October 17, 2013

Locomotive Breath

The arrogance of mankind in assuming that it can survive the destruction of the environment is spearheaded by the short-sighted actions of its politicians and businessmen, who don’t much care for a future that will arrive after they are dead and gone. They target those who oppose destructive activity: autocratic regimes like Russia arrest thirty people- mainly Greenpeace activists- and absurdly charge the ‘Arctic 30’ with piracy because they protested oil exploration in the Arctic; supposedly democratic regimes like India and the US will or downplay the environmental impact of human activity- greed, actually- and collaborate with big business to circumvent their own environmental laws. 

It is inevitable that, as natural resources grow more scarce, confrontation between governments and industry on one side and environmentalists (or villagers whose livelihoods or way of life is being destroyed, as in India) will only increase. Shale oil exploration promises to be one of the new flashpoints. 

Environmentalists in the US- where shale oil is seen by many as an economic messiah in an energy guzzling country- are now expressing increasing alarm at the operation called hydraulic fracturing- or fracking. Environment America, a non-profit advocacy group in the US, goes a step further in its just released report; it calls for a complete ban on fracking. 

Fracking involves injection of massive amounts of fresh water- mixed with sand and chemicals- into the earth during the extraction of shale gas. The main problem is that there is massive contamination of ground drinking water as a result, besides air and noise pollution and the release of chemical waste- including, critics say, carcinogenic waste, into the environment. Environmentalists say that there is also fear of earthquakes.

The full impact of fracking- a decade old process- has still to be completely studied, but, says Environment America’s attorney John Rumpler, “Fracking has taken a dirty and destructive toll on our environment. If this dirty drilling continues unchecked, these numbers will only get worse.” The organisation says that people living close to fracking areas are already showing symptoms connected to fracking pollution, thanks to some 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater that was generated in 2012 alone.

The momentum against fracking is picking up in the US, where federal policy makers are to decide on rules for fracking soon. And, although some countries or local administrations have banned fracking around the world- mainly in Europe, but in Australia, Canada, and Argentina too- there is tremendous pressure to allow fracking even in those nations; the UK overturned its own ban last year. That ban, incidentally, was put in place after two small earthquakes occurred in Lancashire where a company was exploring for shale gas.

The problem is, of course, that businessmen and politicians use terms like sustainable development, energy security and economic security to brush environmental concerns aside or to dilute attempts at regulation. That is rubbish- they are only interested in the electoral or economic pay-outs that come their way. The temperament does not change even after a major disaster like the Deepwater Horizon. Three and a half years later, nothing has changed, except that we now charge- with piracy- those who protest drilling even in the pristine Arctic. As for sustainable development, my understanding of that term would include something that is anathema to big business- an acceptance of lower- even much lower- profits as environmental protection costs increase. That is simply not going to happen. 

I speak mainly of the US here, but other countries- particularly those energy deficient ones in Asia like India- will be even more uncaring when it comes to shale gas deposits and their exploitation. The fight against fracking will be another lost cause; it will go the same way as the Arctic 30 have gone. 

And so goes mankind- like the all-time loser in the impending train wreck of Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath,’ it plunges headlong to its death. The shale gas train will just not slow down; there is simply too much money involved for that to happen.

In the end, my cynical advice to shipping today is this: shift enough of your business from crude oil to gas tankers. Forget the fact that you are also in the speeding locomotive. Like everybody else on the train, maximise profit instead of concentrating on stopping the inevitable wreck.


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