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‘Marsh’ Madness: a coastal rant on the cost of oil


Graphic by the author depicting the future cost of oil, gasoline...and diesel fuel needed to implement Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast.

by Len Bahr, PhD.*

The annual onset of NCAA March Madness seems even crazier than usual during this carnival election season, with March winds supplemented by gusts of political flatulence and partisan pettifoggery polluting the airwaves and cyberspace.

In most presidential years with an incumbent seeking a second term, the onset of the vernal equinox finds the opposition party with a well-oiled, well-heeled and strongly supported nominee. This year is different, however and the interminable GOP nominating process has not been kind to any of the ‘final four’ nominees, all of whom have performed spectacular bellyflops into the deep end of the pool of extremism.

As an environmental scientist I’m especially appalled by the virulent anti-environment and anti-science tone of the gospel tunes being sung in four part disharmony by this not-very-presidential quartet during a blatant trashing of all things green.

Challenging the National Academy of Sciences on human-caused climate change is no less ignorant than challenging Barack Obama’s Hawaiian birthplace, but that’s exactly what these ill-informed Luddites are doing. Teddy Roosevelt must be turning in his grave, as his Grand Old Party throws conservation and environmental stewardship under the presidential campaign bus. I predict that Earth Day, first celebrated under President Nixon in 1970, will be totally ignored by the GOP next month.

The first president to celebrate Earth Day.

Nothing is more important to our country’s future than curtailing its fossil fuel addiction but neither Mitt, nor Rick, nor Newt, nor Ron has proposed an alternative to Obama’s energy policy…other than cutting EPA and leasing drilling rights in national parks to Exxon-Mobil. Steven Chu, the Nobel physicist who heads the Department of Energy, would doubtless be replaced by someone far cozier with Big Oil, let’s say the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API).

When the GOP committee boat fired the cannon to start the GOP White House regatta, economic storm clouds provided favorable winds for the fleet of rival ‘R class’ yachts. Since then, clearing skies have shifted the political wind vane 90 degrees, turning a comfortable broad reach into a close-hauled, spray-soaked beat to windward.

Top: Graphic as published in Investors Daily News (John Merline's article). Bottom: Graphic modified by Len Bahr to turn so called 'oil pyramid' upside down.

With the stock market rising and unemployment rate declining,
Obama’s rivals have decided to blame the POTUS for the recent spike in gas prices. On March 23 Jonathan Tilove reported in The Times-Picayune that energy has become the cause celebre’ of all the candidates for president (including the incumbent). On March 24 Politico.c0m posted an essay by Alexander Burns on the Democratic strategy to blame oil companies and Wall Street speculators for gasoline cost.

Photo from HuffingtonPost taken at the infamously pricey Watergate Exxon station in Washington, DCt.

Newt, et al. want to drill a path to $2.50 gasoline but, short of nationalizing Chevron, this concept is naive on many grounds. Most egregious to me is that it ignores the second law of thermodynamics and the concept of net energy.

The 2nd law inconveniently reminds us that the arrow of time moves in one direction, that house cleaning never ends and that perpetual motion is a myth. Widespread ignorance of the 2nd law is why conservative economists and Hummer drivers believe that American production could expand almost without limit if Barack Obama would only allow the free market to operate freely. This naive notion is effectively countered by a March 13 Salon article by Michael Klare, who points out that, whereas global oil will always be plentiful, the era of easy (cheap) oil is over.

The simple truth of the matter is this: Most of the world’s easy reserves have already been depleted — except for those in war-torn countries like Iraq.  Virtually all of the oil that’s left is contained in harder-to-reach, tougher reserves. These include deep-offshore oil, Arctic oil and shale oil, along with Canadian “oil sands” — which are not composed of oil at all, but of mud, sand and tar-like bitumen. So-called unconventional reserves of these types can be exploited, but often at a staggering price, not just in dollars but also in damage to the environment.

On March 14 a rejoinder to Klare, titled The Myth of Scarce Oil by John Merline was posted in Investors Daily News from which the above graphic was modified. Merline expresses the (flawed) logic that’s now become part of the GOP mantra.

But the figure Obama uses — proved oil reserves — vastly undercounts how much oil the U.S. actually contains. In fact, far from being oil-poor, the country is awash in vast quantities — enough to meet all the country’s oil needs for hundreds of years.

On March 16 The New York Times published liberal economist Paul Krugman’s essay titled Natural born drillers that called out the GOP for its claims that more drilling would result in lower prices at the pump.

Oil prices are up because of rising demand from China and other emerging economies, and more recently because of war scares in the Middle East; these forces easily outweigh any downward pressure on prices from rising U.S. production. And the same thing would happen if Republicans got their way and oil companies were set free to drill freely in the Gulf of Mexico and punch holes in the tundra: the effect on prices at the pump would be negligible.

On March 17 Bob King posted an essay in about bogus claims in the rhetorical gas price war that includes the governor of the Bayou State.

…the Republican governor (Bobby Jindal) said (on Fox and Friends) the Obama administration has seen the “highest prices for oil and gasoline in 150 years.”

The reality: Gasoline prices are still below the peaks they reached under Bush in June 2008, when the inflation-adjusted monthly average price for a gallon of regular gasoline hit $4.26, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And even at $107 a barrel, crude oil is still well below that summer’s high price of $145 a barrel.

On March 21 Zach Carter reported in HuffingtonPost on the effect of energy future speculation on the recent increase in oil prices.

“Speculation was the second-largest contributor to oil prices and accounted for about 15 percent of the rise,” the economists wrote. “The effect that speculation had on oil prices over this period coincides closely with the dramatic rise in commodity index trading — resulting in concerns voiced by policymakers.”

Baton Rouge NPR affiliate station WRKF-FM’ broadcast a March 21 interview on presidential politics and oil prices by news director Amy Jeffries with Don Briggs, president of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association (LOGA). Briggs’ disdain for the president is clear.

BRIGGS: This is a global market when you talk about oil. And global means that we don’t set that (oil) price. The guy that sets the price is the guy that’s got the most oil, and that is OPEC. And they’re happy with $90-oil-plus. And believe me, if oil got down to $70, you’d see OPEC close that valve real quick, and take oil out of the marketplace, and drive the prices back up. If we were producing much more oil, then our prices that we’re paying for oil could decline (?)

JEFFRIES: Over the last three years under the Obama administration, have things gotten better or worse in terms of the ease of doing business?

BRIGGS: Oh, they’ve gotten much more difficult. When he (Obama) came on board, we could drill on the East Coast and the West Coast, and we were getting (ready) to drill off of Florida. He did shutdown the East Coast, the West Coast, and also Alaska…it’s no secret – the president is not in love with fossil fuels, and he does not like the oil and gas industry.

JEFFRIES: It sounds to me like you are quite convinced that having one of these Republican candidates in the oval office would be a good thing for Louisiana, and probably the nation, in that regard.

BRIGGS: Absolutely. It certainly would be.

On March 22 the New York Times published an op/ed column on gas price paranoia by Paul Krugman.

…the president of the United States doesn’t control gasoline prices, or even have much influence over those prices. Oil prices are set in a world market, and America, which accounts for only about a tenth of world production, can’t move those prices much. Indeed, the recent rise in gas prices has taken place despite rising U.S. oil production and falling imports.

These arguments and counter arguments about the future availability and cost of oil have three important implications for the restoration of America’s Delta:

A) Whomever is elected POTUS in November will be Louisiana’s federal partner in implementing the Louisiana Comprehensive Master Plan for a Sustainable Coast during the next four crucial years;

B) global oil availability and consumption will continue to influence the rate of sea level rise and ocean acidification; and

C) if the price of oil accelerates as shown in Figure 1 between now and 2030 (phase one of the Master Plan) the estimated $9.41 billion cost to create wetlands with dredged sediments will be far short of what’s needed.

*Founding Editor


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