Monday, June 11, 2012

Finis: The Eskimo and the Oil Man

After finishing Bob Reiss's book The Eskimo and the Oil Man -- which I heartily recommend -- I'm left with a these conclusions:
  • The melting Artic has already changed the lives of the native people who live there, who seem terribly torn about preserving their environment and traditional culture, but who already cannot live without oil revenue.
  • The melting Artic will change the nations who border the Arctic seas -- the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway, and Greenland -- and of all these the U.S. is least prepared to do for whatever is next (for example, it has yet to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty). 
  • There will definitely be offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, and probably lots of it.
  • A lot of companies around the world will make a lot of money.
  • There will be oil spills, significant spills, perhaps even Gulf-like spills that will be especially messy because the oil will mix with ice, or be trapped under the ice, or be difficult to clean up because of the cold and darkness and the weather.
  • The U.S. is beset by an especially unruly mix of corporate interests, regulatory interests, native interests, and environmental interests who combine to bring the situation to a near standstill.
  • Norway is sitting very, very pretty -- organized, rich as hell, selling as much oil as they can while taxing it heavily. (Ironically, this includes a carbon tax, whose grand purpose, I thought, was to motivate a transition off fossil fuels.) This revenue goes into a pension fund that holds about 1% of global stock equity and, on a per capita basis, would be the equivalent of over $38 trillion in the U.S. (I'll write about Norway in some upcoming post.) 
The least satisfying aspect of Reiss's book, for me, was that he never confronted the major characters with the deep irony of their situation: it's only the melting from climate change, driven by fossil fuel emissions, that is opening the Arctic up to commerce and drilling, and yet all everyone seems to want to do is drill for more oil and gas.

He never asks them point blank, WHAT ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE REST OF THE PLANET?? It's almost like the question was forbidden, like it might have been a condition of their participation in the book.

It's only in the last chapter that Reiss broaches the issue in any depth, but in what are his thoughts only, not his characters. And while he calls himself "a firm believer in global theory," he's all over the map. Perhaps that simply makes him a realist.
Now Washington ought to follow the example of the Eskimo and the Oil man. Unless ultraconservatives who clamor for offshore drilling at any cost and ultraenvironmentalists opposing it in all forms can reach the same point as Edward Itta and Pete Slaiby--compromise--America will never learn whether trillions of dollars' worth of recoverable oil and gas actually lie under Alaska's continental shelf, enough energy to fuel the nation's economy and bolster domestic supply until viable future alternative forms come into existence.

The 'drill, baby, drill' crowd needs to tone down the rapacious rhetoric and blind demand for universal extraction. The rampant Greens need to stop pretending that they represent broad Alaskan native interests, as they've historically advocated limiting the native relationship with the wild when it comes to whale hunting, bird hunting, polar bear habitat, land use.
A few pages later:
If recoverable oil is located offshore, taxes should be raised on profits to help fuel America's recovery and pay for research on alternative fuels. While it is true that Shell sank $3.5 billion into Alaskan offshore leases without getting to drill between 2007 and 2010, it is equally true that this huge sum represented just half of Shell's fourth-quarter profits in 2010....

Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on do-over plans, endless uncoordinated public hearings, lawyers and lobbyists and renting equipment that never gets used, wouldn't it be better for these monies to go toward public works, energy research, education and jobs throughout the US?

Oil companies can and should pay more in taxes once oil is found.
(Emphasis his.)

For another review of the book, see here.

For an update on Shell's position in the Arctic this year, read this.


Anonymous said...

The thing is, oil compnaies do not require the melting of permafrost or the melting of arctic ice to drill for oil. In fact they would prefer to drill through ice than drill from a water platform. So why is the so-called thawing of the arctic even relevent?

Whether the arctic is frozen or thawed makes no difference to oil exploration.

David Appell said...

Good question. I think part of the answer is that the Arctic is melting anyway, so exploring it, working there, cleaning it up and getting the oil back to shore (whether by ship or under-the-ice pipeline) is more difficult if the place is in transition with ice floes moving in and out.