Ill-gotten Geld: EXXON and Arctic Sea Ice

There’s a recent news story that demands attention. It’s covered in today’s Real Climate posting, The unnoticed melt, which contains both bad news and some good.

The good news is that it would be possible to stop the death-spiral of Arctic sea ice loss, given appropriate reductions in CO2. The bad news is that it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.

Here’s an excerpt from the RC article on how important the early melt is when considering the overall stability of the sea ice:

“…a major loss of sea ice during the early summer months is climatologically more important than a record minimum in September. This importance of sea-ice evolution during the early summer months is directly related to the role of sea ice as an efficient cooling machine: Because of its high albedo (reflectivity), sea ice reflects most of the incoming sunlight and helps to keep the Arctic cold throughout summer. The relative importance of this cooling is largest when days are long and the input of solar radiation is at its maximum, which happens at the beginning of summer. If, like this year, sea-ice extent becomes very low already at that time, solar radiation is efficiently absorbed throughout all summer by the unusually large areas of open water within the Arctic Ocean. Hence, rather than being reflected by the sea ice that used to cover these areas, the solar radiation warms the ocean there and thus provides a heat source that can efficiently melt the remaining sea ice from below. In turn, additional areas of open water are formed that lead to even more absorption of solar radiation. This feedback loop, which is often referred to as the ice-albedo feedback, also delays the formation of new sea ice in autumn because of the accompanying surplus in oceanic heat storage.”

In the early spring and summer, existing sea ice acts to reflect sunlight. When melt is quick and early, there is less sea ice to have the mentioned ice-albedo effect. This leads to increased melt and is a feedback. So folks who look to September records as their metric for the health of the Arctic sea ice shouldn’t feel comforted if record lows are not met, especially if early melt hits records. Which it has, reaching record lows in June and July, and second place for August.

.

As you can see from this chart from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, sea ice extent broke records in June and July.

The decline in sea ice extent is news, but here’s the excerpt that really caught my eye:

The finding that the long-term evolution of Arctic sea ice is primarily governed by the prevailing climate conditions implies that the loss of Arctic sea ice can still be slowed down and eventually stopped if an efficient reduction of CO2 emissions were to become reality soon. Last week, however, it became obvious once more how unlikely such scenario is: On 30th August, Exxon announced a deal with Rosneft, the Russian state oil company. As part of this deal, Exxon will invest more than US$2 billion to support Rosneft in the exploitation of oil reserves in the Kara Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. One requirement for the success of this deal: a further retreat of Arctic sea ice. Given that climate model simulations indeed all project such further retreat of Arctic sea ice, it seems that at least to some degree, managers of big oil companies have started to make business decisions based on climate-model simulations. That may be good news. Or not. [my emphasis]

That last bolded section is a keeper. It burns my a** that oil companies are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of sea ice retreat and that these big deals rely on something we should all be fighting to stop.

Russia and BP, a British oil company, had entered into a similar deal for rights to drill in Russia’s portion of the Arctic, but the deal failed. In steps Exxon. Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article in its Global Business section, “Exxon Reaches Arctic Oil Deal with Russians”:

Where BP had planned to swap stock, Exxon, which is based in Texas, agreed to give Rosneft assets elsewhere in the world, including some that Exxon owns in the deepwater zones of the Gulf of Mexico and on land in Texas.

In announcing the arrangement at a surprise signing in the Russian resort town of Sochi, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin described a sweeping global alliance — and a potentially vast investment by Exxon in the Russian Arctic.

“The scale of the investment is very large,” Mr. Putin said. “It’s scary to utter such huge figures.”

But while Russian news agencies said Mr. Putin had stated the potential investments by both companies to be as high as $500 billion, Exxon officials said the figures, at least initially, would more likely be in the tens of billions of dollars.

The deal also gives Russia part-ownership rights to fossil fuel operations in the US, including Gulf deep water drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Igor Sechin, a deputy prime minister in Russia and one of the country’s top energy officials, said Rosneft would obtain shares in at least six of Exxon’s oil fields in the United States. He said that the value of these assets would be “in proportion” to the ones Exxon would own in Russia.

The Obama Administration recently relaxed its restrictions on drilling in the Arctic. As the article states, the Interior Department “eased the restrictions somewhat by granting Royal Dutch Shell conditional approval to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s coast starting next year.”

Let’s not forget that this Department of the Interior is the same government org involved in an investigation of Charles Monnett, the researcher who published a note on polar bear drownings. It’s is also of note that none other than Sen. Oil and Gas Money Inhofe (R) is one of the principals involved in this little drama:

Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, wrote a letter to the Office of Inspector General on Aug. 16 requesting information about the Monnett investigation, saying that Monnett’s article had been important to the government’s decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species.

The Office of Inspector General typically does not comment on ongoing investigations, but the letter said in this case officials had decided to release background information because the investigation has been “subject to much public speculation” and the department hopes to “quell speculation and assure interested parties of the OIG’s objectivity, professionalism, and independence in investigating this matter.”

Senator Inhofe is so notorious amongst climate science denizens that I hardly need to provide any background on him, but I never let an opportunity pass to point out his oil and gas ties. As the article in Desmog Blog indicates, Inhofe is a friend of oil and gas and an enemy of climate science:

“…Inhofe has good reason to fight the climate change message. In the 2002 election cycle, Inhofe received more in donations from the oil and gas sector than any other Senator. According to the latest available election financing data, in the last five years Inhofe has received just over $3.4 million in donations from 20 industry sectors – almost $1 million (29%) is from the Energy/Natural Resources Sector and their respective PACS. The next closest sector is the financial/insurance/retail sector at $464,680 (13%).”

An article in The American Prospect “James Inhofe proves ‘flat Earth’ doesn’t refer to Oklahoma” details Inhofe’s many attempts to stymie climate science and action on global warming.

“…the most anti-scientific part of Inhofe’s agenda has been his involvement in a legal push, led by the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute (which received $405,000 from ExxonMobil in 2002), to suppress a trailblazing Clinton-era report focusing on potential impacts of climate change on different U.S. regions—the so-called National Assessment. Perhaps because the National Assessment makes the consequences of climate change very clear in an almost visceral way, it has been ferociously attacked by those hoping to stop preventive action. “It says exactly what will happen in people’s backyards, so it’s very powerful,” says Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer.

Conservatives first brought a lawsuit over the National Assessment in late 2000, not long before Bill Clinton left office. Filed by the CEI with Inhofe as a co-plaintiff, the suit alleged various procedural deficiencies in the report’s preparation. It then stunningly demanded a block on the report’s production or utilization—in other words, a court’s withholding of scientific information. Co-plaintiff Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican representative from Missouri, charged, “The administration is rushing to release a junk science report in violation of current law to try to lend support to its flawed Kyoto Protocol negotiations.”

He also wrote a letter EPA regarding its findings re GHGs and to the DoI regarding its investigation of Monnett. Do I need to mention the words “conflict of interest” between Monnett’s research findings and implications, Sen. Inhofe and the DoI’s recent relaxation of regs governing the Arctic?

I didn’t think so.

So now, if this deal goes through between Russia and Exxon, Russia will have rights to oil and gas interests in the US including drilling in the Gulf and fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing is a method of obtaining natural gas from shale formations using high pressure water, sand and a toxic  mix of chemicals. A 2011 study, published as a letter in Climate Change, titled Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations finds that the greenhouse gas footprint from hydraulic fracturing is at least 30% higher up to twice as high as methane emissions from conventional gas.

The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured—as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids—and during drill out following the fracturing. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential that is far greater than that of carbon dioxide, particularly over the time horizon of the first few decades following emission. Methane contributes substantially to the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas on shorter time scales, dominating it on a 20-year time horizon. The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.

A list of some of the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.

Here’s what you have to understand about this confluence of issues and why you can forget about action on climate change any time soon from politicos in Washington and Ottawa. Whether its $50 billion or $500 billion, that’s one heck of an investment. Policy makers see numbers like that and all sense dissipates. You can see how screwed we are because that kind of investment is just too tempting to ignore.

And that’s the problem, really. Policy makers and corporate executives are short-term thinkers. Their decision horizon is very near-term and thus, that is the horizon they use when making choices.

Policy makers face immediate economic threats. Any investment, even though it’s ultimately suicidal in the long term, will help ensure they remain in power in the short term. Corporate executives see profits and new markets and new sources of revenues and even though exploiting them may be suicidal for everyone in the long term, in the short term, they will enrich the shareholders and line the corporate executive’s own pockets in terms of share value, income and bonuses.

Unless the electorate becomes aware of the real threat we all face and that our children face, and unless they start demanding politicians make the hard choices, policy makers will continue to let short-term expediency rule. And corporate executives whose mandate is to enrich their shareholders and themselves will continue to provide them with the financial motivation to do so.

You can bet that’s why deniers are working so hard to put the findings of climate science and the integrity of climate scientists in question. It’s the only way they can win against the facts aligned against them.

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About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

4 Responses to “Ill-gotten Geld: EXXON and Arctic Sea Ice”

  1. Great post. Also worth noting the direct funding links between oil & gas and many of the organizations pushing a denier communications agenda. See http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/global-warming-and-energy/polluterwatch/koch-industries/ and http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/28/us-usa-climate-skeptic-idUSTRE75R2HD20110628

  2. More depressing stuff: an article that describes how an oil spill would behave in Arctic ice conditions:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/oil-exploration-under-arctic-ice-could-cause-uncontrollable-natural-disaster-2349788.html

    And Shell will be drilling in the Beaufort Sea:

    http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2011/08/04-8

    And Stephen Harper doesn’t go prancing around in the Arctic each year because he likes the scenery.

  3. Canada is not prepared for oil spills in the Arctic:

    “…Despite the concerns outlined in the report, Canada issued three offshore drilling licences in 2010.

    Most of the drilling that has taken place in Canada’s Arctic so far has been in relatively shallow water of the Beaufort Sea. But companies are now seeking approval to drill in deeper water…”

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2011/09/09/environment-canada-arctic-oil.html

  4. Agreed, good post.

    The far north is where the “Great Game” is being reborn. Once again, we’ll see great powers jockey for control of resources. Antartica next.

    All though I do wonder how the rank and file deniers reconcile this information (actually, they don’t). I’m sure the paid hacks will change their tunes in a few years time to saying what a wonderful thing AGW is, and that really there is still no need to panic.

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