamed of you. Having conceived and given birth to you by accident millions of years ago, they locked you away in the cupboard under the stairs, out of sight and out of mind. So full you were of harmful chemicals, they probably felt they had no choice, to give their other offspring the best possible chance to thrive.

But once I released you from your geological tomb, how you made up for lost time with your fiery character! We achieved things together that I could not have imagined before we met. Side by side, we reshaped the landscape; we built great cities and connected them with infrastructure that spanned continents; we fought and won epic wars (admit it, you were often the cause of them!); we created a vast empire that left no corner of the globe untouched. Put simply, we lived tens of thousands of lifetimes in three short centuries. I owe virtually all of my success to you, which is why I write these words with such a heavy heart.

My parents were uneasy about our union from the early days. Oh, they could see how much fun we were having together – how your intensity captivated me! – but they worried that our relationship was growing at the expense of everything else in my life. It’s easy to see it now: I was becoming dependent on you, even addicted, blind to the damages we wrought, losing sight of what was important. Because of you I lost all respect for my mother, Nature.

With you egging me on, I became lazy and conceited. I didn’t stop to worry how I was growing, only that I grew. And I grew! As time passed, I hardly noticed how overweight I had become. No, morbidly obese! I’d developed this habit of consuming unnecessary stuff in vast quantities, more wants than needs. So wasteful of mother’s inheritance – much of it gone, forever – such regret … gradually I lost all interest in my appearance, as together we created such waste! I’ll admit, at the time it was childishly good fun, but I realise now, as I spend more and more of my energy cleaning up your mess, it must stop!

Frequently – and this is my greatest shame – I also lost sight of my duty to take care of my father, Society, who has long struggled with episodes of ill-health. On the surface he appeared OK, but underneath the neglect was evident, as his recent violent outbursts testify. (In fact, I would be surprised if our relationship were not the direct cause of much his sickness, though I know you will protest your innocence!) Of course, I would not even exist were it not for mother and father. I’m determined to make up for lost time and place their needs first and foremost from now on.

I know what you’re going to say: “I can change!” I’ve heard it so many times. Yes, I know you’ve become more efficient over the years, and tried to clean up your act. But everything is relative – you too have grown so much larger (OK, it’s partly my fault) that all your efforts to improve yourself have been trumped! And you’ve become so risky lately. You used to be dependable, easy-going – I liked the sense of security that you gave me. But over the last 30 or 40 years you’ve become so volatile and unreliable. I can see the writing on the wall: you probably are going to change, but not for the better! It’s only a matter of time before you blow up again, and set me back another few years. I just can’t take it any more.

And now for my confession: I’ve met someone else. He’s not as powerful as you – not at the moment – but he’s got some really interesting ideas how we can develop together in totally different ways. He’s very smart, not all brute force like you – he thinks you’re incredibly primitive, and I’m coming to realise he’s probably right! He doesn’t smell (oh, your awful smells!), never leaves any mess lying around, refuses to draw us into debt (he doesn’t know the meaning of the word!) and he gets the job done so much more efficiently than you ever did. Granted, he’s not always there by my side (he travels the world), but he has a wonderful network of like-minded friends that are always hugely supportive.

I know this will come as a bombshell for you: he’s your younger sibling, Solar Flux. Sun and Earth are so proud! My parents love him, too – he’s got big plans how we can attend to their needs and make up for all my past misdemeanours. Mother wonders why I left him in the first place for you all those years ago. But as I keep reminding her, our marriage was not all bad. Some of the amazing things we accomplished have made me what I am today – without that, I couldn’t begin to imagine a successful future with Solar Flux. Thanks to you, I’ve learned so much. But I was a child when we met. I’ve grown up, come through a tricky adolescence, and now I’m ready to move on.

I realise this divorce is probably going to cost me, in the short-term financial sense. But in the long-term, I know that I will grow even stronger in this new relationship and lead a much more vibrant and meaningful life without you. No doubt, this will be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, but it is one I can no longer postpone. If I avoid this decision now, I may harm my relationship with my parents beyond repair, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

Yours no longer,

The Economy

Fracking Irresponsible Development

A year ago, I asked a middle manager at a multi-national liquid fuels company why its sustainability report didn’t contain any discussion of peak oil.  He shot back with a withering “I think we’ve got beyond that.”  I believe he was right, though not in the way he intended.  

Amidst all the outcry and outrage provoked by the prospect of fracking natural gas from the Karoo, insufficient thought has been given to how the fossil fuel resource is intended to be used.  What’s the real motivation behind Big Oil’s attempts to get its hands on those methane molecules?

Energy, of course!  You know, the Energy Dilemma?  The world needs more energy with less CO2, so “we are producing more cleaner-burning natural gas and using advanced technologies to develop new resources” – it says it right there in Shell’s 2010 Sustainability Report.

But let’s examine that statement carefully.  There’s nothing factually incorrect in what Shell says.  Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, and Shell (and many of its Big Oil brethren) is producing more of it year after year.  However, there’s something about the choice of language that might be opportunist at best, disingenuous at worst.

First, it’s hard to take at face value the notion that Shell’s steady drift into natural gas is the result of a deliberate strategic decision to turn away from dirtier fossil fuels.  Consider that the company’s relative growth in gas has occurred over the same period of time that it was investing heavily in the Albertan tar sands.  Far easier to swallow is the idea that Shell has simply not been very successful at finding conventional oil resources – recall the reserves scandal of 2004 – so that over time its portfolio has diversified in both directions: simultaneously growing in cleaner-burning natural gas and filthy bituminous hydrocarbon deposits.  The next time you meet a Shell executive, ask the question: when was the last time your company (or any other oil major, for that matter) walked away from economically-recoverable conventional oil resources because of a strategic decision to focus on natural gas?  They would have a job explaining that one to their shareholders who focus on replacement of reserves as a key indicator of company performance.  

Second – here is the crunch – what do Shell (and Sasol) have in mind for all that Karoo shale gas?  The clue lies in Qatar.  It’s based on an elegant piece of chemical process engineering whereby carbon atoms are stitched together to synthesise the longer hydrocarbon chains that comprise petrol and diesel.  The really neat thing is that, technically, you can use anything containing carbon, including cleaner-burning natural gas, filthy dirty lumps of coal, wood chips, my mother’s bathroom curtains, or even the finest Persian carpet.  The choice of feedstock informs the economics of the process – rug-to-liquids being at the high end of the cost spectrum – as well as the energy required in the conversion steps.  So flexible is this technology platform Shell gave it the label XTL, where X = any source of carbon atoms.  When X = natural gas, it’s called GTL.  Which brings us back to the Karoo.

Why does this matter?  Because in the context of our global Energy Dilemma, what’s important is maximising the energy services – heating, cooling, lighting, mobility, communications – delivered to society while minimising the associated CO2 emissions.  This is where the term “cleaner-burning” appears disingenuous.  True enough, GTL diesel fuel burns with lower sulphur dioxide, lower nitrous oxides, and lower particulate matter than conventional oil-based diesel (based on current fuel quality standards).  This is directionally beneficial in terms of improving urban air quality.  However, exactly the same is true of coal-to-liquids diesel, or rug-to-liquids diesel; the “cleaner-burning” character of natural gas has precisely nothing to do with it.

In terms of CO2 – the most important form of pollution wrapped up in this Energy Dilemma – GTL is essentially no better than regular fuel.  Which is to say: it’s considerably worse, because by far the most rational use of natural gas in addressing the more-energy-with-less-CO2 conundrum is using it to displace carbon-intensive coal to generate lower-CO2 electricity.  In parallel, by investing in electromobility, we simultaneously do away with those nasty tailpipe emissions at a stroke.  If instead we allow natural gas molecules to enter the liquid transport fuel supply via GTL plants, we pointlessly fritter away all the carbon advantage inherent in the resource.  From a climate change mitigation perspective any decision to follow the GTL path is nothing less than irresponsible.

Then again, the potential use of natural gas as a lower carbon bridging fuel in the struggle against rising CO2 emissions was never the driving force behind Big Oil’s attempts to open up the Karoo.  They are not in the electricity business, they are in the liquid transport fuels business.  All forms of energy are not the same.  For them, the Energy Dilemma is about securing more hydrocarbon resources and leveraging their enormous chemistry sets to create synthetic petrol and diesel that will be set on fire in desperately inefficient motor vehicles.  I think we’ve got beyond that.