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Posted on on February 18th, 2013
by Pincas Jawetz (

Keystone Protests Resume, But None Against Oil Imports from Nigeria?

By ANDREW C. REVKIN , February 14, 2013,

I’ve got nothing against the passions of those — including friends of mine — pushing hard to persuade President Obama not to let the Keystone XL pipeline move forward and carry bitumen from Canadian deposits to United States Gulf Coast refineries. More were arrested this week.

But that effort misses the reality that as long as oil demand is high in the United States and elsewhere, there will be environmental risks and often terrible social costs in farflung and loosely governed places.

A case in point is the Niger River delta, which for decades has been tapped for its large crude reserves. Even though United States oil imports from Nigeria have been dropping, the country still vies with Iraq for fifth place on the Energy Department’s top-ten list of importers. The country is an absolute mess when it comes to the impacts of the oil boom on both nature and people.

This is illustrated starkly in a slide show and post on the Lens Blog showcasing photographer Samuel James’s images of communities that illegally tap pipelines and refine fuels from pirated oil. (There are more in Harper’s Magazine). Here’s one photo:

In a dying swamp forest in the Niger Delta, a worker pours crude oil on a fire to begin the refining process. Entire camps can easily, and often do, explode when the fumes produced during the refining process catch fire.
Samuel James for Harper’s Magazine In a dying swamp forest in the Niger Delta, a worker pours crude oil on a fire to begin the refining process. Entire camps can easily, and often do, explode when the fumes produced during the refining process catch fire.

Read the Energy Information Administration briefing on Nigeria and you’ll see that all that production hasn’t done much for the citizens of the country. More than 80 percent of energy still comes from burning wood or other biomass despite the oil and gas boom.

And please look back at the powerful feature story written for The Times by Adam Nossiter in 2010, when the oil concern here in the United States was not Keystone, but the Gulf of Mexico rig disaster and gusher. Here’s a relevant excerpt, focusing on the views of those living in the Niger River delta:

Though their region contributes nearly 80 percent of the government’s revenue, they have hardly benefited from it; life expectancy is the lowest in Nigeria.

President Obama is worried about that one,” Claytus Kanyie, a local official, said of the gulf spill, standing among dead mangroves in the soft oily muck outside Bodo. “Nobody is worried about this one. The aquatic life of our people is dying off. There used be shrimp. There are no longer any shrimp.”

In the distance, smoke rose from what Mr. Kanyie and environmental activists said was an illegal refining business run by local oil thieves and protected, they said, by Nigerian security forces. The swamp was deserted and quiet, without even bird song; before the spills, Mr. Kanyie said, women from Bodo earned a living gathering mollusks and shellfish among the mangroves….

The spills here are all the more devastating because this ecologically sensitive wetlands region, the source of 10 percent of American oil imports, has most of Africa’s mangroves and, like the Louisiana coast, has fed the interior for generations with its abundance of fish, shellfish, wildlife and crops.

Local environmentalists have been denouncing the spoliation for years, with little effect. “It’s a dead environment,” said Patrick Naagbanton of the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development in Port Harcourt, the leading city of the oil region. [Read the rest.]

Following his State of the Union address, the president outlined fresh steps to curtail American demand for oil, along with increased domestic production.

I think this approach makes sense. There’s much, much more that can be done to cut energy waste here on many fronts and there are plenty of signs that most Americans strongly support such a push — if someone leads the way. Obama can do that, if he moves from the occasional speech to making this a prime imperative for the nation.

And I would rather have the oil that we do use coming increasingly from responsibly managed and regulated sources here than the ends of the Earth and countries where oil wealth benefits few and the costs of extraction are borne by many.

Climate Change February 13, 2013.

Obama’s Path from Rhetoric to Reality on Energy and Climate

President Obama during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Doug Mills/The New York Times President Obama during his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

On energy and human-driven global warming, President Obama’s State of the Union address (and the background sheet providing detail behind the talking points) had something for everyone, making it hard — outside of a couple of specific proposals — to figure out how much action might follow the smoothly delivered rhetoric.

His statements about steps to address climate change were hailed by self-described “climate hawks” even though they were accompanied by lines like this one, clearly targeted at a different audience:

[M]y administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. That’s got to be part of an all-of-the-above plan.

He included strong, and predictable, language pledging to use executive authority on various fronts to restrict greenhouse gases in the absence of new laws from Congress. (The best primer on what’s possible using that power is by Bill Becker and the Presidential Climate Action Project.)

[7:26 p.m. | Updated | Much more background on the administration’s energy and climate policies has been distributed now.]

As Obama hit the road to press his agenda on Wednesday, Americans were posting thousands of questions through a White House “Ask Obama” invitation to participate on Thursday in a Google+ “Fireside Hangout” with the president. Here’s the question I posted tonight:

A Dot Earth Question for President Obama on Energy and Climate

Most Americans, even many unconcerned by global warming, want energy thrift, safe gas drilling, more science and resilience to climate extremes, whatever the cause. Why not tour the nation to enlist this force and overcome edge-driven politics?

What would you ask?

Feb. 16, 4:13 p.m. |Update

President Obama’s Hangout took place and includes references to climate change (noted via Climate Progress):

Here’s a relevant line: The truth is if you produce power using old power plants, you’re going to be emitting more carbon — but to upgrade those plants, energy’s going to be a little bit more expensive, at least on the front end. At the core, we have to do something that’s really difficult for any society to do, and that is to take actions now where the benefits are coming down the road, or at least we’re avoiding big problems down the road.


Fracking is the only way to achieve Obama climate change goals, says senior scientist.

Boosting natural gas production could provide a ‘bridge fuel’ and cut carbon emissions


    A coal-fired power plant, in Winfield, West Virginia, US. Photograph: Paul Souders/Getty Images

    America will only achieve the ambitious climate change goals outlined by President Barack Obama last week by encouraging wide-scale fracking for natural gas over the next few years. That is the advice of one of the nation’s senior scientists, Professor William Press, a member of the president’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

    Fracking – known officially as hydraulic fracturing – involves pumping high-pressure water through underground rocks to release natural gas trapped deep underground. It is believed that there are vast reserves of these subterranean gas fields across the US.

    Thousands of wells have already been drilled in Texas, leading to a substantial rise in the use of natural gas in the US and a major decline in the burning of coal, a far more serious cause of carbon pollution. However, fracking is also controversial. Environmentalists say it can lead to the contamination of underground water reservoirs and the pollution of the surface with chemicals used to help to release subterranean gas stores. They also point out that burning natural gas releases carbon dioxide.

    However Press, who is president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science , said last week that natural gas obtained through fracking had potential to help mitigate climate change. “Coal is burnt to provide the US with almost half its electricity. This is done in huge central power plants and the process is very dirty. By contrast, the burning of natural gas is clean and can be done in smaller, local, more efficient power station,” said Press.

    “For the amount of heat you produce, coal is, effectively, three times more powerful an emitter of carbon dioxide than natural gas. Relying on gas will therefore cut our carbon emissions substantially.”

    An astrophysicist by training, Press has turned to biology to use his talents at dealing with astronomical data in order to help researchers cope with the vast information sets generated by genome sequencing machines and other devices. He was speaking in Boston, where more than 8,000 delegates and 1,000 journalists have gathered for the association’s annual meeting this weekend.

    His opening address focused on the need to provide proper funding for basic research – “the cornerstone of science”, as he put it. However, his remarks on climate change – made in a separate interview with the Observer – provided the most intriguing part of his message.

    In his state of the union address on Tuesday, Obama said he intended to be resolute in curbing emissions of carbon dioxide in the US – something that he had failed to do in his first term.

    “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change,” Obama said. “The fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and floods – all are now more frequent and intense.” And the culprit, he made clear, was the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by cars, power plants and factories.

    Emissions would have to be cut back drastically, though Obama was not clear how this would be done. Republican intransigence makes it unlikely he will get congressional approval for cutbacks, as he acknowledged. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” he said. “I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future.”

    The exact nature of that executive action was not defined. However, Press is convinced that encouraging fracking and boosting natural gas production would provide the US with “a bridge fuel” that would allow it to slash carbon emissions in the short term and give the nation time to build wind and other renewable energy sources. “The gas industry is straining to develop underground natural gas reserves across the nation and would love to know the exact rules and constraints by which it can carry out fracking in different states. Once they know that, they can get on with it.”

    The president could use executive orders to outline those rules in the very near future and so initiate widespread gas fracking in the US, added Press. By ensuring there were powerful regulations to protect the environment from such drilling, he would also be able to reassure campaigners that it would not cause widespread damage. Fracking would become widespread as a result.

    “Rising use of natural gas in the US has already produced a major effect,” said Press. “Our carbon emissions have been cut back to their 1994 level because gas is already taking over from coal as a fuel for generating electricity.” With more drilling for underground natural gas, deeper cuts in carbon emissions would give the US more time to introduce longer-term renewable energy sources.

    The idea of using natural gas to remove coal as a power source has gone down badly with mining companies. But Press said: “In the past, when coal seemed cheap, they complained free market forces should allow them to expand. But those forces are turning on them. So they should have no complaints,” he said.

    However, the claim that natural gas is helping to cut back on US greenhouse gas emissions is questioned by some environmentalists. Greenpeace says no proper analysis has been done on gas leakage from fracking sites. In particular, there is a fear that methane – which is a far more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – may be escaping from wells and adding to the warming of the atmosphere. Campaigners also claim that there have been more than 1,000 cases of groundwater contamination in the US because of fracking and have urged a moratorium on underground drilling.

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