ExxonMobil: savvy company or a dinosaur with climate-killing instincts?

Photo of ExxonMobil sign

Interviewed on TV March 7, Darren Woods, CEO of ExxonMobiI, was asked how politics and the Green New Deal could affect his approach to running the company. His responses reveal plenty about the vulnerability of his company; more than speeches by industry executives typically deliver.

ExxonMobil is the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the world. Its operations generate correspondingly large volumes of carbon dioxide, the cause of our global warming crisis. The company’s operations affect every living thing on the planet. That’s why the people who direct those operations must be watched closely. To make Mr. Woods interview responses easier to follow, they’ve been transcribed from spoken to written form and presented within quote marks below. The underlining is mine. Mr. Woods first tackles the part of the interviewer’s question that he’s most comfortable with, the political part:

“Energy is such an important part of people’s daily lives and their standard of living that as you think about these big ideas and as you translate them down to the smaller practical steps you take, people become very cognizant of what the impacts are for individuals, and as that starts to happen, people’s views change as to how far they can go and how quickly they can go.”

See how easily Mr. Woods brushes aside “these big ideas” i.e. the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is a political idea and Mr. Woods is no stranger to politics. However, the Green New Deal is based on the availability of actual machines that can be seen today producing electricity at lower cost than electricity from fossil fuels. That’s the crux of the matter. Unlike ideas, machines that people can see and touch are impossible to brush aside. Watch as Mr. Woods struggles with that reality in the following paragraph:

Our approach to that is to try to be part of the solution and engage with that. We have a long long history in this industry and a really good perspective on the global energy system, and we’re a company that’s grounded in science and technology, and if you look at the risk of climate change and what people and society are focused on in terms of lower emission energy systems, we’re going to need some technology breakthroughs. The conventional technology set doesn’t address the gaps that are out there today. We think we can play a role in that. In fact that’s where we’re investing some of our technology and our RD dollars to help fill some of those gaps.”

There you have it. As soon as Mr. Woods gets close to the crux of the matter, he backs away. Apparently unwilling to even mention the existence of green technologies, he implies that they don’t exist. Then he asks us to imagine gaps that need filling with “breakthrough technologies.” What Mr. Woods is saying is that the fossil fuel industry Is not equipped to deal with the climate problems it has created. Prompted by the interviewer, Mr. Woods now goes on to tell us how his company is working hard to invent the “lower emission energy systems” that the world needs.

Well, there are lots of different ideas out there. The way we look at it is that its got be be scaleable, it’s got to work at scale, and ultimately it’s got to be economic so that people can afford it, and it’s got to be reliableSo one of the things that we’ve been working on for many years is algae, biodiesel from algaeand the reason for that today is that we don’t have a good solution set for commercial transportation and emissions from commercial transportation, and algae and biodiesel could do that. Carbon capture and storage is another area that has potential but today the economics are very challenging, so finding more economical methods for capturing carbon is another exciting area. We’re looking at how you utilize the carbon you capture; what do you do with it? You can store it underground and you can also turn it into other products. So we’ve got a lot of research in terms of how you might use carbon and turn it into another product that society could use. So there’s a lot of exciting stuff happening in this space and we’re participating pretty broadly in that technology space. We’ve got relationships with eighty universities around the world. We’re working with the National Lab. We’re working with  governments around the world. So we’re trying to stay plugged in to make sure that we’re contributing as we can.

That’s it. The world is threatened by climactic Armageddon and the best ExxonMobil can come with by way of potential fixes are biodiesel and carbon capture. Biodiesel is not a global warming fix; nor is carbon capture. Carbon capture is an economic loser. A fossil fueled machine that’s already economically challenged will become even more uneconomical after another machine is attached to its smokey ass. An eight year old could tell them as much. So what’s going on? Is the idea’s primary purpose to calm the nerves of skittish investors — a line of bull to make the company’s prospects look sound? I suspect it is. ExxonMobil is not a savvy company.

As Mr. Woods correctly points out, energy technologies must work economically and reliably when scaled up to commercial size. That’s exactly what green technologies — photovoltaics, wind turbines, battery storage systems — are doing right now. That’s why Mr. Woods doesn’t mention them; they are an existential threat to the fossil fuel industry and are taken seriously by that industry.

The Green New Deal, however, is not taken seriously by its detractors. Why? Because it’s not a real thing, it’s an abstraction. That’s what makes it difficult to promote successfully. Advice to the Democrats: promote the work the green technologies are doing right now; win the next election; then introduce the Green New Deal.

The following YouTube video shows Mr. Wood’s TV interview of March 7, 2019.  The first two and a half minutes is the part of the video discussed in this post.

 

How the Oil & Gas Industry gets others to fight for its life

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a meeting of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association on March 8, 2019, delivered the following message to the members: “The oil and gas industry, I want to promise you,” he said, “has no greater friend than President Donald Trump. And as the President said, in his words, our administration will not only seek American energy independence but will seek American energy dominance.” (whitehouse.gov –  briefings)

Photo of VP Mike Pence speaking to Ohio Oil & Gas Assoc. March 8, 2019
VP Mike Pence speaks at a meeting of the Ohio Oil & Gas Assoc. March 8, 2019. Image credit: Brooke LaValley/Columbus Dispatch

The oil industry is on the defensive for causing global warming, sea level rise, mega storms, the end of life as we know it. People who want it stopped are protesting in the streets, launching lawsuits. Smart energy technologies such as photovoltaics are showing the industry up for what it is: smelly,  poisonous, obsolete. Is the industry buckling under the weight of these assaults? Not yet. Since science and the facts are on the side of their tormentors, oil industry executives are fighting back with a weapon that can defeat any amount of truth — money.

The industry is wielding its money weapon in three ways: 1. buying politicians; 2. swamping the market; 3. financing climate science deniers.

Politicians are first on the industry’s purchase list. The following chart from a report by OpenSecrets, shows the top Oil Industry contributors to the 2017-2018 election cycle. As the chart makes clear, oil industry contributions go to Republicans by an overwhelming margin. Oil industry executives know where to get the biggest bang for their bucks. They own the Republicans in Congress.

Chart of top Oil Industry contributors to election campaigns, 2017-2018
Top Oil Industry contributors to election campaigns, 2017-2018. Image credit: OpenSecrets.org

The chart shows only direct political donations— money that’s easy to track. The oil and gas industry spends millions more dollars on lobbying and Political Action Committees (PAC’s), money that’s difficult to track.

Do political contributions work? During his talk to the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, the Vice President made sure to tell his listeners how their contributions do indeed work: “We [the Trump administration] approved the Keystone and Dakota pipelines; withdrew the United States from the job-killing Paris Climate Accord; eliminated the hydraulic fracking rule; rolled back methane; we’re ending the Clean Power Plan; scrapped the Stream Protection Rule; and now, under President Donald Trump, the war on coal is over. American energy is booming.” (Applause)

There are two ways to swamp a market. One way is to increase production so as to undercut the competition (cleaner more efficient energy technologies). The second way is to invest heavily in down-stream facilities so as to embed the use of a product more firmly into the economy. The oil and gas industry is lavishing its investors money in both ways. A 2018 study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API) titled ‘U.S. Oil and Gas Infrastructure Investment through 2035’, predicts that the industry will spend at least $1 trillion (a million million dollars – see pie charts below) on new facilities such as pipelines, storage tanks, refineries, export terminals. There’s nothing in the 154 page report about renewable energy technologies or anything related to global warming. For the API and its members, the goal is fossil fuel domination, the planet be damned.

Pie charts showing projected investment in oil and gas infrastructure
From a 2018 study commissioned by the American Petroleum Inst. Image credit: ICF Fairfax VA

Providing financial assistance to individuals and groups willing to spread disinformation about climate science is a big part of the industry’s survival strategy. There are dozens of groups that work to discredit climate science and the impacts of global warming. The Trump administration is packed with individuals drawn from oil companies or from the disinformation mills that live off them. Some of the better known groups include: the American Enterprise Institute; the Manhattan Institute; the Heritage Foundation; the Heartland Institute. Not wishing to become objects of mockery themselves, oil industry executives never publicly express agreement with the absurd views generated by such outfits. Instead they buy clowns and crazies to do it for them. It doesn’t matter how outlandish or mad the stories are. The important thing is that they reach the ears of the millions of people prone to believe them.

President Trump — a faithful servant of the oil and gas industry — is an exemplar of the ‘clowns and crazies’ crowd. He has a talent for delivering climate-science falsehoods to large appreciative audiences in the manner of a standup comic. Speaking at a National Republican Congressional Committee fund raising dinner, April 2, Trump said: “If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value. And they say the noise causes cancer. You tell me (waves his arms while vocalizing sound of rotating windmill).” See 26 second video clip below.

Trump is simply a windbag who puffs out drivel in support of his masters, the oil industry bosses. Those are the guys the Democrats need to bring under control. Until that happens, advancing the objectives of the Paris Climate Accord will be difficult.

 

 

 

 

The Colorado River — not enough water; too many straws

The U.S. Reclamation Act of 1902 is a federal law that works to fund and manage water projects in the arid regions of the American west. Much of the work is focused on the Colorado River. By the end of the 20th century, the engineers of the Bureau of Reclamation had built the system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts that control the river and distribute its waters to the surrounding seven states. About 4 million acres of agricultural land and 40 million people consume the river’s entire flow. By the time the river reaches its estuary at the north end of the Gulf of California in Mexico, its flow is reduced to a trickle. The following map shows the extent and main water features of the Colorado River Basin.

Map of the Colorado River Basin
The Colorado River Basin. Image: Bureau of Reclamation

Today, the viability of the Colorado River project is threatened by two powerful forces: drought and global warming. The regional drought, now in its nineteenth year, has reduced river flow volumes to the point where the basin states, for the first time ever, are talking about cuts to water consumption.

The Hoover Dam is located about 35 road miles SE of Las Vegas. The effect of drought plus global warming is measured by the level of water in Lake Mead, the reservoir for the Hoover Dam. When full, the elevation of the lake surface above sea level is 1,221 ft. — the  lip of the dam. The lowest possible elevation of the lake surface is 895 ft. — the bottom water outlet in the dam. The lake at its lowest water level is known as ‘dead pool’. That’s when the Colorado River downstream from the Hoover dam would run dry. Before that happens, a drop to 1,025 ft. will trigger an emergency and the Bureau of Reclamation will take control and enforce water consumption cuts on all the basin states.

The current water level in Lake Mead (April 8) is 1,090 ft., which is 131 ft below full pool. The level fluctuates by 10 to 12 ft every year due to the spring release of the annual allotment of water to farmers, mainly in California  (see chart below). Since 1983 — the last time the lake was full — the water level has dropped around 4 feet per year on average. If the drought continues unabated and no drastic cuts are made to water consumption, a rough calculation suggests that panic time will arrive in about 12 years.

Chart showing water level in Lake Mead, AZ
Water level in Lake Mead during 2017, 2018, & 2019 (to 8 April). Image from LakeLevels.info

The Parker Dam is located 160 miles downstream from the Hoover Dam. The water backed up by the Parker Dam Is called Havasu Lake. The lake stores water for pumping into two aqueducts, namely the Colorado River Aqueduct that feeds water to Southern California, and the Central Arizona Project (CAP) that delivers water to Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona (see map above). While the Hoover Dam is the Bureau of Reclamation’s greatest engineering achievement, the CAP project may prove to be the Bureau’s last major construction job — and the Colorado River’s last straw.

To reach the Parker Dam after visiting the Hoover Dam, take US-93 to Kingman, then west on I-40, then south on AZ-95 to the dam, a total of 160 miles of desert driving. The source of the CAP aqueduct, and the pumping station that draws its water from Lake Havasu, is located to the left of the highway a few miles short of the dam. The only way to see it is to park by the side of the highway (there are wide gravel verges) and walk to the bridge overlooking the station.

Photo of CAP pumping station on Lake Havasu
CAP pumping station on Lake Havasu

The water for the aqueduct is pumped at the rate of 3,000 cubic feet per second through a 7 mile long tunnel driven upward through the mountain behind the pumping station. The discharge end of the tunnel is 824 ft higher in elevation than its intake end. The aqueduct itself is basically a concrete-lined canal, open to the elements. The aqueduct snakes across the desert to Phoenix and Tucson for a total length of 336 miles. Over its length, there are 12 tunnels and 4 pumping stations. The total rise in elevation from Lave Havasu to Phoenix is 1,247 ft.

Aerial photo of CAP aqueduct
Central Arizona Project (CAP) aqueduct. Image: USBR.gov

To reach Phoenix from the Parker Dam, drive south on AZ-95, then east on Interstate-10. It requires another 170+ miles of desert driving. The CAP aqueduct took 20 years to construct. Completed in 1993, it cost about $3.5 billion to bring water from the Colorado River to the desert city of Phoenix. Will the CAP aqueduct contain water 20 years from today? My guess is, no, not a drop.

Photo of CAP aqueduct, Phoenix AZ
CAP aqueduct looking west from Black Canyon Hwy., Phoenix

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, is fully aware of the water shortage problems threatening the south-west states. The Governor, however, does not like to talk about global warming or climate change. He prefers the phrase: “transitioning to a dryer future.” Accurate but not accurate enough. If the Governor wants us to face the future squarely, he needs to add the word ‘hotter’ to his phrase. The following graph shows average annual temperature for Phoenix since 1900. It shows that it is indeed getting hotter in that city.

Graph showing average annual temperature in Phoenix AZ since 1900
From U.S. National Weather Service

NJ Transit – Railroading in the age of Sea Level Rise

Satellite image of New York Metro region at night
Satellite view of New York metropolitan region at night

The New York Metropolitan region is cut in half by the Hudson River which runs north-south through the region’s center (see satellite view above). Of the region’s +20 million residents, 1.6 million commute into Manhattan, the region’s core, from surrounding districts. Of those, about 400,000 must cross the Hudson every week day from New Jersey, the west side of the river, by rail, road, or ferry. When Hurricane Sandy blew in from the Atlantic October 2012, the cross-Hudson mass transit pathways were knocked completely out of commission for more than a week. Repairs to flood damaged tunnels continue to this day.

New York’s subway system (MTA), and the PATH rail system that carries about 60% of New Jersey’s Manhattan-bound commuters, were back in business within 2 to 3 weeks. By comparison, the New Jersey transit system struggled for 3 months to get back on its wheels. Why? According to a post-Sandy investigation by WNYC (NY Public Radio), the NJ Transit officials had no plan to deal with the storm surge caused by Sandy because they failed to appreciate the effect global warming is having on storm size. In the days leading up to Sandy, the National Weather Service repeatedly warned of storm tides of up to 15 feet. Yet NJ Transit officials paid no attention.

Believing they knew from past experience how to keep their equipment dry, the NJ Transit officials decided to park much of their rolling stock in two rail yards that forecasters had predicted would flood: the Meadowlands maintenance yard and the Hoboken yard (see map below). The storm surge flooded both yards, seriously damaging about 70 locomotives and 260 rail cars, roughly a third of the corporation’s fleet. Compare that to New York’s MTA which  lost only about 20 of its 8,000 rail cars during the same storm, even though all of its Lower Manhattan subway tunnels south of 34th Street were flooded.

Map showing areas of NYC and NJ flooded by Sandy
Areas flooded by Sandy. NJT train yard locations marked in red. Image: nichiusa.org

The Meadowlands yard is a 78-acre site in Kearny surrounded by wetlands where the Passaic River joins the Hackensack River — a natural flood plain. The yard contains the corporation’s maintenance facilities, indoor equipment storage buildings, training center, and the transit system’s operations center. The storm surge flooded the yard to a depth of 8 feet, damaging everything it touched.

Photo of NJ Transit Meadowlands Rail yard
NJ Transit Meadowlands rail yard looking east. Manhattan skyline in the distance. Image: Google

Asked to explain NJ Transit’s storm preparations at a State Assembly committee hearing some months later, Jim Weinstein, the corporation’s executive director at the time, said: “I can tell you decisions on where to keep our locomotives were sound, based on all the information we had at the time . . . The facts are the weather models we evaluated at the time had an 80 to 90 percent chance the rail yards would stay dry. Our decisions were informed by the fact that neither of those rail yards had ever flooded. It is entirely wrong to characterize them as flood-prone.”

An article published by the Union of Concerned Scientists titled ‘Protecting New Jersey from Sea Level Rise: the future of the Meadowlands’ has this to say: “If emissions continue to rise through the end of the century, sea level is projected to rise more than 6 feet by 2100. In this scenario, the same areas of northern New Jersey and New York City that we’re flooded by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge would be inundated more than 26 times per year, or every other week on average.” And that statement has nothing to say about what future storms coupled with rising sea level will do in the interim.

Northern New Jersey is a heavily urbanized/industrialized region dependent on a fantastically complex network of roads and railways. The number of elevated sections, bridges, underpasses and overpasses are too many to count. Three of the state’s largest city’s, Newark, Jersey City, and Elizabeth, as well as Newark International Airport, are all located on or surrounded by low-lying, flood prone real estate. And then there’s the Meadowlands, now only a remnant of its previous size. The Meadowlands, a stretch of wetlands, shows just how low-lying the region really is, and how difficult, perhaps impossible, it’s going to be to protect it from the encroaching sea.

Satellite view of New Jersey metro region
Satellite view of New Jersey Metro region. Image: Google

The following snapshot shows a portion of the Meadowlands as seen from the I-95 Highway which bisects the feature from north to south. The NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst is on the right. The tall structure to the left of the transmission tower is part of the draw bridge which allows trains to cross the Hackensack River. The Manhattan skyline can be seen in the distance on the left. The water directly to the right of the rails, and only a few feet lower than the rail bed, is part of the Hackensack River. The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy flooded the Meadowlands including all the rail lines crossing it.

Photo of NJ Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit Rail line
View of Meadowlands where I-95 crosses NJ Transit rail line from Hoboken to Lyndhurst

Another view of the New Jersey Meadowlands looking east across marsh water and beyond it, the Hackensack River (center).

Photo of New Jersey Meadowlands seen from
New Jersey Meadowlands looking east from I-95 Highway. Manhattan skyline in distance