This is where there should be some serious subsidy, to help get people out of cars.
We recently noted in e-bikes are eating the bike market and how they might help deal with the coronavirus crisis, by providing an alternative to crowded transit. However, in the longer term, they could well be key for dealing with the climate crisis.
The greatest opportunities are in rural and suburban settings: city dwellers already have many low-carbon travel options, so the greatest impact would be on encouraging use outside urban areas.
People in big cities can cover short distances on foot, bike, or transit; they have options. In the suburbs, where distances are greater, it is not so simple. That’s where e-bikes come into play: “E-bikes are different to conventional bicycles. E-bikes have considerable range. We need to get out of the mind-set that only very short distance trips are possible by active modes.” We have noted before that because it is not as hard a workout, you can wear pretty much the same clothing as you would while walking, so temperature extremes are less of a hardship, meaning it can be done in more places for a longer season. And that extended range is meaningful.
Federal Highway Administration/ MOE= Margin of Error/Public Domain
As this National Household Travel Survey from the FHA shows, the average trip lengths in the USA vary between about 7 and 12 miles. That’s a serious ride on a regular bike, but it’s not hard on an e-bike. This is why it is so important to promote e-bikes and to build safe bike infrastructure, and as the study points out, not just in cities.
The UK needs a strategic national cycle network linking villages to towns and towns to cities to facilitate access to urban areas, not just access within them. In the short term this process can begin with tactical-urbanism and tactical-ruralism for example road space-reallocation to aid social distancing, improving e-biking infrastructure, restricting car access or reducing speed limits on routes to towns to protect / enable cycling and e-biking.
Or, in the North American context, deep into the suburbs.
The study also addresses a question that always gets us in trouble on TreeHugger: how electric cars will not save us.
Many people argue that electric cars are the solution. Replacing petrol and diesel cars with electric cars will reduce the CO2 per km driven (see Box 1). However, the carbon reduction capability of electric cars depends on: how they are built, the way electricity is generated to charge them and how people use them. Electric cars may be most useful in places where public transport is poor and e-bikes offer limited capability to replace car use. Electric and hybrid cars present risks of rebound effects which undermine their improved efficiency, for example, if cheap electricity and low tax make it more attractive to drive further, or if manufacturers make bigger, heavier electric cars.
Which, of course, what the manufacturers are doing with electric pickups and SUVs.
Box 1 shows that e-bikes are almost 8 times more efficient than a medium sized hybrid car. To cancel out e-bike carbon reduction with rebound effects, this means people would have to ride almost 8 extra e-bike km for every hybrid car km they replace.
The key reason that the lifecycle CO2 emissions for the battery car are as high as they are the upfront carbon emissions from the manufacture of the car, which is really directly proportional to its weight, and the heavier the vehicle, the bigger the batteries. So while everyone loves the idea of replacing ICE-powered cars with electric cars, we have to point out, as Brent Toderian does, that we have to reduce their numbers.
The study concludes that this is the time to make a serious investment in alternatives to the car. We don’t have room for them all, we can’t afford the upfront carbon, and we don’t have time.
Include practical e-bike promotion schemes in the government’s Covid-19 economic recovery stimulus package. In the coming two years fund and implement pilot programmes that test approaches to incentivise the use of e-bikes to replace car travel. Focus on schemes outside major urban centres to maximise the CO2 reduction per person.
People in North America will continue to say that it can’t happen here. That the climate is more extreme, it’s too hot or it’s too cold. That the distances are too great. This is all true for many people, but for the average American, the distances are not too far for an e-bike. Studies have also shown that the real issue keeping people off bikes is the lack of a safe place to ride. We will never get everyone out of cars, but we don’t have to, and would never propose it.
What we can do is get serious about alternatives to the car. Give people a safe place to ride and a secure place to park and maybe some incentives, like those that are given to electric cars. As the study authors, Ian Philips, Jillian Anable and Tim Chatterton, conclude:
In this climate emergency we need to turn our thinking around. Policy makers need to move beyond the changes they think people would like and instead plan for a transport system which reduces its CO2 emissions as well as providing efficient, accessible mobility for all.
Hurricane Dorian approaching Florida last year.Photo: Getty
India and Bangladesh are currently reeling from Cyclone Amphan. The cyclone made landfall Wednesday, forcing millions into shelters.
Prior to weakening near landfall, it was a super cyclone, the most powerful type of storm possible. A new paper has found that cyclones around the world are becoming stronger. And that’s damn terrifying.
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday, looks back at four decades’ worth of satellite data on tropical cyclones, the catch-all term for typhoons and hurricanes.The analysis by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists uses an algorithm to control for technical advancements in satellite imaging that may affect the intensity estimates. This dataset isn’t perfect, but Thomas Knutson, a research meteorologist at a different NOAA lab who was not involved in this study, said it’s a “good choice,”especially for the purpose of this study.
The results show that the chances of a cyclone becoming Category 3 or higher—what the National Hurricane Center in the U.S. classifies as a “major” storm—increased by about 8 percent per decade from 1979 to 2017. These types of storms can cause widespread destruction with winds of 111 mph or greater and the potential for punishing rain and storm surge. Category 4 and 5 storms can be even more dangerous to anyone living along the coast.
In the Atlantic, the likelihood increased even further by 49 percent per decade. There was no change in the North Pacific, the most active cyclone basin on Earth, though previous research has shown that storms that make landfall in Asia have become more intense.
Models have long suggested that warmer ocean temperatures driven by climate change would alter tropical cyclone activity, including providing more fuel for them to rapidly intensify. Other research has found that extreme storms, in general, will become more common due to climate change. Scientists have also drawnlinks between global warming and hurricanes that have already happened, finding that rising temperatures made disastrous events like Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Harvey in 2017 more likely.
The latest study notes this and says there is “a likely human fingerprint on this increase,” though it doesn’t go into an analysis of what’s driving the trend. However, it’s valuable because it adds more evidence to what has previously just been theoretical.
“You have these model predictions about how hurricanes behave with global warming, but it’s good to have data to back up the models,” Knutson said. “If you really want to have confidence that a certain kind of change is going to happen over the 21st century with global warming… you have more confidence in that projection in cases where you’ve already seen the change going on in the data.”
Still, he would like to see further research on the topic. The paper does not show that the increased chances of stronger hurricanes over these 39 years are “unusual” when compared to historical cyclone activity, Knutson said. This could very well be the case, but more research needs to be done on that front.
“You should be able to, especially at some point in the future, have some idea of how unusual the type of change this study is showing is compared to just natural variability in the climate models ,” Knutson said. “It may turn out that it’s very unusual, or it may turn out that it’s on the border or something.”
Jacinda Ardern says compressed week ‘certainly would help tourism all around the country’
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern bumps elbows with Albert Te Pou, Master Carver, during a tour of Te Puia New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute earlier this week in Rotorua, N.Z. (Michael Bradley/Getty Images)
New Zealand’s prime minister wants employers to consider switching to a four-day work week as a way to promote tourism, which has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Jacinda Ardern said in a Facebook Live video this week that people had learned a lot about flexibility and working from home during the nation’s lockdown, which was eased last week.
New Zealand’s tourism industry had accounted for about 10 per cent of the economy but has ground to a halt during the outbreak.
The South Pacific nation’s borders remain closed, but Ardern said that as much as 60 per cent of tourism was domestic and that more flexible working arrangements could allow New Zealanders to travel more within their own country.
Ardern said she has heard many ideas, including suggestions from people who want to see a four-day work week or more flexibility around travel and leave.
“Ultimately, that really sits between employers and employees,” she said. “But as I’ve said, there’s lots of things we’ve learned about COVID and just that flexibility of people working from home, the productivity that can be driven out of that.”
Country has few COVID-19 deaths
She said she would encourage employers to think about whether or not a four-day work week is something that would work for their workplace, “because it certainly would help tourism all around the country.”
Like neighbouring Australia, New Zealand has so far escaped a high number of casualties.
The country has had just over 1,500 coronavirus infections, with 1,452 of those considered recovered. The country, which imposed a tight lockdown that has since been eased, has reported a total of 21 deaths.
When Stan Cox was writing his book, The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, he scripted these prophetic words: “The oft-predicted national decline in use of fossil fuels is nowhere to be seen, and it is unlikely to occur on its own, at least until the next economic meltdown.” He became one of those few people who dare predict the future; but it was unfortunate for humanity that his prediction came true. Between the time that Cox foresaw the conditions under which fossil fuel usage would go down and his book appeared in print, the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, production crashed in country after country, and CO2 emissions dropped even more than they did during the 2008 financial crisis.
Among ideas for decreasing emissions to a sustainable level none has generated more enthusiasm than proposals for a Green New Deal (GND) to replace fossil fuels with a massive increase in solar, wind and hydroelectric power. Yet the GND is criticized by “deep greens” who worry that increases in any type of production, solar panels and wind turbines included, will worsen environmental crises. In an incredibly thought-provoking analysis Stan Cox jumps into this fray with the most pragmatic attempt to blend the two perspectives which has yet been written.
The powerful draw of the GND is that it links climate change to social problems, tracing both to a corporate-dominated system that puts profits above environmental protection and human welfare. Its advocates insist that both need to be addressed together. In addition to promoting alternative energy (AltE) supporters propose to expand public transportation, build housing with maximum energy efficiency, forgive student loans, provide medicare-for-all, and offer new green jobs at good pay, all of which would be powered by a growth in manufacturing that would be so immense as to dwarf growth during WWII.
Stan Cox is one of those intense thinkers who are highly cautious about unbridled support for a concept that might have drawbacks. In his forward to the book Noam Chomsky notes that pro-GND US congresspersons do not directly challenge the fossil fuel industry. And Naomi Klein, who enthusiastically endorses what Cox writes, precautions that we must be wary that good paying green jobs do not morph into high-consuming lifestyles that add to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
These two apprehensions become the cornerstone of how the author proposes to go “beyond” the GND. First it is necessary to eliminate fossil fuels on an accelerated schedule. Second society must reverse ecological damage caused by economic growth.
Demolishing the Myths
One of the strongest parts of The GND and Beyond is its systematic exposés of myths regarding energy, many of which are directly from the fossil fuel industry, and others which come from those who are so enthusiastic about AltE that they overlook its downsides. Here are a few of the key myths:
MYTH 1: “Current versions of the GND require elimination of fossil fuels.” As both Chomsky and Cox point out, Congressional proposals do nothing to reduce fossil fuels. A major point Cox raises is that there must be legislated guidelines quantifying annual decreases in fossil fuel production.
MYTH 2: “Increasing AltE automatically decreases fossil fuels.” Cox describes how new energy sources add to existing energy.
MYTH 3: “Shifting from gasoline-powered to electric cars is essential for a quick reduction in CO2 emissions.” Actually the huge increase in mines, smelters, factories and transportation required for this transition would continue to heighten CO2 levels long before any emission savings would be realized. Additionally it is highly doubtful that enough cobalt and lithium exist for every adult on the planet to own an electric car.
MYTH 4:“The US can obtain minerals needed for a complete transition of AltE.” But most of the 23 metals critical for solar and wind energy are outside of the US. Estimates are that 40% of conflicts within these countries are due to extraction, meaning that large increases in obtaining raw materials could cause a new round of resource wars.
MYTH 5: “The economy can separate economic growth from CO2 emissions, meaning that it is possible to produce more stuff while having fewer emissions.” In reality this “decoupling fallacy” is wishful thinking which has never happened on a sustained basis and mainly shows up when rich countries like the US shift their production to other parts of the world such as China. Increasing production of consumable commodities requires the machines necessary to make them and this is why Cox was prophetic when before COVID-19 he accurately predicted that the next downturn in CO2 emissions would happen when the economy contracted.
MYTH 6: “It is possible to meet GND goals for expanding infrastructure for 100% AltE by 2030.” In fact, meeting GND goals by this target date would require a 33-fold increase in industrial expansion, far more than has ever been achieved anywhere and would result in complete ecological devastation. Also such colossal industrial growth would require more land space than is used for all food production and living areas in the 48 contiguous states.
MYTH 7:“AltE can provide enough energy for at least 139 countries, including many poor ones.” This claim, dogmatically propounded by Mark Jacobson and his associates, may be the biggest myth of all. Cox thoroughly debunks it, showing that such research (1) is based on technology that does not exist or has never been proven; (2) rests on guesswork regarding energy storage that is completely unrealistic; (3) assumes that poor countries can reach energy efficiency levels of rich countries even though they do not have the infrastructure to do so; and, (4) believes that people in poor countries should be content to subsist with energy per person which is less than one-tenth of what Americans enjoy.
A Broader Solution
Fully supporting GND social justice goals, the author outlines how they can be accomplished without a monstrous economic buildup. Necessities could be provided for everyone via three steps of a “capping” program.
“Cap and adapt” requires establishing a maximum quantity for each corporation that extracts and sells fossil fuels and, of course, reducing the cap each year.
“Cap and cope” means coping with difficulties that are certain to happen as society reduces the amount of fossil fuels that are available, but without changing the amount of reduction.
“Cap and ration” builds upon a previous work by the author, Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing. To help reach GND goals a point system would rate the amount of CO2 required for the production and use of each commodity.
Each person would receive a rationing card that assigns the number of points for every purchase. This “Tradable Energy Quota” (TEQ) approach would set a limit on how many points a person could use each week. The beauty of the TEQ system is that it would not dictate how much of each commodity a person could use–it would be up to each person to decide how to allocate their own carbon points.
Something that the author could have spent more time discussing is reduction in the hours of work. This is critical because a major way to persuade those reluctant to participate in the system is explaining that as society produces less the result will be progressively shorter work weeks and more free time.
Just as there are difficulties with the GND that Stan Cox points out need correction, there are concerns with his analysis that deserve more thorough examination. One problem happens when the author addresses Mark Jacobson’s claim that AltE can provide sufficient energy for poor countries. The book argues that he is short-sighted for the reasons covered in MYTH 7. But is this critique too kind?
What rosy forecasts of AltE providing energy for the world tend to leave out is infinite economic growth. At a 3% growth rate the economy doubles every 25 years. That means that in 50 years four times as much energy would be needed; in 100 years 64 times as much; and in 250 years 1024 times as much energy as currently being used. Besides many rare earth metals not being available in quantities remotely close to such requirements, a 3% growth rate would make the earth totally uninhabitable for humans long before 250 years arrived.
An odd problem pops up when the book asks how the GND could pay for expansion of energy which Cox estimates would be $15 trillion for the US and $100 trillion for the world. The author responds that the tax burden would fall on the richest 33% of Americans (not just the upper 1%) who would sacrifice the most.
Why is this answer odd? Because he argues throughout the book that society must not expand energy production but reduce it. This is the same trap that many Medicare-for-All proponents fell into when asked how they would pay for the extra expenses. The answer is not to say “Tax the rich!” The answer should be “There are no extra expenses for something that costs less.” (Yes, there are other good reasons for taxing the rich, including that having a few obscenely wealthy people creates an example for others to aspire to rather than learning how to live simply.)
Similarly, asking how to completely eliminate CO2 emissions does not seem like it is the right question to ask. After all, fossil fuels are necessary to create the heat required to produce (1) silicon wafers for solar panels, (2) concrete and steel used in construction of windmills and dams, and (3) plastic coverings for industrial windmill blades. Would it not be better to suggest realistic goals of reducing fossil fuel usage by 80%, 90% or 95%?
Yet another question arises with the way the “cap and adapt” financial system would actually work. Cox proposes to set limits on how much fossil fuels each corporation can produce. This is strange, given that market forces push each corporation to maximize profits by ignoring and lobbying to overturn any limits on production. Instead of suggesting that limits be managed by the very institutions that abhor those limits, why not propose that fossil fuel industries be nationalized as so many eco-socialists are doing? After all Bernie Sanders made “socialism” a household word and fewer young people fear ogres from Moscow than capitalists on Wall Street.
Still looking at the financial system, Cox endorses a TEQ scheme that would grant each adult a weekly amount of carbon credits. This seems like a very workable proposition to restrain purchases that embody a large amount of carbon in their production and use. What happens when a person has not used all the carbon credits at the end of the week?
According to the TEQ plan, they would then get cash back, which they could use to purchase additional items. But this defeats the greater goal of reducing production. It would be much better to return unused carbon credits as time off work for the same pay. This would create a social dynamic for people to figure out how to use less junk and have more time to enjoy life. SOURCE
“The time to build the future we deserve is now, and international solidarity is the tool we need to begin its construction.”
The coronavirus crisis has brought “the machine of capitalism… to a halt,” said Arundhati Roy. (Image: Global Green New Deal)
Authors Arundhati Roy and Naomi Klein took part in a virtual conversation on Tuesday to help launch a Global Green New Deal project to foster internationalism and visualize possibilities for a new and better world for people and the planet.
The online event, entitled “Into the Portal, No One Left Behind,” was co-sponsored by The Leap, War on Want, and Haymarket Books. Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, moderated the discussion.
“We knew our system was broken. But the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the cruelty of the global economy, and deepened the visceral injustices of our societies,” organizers said in the conversation’s event description. “The time to build the future we deserve is now, and international solidarity is the tool we need to begin its construction.”
Klein said that driving the cruelty is “the violence of a capitalist system” rooted in “an extractivist logic that treats… the Earth itself, individual places, and entire groups of people as disposable,” a “logic of endless extraction and disposal that really cherishes nothing and no one.”
Global Green New Deal @GlobalGNDeal
“The #GlobalGND grew out of a critique from Green New Deals in the UK, the US. We need a redistribution of resources on a scale that has never been seen before, recognizing the debt of the North on the South” –@NaomiAKlein
The coronavirus crisis means that we are now hearing the “roar of workers who are on the frontlines who are talking about being simultaneously essential and disposable or simultaneously essential and sacrificial,” said Klein, adding that this duality has parallels with slavery and land theft.
A more justice vision for life on the other side of the “portal” post-pandemic should be “bounded in treating no one as if they are sacrificeable—and nowhere,” she said.
Watch the full conversation:
Roy said the pandemic meant “the machine of capitalism has come to a halt,” and suggested a global movement toward justice could heed lessons from the “ferocious, beautiful, and militant movements” in India.
What those movements have done, said Roy, is to ask “the world to redefine the meaning of progress, to redefine he meaning of civilization, to redefine the meaning of happiness. Do you really need to treat the Earth like a resource in order to call yourself civilized?”
We’re left with the language of justice which has been reduced to talk of human rights, the language where they adjudicate. The real crisis we face is how do we mobilize and how do we become militant about what we want and what we believe in. “- Arundhati Ro#GlobalGND
See Global Green New Deal’s other Tweets
“If people think coronavirus is a problem, it’s a stuffed toy compared to the climate crisis that’s coming,” she added.
“The main thing is to change our imagination,” said Roy. “Once you understand that you just can’t extract everything, that things are finite,” a new, more just vision can emerge.
Roy said that it was important to acknowledge that “change doesn’t mean that you’re going to necessarily suffer.”
“Life,” she continued, “could be so much more beautiful.” People could be in a situation in which they respect the Earth and “have a more equal relationship with people.”
Getting from this moment of global crisis to justice will take a far-reaching effort.
“The answer to the question ‘How do we change the world?’ isn’t in any of us individually,” said Reyman. “It’s in all of us collectively.”
“The answer to the question “how do we change the world?” isn’t in any of us individually, it’s in all of us collectively.” – @chilledasad100
The Global Green New Deal website says that a call to action is will be released in the coming weeks. “Together,” says the new site, “we will create a people’s plan to build a resilient global economy, based on the principles of a just transition and recovery, which guarantees the right to a dignified life for all.” SOURCE
Despite all the demands from climate activists, scientists, and even policy makers, hardly a single country is taking the shift to renewable energy seriously. Even countries and regions that claim to be working toward an energy transition are failing to do what would be required in order for the transition to succeed. What’s behind this surprising and disturbing state of affairs?
The energy transition is a big job, it’s complicated, and it needs to be done quickly if we are to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. Therefore, it can’t just be left to the whims of the market. Yes, if solar panels produce electricity cheaper than coal power plants do, then more households and businesses will buy solar panels. But the energy transition demands far more than this: it requires either finding ways to hook up millions of new intermittent power sources in such a way as to provide electricity that matches demand day and night, summer and winter, or giving up on the luxury of having 24-7 access to power at our fingertips. And it requires finding ways to curtail the energy demands of manufacturing and transport systems and to run those streamlined systems on renewable electricity rather than solid, liquid, or gaseous fuels.
In short, it requires a plan. Small teams of academic researchers have already attempted to provide transition plans, but so far these are little more than schematic suggestions based on assumptions that are typically over-optimistic and untested. A serious plan would, of course, be constantly revised on the basis of new findings and changing circumstances. Nevertheless, without a serious and detailed plan, and one endorsed by high-level policy makers, we cannot hope to achieve much.
A serious energy transition plan would start with a goal—not just the general target of “zero-carbon energy,” but a vision of an end state whose details derive from the specific characteristics of renewable energy sources. This goal would need to be both realistic and desirable.
Crucially, the plan and its goal would address the problem of scale. When our team at Post Carbon Institute spent a year studying the opportunities and roadblocks of a renewable energy transition, we concluded that industrial nations like the United States would have to scale back their overall energy usage considerably—perhaps by three-quarters or more—in order to get along without fossil fuels. If that’s really the case, then a serious plan should identify ways to reduce energy usage substantially, sector by sector, and not just through efficiency gains. A serious energy transition goal would describe, in detail, a smaller economy that nevertheless meets people’s genuine needs.
Another mark of a truly serious effort at energy transition would be a proof-of-concept experiment. Why not transition a small industrial city right away? That would mean running not just its electrical power system on renewables, but its transport system and food system as well, while also supplying heat for its homes. The concrete for its roads and buildings would be made using renewable electricity, as would the glass for its windows. The experiment would have to be subsidized, with the understanding that many technologies used in it might get cheaper later on as they are deployed at scale. But costs would nevertheless be calculated and fed back into the overall iterative plan. This experimental approach would provide an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Adjustments would be made on the fly.
As I’ve already implied, one of the biggest challenges to a wholesale shift to renewable energy is that solar and wind generators produce electricity, while existing transport systems, food systems, building heating systems, resource extraction systems, and manufacturing operations typically depend on gas, oil, or even coal. There are two ways of matching new energy supplies with current energy usage patterns: electrify the end use (for example, by building millions of battery-powered electric cars); or use electricity to make a fuel that works in existing technologies (for example, by building factories that use electricity to extract hydrogen from water, and that then combine the hydrogen with carbon from the atmosphere to produce a hydrocarbon liquid, so that internal combustion-engine cars can be fueled indirectly by solar and wind power). Both approaches have costs and drawbacks. Which is better, and in what circumstances? What are the likely unintended environmental, economic, and social consequences? It’s hard to know without doing real-world experiments that involve integrated systems—i.e., actual people working with actual materials and energy supplies on farms and in factories within actual communities and ecosystems.
By the way: when you read about towns or regions already running on “100 percent renewable energy,” look closer. Typically, what that means is “100 percent renewable electricity,” with the great majority of overall energy usage (usually around 80 percent) still occurring by way of fossil fuels. Also, many places with very high percentages of electricity coming from renewables—such as Quebec and Norway—benefit from unusually large supplies of hydro power. And then there are municipalities that achieve the “100 percent renewable” goal only by purchasing renewable energy credits. The experimental city I am envisioning does not currently exist. But if we are serious about the energy transition, we need to retrofit or build one right away.
I should note that our team considers nuclear power an even more challenging substitute for fossil fuels than solar or wind power. If you have a differing opinion on that point, the electrification challenge still remains, as does the requirement for a detailed plan, which has to include safety, security, and waste management measures.
A plan would specify the means for its fulfilment. How much money would be needed, and over what period of expenditure? What kinds of raw materials, in what quantities? How many workers, with which skills? And, how much energy would have to be devoted to the job? The numbers, in each case, are likely to be boggling; that’s one of the main reasons our team concluded that highly industrialized countries should aim to shrink their economies as they make the transition.
A plan would entail stages of completion, with targets and evaluations at each stage. Such a plan would also require sound leadership and social cohesion. Leaders would need to communicate clearly why the transition is needed, what sacrifices will be required, and what rewards can be anticipated. The scale of the leadership challenge for the energy transition can be compared with the extraordinary requirements during the current pandemic: in both instances, leaders must successfully motivate large majorities of citizens to change behaviors and expectations, and to maintain unusual levels of effort over long stretches of time.
By pointing out that little of what is required for a successful energy transition is currently in place, I’m not intending to sow despair or discouragement—only realism. Everyone knows that current US federal executive leadership has no interest in developing a renewable energy transition plan, but Green New Deal proposals from the Democratic opposition have been carefully framed to avoid mentioning difficulties and tradeoffs. Until national leaders around the globe start taking the energy transition seriously, there is little hope of it actually happening. Right now, we have no shared plan other than to bumble our way along until fossil fuels deplete or climate change undermines civilization, whichever comes first, while making half-hearted gestures at building add-on renewable energy supplies. Surely, we can do better. We don’t need a perfect plan in order to begin, but we do need one—and it has to be serious.
[Addendum, mainly for energy policy nerds:
None of what I have said above is meant to obscure the multitudinous efforts under way globally to develop renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, within the US, California has the most comprehensive set of incentives and penalties and the clearest focus. The central document laying out the state’s energy policy is the 2019 Integrated Energy Policy Report. The state’s end goals have been updated over time as prior goals were met. For instance, Executive Order S-03-05 Schwarzenegger set the goal of GHG emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050; and EO B-55-18 Brown targeted statewide carbon neutrality by 2045.
The SB 32 GHG emission targets for 2030 of 40 percent below 1990 levels were achieved by the electricity sector in 2017. Renewable electricity is the easiest part of the energy transition, as is reflected by that sector’s achievement of its goal 13 years ahead of schedule.
Other strategies are set forth in various laws and programs, including more aggressive energy efficiency of buildings and appliances, funding for electrification of transportation, development of a comprehensive car charging network, funding to increase energy efficiency in industrial food processing facilities, increasing and developing storage to absorb excess solar production, utilizing grid management to support transition goals, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and CARB’s Cap and Trade program. One of the reasons California has been able to develop so many different and somewhat coordinated programs is that the state now has a third consecutive governor who is making climate change a priority. This has created a consistent direction for the key state energy agencies.
However, these various efforts have not been folded into an integrated plan with related policies, investments, and piloting.
So, while California does have a plan of sorts for an energy transition, its plan is still framed within the narrative of a growth-based economy and deals mostly with decarbonizing the grid. Serious gaps that have not been addressed include high-heat industrial processes, aviation, imported materials, and embodied energy. Demonstration projects have focused on specific technologies, such as microgrids, not on the integrated energy, transport, food, waste, water, resource extraction, and manufacturing systems on which every city, region, and country depends.
The situation is generally similar for other nations, regions, and cities often cited as examples of leadership in the energy transition. Hard work is being done, but relatively little overall progress is being made toward the ultimate goal of ending the world’s reliance on fossil fuels. That is likely to continue being the case until serious transition goals and plans are adopted, and integrated, multisectoral, regional experiments are undertaken.
An empty street in downtown Ottawa on May 14, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Joel Jantzi
A storm has let up over Delhi; one of toxic particulate matter previously shrouding the world’s most-polluted city. In fact, late March saw the clearest urban landscapes some of her residents have ever known, and farther north, those in the city of Jalandhar beheld the nearby Himalayas for the first time in decades.
Similarly, blue skies have appeared over Beijing, London and Los Angeles. Even in Canada, where shifts in air quality are less dramatic or photogenic, we appear to be breathing easier, and the accompanying racket of civilization has settled to a whisper, forcing many to wonder why we’ve been doing this to ourselves, and how many of these sensory delights we get to keep.
Daniel Rainham, an environmental epidemiologist with Dalhousie University, has worked with air quality and human health in one form or another since the early 1990s, and he said changes since the pandemic began have been noteworthy, if a touch difficult to interpret.
The Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium is a collection of epidemiologists and other exposure specialists tracking various forms of pollution in cities across the country.
Recently, two of its members, Ying Liu and Audrey Smargiassi of the University of Montreal, produced a GIF showing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution change over North America using satellite imagery from March 1 to April 11. The GIF clearly demonstrates a dramatic decline, highlighting major cities such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. But from Rainham, a caveat:
NO2 levels come with seasonal variability, he said, and while they have certainly dropped as a consequence of Canada’s quiescence, they were expected to drop around this time of year anyway. There are ways of determining how much of the decrease observed by Liu and Smargiassi is due to COVID-19 restrictions, but this would require more data than is now available.
Rainham lives in Halifax, the largest Canadian city east of Montreal, and has a PurpleAir sensor in his backyard. It’s a brand of air-quality monitor that feeds its findings onto an open-source website where data from PurpleAir sensors around the world can be observed. Among other things, this sensor measures the micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) of particulate matter at or below 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5). This is a size of particular interest to environmental epidemiologists.
Taking an average from Feb. 1 to March 16, which, for Eastern Canada, he considers pre-pandemic, Rainham’s PurpleAir sensor puts particulate matter at 6.2µg/m3, very good air for a major city. From March 16 to April 17, however, these levels dropped to 3.8µg/m3; better still.
“As a very rough estimate, it looks like it’s almost halved,” Rainham said, but here again, he applies caution. This is one sensor, and an imperfect sensor at that; not nearly as infallible as the air-quality monitors maintained by the Canadian government in most major cities, the raw and relevant data from which have yet to be made available to academics like Rainham. Also, he said, Halifax air pollution is a fraction of that in bigger cities such as Toronto, where swings in particulate matter are surely more dramatic.
All the same, the graphs produced by his backyard PurpleAir sensor clearly show a tempered line after mid-March.
“With 80 per cent of Canadians living in cities, and a widespread lull in traffic, it’s all but certain we are breathing notably cleaner air than this time last year, and perhaps many years prior.”
“If you look at the world mortality data, air pollution would be in the top 10 in terms of environmental killers,” Rainham said.
Besides the usual culprits spewed from tailpipes and smokestacks, like carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, particulate matter takes centre stage in conversations about human health. Any particle smaller than 10 microns, especially those smaller than 2.5 microns, are so fine as to bypass our natural defences, such as the linings in our noses and at the backs of our throats, and protective mucuses and hairs. The smaller they are, the deeper they penetrate into our lungs, and the more clearly they are linked to things like pulmonary and cardiovascular disease, and other, less obvious, outcomes, such as diabetes and breast cancer.
Studies harnessing satellite data on particulate matter show a clear link between its concentration — particularly in the case of PM2.5 — and the concentration of illness and death associated with air pollution. Rainham has been involved in some of these studies himself, and said the impact on global health is sizable.
“I’m not as involved with air-quality work as I used to be because, frankly, I’m not sure how much more evidence we need that it’s very bad,” he said.
While there are natural particulate matters, such as pollen and salt, these are dwarfed by industrial activity and, in particular, motor vehicles, expelling particles from their tailpipes or throwing them off with the grinding of brake pads or the wearing of their tires. Fossil fuel refinement and Canadian emission standards have improved our individual exhausts over these past few decades, Rainham said, but countering these gains is an increase in cars overall and the success of SUVs, which are themselves much less efficient.
A GIF produced by Ying Liu and Audrey Smargiassi of the University of Montreal showing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution change over North America using satellite imagery from March 1 to April 11, 2020.
With 80 per cent of Canadians living in cities, and a widespread lull in traffic, it’s all but certain we are breathing notably cleaner air than this time last year, and perhaps many years prior.
“Is this pandemic guidance for the future (of air quality)?” Rainham said. “Well, why not?”
He suggests major cities embrace streetscaping projects — as has happened on Argyle Street in Halifax, and is intended for the nearby Spring Garden Road — that prioritize cyclists and pedestrians, and cater less to the automobile. As well, businesses can encourage work from home, public transit can see increased investment and electric cars can corner the market. There are opportunities, he said, to maintain our present clarity.
Clarion call of silence
The burden of noise pollution on Canadians, especially those living in major cities, is poorly understood. Exposure data prior to the 1970s simply doesn’t exist, and sporadic research since has not supplied any consistent trends. To answer this question of just how loud it has gotten over these past few decades, we are left with common sense.
“Traffic is the most important source of noise pollution, traffic is intensifying and population density and car ownership is increasing, so it’s a pretty safe assumption that noise levels have increased in places like Toronto and other metropolitan areas,” said Tor Oiamo, assistant professor at Ontario’s Ryerson University and a member of its exposure science and environmental health research group. His work focuses on the monitoring and modelling of noise pollution, and how it relates to human health.
“At this point, the weight of the evidence is quite strong,” he said.
The clearest correlations in the literature so far exist between traffic noise and things like high blood pressure, ischemic and coronary heart disease and diabetes. These aren’t direct results, mind you, but instead the byproducts of chronic stress and sleep loss due to noise pollution, and they affect everyone differently.
As Oiamo explains it, 55 decibels during the day and 45 decibels at night are considered the points at which noise pollution begins to consciously annoy people, and when negative health effects begin to accumulate, but it would be meaningless to say any city exceeds these thresholds. You could find a spot anywhere in Toronto exceeding 55 decibels, then turn a corner and fall below. The best evaluation of a city’s noisiness, he said, is to gauge the percentage of its residents who are routinely exposed to dangerous decibels.
“More than 90 per cent of people in Toronto are exposed to noise levels exceeding World Health Organization recommendations for nighttime levels, which is 45 decibels,” Oiamo said. For daytime exposures exceeding 55 decibels, that drops to just over 60 per cent.
“In Toronto, an overwhelming majority of people are exposed to noise levels considered harmful.”
Except right now, of course. While most major cities in Canada have permanent air-quality monitoring stations, very few have the capacity to track noise pollution in real time, so Oiamo cannot be sure precisely how quiet things have gotten. He knows, however, that traffic alone is responsible for roughly 50 to 60 per cent of urban noise pollution, and that other sources, such as construction and entertainment infrastructure, have likewise dissipated dramatically in recent months as a consequence of COVID-19.
“Everyone going outside in Toronto has noticed that it’s considerably less noisy now,” he said.
Exactly how this quiescence of major cities across the country will impact human health is a difficult question to answer, but Oiamo said hundreds of lives could be saved by this silence, and thousands more will be “quality-adjusted” in Toronto alone. This is not a silver lining, he said; there are no silver linings in a pandemic, but this should serve as a point of reference the next time any province considers managing its noise pollution.
“We know it’s harmful to our health, so it’s about communicating that it’s not the policy priority in Toronto and Canada that it could be,” Oiamo said. “If anything, now that people have been exposed to less noise, there’s perhaps more of an appreciation for silence, and maybe there will be more value put on it.
“Maybe the next time we bring some documents to the province, to recommend actual, enforceable standards be set, they’ll think back and remember what things were like when it was a bit quieter. The way these things move from data and science into policy and action are meandering and complicated, but I think this might be a bit of an eye-opener.”
Prince Edward Island’s Confederation Trail at sunset. Photo by Zack Metcalfe.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner, shown here in 2018, says he’s concerned about why the Ford government suspended environmental protections during COVID-19. File photo by Carlos Osorio
The Progressive Conservative government should restore the environmental protections it suspended last month, Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said Wednesday.
The government paused part of Ontario’s environmental protection law on April 1, saying it could hinder efforts to respond to COVID-19. The change allows the province to temporarily push forward environmentally significant projects or policy changes without consulting or notifying the public even if they don’t relate to the pandemic.
“I’m concerned that the government could be using the COVID crisis to undermine environmental protections,” Schreiner said in question period Wednesday, pointing to the province’s decision last week to use the suspension to delay a deadline for industry to report their greenhouse gas emissions.
Environment Minister Jeff Yurek fired back, saying the deadline was pushed back to align Ontario with a similar federal extension that was granted last month and to help businesses adjust to the pandemic. He also said Schreiner doesn’t care about protecting businesses.
“He’s become a politician in sheep’s clothing,” said Yurek. “He comes across as this gentle person… but at the end of the day he’s playing politics.
“I’m not sure if the member opposite really cares about businesses during this pandemic, but we do.”
Yurek also said the Green leader didn’t raise issues with the suspension of environmental oversight when it was first announced. “Special interest groups got ahold of him and now it’s bad,” he added.
Schreiner, who has spoken at length about proposed protections for local businesses struggling amid COVID-19, told National Observer in an interview after the fact that hundreds of people and special interest groups have written to him with concerns about the suspension of environmental protections. He wrote to Yurek with concerns on April 9 and followed up with an email, but got no response, he added.
“I thought it was important to at least give a voice to those people and groups who are concerned about this and give the minister the chance to answer publicly those concerns. Instead, he attacked my character,” Schreiner said.
“Now I’m more concerned than I was before, to be honest with you… The fact that he lashed out the way he did makes me think we have struck a nerve. I am following up with the minister to have a conversation.”
A spokesperson for Yurek, Andrew Buttigieg, said the minister is always open to discussions with members of opposing parties.
“I’m concerned that the government could be using the COVID crisis to undermine environmental protections,” Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said. #onpoli
“(Yurek) has always had productive meetings with Mr. Schreiner since taking over the environment file,” Buttigieg said.
Greenhouse gas emissions reporting will only be pushed back a month, Yurek says
The government’s temporary exemption suspends a major portion of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, which gives the public the power to have a say in environment-related decision-making. The specific section that is currently paused covers the public’s right to be notified and consulted. It also means the government doesn’t have to consider environmental values when it makes decisions.
The exemption expires 30 days after Ontario’s current state of emergency ends. The state of emergency is now extended to June 2, but the government may choose to leave it in place longer, depending on the severity of the pandemic.
Yurek’s office has previously said that although the government does not have to notify or consult the public as long as the exemption remains, it will remain transparent about what it’s doing. The government will post notices of COVID-19 related actions that could affect the environment on Ontario’s Environmental Registry, and ministries are still expected to consult the public on measures that aren’t related to the virus.
During question period Wednesday, Schreiner raised concerns about the fact that the delay in reporting greenhouse gas emissions happened without public consultation. He also said he was worried the move could interfere with Ontario’s commitments to do so under the Paris Agreement, as the change doesn’t say when industry will have to submit their reports.
“It wasn’t hidden,” Yurek said, noting that the delay was posted online. The environment minister also said the deadline would only be postponed for one month.
“The idea was to line up the reporting structure for industry in Ontario with the changes the federal government did because of the pandemic by extending by one month,” Yurek added. “We didn’t want to overburden industry in this province, which is having a hard time bringing in the people to do the reporting because of the pandemic.”
Schreiner later told National Observer he was satisfied with Yurek’s answer about the deadline change for greenhouse gases, but that he remains concerned about the motivations behind the pause on environmental oversight.
“I want to try to understand why the minister responded in the way he did,” Schreiner said.
“I want to be personally reassured, and I want Ontarians to be assured, that no environmental protections will be undermined.”
Meanwhile, the environmental law charity Ecojustice has filed an application for Yurek to review the decision to suspend environmental protections. Yurek now has 60 days to decide whether to revisit the issue.
Alberta has a huge problem with drill site clean up, and dicey deals shifting who pays. Mike Judd had enough, so the rancher fought and won.
‘Who is this company?’ asked Mike Judd of Pieridae Energy. ‘I had never heard of these guys. What happens if they go broke? Who will be responsible for the clean up of Shell’s sour gas fields?’ Photo: Mike Judd.
Alberta’s oil patch regulator made history of a sort last week by saying the word no. The reasons it did pitted a crusty cowboy against a wealthy ballet aficionado, and exposed a gambit by one of the world’s oil giants to offload its responsibilities in a way, the ruling said, that would have defied provincial law.
The story says a lot about where the world’s fossil fuel industry finds itself at this precarious moment, as it struggles to balance falling revenues against mounting environmental liabilities.
And it sheds light on how symbiotic government regulators, public pension managers, and energy corporation minnows and whales alike have become in Canada. It’s a tale with a few twists, so settle in.
It starts with a simple fact. In the last five years the Alberta Energy Regulator, which is funded by the industry, has watched cash-rich companies sell or trade off more than 150,000 inactive or uneconomic wells to small firms that didn’t have the financial ability to perform mandated well cleanups.
That’s what changed last week. Under intense public pressure, the regulator finally refused to greenlight one such transaction.
The AER ruled that energy behemoth Shell couldn’t download its historic responsibilities for the closure, remediation and reclamation of hundreds of sour gas wells and processing plants onto a smaller company while only retaining lesser responsibility for extensive groundwater contamination.
A flaw in the proposed deal, said the regulator, was that it had no way to know how much land and water Shell’s operations had poisoned. The “scope and extent of the contamination at the sites is not well known.” Nor could groundwater contamination be distinguished from other ongoing pollution at Shell’s aging sour gas plants.
“Shell is the polluter,” added the regulator, and also the operator under Alberta’s reclamation laws and “therefore required to conserve and reclaim the sites.”
The ruling added, “Trying to manage and enforce different reclamation obligations amongst different approval holders would be inefficient, disorderly and extremely burdensome.”
Given that’s the case, let’s further set the stage. Alberta is a province where the majority of oil and gas companies now own more inactive and uneconomic wells than they do producing ones. In fact, their liabilities exceed assets due to depleted and aging geologies, insolvent fracking companies and volatile commodity prices.
Let’s preview as well a few more characters in this particular petroleum soap opera. It not only involves Shell, which posted profits of $16.5 billion last year, but also an until recently tiny Calgary firm, three large and toxic sour gas plants and fields, a bunch of German bankers and energy traders, a scandal-plagued regulator, and a speculative LNG play in Nova Scotia.
One more twist is that the Alberta Investment Management Corp. — the province’s embattled pension fund manager that just lost billions of dollars on the stock market — may lose billions more with investments in ailing oil and gas companies.
How large are the wider stakes? Very large indeed. The regulator’s ruling comes amidst a toxic boondoggle in the extreme. In Alberta, the unfunded cost of cleaning up 400,000 wells, half of which are now inactive or uneconomic, is estimated to be $100 billion. Only an inadequate $229 million in security deposits has been set aside for the job. Someone’s got to pay up eventually. Companies, if they can, will stick citizens with the bill.
Which is just what Mike Judd was thinking when he decided to sound his alarm.
I. THE COWBOY WHO FIRED OFF A LETTER
Mike Judd is a 70-year-old retired outfitter with a lean frame and bristly mustache, who once got so mad at the digital craziness his computer represented that he shot it. He lives near Shell’s gas plant in Waterton in southern Alberta on land where a grizzly bear dens.
When Judd learned last year that Shell was selling off its three aging sour gas plants in the eastern slopes of the Rockies to a small Calgary company for $190 million, he couldn’t believe his ears.
At the time the purchaser, Pieridae Energy, was listed as a penny stock on the Toronto exchange with more debt than revenue. But the firm claimed the purchase would further its primary goal of building an LNG terminal in Nova Scotia to ship Canadian natural gas to global markets.
“Who is this company? I had never heard of these guys,” asked Judd. “What happens if they go broke? Who will be responsible for the cleanup of Shell’s sour gas fields?”
As a landowner who had frequently contested Shell’s intrusions into the Rockies, Judd estimated that the clean-up cost of Shell’s aging wells might be billions of dollars. Many of the sour wells, among the deepest in the province, are located on the sides or on the tops of mountains.
Like most landowners, Judd also knew the nature of the reclamation game in Alberta and other oil-producing jurisdictions. For decades the oil and gas industry has resorted to two strategies for avoiding the cost of cleaning up its inactive and depleted wells: go bankrupt or pawn off aging assets to smaller companies without the resources to honour regulatory clean-up obligations.
“It’s common practice in the industry to package up non-producing wells, dry holes, wells that are problematic, with a few really nice good wells and then sell them to a smaller or medium-sized company,” Keith Wilson, an Edmonton-area property rights lawyer explained to the Canadian Press last year.
Each company in the chain milks the remaining assets until the cost of decommissioning them outweighs the costs of keeping them active.
At that point industry often dumps its liabilities onto the lap of the industry-funded Orphan Well Association or increasingly onto Canadian taxpayers.
So many firms have walked away from their clean-up liabilities in recent years that the Orphan Well Association is now supported by more than a half billion dollars’ worth of repayable loans from the Alberta government and Ottawa.
In other words, taxpayers are footing the bill for oil and gas well cleanups — a scenario that industry and energy regulators swore would never happen in Canada.
Judd also knew that successive Alberta Tory governments had failed to collect adequate deposits for what the regulator now estimates amounts to a $100-billion cleanup just for wells alone. (The total unfunded bill for decommissioning zombie wells, pipelines and oilsands facilities equals $260 billion, according to the regulator.)
Judd also knew that the regulator had set up a liability management program based on outdated oil prices so companies with aging wells could claim to be more solvent than they were. The regulator also refused to set a time limit for cleaning up inactive wells.
Fearing he was about to see the whole cycle unfold in his own backyard, Judd asked a public interest lawyer what he could do to prevent the sale. The lawyer told Judd that he could file a statement of concern with the Alberta Energy Regulator asking for a public hearing.
And so last November Judd wrote his letter to the regulator: “I am concerned the transfer of the Waterton Field licenses to a small operator is the first step towards my home being surrounded by dangerous orphaned oil and gas equipment that may never be reclaimed.”
Judd sent off the plea with lowered expectations. Certainly he didn’t expect the avalanche of resistance it triggered.
II. THE LITTLE ENERGY FIRM WITH HUGE AMBITIONS
Pieridae Energy, formed in 2011, is a small Calgary-based firm professing aspirations of the boldest order. It proposes to build a $10-billion liquefied natural gas facility in Goldboro, N.S. to supply European markets.
At various times Pieridae has proposed sourcing that methane from potential shale developments in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Pennsylvania. Now it wants to pipe methane from Alberta’s sour gas fields all the way to Nova Scotia. (Sour gas has a 15 per cent higher greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas because of all the processing required to remove the sour part: hydrogen sulfide.)
On its website Pieridae Energy explains the company was founded as a “second go around” for its key management team to champion LNG developments.
The first go around? That was the Kitimat LNG project on the West Coast, led by Alfred Sorensen, an accountant by trade and former energy trader for Duke Energy.
Sorensen, possessing an upbeat nature and a bespectacled face that is owl-like, sold that project to Apache and EOG Resources for $300 million in 2010. He personally pocketed $30 million. Pieridae boasts that it was “the first liquefaction facility permitted in North America in 40 years.” But the website doesn’t add that it never got built.
As shale gas prices dropped, Apache and EOG sold their stakes in 2015 to Chevron and Australia’s Woodside Petroleum. When LNG prices collapsed this year due to overproduction and then the pandemic, Woodside posted a billion-dollar write down on the project. Chevron also took a $1.6-billion write down on its share.
Given current market conditions, it is unlikely Kitimat LNG will ever be built.
But Sorensen, dubbed “Canada’s LNG marathon man” by the Globe and Mail, pushed on with the proposed Goldboro terminal in Nova Scotia even as methane prices languished and investment capital grew skittish.
He acquired a terminal site and environmental permits and even lined up Uniper, a German energy trader, to buy half the gas.
At the same time, he served as a CEO of Canadian Spirit Resources, a small six person shale gas company, from 2013 to 2015. But it too mirrored the industry’s fragile economics. After buying land and identifying 1,200 potential shale gas wells in the Montney Formation in B.C., Sorensen shopped around for a buyer.
In 2012 he told Alberta Oil Magazine, “That’s what I think my bigger skill set is — selling things.” He paused and added, “As long as you’re not selling something that’s not real, I suppose.”
Canadian Spirit Resources never did find a buyer. Last year the company posted no gas or liquids revenue, and its share price has dropped to four cents. Its chief financial officers left the company this spring.
Meanwhile Sorensen tried to build Pieridae into an attractive story. In 2017, he took the company public by merging with a Quebec firm, Petrolia, which owns the most oil and gas permits in that shale-rich province.
Petrolia’s biggest claim to fame was being awarded in compensation by the Quebec government after it banned any drilling on Anticosti Island where Petrolia held leases.
Pieridae Energy advertised the merger as “an opportunity for investors to participate in the evolution and growth of Canada’s only integrated LNG facility.” But the merger never really attracted the level of investment needed to get the project off the ground.
Alberta’s pension funds manager, which has a poor track record in backing oil and gas plays (see sidebar), then loaned Pieridae $50 million and bought $10 million worth of its stock.
Still, until Pieridae bought Shell’s 70-year-old gas operations in 2019 pending approval by the Alberta Energy Regulator, the company had few resources and even less cash.
Just the year before, Royal Dutch Shell posted revenues of $396 billion, while Pieridae recorded a net loss of $34 million. How then did little Pieridae manage to buy Shell’s sour gas properties? By borrowing $206 million from Third Eye Capital, a Toronto firm that specializes in loaning money to distressed or risky companies.
What Pieridae actually bought was this: 284 deep sour gas wells; 66 facilities and 82 pipelines nearly 1,700 kilometres in length at three of Shell’s sour gas fields in Waterton, Jumping Pound and Caroline. The highly corrosive nature of sour gas requires constant and expert care. To provide it, 200 Shell staff became Pieridae employees.
Shell, meanwhile, vowed to take care of extensive groundwater contamination at the gas plants while Pieridae would become responsible for cleaning up the wells and pipelines and three massive sour gas plants at some later date.
Although Shell described Pieridae Energy as “an experienced operator” in its press release, few observers agreed with that assessment.
Shaun Fluker, a University of Calgary law professor who has watched marginal companies operate in the patch for years, told The Tyee that, “I don’t think there is any credible operator on the planet who would agree to take on this kind of aging infrastructure with those kind of liabilities. The cost of cleaning it up will be astronomical.”
He suggested that Pieridae’s purchase from Shell was part of a larger strategy to make the company more appealing for prospective buyers and to reassure potential German investors that it had some methane to fill its proposed terminal. Pieridae, said Fluker, just needed “the assets to tell part of their LNG story. It is a house of cards and the company has no intention of doing that reclamation work.”
Pieridae has been adamant throughout that it would see through any clean up it was now on the hook to deliver.
III. THE AVALANCHE
The avalanche that Judd’s letter of concern set off included more letters by dozens of landowners, companies and pension holders questioning the purchase.
Upset pension holders warned that AIMCo’s investments in Pieridae Energy might result in the manager becoming liable for billion-dollar cleanups down the road. “Pieridae, a distressed company, is seeking and receiving financial capital from AIMCo to pay for this license transfer project thus jeopardizing my pension plan,” wrote retired social teacher Rose Marie Sackela living in central Alberta.
On Judd’s side, too, were two of the biggest names in Alberta’s troubled oil patch. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. and Cenovus also strongly objected to the deal.
“If Pieridae were to become insolvent, there is a high probability that Pieridae’s abandonment and reclamation liability will fall to the Orphan Fund,” wrote CNRL in its letter of concern. (The company has objected to many similar transactions for the same reasons.)
Because CNRL is the largest contributor to the orphan well fund, it worried that it might be on the hook for $100 million worth of the eventual clean up of Shell’s deep sour gas wells.
The company, owned by billionaire Murray Edwards, added that “there is a high probability that Pieridae will experience a financial distress with continued low gas prices,” as have most methane producers on the continent.
The Orphan Well Association, which was created by government and industry as a last resort for cleanups, also objected to the transfer. It argued that Pieridae didn’t have the leadership or financial resources to decommission what they estimated to be a $500-million liability.
The OWA, which rarely addresses Alberta’s clean-up failings in public, also criticized the regulator for not doing its job. It didn’t think the regulator had a proper process for vetting the transfer of licences from cash-rich companies to cash-poor ones.
More damningly it stated “that the current regulatory system for assessing the overall financial viability of asset transfers is not adequate and needs to be augmented.”
As the statements of concern rolled in, most of them asked the regulator to refuse the transfer of licenses to Pieridae, or at the very least require Shell to set aside at least a hefty clean-up fund worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But that’s not how Shell and Pieridae saw the deal. They replied that Albertans had nothing to worry about.
Shell said that the energy regulator and the public shouldn’t be concerned because the province had “a robust system for ensuring that companies are held responsible for the environmental liabilities resulting from energy development.”
In fact, however, in 2018 Robert Wadsworth, the Alberta Energy Regulator’s vice-president for well cleanup, admitted in a public presentation that the system was broken. He said the collection of security funds from industry was “insufficient” due to a “deeply flawed” system for monitoring liabilities.
Alberta’s Liability Management Rating program had tracked inactive wells in the oil patch for nearly two decades. But it didn’t collect money for cleaning up abandoned wells until the companies were “already showing declining financial capacity,” said Wadsworth.
Nevertheless, Pieridae Energy referred to Alberta’s regulatory system as “robust” too. Sorensen’s firm added that it was “uniquely situated to benefit from certain German federal government loan guarantees for up [to] US$4.5 billion which have been approved in principle under a German untied credit program.”
Pieridae said most of the loan would go to the construction of the LNG facility in Goldboro but that $1.5 billion would help finance the extraction of more deep gas from Alberta’s foothills without the use of fracking.
One of the conditions of the German government loan is that no fracked gas be used to supply the LNG terminal because Germany has banned the technology.
Thanks to ongoing production from Shell’s aging sour gas fields, Pieridae said, it would be able to “generate net cashflow sufficient to satisfy all of Pieridae’s legal obligations including the environmental obligations” of decommissioning Shell’s sour gas wells, pipelines and sour gas plants.
The company added that CNRL’s concerns were frivolous and self-interested. In a low-price market “it is possible that CNRL is seeking to gain a competitive advantage by exaggerating its concern of the risk regarding this asset acquisition.”
IV. THE BILLION DOLLAR NEXT PITCH
While the Alberta Energy Regulator pondered these arguments in January, Sorensen sat down with federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’ Regan to make a friendly LNG pitch.
Sorensen, who is such an aficionado of dance as high art that he chairs the Alberta Ballet Foundation, explained to O’Regan how his proposed LNG terminal in Nova Scotia would ship “sustainably-produced natural gas to the world.”
In his marketing spiel Sorensen emphasized that his project would really help the government of Canada meet three key goals: support reconciliation with First Nations with benefit agreements, “address global GHG emissions by using cleaner-burning LNG to replace coal,” and, lastly, “get our resources to market along with creating good-paying middle-class jobs.”
It’s not known whether Sorensen mentioned to O’Regan the findings of a 2018 analysis on the economics of exporting LNG from Canada. The Canadian Energy Research Institute, which is partly funded by the government, concluded any project would need at least a $100 oil price or $11.6 per million British thermal units over the life of the project to be viable. (The European Union natural gas import price is currently $2.12, a nearly 60 per cent drop from last year’s $4.90 per million British thermal units.)
The CERI report said such “a viable path” didn’t currently exist in Eastern Canada and if it did it would have to use fracked gas from Nova Scotia or New Brunswick where opposition to the technology remains fierce. (In fact, several anti-fracking groups have protested potential German funding for Pieridae on these very grounds.)
Four months after his meeting with O’Regan, Sorensen announced that Pieridae Resources was putting off its Final Investment Decision on the LNG plant, as he has done routinely since 2013, for another year. This time he blamed rock-bottom LNG prices and the pandemic.
But the ever-optimistic Sorensen added on an April 16 conference call that that he would continue lobbying the federal government and provincial government for financial help. He suggested a billion dollars would do the trick.
“We’re looking for a hand up, not a hand out,” he said.
Representatives of Maple Leaf Strategies, which served as chief strategist and pollster on Premier Jason Kenney’s successful election in Alberta in 2019, are now listed as the company’s Ottawa lobbyists.
As the AER decision was pending, The Tyee asked Pieridae Energy how it proposed to pay for decommissioning the sour gas assets it bought from Shell given its limited resources, and the fact that no money-making LNG terminal yet exists.
James Millar, director of external relations, replied, “The cash flow from decades of productive life in these assets will provide the necessary reclamation costs.” He said the company’s total revenue in 2019 was $114 million on the production of 40,000 barrels of oil equivalent from Shell’s sour gas fields.
Millar added, “We are sound financially and have a solid plan going forward for the rest of 2020 and beyond.”
He noted that the global LNG industry “has obviously not been immune to the negative impacts of COVID-19,” and that nearly a dozen LNG projects have been cancelled or delayed.
“This is not the case for our multibillion dollar Goldboro LNG Project. We continue to push forward and we announced a positive development recently as Pieridae has negotiated extensions of deadlines under its 20-year agreement with German energy company Uniper Global Commodities.”
The Tyee also asked Uniper, the German energy trader, if it had any concerns about Pieridae’s ability to pay for the decommissioning costs of Shell’s sour gas plant.
The company, which first signed a deal with Pieridae in 2013 for half the capacity of the proposed LNG plant, replied: “Please understand that we don’t comment on this.”
V. THE BIG NO
In its decision release on May 13, the Alberta Energy Regulator firmly blocked Shell from transferring the ownership of its sour gas leases to Pieridae Energy. The nub of the decision: having Shell be responsible for groundwater pollution and Pieridae responsible for well clean up simply violated the law.
But the regulator conspicuously didn’t say a word about Pieridae’s financial ability to decommission at least a billion dollars worth of liabilities.
The Tyee sent queries to the regulator while it was trying to make up its mind. Its response took a week and came after the agency posted its decision. So what did the AER make of Pieridae’s ability to take on Shell’s massive clean-up liabilities, and how did such a deal even get this far?
Shawn Roth, a specialist in external relations for the Alberta Energy Regulator, allowed that his employer might have room to improve in how it goes about its responsibilities. The AER, Roth told The Tyee, is aware that its system for tracking liabilities “is not a good indicator of a company’s financial health. We are working to broaden our assessment processes to allow for a more holistic approach to assess a company’s ability to address its end-of-life obligations and have contributed to the Government of Alberta’s review of the liability management system.”
Shell did not reply to two separate queries from The Tyee.
After the AER rejected its deal with Shell, Pieridae Energy released a public statement the following day by CEO Alfred Sorensen. He said, “We are all disappointed.”
The LNG marathon man added, “The decision has nothing to do with Pieridae’s financial position nor its ability to clean up certain assets. The issue for denial was the fact that there is no precedent for splitting a licence or no ability under the current legislation to do so.”
Sorensen, like a runner with his eyes fixed on a distant horizon, said the company is confident a solution will be found.
Eoin Finn, a former partner in KPMG who tracks the volatile economics of LNG, wonders why or how that could happen. And if Pieridae does manage to win over the Alberta Energy Regulator, allowing it to take on Shell’s clean-up liabilities, a few aspects would deeply concern Finn.
For obvious starters, “if I were the regulator, I would be worried about Pieridae’s financial position and its ability to clean up after the sour gas wells peter out,” Finn said. He also noted that the $206-million loan Pieridae had used to buy Shell’s assets carried an interest rate of 15 per cent which means the company must find $31 million in interest charges every year or face foreclosure. And there’s the bothersome fact that one of the contractors Pieridae had lined for its LNG terminal declared chapter 11 bankruptcy in January.
Arundhati Roy has a tendency to rile India’s media and political elites like no one else on the subcontinent. Perhaps that’s because no writer today, in India or anywhere in the world, writes with the kind of beautiful, piercing prose in defense of the wretched of the earth that Roy does.
Arundhati Roy in 2010. jeanbaptisteparis / flickr
Review of Arundhati Roy’s My Seditious Heart (Haymarket Books, 2019)
It’s possible to mark time in Indian politics by how long it’s been since Arundhati Roy has pissed off the government. Her meticulous, two-decades-long dissection of India’s unsustainable development, its Islamophobic Hindu nationalism and caste violence, alongside the United States’ pursuit of global empire has been proven accurately, darkly predictive.
When India’s December law restricting Muslim citizenship passed, readers of Roy’s essays had a framework, going back two decades, within which to place these developments. By midwinter, Muslims were being beaten and lynched in the streets of the capital. This was shocking but not unprecedented, and readers of her essays recalled her warnings over mass killings in Gujarat in 2002, an early flashpoint that she describes explicitly as a contemporary genocide.
Roy is known for two musical and beautifully complex novels. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017; her debut, The God of Small Things, won that prize twenty years before. Last summer, to more muted fanfare, her essays were collected in an eight-hundred-plus-page edition by Haymarket Books called My Seditious Heart. As Roy approaches fifty-nine, the three books add up to a major literary achievement.
The title of the essays nods to Roy’s power to rile state prosecutors and their media allies. The former are prone to slapping her with charges (since the first novel appeared) and the latter to camping outside her house and haranguing her for her perceived “anti-national” treachery. While she was at work on her second novel, she felt the need to flee the subcontinent. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is masterful and intricate. The musical humor that appears in her novels graces her essays, too, so that her scorn for dehumanizing, paternalistic policies in India and the United States is amplified by a deeply felt love of language, a winking irony, and disarming displays of working-class solidarity, affection for wild animals, and love of the natural world.
Her anxieties guide readers through the violence of major dam projects, India’s blithely joining the world’s nuclear powers, and its atrocious policies in Kashmir. A koan throughout is a concern over how bad it can get beforet the country’s liberals sufficiently question modern India’s superpower narrative. “Given the history of modern India, I think we did have to go through this phase,” she told an interviewer last fall about the rule of far-right prime minister Narendra Modi. “I just hope that we don’t pay too high a price as we come out of it.”
Beginning of the Imagination
Arundhati Roy’s essay writing began two decades ago, after first bursting onto the international scene through her fiction. At the time, India was taking a place of global prominence. “For me, personally it was a time of odd disquiet,” she writes. “As I watched the great drama unfold, my own fortunes seemed to have been touched by magic.”
With the success of her debut novel, The God of Small Things, “I was a front-runner in the lineup of people who were chosen to personify the confident, new, market-friendly India that was finally taking its place at the high table. It was flattering in a way, but deeply disturbing, too. As I watched people being pushed into penury, my book was selling millions of copies. My bank account was burgeoning. Money on that scale confuses me. What did it mean to be a writer in times such as these?”
She applied her new “platform” to critiquing the new India, such as the country’s developing nuclear weapons. She saw a threat in the received wisdom that viewed nuclear weapons as modernization, advancement. To her, this threat to annihilate all creation in response to temporary, territorial disputes (with Pakistan, over Kashmir, usually) equated to “The End of Imagination,” as her first essay was titled. On one level, this was because there’s “nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons. There can be nothing more humiliating for a writer of fiction to have to do than restate a case that has, over the years, already been made by other people in other parts of the world.” The anti-nuclear power and weapons movement had been born simultaneously with the advent of both these milestones; like Roy, it bore elements of the global peace and non-aligned movements.
The arguments against such doomed advances were well known, running through books like John Hersey’s Hiroshima, published in 1946 and showing the devastating effect of President Harry S. Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on the civilians of Japan, and the bombs’ toll on nurses, doctors, clerks, and teachers. Books on this topic also include Belarusian author and future Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s 1997 Voices from Chernobyl and, important to Roy, scientist Carl Sagan’s work on “nuclear winter.”
Taking a page from the nuclear winter models of the 1980s, Roy presents a detailed picture of exactly what had fallen into India’s hands. If the weapons were to be used:
Our cities and forests, our fields and villages will burn for days. The air will become fire. The wind will spread the flames. When everything there is to burn has burned and the fires die, smoke will rise and shut out the sun. The earth will be enveloped in darkness. There will be no day. Only interminable night. Temperatures will drop to far below freezing and nuclear winter will set in.
Sometimes she found that India’s nuclear triumphalism had a sexual component. One politician of the right-wing, Shiv Sena, pronounced after the tests that Indians are “not eunuchs anymore.” “Reading the papers,” Roy writes, “it was often hard to tell when people [trumpeting the tests] were referring to Viagra.”
But she argues that when it comes to triumphal fantasies, “The trouble is that having a nuclear bomb makes thoughts like these seem feasible. It creates thoughts like these.”
If protesting against having a nuclear bomb implanted in my brain is anti-Hindu and anti-national, then I secede. I hereby declare myself an independent, mobile republic. I am a citizen of the earth. I own no territory. I have no flag. I’m female, but have nothing against eunuchs. My policies are simple. I’m willing to sign any nuclear nonproliferation treaty or nuclear test-ban that’s going. Immigrants are welcome. You can help me design our flag.
My world has died. And I write to mourn its passing.
When Roy turns to India’s hydroelectric dams, she is similarly ruthless and imaginative. “Instinct led me to set aside Joyce and Nabokov,” she begins, “to postpone reading Don DeLillo’s big book and substitute for it reports on drainage and irrigation, with journals and books and documentaries about dams and why they’re built and what they do.” What they do, under careful scrutiny, proves underwhelming, in terms of benefits, and crippling, in terms of costs.
Activists who oppose dams in their native regions, many of whom are low-caste, outcast, or indigenous, come to see the dams as matters of life or death (and mostly the latter). What specifically troubles Roy is not just the disenfranchisement, which is already bad enough; it’s that after she does the math, she realizes that the dams India places so much hope upon simply won’t work.
Dams are “being decommissioned, blown up” in the first world, she notes. Yet at the time of her first essay on dams, in 1999, India had “3600 dams that qualify as Big Dams, 3300 of them built after Independence. One thousand more are under construction. Yet one-fifth of our population — 200 million people — does not have safe drinking water, and two-thirds — 600 million — lack basic sanitation.” Dams, she writes, are
a brazen means of taking water, land, and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich . . . Ecologically, too, they’re in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, waterlogging, salinity, they spread disease. There is mounting evidence that links Big Dams to earthquakes . . . For all these reasons, the dam-building industry in the first world is in trouble and out of work. So it’s exported to the third world in the name of Development Aid, along with their other waste, like old weapons, superannuated aircraft carriers, banned pesticides.
She writes on the irony of India’s latecomer dam-addiction: “On the one hand the Indian government, every Indian government, rails self-righteously against the first world, and on the other, it actually pays to receive their gift-wrapped garbage.” But the even bigger problem, beyond the duplicity, is that “the [Indian] government has not commissioned a post-project evaluation of a single one of its 3,600 dams to gauge whether or not it achieved what it set out to achieve.” In India’s west, near Navagam, Gujarat, the Sardar Sarovar Dam projects “will end up consuming more electricity than they produce.”
Roy sets out to find a number for how many people have been or will be removed from their homes to make way for these dams. Finding a conservative figure published by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, she calculates that Indian dams have displaced 33 million people. A secretary of the Planning Commission, however, thought the figure for all development projects, dams alongside others, was more like 50 million. Given that so many of those displaced are Adivasis, India’s indigenous, “India’s poorest people are subsidizing the lifestyle of her richest.”
The picture becomes clear: India’s investment in these development projects, in fact, is married to corruption in the wealthy world. “‘Development Aid’ is rechanneled back to the countries it came from,” she writes, “masquerading as equipment cost or consultants’ fees or salaries to the agencies’ own staff.” For example, the Pergau Dam in Malaysia, spurred by a loan of L234 million, revealed its benefactors’ ulterior motives when it “emerged that the loan was offered to ‘encourage’ Malaysia to sign a L1.3 billion contract to buy British arms.”
Another of the Narmada River dams, the Bargi, “cost ten times more than was budgeted and submerged three times more land than the engineers said it would.” At the same time, it “irrigates only as much land as it submerged in the first place — and only five percent of the area that its planners claimed it would irrigate.” As in development projects in the United States and Canada, like the pipeline project at Standing Rock, protestors in India enter into no-protest zones. “The dam site and its adjacent areas, already under the Indian Official Secrets Act,” a holdover from the British, “were clamped under Section 144, which prohibits the gathering of groups of more than five people.”
India’s displaced appear in Roy’s work in affecting portraits. Take, for example, this scene of a family removed from a flood zone whose mitigation money, for forfeited property, never materialized. “In Vadaj, a resettlement site I visited near Baroda,” she writes, “the man who was talking to me rocked his sick baby in his arms, clumps of flies gathered on its sleeping eyelids.” All at once, she records the man’s poverty and its conditional nature, and her eye and ear demonstrate how his survival and dignity are severely curtailed.
Children collected around us, taking care not to burn their bare skin on the scorching tin walls of the shed they call a home. The man’s mind was far away from the troubles of his sick baby. He was making me a list of the fruits he used to pick in the forest. He counted forty-eight kinds. He told me that he didn’t think he or his children would ever be able to afford to eat any fruit again. Not unless he stole it. I asked him what was wrong with his baby. He said it would be better for the baby to die than live like this. I asked what the baby’s mother thought about that. She didn’t reply. She just stared.
To rebut the gospel that technology, deregulation, and privatization — “modernization theory” during the Cold War — will save India, Roy delves into the numbers of citizens disenfranchised, holds them up against what has been promised, and finds them lacking. The projects fail to deliver (in kilowatt hours) or to reimburse (with payments promised to people removed from their submerged homes). She captures what the nonpayment means to these families, images of those sacrificed to rising India.
“Twelve families who had small holdings in the vicinity of the dam site had their land acquired,” she writes. “They told me how, when they objected, cement was poured into their water pipes, their standing crops were bulldozed, and the police occupied the land by force.” Multiply this scene by 50 million.
Roy eulogizes the victims’ dying citizenship and their dying dreams of citizenship, and she marks such moments with damning aphorisms for what a noncitizen, a nonperson, has in store. “Resettling 200,000 people in order to take (or pretend to take) drinking water to 40 million — there’s something wrong with the scale of operations here,” she writes. “This is fascist math.”
Privatization and the West
Beyond these changing roles, Roy’s work is riddled with moments of contrast between what is happening in the bank ledgers of the elite, at the self-congratulatory press conferences, and at the dinner tables of poor people. On her way to a definition of economic privatization, for instance, appears one of these rudimentary self-portraits.
“As a writer, one spends a lifetime journeying into the heart of language, trying to minimize, if not eliminate, the distance between language and thought.” But for states and corporations, “the whole purpose of language is to mask intent.” As first-world and multinational corporations wreak privatized chaos in the developing world, this is all the more true.
Roy’s early work stood on the shoulders of environmental movements, and she resists the mantra of nature as commodity. Privatization, she reflects, “is the transfer of productive public assets from the state to private companies. Productive assets include natural resources.”
Earth, forest, water, air. These are assets that the state holds in trust for the people it represents. In a country like India, 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas. That’s 700 million people. Their lives depend directly on access to natural resources. To snatch these away and sell them as stock to private companies is a process of barbaric dispossession on a scale that has no parallel in history.
The logic starts with bureaucrats confessing their inefficiency, a malaise; the rationale to privatize will follow naturally from the confession. “The solution to this malaise, we discover, is not to improve our housekeeping skills, not to try and minimize our losses, not to force the state to be more accountable, but to permit it to abdicate its responsibility altogether and privatize the power sector. Then magic will happen. Economic viability and Swiss-style efficiency will kick in like clockwork.”
A local example of this is the Enron scandal. In 1993, the Indian National Congress–ruled state government of Maharashtra signed an agreement for a 695-megawatt power plant. This agreement would not go well for the party.
The opposition parties, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena, set up a howl of swadeshi (nationalist) protest and filed legal proceedings against Enron and the state government. They alleged malfeasance and corruption at the highest level. A year later, when the state elections were announced, it was the only campaign issue of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.
When that alliance won, its members denounced the deal as “loot-through-liberalization.” Keep in mind that the liberals of the Indian National Congress Party, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru’s old party, enabled the right-wing coalition to come to power, first regionally then nationally, through these actions plausibly portrayed as fighting corruption. The opposition leader who kept his promise and scrapped the project “more or less directly accused the Congress Party government of having taken a $13 million bribe from Enron.”
Enron, for its part, could hardly deny this, making “no secret of the fact that, in order to secure the deal, it had paid out millions of dollars to ‘educate’ the politicians and bureaucrats involved in the deal.” For pointing out this liberal corruption, Roy was repeatedly denounced, accused “of sedition, of being anti-national, of being a spy, and, most ludicrous of all, of receiving ‘foreign funds.’” This is how the Congress Party apparently deflects blame, while its well-compensated exit from power, in this state and elsewhere, helped usher in a reign of fascist terror against India’s Muslims. The fascists were able, reasonably, to cast liberals as corrupt, paving the way for the former’s taking power.
India’s Genocide Against Muslims
Amid such developments, a Dutch filmmaker once asked Arundhati Roy what India can teach the world. She offered an ironic lesson, guiding the filmmaker to India’s fascist training camps, “a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakha, where . . . ordinary people march around in khaki shorts and learn that amassing nuclear weapons, religious bigotry, misogyny, homophobia, book burning, and outright hatred are the ways to retrieve a nation’s lost dignity.” This is one of the recurring motifs of Arundhati Roy’s work: helping Indians and the world to see India’s fascist infrastructure, and warning against its most folksy herald in prime minister Narendra Modi.
Roy frequently reminds the reader that the RSS’s leader during World War II (a man called M. S. Golwalkar) openly admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Politicians of both the Indian National Congress Party and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are members of this volunteer, fraternal organization, which has millions of members across the nation. Their work bends toward fascism, by way of nationalism. In her essay “Listening to Grasshoppers,” she reports the stakes for India’s Muslims.
In the state of Gujarat there was a genocide against the Muslim community in 2002. I use the word genocide advisedly . . . The genocide began as a collective punishment for an unsolved crime — the burning of a railway coach in which fifty-three Hindu pilgrims were burned to death. In a carefully planned orgy of supposed retaliation, two thousand Muslims were slaughtered in broad daylight by squads of armed killers, organized by fascist militias, and backed by the Gujarat government and the administration of the day. Muslim women were gang-raped and burned alive. Muslim shops, Muslim businesses and Muslim shrines and mosques were systematically destroyed. Two thousand were killed and more than one hundred thousand people were driven from their homes.
As she calls out one of the key perpetrators — the shameless “helmsman” of this genocide, Modi, now in his second term as prime minister — the scope of her moral and comparative reasoning is sweeping and meticulous. Yes, the 2002 Gujarat genocide was small compared to other global massacres. It was small compared, even, to an atrocity egged on by the Congress Party that killed three thousand Sikhs after prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored — first, because it was used to win multiple elections.
Modi, Roy writes, “had become a folk hero, called in by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to campaign on its behalf in other Indian states.” Second, because it “is part of a larger, more elaborate and systematic vision.” India’s “fascist math” has evolved in pursuit of electoral gains. The math is underpinned by a hatred that “must see its victims as subhuman, as parasites whose eradication would be a service to society,” but that is cleverly weaponized to win elections.
A certain class of genocidaire doesn’t bother with denial and even brags about their killings. So it was in the colonial United States with English Puritan John Mason reporting the following of a Pequot massacre, which Roy quotes: “Those [Pequots] that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces.” And so it is today, with one of the “lynchpins” of the Gujarat genocide, who told an Indian magazine, “We didn’t spare a single Muslim shop, we set everything on fire, we set them on fire and killed them.”
India represents a large economic base, and it is courted for this rather than castigated for such atrocities. Politically aligned with him, Donald Trump is cozy with Modi, even appearing at a “Howdy Modi” rally in Texas in the fall. But so was Barack Obama, who normalized this fascist math through the strategic friendship he nurtured, almost like endorsing Trump’s politics overseas before they landed in the United States. To both these figures, India’s importance in the region overruled the need to condemn Modi’s barbarism. And the Indian media, too, are engaged in fascist math, as seen in Modi’s high approval ratings even after he “demonetized” Indian currency, creating financial freefall.
When India rewrote its laws in December to strip citizenship from millions of Muslims, many protested. The backlash came in the form of the worst pogroms against Muslims in decades. In North East Delhi, in February, repeated waves of attackers chased Muslims from mixed neighborhoods; beat, hacked, and shot more than fifty to death; mutilated their genitals and set them on fire.
When Roy details such atrocities, she doesn’t want American readers to forget the brutalities done in our name, either. In her meditation on genocide, she asks:
And was the death of a million Iraqis under the sanctions regime, prior to the US invasion of 2003, genocide (which is what UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Dennis Halliday called it) or was it ‘worth it,’ as Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the United Nations, claimed? It depends on who makes the rules. Bill Clinton? Or an Iraqi mother who has lost her child?
In an essay about Modi’s genocidal killings, the point is that her US readers can’t let ourselves off the hook, not psychologically, not morally, as we read of a different kind of atrocity in the subcontinent.
The Woodborer in Her Heart
By way of an introduction to a 2003 edition of Noam Chomsky’s For Reasons of State, we learn from Roy herself why she is so indispensable. “As a child growing up in the state of Kerala, in South India — where the first democratically elected communist government in the world came to power in 1959, the year I was born — I worried terribly about being a gook,” she begins.
Kerala was only a few thousand miles west of Vietnam. We had jungles and rivers and ricefields, and communists, too. I kept imagining my mother, my brother, and myself being blown out of the bushes by a grenade, or mowed down, like the gooks in the movies, by an American marine with muscled arms and chewing gum and a loud background score. In my dreams, I was the burning girl in the famous photograph taken on the road from Trang Bang . . . As someone who grew up on the cusp of both American and Soviet propaganda (which more or less neutralized each other), when I first read Noam Chomsky, it occurred to me that his marshalling of evidence was — how shall I put it? — insane. Even a quarter of the evidence he had compiled would have been enough to convince me. I used to wonder why he needed to do so much work. But now I understand that the magnitude and intensity of Chomsky’s work is a barometer of the magnitude, scope and relentlessness of the propaganda machine that he’s up against. He’s like the wood-borer who lives inside the third rack of my bookshelf. Day and night, I hear his jaws crunching through the wood, grinding it to a fine dust. It’s as though he disagrees with the literature and wants to destroy the very structure on which it rests. I call him Chompsky.
“Layer by layer,” she writes, “Chomsky strips down the process of decision making by U.S. government officials, to reveal at its core the pitiless heart of the American war machine, completely insulated from the realities of war, blinded by ideology, and willing to annihilate millions of human beings, civilians, soldiers, women, children, villages, whole cities, whole ecosystems — with scientifically honed methods of brutality.”
She captures what it is about Chomsky that heartens us. It explains how indispensable Roy is, too. Her early essays feature a furious curiosity that masters the tools of technocrats — becoming a “clerk,” she calls it. Checking numbers and reports, interviewing victims. The writing in her early essays is thrilling — she writes as a refuter with bursts of bravado and comic asides.
But later in the collection, we find her transformed into a sober but still irreverent detective of history, seeking to decode the precise moment when the spell (of nationalism, of state violence) was cast in India — as with her essay on B. R. Ambedkar.
The Doctor and the Saint
To begin her most ambitious essay, on the problem of Hindu caste, Roy recounts the horrifying rape and murder of Surekha Bhotmange. To show the problem’s invisibility, Roy compares the media’s treatment of Bhotmange, an untouchable, or Dalit, in India in 2006 to that of Malala Yousafzai, a girl in Pakistan in 2012. After Yousafzai was denied an education in Pakistan and got one anyway, defying the local Taliban, she was famously shot in the head, miraculously survived, and was made into a global symbol for women’s education through the “I am Malala” slogan — a slogan supposedly defiant of conservative regimes but marketed in the context of the United States’ so-called war on terror and its media and NGO adjuncts.
Roy is fair in her depiction of Malala herself, who is noble. But her sentiments toward Malala’s being used in a propaganda campaign for war are reduced to a single sentence: “The US drone strikes in Pakistan continue with their feminist mission to ‘take out’ misogynist, Islamist terrorists.”
Contrast this with Bhotmange, a forty-year-old Dalit woman in India. Better educated than her husband, she served as the de facto head of her household. Her children were educated, too. Like her intellectual idol, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who was one of India’s founding lights, she left Hindu untouchability for caste-free Buddhism. But for trying to make improvements in her plot of farmland that abutted the farms of supposedly higher-born Hindus, she was persecuted and oppressed. Assaulting one of her relatives, her neighbors arbitrarily blocked her attempts to run electricity, improve her farm’s infrastructure, or irrigate her crops.
When she fought back, demanding arrests for the beaten relative, a vigilante group of seventy villagers arrived on tractors and raped and murdered her and her daughter after mutilating and murdering her sons. The four members of the family, all but the husband (who ran to call police), were left in a ditch. Unsurprisingly, as with so many Dalits, no justice was served for what Bhotmange, her children, and her husband underwent.
“Surekha Bhotmange and her children lived in a market-friendly democracy,” writes Roy. “So there were no ‘I am Surekha’ petitions from the United Nations to the Indian government, nor any fiats or messages of outrage from heads of state. Which was just as well, because we don’t want any daisy-cutters dropped on us just because we practice caste.” She notes of Ambedkar that he wrote “with the sort of nerve that present-day intellectuals in India find hard to summon,” and she quotes him describing Hinduism as “a veritable chamber of horrors.”
While gruesome, Bhotmange’s story was not atypical. Roy cites the National Crime Records Bureau, which records that “a crime is committed against a Dalit by a non-Dalit every sixteen minutes.” She continues,
every day, more than four Untouchable women are raped by Touchables; every week, thirteen Dalits are murdered and six are kidnapped. In 2012 alone, the year of the Delhi gang-rape and murder, 1574 Dalit women were raped (the rule of thumb is that only ten percent of rapes or other crimes against Dalits are ever reported), and 651 Dalits were murdered. That’s just the rape and butchery. Not the stripping and parading naked, the forced shit-eating (literally), the seizing of land, the social boycotts, the restriction of access to drinking water.
It is for this reason that Roy excavates Ambedkar’s speech, one he never delivered, called “The Annihilation of Caste.” When she discovered it, she found it refreshing. At once an explainer of Indian caste and an alternate path that could have better fixed the Constitution, the speech addresses the gap between “what most Indians are schooled to believe in and the reality we experience every day of our lives.” What follows is Roy’s 120-page thesis on the battle between the doctor wise enough to oppose caste, who helped write India’s constitution, and the better-known saint who fought him to preserve caste, Mohandas K. Gandhi. The essay goes on to ask why international shame campaigns leave out Indian caste, stories like Surekha and her family’s, though these campaigns manage to focus on “other contemporary abominations like apartheid, racism, sexism, economic imperialism, and religious fundamentalism.”
While independent India was being built, Ambedkar fought for an equality that was incompatible with the stratified system of Hindu caste that Gandhi defended. But after a long section on the debate between these two men, she asks, what about today? “Can caste be annihilated?”
Not unless we show the courage to rearrange the stars in our firmament. Not unless those who call themselves revolutionary develop a radical critique of Brahminism. Not unless those who understand Brahminism sharpen their critique of capitalism.
And of course not unless we read Babasaheb Ambedkar. If not inside our classrooms, then outside them. Until then, we will remain what he called the “sick men” and women of Hindustan, who seem to have no desire to get well.
Indeed, isn’t caste another kind of fascist math? And doesn’t each type of Indian violence — against Muslims, Adivasis, and Dalits, not to mention its rivers, elements, and forests — reinforce the other?
Yet India’s wretched aren’t just victims. In Roy’s decades-long retelling, they have also taken up their own self-defense, including an infamous Maoist armed resistance. She surveys this response in her long essay “Walking with the Comrades.” On one side, she writes, is a
massive paramilitary force armed with the money, the firepower, the media and the hubris of an emerging Superpower. On the other, ordinary villagers armed with traditional weapons, backed by a superbly organized, hugely motivated Maoist guerrilla fighting force with an extraordinary and violent history of armed rebellion.
She explains their violence, too, these downtrodden who, in another essay, were having their water pipes filled with concrete, whose towns were being emptied of inhabitants in an operation known as Operation Green Hunt. “Today once again the insurrection has spread through the mineral-rich forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal — homeland to millions of India’s tribal people, dreamland to the corporate world.”
It keeps getting wiped out, this rebellion in the forest; then it is reborn elsewhere. Does she know that armed struggle is violent? Yes, of course. Does she condone this? No, she contextualizes it. She writes that it’s convenient for the state, and its boosters, to see each new uprising ahistorically. To present it in a Cold War frame of Maoist (read: communist) versus progress. To forget that India’s tribal people were shafted, like its Dalits, by the Constitution, whose ratification she describes as a “tragic day for tribal people,” who were turned into “squatters on their own land,” denied the fruits, nourishment, and resources of their own forests, their whole way of life criminalized, especially when resource extraction or a dam project came along.
“Of the tens of millions of internally displaced people . . . refugees of India’s ‘progress,’” she writes, “the great majority are tribal people.” The first of their rebellions was in Naxal; thus Naxalite became a synonym. But anachronistically Maoist? “It’s convenient [for the state] to forget that tribal people in Central India have a history of resistance that predates Mao by centuries.”
When Roy first set out to research this essay, her fixer was supposed to be holding bananas and carrying a magazine, so she would know who he was. He had neither; he said he couldn’t find the magazine. And the bananas? “I ate them.” She humanizes them as more than just an armed struggle for their land; she shows them dancing, celebrating, fighting, sleeping in the forests under stars.
She writes that nonviolence, while preferable, cannot work if no media will cover your plight. As a member of the media, she travels there to fix this. Meanwhile, they defend themselves.
She does the same humanizing work in the conflict in Kashmir, contextualizing India’s errors there in another essay filled with history and critique, which also shows the occupying state’s personae non gratae harvesting and eating apples, and otherwise enjoying what life is left to them, in their shrinking moments of peace during another crisis of rising India’s own making.
The Critic and Her Critics
Of course, liberal intellectuals read Roy’s critiques of the state and her portraits of dissidents as beyond the pale. Samanth Subramanian begins his New Yorker review of My Seditious Heart by reminding his readers again and again just how angry Roy is. While he praises her apple scene in Kashmir, her critique of the neoliberal project he reduces to “uninhibited anger,” and asks that anti–Fourth Estate platitude, wielded often against leftists: What solutions does she have, anyway?
A typical sentence in Subramanian’s review describing Roy’s critiques begins, “She lambasts,” or “She flays.” He accuses her of inconsistency in her attitudes toward nonviolence, and of adopting “a gentler perspective” when considering the violence committed by India’s Maoist “Naxalite” movement. But despite his characterization of her alleged hypocritical tenderness toward leftist violence, what she actually wrote was that their founder, Charu Majumdar’s “abrasive rhetoric fetishizes violence, blood and martyrdom and often employs a language so coarse as to be almost genocidal.” Does that sound tender, wistful?
Subramanian goes on to dispassionately mock Roy for accepting literary prize money funded by NGOs while condemning other NGOs “without weighing for us, on the page, the work that nonprofit may have done.” What she actually wrote, however, was that “the corporate or foundation-endowed NGOs are global finance’s way of buying into resistance movements, literally as shareholders buy shares in companies, and then try to control them from within.” Functioning like “listening posts,” they turn artists, activists, and filmmakers away from radical confrontation, “ushering them in the direction of multiculturalism, gender equity, community development” — bandages on the wounds left by privatization. She adds, finally, that she resents how the “transformation of the idea of justice into the industry of human rights has been a conceptual coup in which NGOs and foundations have played a crucial part.”
It’s typical of a journalist of a certain, often liberal, bent to pad their clips with distortions of writers on the Left. But however much anger some find so disqualifying in her work — Subramanian’s editors soften his misread to “The Prescient Anger of Arundhati Roy” — Roy’s work reads to me as an act of critical love. She’s trying to save lives, the way you would in a pandemic. To make the numbers of those suffering less abstract, smaller even.
As a writer, a fiction writer, I have often wondered whether the attempt to always be precise, to try and get it all factually right somehow reduces the epic scale of what is really going on . . . I worry that I am allowing myself to be railroaded into offering prosaic, factual precision when maybe what we need is a feral howl, or the transformative power and real precision of poetry. Something about the cunning, Brahmanical, intricate, bureaucratic, file-bound, “apply-through-proper-channels” nature of governance and subjugation in India seems to have made a clerk out of me. My only excuse is to say that it takes odd tools to uncover the maze of subterfuge and hypocrisy that cloaks the callousness and the cold, calculated violence of the world’s favorite new superpower.
In other words, Roy’s anxiety over where her obsessive heart has led her is guided by an originating question: What can she report or say that will get those in power to stop cheating at math and killing? To get the adjuncts to those in power, in the media, to stop covering for the first lot? How many ways must she remake herself to do so?
The Duplicitous Author
Roy recounted on stage in New York City an amusing and telling anecdote about the moral fog of some of her critics. A man came up to her once who recognized her. Though she tried not to get pulled in, knowing what was coming, she finally admitted who she was. He made clear he strongly disapproved of her, for all her critiques of India. But he couldn’t immediately articulate what he disagreed with, muttering something about Kashmir.
But then the word came out of his mouth; she was “duplicitous.” This surprised her. She vaguely argued back that he was mistaken, that her critiques of Indian state violence in places like Gujarat and Kashmir were unmitigated and clear, the opposite of duplicitous. Finally, she understood that he didn’t know what the word meant and told him so. He came back to the word, hoping its meaning might stretch to encapsulate his gut critique of her lack of patriotism.
“But nevermind,” he cut her off. “Why worry about vocabulary? Come, take a selfie with me?”
“Now that,” she said, “that’s duplicitous.”
When Arundhati Roy argued in a 2010 speech that Kashmir was historically not part of India, the women’s wing of the fascist BJP, who found this view intolerable, camped outside her house, demanding she take back her statement or “quit India.” The Indian right even allegedly sent around a PDF of her 2017 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, presumably to deny her royalties by giving those who might otherwise be tempted to buy the book a free copy.
As a non-Indian from a country that loves to denounce “censorship” abroad while indulging in it in its own way at home, I shouldn’t overstate her persecution. While her work has been deeply distorted by some opponents in India and elsewhere, that’s how it goes for progressives. She has more readers around the world, of her novels and essays, than most writers ever get.
So the fact that Chicago-based Haymarket Books has collected her essays offers a chance for readers to become familiar with the breadth of struggles Roy has immersed herself in for twenty-five years, which inform her novels. Roy the essayist embodies the legalistic but humanistic ruthlessness of a public defender, the wit and wordplay of a poet, a comrade who takes no injustice as a given. SOURCE
Joel Whitney is the author of Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, Poetry Magazine, the New York Times, the New Republic, and elsewhere.