Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Story of Channukah - A Modern Day Parable

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." - Margaret Mead

I recognize that the story of Channukah is not the average fodder for a sustainability blog, but sometimes, what's old is new again.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, here it is in a nutshell. Around 2200 years ago Antiochus IV, fresh from an unfinished war with Egypt and fairly peeved about a rebellion in Jerusalem, ordered his army to ransack the Jewish Temple and force the jews to partake in idol worship. A small group of rebels led by Judah Maccabee and his brothers fled to the hills and basically engaged in guerrilla warfare eventually turning back and defeating the 40,000 plus army and retaking the city. Sort of "300" with a menorah if you will. When they finally got back into the temple, they found that the menorah, which was a ceremonial lamp, had only enough pure oil for one day. They lit it, and the oil lasted for eight days, just long enough for them to make more.

It's interesting to me that after all these years, we're sort of right back where we started from. Back in the day the problem was that Antiochus had sacked the city and ruined the temple. Well today, the problem is that we have sacked the planet and ruined our environment. By burning fossil fuels with reckless abandon, we have not only altered the atmosphere, but we have created political instability and caused peoples all over the world to suffer so that we may have cheap power.

They found one nights worth of oil and miraculously it lasted for eight nights. We're presently at or nearing peak oil. And for those who don't agree, ask yourself this. If it takes 100,000,000 years for oil to form, and we are pulling it out of the ground at an ever increasing rate, isn't the question when we are going to run out, not if. And if that is the question, perhaps we should not hope for an "8 day" miracle, but demand that our government work towards switching us to renewable energy now before it does run out.

So all that seems a little dark, I hear ya, dark, but true. But the greatest part of the story to me is that a small group of plucky brothers led an untrained militia and defeated one of the greatest armies on the planet. Why? Because they were fighting for something that they believed in, something they were passionate about, something important. That to me is what makes the Channukah story relevant today. There are huge seemingly insurmountable obstacles ahead of us, but if we band together and show others the way, our voices will be heard. It's going to take action, and I believe that we have not only the will but the power to see this through.

Who knows, in 2000 years, maybe they'll add on a postscript to the story and talk about how close we came.

Thanks to my Dad for sending me "A Green Menora" by Arthur Waskow that got me thinking along this track.

Live Sustainably


1 comment:

Doug said...

Greg Palast on Hubbert's Peak: what about it is bogus; what about it is not bogus (from Armed Madhouse):

[W]e really should take a look at the theory that we went into Iraq to get its oil. A ride up “Hubbert’s Peak” will allow a clearer view of the real topic of this chapter: the geo-politics of petroleum.

On March 7, 1956, geologist M. King Hubbert presented a research paper that would, a half century later, become the New Gospel of Internet Economics, the Missing Link that would Explain It All from the September 11 attack to the invasion of Iraq.

In his 1956 paper, Hubbert wrote:

"On the basis of the present estimates of the ultimate reserves of world petroleum and natural gas, it appears that the culmination of world production of these products should occur within a half a century [i.e., by 2006]."

So get in your Hummer and take your last drive, Clive. Sometime during 2006, we will have used up every last drop of crude oil on the planet. We’re not talking “decline” in oil from a production “peak,” we’re talking “culmination,” completely gone, kaput, dead out of crude-and not enough natural gas left to roast a weenie. In his 1956 treatise, Hubbert wrote that Planet Earth could produce not a drop more than one and a quarter trillion barrels of crude.

We obtain a figure of about 1,250 billion barrels for the ultimate potential reserves of crude oil of the whole world. That’s the entire supply of crude that stingy Mother Nature bequeathed for human use from Adam to the end of civilization. Indeed, our oil-lusting world will have consumed, by the end of 2006, about 1.2 trillion barrels of oil. Therefore, by Hubbert’s calculation, we’re finished; maybe in the very week you read this book we’ll suck the planet dry. Then, as Porky Pig says, “That’s all, folks!”

But the pig ain’t sung yet. Planes still fly, lovers still cry and smog-o-saurus SUVs still choke the LA freeway. Why aren’t our gas tanks dry? Hubbert insisted Arabia could produce no more than 375 billion barrels of oil. Yet, Middle Eastern oil reserves remaining today total 734 billion barrels. And those are “proven” reserves-known and measured, not including the possibility of a single new oil strike or field extension. Worldwide, ready-to-go reserves total 1.189 trillion barrels-and that excludes the world’s two biggest untapped fields, which could easily double the world reserve. (One is in Iraq, the other we get to in Chapter 4 of our new book Armed Madhouse: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Class War)

In all fairness to the Hubbert Heads, there’s a more sophisticated, updated version of Hubbert’s theory. This is where the “peak” concept comes in. In this version of the Hubbert scripture, we ignore his dead wrong prediction of total crude available and look only at the up and down shape of his curve, the “peak.” The amount of oil discovered each year, Hubbert posited, will stop rising by 2000, then will crash rapidly toward zero when we will have used up our allotted 1.25 trillion barrels. We haven’t crashed or even peaked. Oil production has risen year after year after year and discoveries have more than kept pace.

Nevertheless, like believers undaunted by the failure of alien spaceships to take them to Mars on the date predicted, Peak enthusiasts keep moving the date of the oil apocalypse further into the future. In the new, revisionist models of Hubbert’s prediction, the high point in the curve of discoverable oil on our planet will come in a decade or so. Though we have a reprieve, goes the new theory, still, we’re running out of crude, dude! There’s only another twenty years left in proven reserves! Oh, my!

“It’s true that there’s only twenty years’ supply left-and that’s been true for the last hundred years,” Lewis Lapham told me over a decent sauterne at Five Points. (He more often sups at Elaine’s, but I don’t rate that.) Lapham of Harper’s magazine is the only editor in the hemisphere with hard knowledge of the petroleum market, insight he inherited legitimately: His family helped found Mobil Oil, the back half of what is now Exxon Mobil.

He asked, “Why in the world would oil companies, or any company, announce that there’s lots of its product out there? You’d bust your own market. It’s better to say the cupboard’s bare.” As Lapham noted, we have been “running out of oil” since the days we drained it from whales. OPEC’s big headache before the war shut down Iraq’s fields was that there was way too much oil. We were swimming in it and oil prices stayed low. The last thing oil companies want is more oil from Iraq, any more than soybean farmers want more soybeans from Iraq.

Increasing supply means decreasing price.

This war is about the oil, but what about the oil? The Hubbert Peaksters think they know. They are convinced that Dick Cheney in his bunker is panicked that the world’s supply of oil is about to run out, and so to Iraq we go, to seize the last of it. Here’s the flaw in that argument: To believe that George Bush and Dick Cheney hustled us into Iraq to open up that nation’s untapped bounty of petroleum is to believe that these two oil Texans in the White House are deeply troubled that the price of oil will rise unless they get us more crude.

But Dick and George get a rise out of the rise.

Have we peaked? The planet is producing today twice as much as the maximum predicted in 1956 by the “Peaking Man.” But the political uses of holy-shit-we’re-running-out-of-oil! has yet to peak. Indeed, Bush and Cheney are more than happy to allow others to promote Hubbert Peak hysteria in the public. “We need Iraq’s oil” is used as a good bogeyman to get the public behind an invasion that promises to get Americans a fill-up for the family gas guzzler for less than a hundred dollars. Anti-war progressives seized on the Hubbert humbug as proof that Bush’s invasion was a war of “Blood for Oil.” Nuns, professors and rock stars were outraged. But the average American thinks, Blood for oil? That’s a BARGAIN.

The Shell Game

Hubbert’s predictions may have been astonishingly wrong but his little forty-page research report is, nevertheless, astonishingly important in understanding the mindset of Big Oil.

Almost everything you need to know about Hubbert and the agenda behind his crucial 1956 study is contained on its cover page. The oil doomsday pronouncement is “Publication No. 95, Shell Development Company, Houston, Texas.” Hubbert was the chief Consultant on general geology for Shell Oil and his “end of oil” paper was presented to the Texas meeting of the American Petroleum Institute. All else flows therefrom.

Every once in a while the landlords of the planet have to remind us to be grateful for their services. In 1956 it was Shell Oil’s turn and Hubbert was their man for the job. It was not a happy time for the oilmen of Texas. Shell and the other Seven Sisters, as Big Oil was then known, faced a heck of a problem: crude was cheaper than dirt -- $2.77 a barrel, that is, a nickel a gallon-and sinking. Worse, they were finding more of the stuff all over the planet, meaning prices would fall further. In March of that year, Hubbert presented the solution to his fellow oilmen at the API in Houston. He unveiled this magical chart, which you can view here in its original form as a public service. [You'll have to see it in the book!-Doug]

The total sum of oil is 1,250 billion barrels -- which runs out in 2006.

This chart assumed a low annual burn of oil.

Look closely. When Hubbert spoke, oil reserves worldwide were zooming heavenward. Despite the tide of petroleum rising around us, Hubbert declared that oil discoveries in the USA had begun to peak “as recently as 1951 or 1952″ and that the world’s reserves would follow not long thereafter. He didn’t need to wink. His oil industry audience understood what oil giant Shell wanted America to believe: Oil isn’t abundant, it’s a scarce commodity and therefore…

1. It’s too cheap -- so oil companies should, for the public’s own good, raise the price to conserve this precious resource.

2. We need to find an abundant alternative to fossil fuel.

3. We need to protect our access to dwindling sources of crude, by force if necessary.

Shell Oil, through Hubbert, sought, successfully, to change the way America thought of oil’s price, alternatives to oil and access to oil.

PRICE: The problem of falling oil prices was solved for Shell, brilliantly, in four years, in 1960, by the creation of OPEC. On paper, OPEC was created by national governments. If oil companies had created this cartel to fix prices, that would have made it a criminal conspiracy-cartels are illegal. But when governments conspire for the same purpose, the illegal conspiracy turns into a legitimate “alliance” of sovereign states. OPEC’s government cover makes the price-fixing perfectly legal, and Big Oil reaps the rewards.

ALTERNATIVES: As to replacing fossil fuels, Hubbert had the answer: Limitless nuclear power. His 1956 paper is not called “Peak Oil.” Its title is “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.” His let’s-go-nuclear chart, call it “Hubbert’s Plateau,” is usually ignored. You can view it here. [You'll have to see it in the book!-Doug]

Note that Hubbert envisions a high, flat plateau of nuclear energy outstripping fossil fuels by the twenty-first century, providing us a comfy, electric economy for five thousand years. Hubbert’s Uranium Reich was longer than anything the Führer could have imagined. Who would supply all this nuclear fuel? Lucky for us that Hubbert’s company, Royal Dutch Shell, was about to announce the formation of its new mega-venture, “URENCO,” a uranium enrichment consortium.

ACCESS: Protecting our access to petroleum, a “peaking” resource, was Shell Oil’s urgent message. Hubbert’s paper was published in June 1956, not long after the CIA overthrew Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh for having nationalized Shell’s and BP’s assets. The paper was released just one month before Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s President, seized the Suez Canal, the oil tanker passageway, and just months before a British-French-Israeli invasion force took it back. Hubbert’s Peak thinking helped provide a justification for war over this “strategic resource.”

Have we peaked? Worldwide oil reserves continue to rise even faster than America and China can burn it. Since 1980, reserves, despite our binge-guzzling, have risen from 648 billion to 1.2 trillion barrels. Yet, weirdly, despite the rising flood of discovered crude, its price quadrupled between 2001 and 2005. Supply choked, yet there’s no peak in sight. Behind this slow in the flow of crude:

*This bit of bother in OPEC’s second-largest reserve (Iraq)

*Putin’s cutting off financing to, then his seizing of, Russian producer Yukos Oil, reducing its output.

*U.S.-promoted sabotage of oil piping, loading and refining systems in Venezuela; and, not least of all,

*the Saudis sitting on their spigots.

The oil squeeze tightened after the Bush Administration, beginning with the energy bill of 2001, abandoned conservation and encouraged a monstrous jump of two million barrels a day in U.S. oil consumption.

So please don’t slander Mother Earth and say she’s run out of oil when it’s man-made mischief to blame. Evil, not geology, has a chokehold on energy; nature is ready to give us crude at $12 a barrel where it was just a few short years ago.

Why Palast Is Wrong -- and why the oil companies don’t want you to know it

Now that I’ve convinced you that the Peak Oil crowd is crackers, let me disagree with myself. We can’t understand the new class war unless we understand why oil, a certain kind at least, has in fact “peaked.”

We’ve long jumped over Hubbert’s predicted peak and, in 2006, rolled our SUVs right through the “culmination”- that is, used the last drops of the one-and-a-quarter-trillion barrels of liquid crude the good Earth can provide according to the Hubbert jeremiad. Furthermore, “The rise in the production of power from nuclear energy for the United States” ran out long before uranium’s five-thousand-year reign, despite Hubbert’s hope and prediction. Except for a couple of unhappy decades’ experimental folly with “reactors for peace,” nuclear power is pretty much an irradiated corpse. The Shell/Hubbert predictions were dead wrong. Those are the facts.

But Hubbert was also deadly right. We are indeed running out of oil. There’s no contradiction here. We have to distinguish between an economist’s concept of “running out” and a scientist’s.

To an economist, every commodity is finite. We are running out of oil and we are running out of copper, aluminum foil, birdbaths, pickles, lumber, clean air, Frappucinos, chocolate, tongue rings, lollipops, silver, cow-shaped milk dispensers, Dylan retrospectives and sand. That is why economics is called “the dismal science.” Limits and scarcity are economists’ bread and butter. There’s a limited supply of every commodity. (And that is why love is not a commodity, as John Lennon noted, because the more you consume, the more you create.) On the other hand, unlike geologists and evangelical ministers, economists believe all commodities can be created as needed. There is an unlimited abundance of anything-oil, copper, hemorrhoid ointment, nose jobs or pornographic balloons. We can even manufacture real estate. (Think of the creation of Holland by landfill or the artificial habitation known as Los Angeles created by draining most of the Colorado River into the desert.)

The number one theorem of economics is that we are running out of everything and yet we can have as much as we want of anything. Again, there’s no contradiction. All commodities are scarce and abundant at the same time. The difference between scarcity and abundance is price. You can get anything, in any amount, if you are willing to pay any price. (See Los Angeles, above.)

Back to Hubbert. His report was used in the cynical Shell Oil game to scare us into Middle Eastern conflicts, drilling tax subsidies and nuclear power. On its face, it was stone cold manipulative nonsense, measurably so. But we are running out of a certain kind of oil nevertheless: cheap oil. That is, we are coming to the end of the stuff we can pump at a low cost, the easy oil that practically jumps out of the ground. When we bring price into the equation, Hubbert was correct -- technically. Oil production did peak in the 1970s-for a certain type of oil. Re-read Hubbert. When he wrote his analysis, oil was selling below $3 a barrel, just over $20 in today’s dollars, and falling. Therefore, as prices declined further, we’d run out. We did. We’ve pretty much run out of new oil fields we can “lift” for $20 a barrel. Even the cheapest untapped fields in the world -- not coincidentally in Iraq -- will cost more than the “Hubbert price” to suck up and pipe out.

At low prices, there’s not much oil. As prices rise, so does supply.

It’s not magic. At $30 a barrel, Oklahoma stripper wells are worth reopening, drilling in the Gulf of Mexico becomes profitable in 3,000 feet of water, Kazakhstan’s crude is worth piping out even with the high cost of transportation and bribes.

To simplify: World oil reserves, officially measured at 1.189 trillion barrels, are probably, as one of Mr. Hubbert’s protégés stated a few years back, grossly overstated -- if you assume oil selling at $10 a barrel. But kick the price up to a post-invasion $50 a barrel, and the world reserves are wildly understated.

Reserves are the measure of oil recoverable at a certain price. Raise the price, raise the reserve. Cut the price and the amount of oil in the ground drops. In other words, it’s a fool’s errand to measure the “amount of oil we have left.” It depends on the price. At $9 a barrel (the price in 1998), we’ve peaked. It’s over. All gone. But at $70 a barrel (reached in the third year of the Iraq occupation), miracles happen. Oil gushes forth like manna. How much more? If you are willing to pay $70 a barrel -- and apparently you are -- it’s worth it to melt sand and drain out the petroleum. Indeed, the “tar sands” of Alberta, Canada, hold 280 billion barrels of oil -- for enough high octane to run our Humvees for a century. Canada’s tar oil reserves are, notably, about 15% higher than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia. It’s not pie-in-the-sky stuff. America is dependent on foreign oil -- but not from Arabia. Our biggest source of oil is Canada and half of the Canadian supply today comes from tar sands. And that will grow. How could Hubbert have missed all this oil? Answer: He didn’t. On page 20 of his famous “Peak Oil” study, he accepts that the planet can yield up 800 billion barrels of oil from tar sands equal to all the “crude” (i.e., liquid) oil we are using up.

Hubbert’s Wars

So where did Hubbert get the idea that we are running out of oil? He didn’t. He made no such prediction. Quite the opposite, he said, after predicting “the culmination of world production” by 2006, he noted, “This does not necessarily imply that the United States or other parts of the industrial world will soon become destitute of liquid and gaseous fuels…”

So what’s going on here? This is where Hubbert brings in Canadian tar sands and heavy oils, which he correctly predicts could more than replace the cheap, easily obtainable “liquid crude” (as he calls the light stuff). And he doesn’t fail to note the location of the giant supplies of the heavy oil: “Mesopotamia” (as Iraq was then known), Brazil and Venezuela.

So what was bugging Hubbert? We have plenty of oil, it just gets heavier. He warns against drilling for it, preferring a uranium-powered future. Why? Hubbert was writing in the hottest moments of the Cold War. The U.S. overthrow of Iran’s government and the looming tension over the Suez Canal pushed America and the Soviet Union toward nuclear war -- and underneath it all was the tussle over oil. Hubbert’s peak did not identify dates we’d “run out of oil” but predicted the shift in the location of oil’s main sources -- to Iraq and Venezuela by the beginning of the twenty-first century, which had serious implications, he said, for “domestic purposes and national defense.” To avoid conflicts between the U.S. and Russia, he hoped the superpowers in conflict would turn inward, to uranium, a resource abundant in both nations. The value of Hubbert’s seminal “peak” paper was not in predicting the end of the oil era but in naming, with chilling accuracy, the date and location of our future wars.

Selling the Peak

So who’s selling us Peak Oil today? The operator of the supertanker Condoleezza has been running an extravagant advertising blitzkrieg to tell us: We’ve peaked! “The world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered!” That’s just the billboard. Their double-page spread in Harper’s is even more hysterical: “The fact is, the world has been finding less oil than it’s been using for twenty years now.”

Unfortunately, that “fact” isn’t a fact at all -- reserves rise year after year -- and those facts don’t change because Chevron paid my magazine to print it. (If Chevron is truly concerned that more oil is burnt than discovered, it might consider looking for some. The industry has cut exploration budgets from a third of production spending to an eighth. But that’s a churlish comment. Chevron is not in the business of finding oil, but finding profits.)

Ads sell. What is Chevron trying to sell us when it sells us the “peak” idea that we now use more oil than we discover? The ad says, “We need your help.” I am, I admit, flattered that a big, giant oil company would ask my assistance. What could a petroleum goliath earning $14.1 billion in a year want from me? Apparently, more money.

The new oil Chevron is finding “requires a greater investment to refine.” In other words, don’t bitch about high prices -- we need your cash to mix your next fix of crude.

The “we’re running out of oil” line still has its uses. In 2005, taking advantage of oil-shortage hysteria, the Republican Congress passed an “energy” bill that was a Petroleum Club wet dream. For example, the feds can now order cities to accept liquid natural gas ports, a boon to Big Oil’s Explosions-R-Us LNG divisions. Drilling under the caribou in Alaska is likely to follow. And, in 2006, George Bush is attempting to raise nuclear power from its crypt. In his State of the Union message, our nuke-salesman-in-chief admonished Americans for our “addiction” to oil -- which was a bit like the pusher-man sermonizing against the dangers of the needle. Unfortunately, some environmentalists have echoed the “peak oil” theorem in the false hope that oil companies’ raising prices will lead to conservation. Fat chance. Despite $50-a-barrel oil, we don’t see windmills on the Empire State Building. We will reduce oil dependency only when we have a government less dependent on oil money.

A closing note of caution: I fear that some may take my noting the super-abundance of oil remaining on the planet as approval for our using it. Far from it -- getting off the oil habit is an urgent working-class issue. First, because cheap, good air and water are in limited supply. We can’t keep pooping combustion contaminants into the sky unless expect we expect our children to grow gills that will metabolize sulfur. There’s lots of arsenic on the planet. Don’t eat it. There’s lots of oil. Don’t burn it.

Second, massive oil use is like any other addiction -- it sickens the user and only enriches the pusher; in the case of oil, that would be ExxonMobil, OPEC and Vladimir Putin. Get the petroleum needle out of our veins and we get the extra bonus of watching Citibank go through agonizing petro-dollar withdrawal.