01/29/2013 06:08 PM
Battling Big Oil: How Four Nigerian Villagers Took Shell to Court
By Nils Klawitter
Four Nigerian villagers from the Niger River delta have challenged mighty Shell in a Dutch court. They complain that the oil giant has caused environmental devastation and ruined their homes. A verdict in the unprecedented case is expected on Wednesday.
Royal Dutch Shell CEO Peter Voser likes to talk about the good deeds his company performs worldwide. "Sustainable development and social performance is absolutely key in the way we do our business," says Voser, a Swiss national. The head of Shell feels a duty to pursue such noble objectives as observing human rights and protecting the environment.
Not everyone affected by his global business, however, would agree that he is particularly successful. Take, for example, Eric Dooh, a Nigerian.
Earlier this January, he once again returned to his fish ponds, or at least to what was left of them after they were exposed to Shell's oil in the Niger delta. This was once Dooh's home. It was where his father taught him how to fish. He learned to catch crabs and tilapia, and how to find his way back to his village, Goi, guiding his canoe through the shallow waters of the mangrove-lined courses of the waterways and channels. It is located in Ogoniland, about an hour's drive southeast of the city of Port Harcourt.
The village no longer exists. "The fish are gone," says Dooh. After the fish disappeared, the people gradually left Goi. They were driven out by a large oil spill from a Shell pipeline. It happened more than eight years ago, but the lagoons and fish basins are still coated with black oil. In Goi, it smells as if you were filling up your gas tank on a freshly tarred road.
It is for that reason that Dooh, 44, has filed a lawsuit against Shell, not in Nigeria but in the Netherlands, where the company is headquartered. "I want them to clean this up properly," he says. On Wednesday, Dooh will appear before the district court in The Hague for the delivery of the verdict, together with three other fishermen who joined the suit and with supporters from the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
They will be facing an armada of lawyers. Shell is a powerful entity, and not just in the Netherlands, with $470 billion (€350 billion) in annual sales, 90,000 employees and 43,000 filling stations in more than 80 countries. Experts estimate that the multinational corporation earns about $1.8 billion in profits annually with its Nigerian oil wells alone. For Shell, both money and reputation are on the line, and its attorneys have tried to block the trial for four years.
Largely Immune to Lawsuits
Ultimate responsibility, says Shell, lies with the local subsidiary, the Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC), which is involved in a joint venture with the Nigerian government. But the court agreed with the plaintiffs' argument that strategic decisions for the African country are made at Shell headquarters in The Hague.
No matter how the case turns out, the fact that a major corporation is being sued for the first time in a European court for environmental damage in a developing country will have consequences. Until this suit, energy companies had seemed largely immune to lawsuits from the developing countries where they produce their oil and gas. Dutch judges could choose to set an example in the Shell case -- as well as creating a legal debt of sorts. In the future, people who live in countries where European companies benefit from a lack of legal enforcement may be granted recourse to assert their rights.
In Nigeria, the legal situation isn't even that bad, at least in theory. The Nigerian constitution includes protections for water and soil. Petroleum laws stipulate "fair and adequate" compensation after oil spills.
Many legal experts and non-governmental organizations hold that this even applies to cases of sabotage, which are still widespread in the Niger delta, even though many of today's rebels are more interested in business than politics.
Some tap into pipelines and operate illegal refineries. Others have accepted hundreds of millions of dollars in amnesty funds and spend their days lounging in luxury hotels or provide armed guards to protect the pipelines that they used to blow up. To its credit, Shell has also agreed to clean up spills caused by acts of sabotage.
But what good are laws and promises in a poverty-stricken country that earns a fortune from the oil business, while two thirds of the population live on less than $1.25 a day? Nigeria is considered one of the most corrupt countries on earth. While its citizens have almost no access to clean drinking water, each of its 109 senators is paid an annual salary of about $1.5 million. In such a country, whether something is considered "clean" or not is often just a matter of money.
The negotiations between the oil companies and the leaders of the affected villages are often held in secret, and "without any formal court action being involved," according to a report by Amnesty International. To make the deals seem legitimate, the affected villages later receive a large number of receipts from the companies hired to do the cleanup. The four plaintiffs received 27 of these reports. In some of them, not even the date of the leak was correct.
Bopp van Dessel is familiar with the paper battles. He headed Shell's environmental studies department in Nigeria in the mid-1990s. "One Greenpeace report was more effective than writing 40 'impact assessment reports' for Shell," he says. In Goi, someone named "Nwin Dooh" had signed documents confirming that the cleanup activities had been performed. "It's a fictitious name. That person doesn't exist," says Eric Dooh.
Shell was unwilling to comment on the matter, as it was on many other questions SPIEGEL asked. For the oil multinational, the cleanup in Goi ended in 2007 as noted in the cleanup reports. According to the company's website, the affected villages were as good as clean.
Mene Tomii, 79, still remembers when the drilling companies first arrived, and how he rubbed his hands together with glee when the first oil bubbled from the ground in 1958. Tomii is one of the kings of the region. He arrives in a brightly waxed, slightly dented black Mercedes. Back then, he says, Shell had summoned the villages chiefs to a meeting in a Methodist church.
"If you're lucky, we will find oil under your land, and then you'll be set for life," the Shell managers promised, Tomii says. He can still hear their promises today. "What they eventually paid, if anything, was one shilling in compensation for each tree that was used for economic gain." But the business boomed, and today the Dutch-British company has been extracting petroleum from Nigerian soil for more than 54 years.
Oozing into the Delta
Some 9,000 kilometers (5,590 miles) of pipelines were laid in the bush to transport the oil. In some places, Shell didn't even bother to bury them.
In 2011 alone, there were 181 leaks from the often antiquated and porous lines. Even Shell admits that there have been some maintenance problems. The company blames the majority of the accidents, including the 2004 Goi disaster, on sabotage.
In the last 50 years, an estimated 1.5 million tons of Shell's oil have leaked into the river delta, an amount corresponding to nearly one Exxon Valdez accident per year. Environmentalists estimate that about 77,000 liters a day are still oozing into the delta today.
The United Nations has now joined the ranks of critics of the oil companies and of the Nigerian government. A 2011 study documents the poisoning of groundwater in the region. In a village occupied by the Ogoni people near a pipeline, people were drinking water contaminated with cancer-causing benzene -- in concentrations 900 times above the threshold established by the World Health Organization.
Eric Dooh began to feel the side effects of oil production as a young boy. "I knew at an early age what oil spills were, and that the explosions around us had to do with the exploration of oil fields." After one detonation in 1987, his father's chicken barn collapsed, killing a thousand animals. Again and again, oil could be seen bubbling from nearby Shell pipelines. The family's three large fishponds and dozens of spawning ponds were also constantly filling up with the black oil. People started getting eczema.
"At some point my father had had enough. He was tired of the handouts Shell used to keep us and the villages quiet, and he sued them," says Dooh. It wasn't an easy step for his father, one of the village elders of Goi. As a young man, he himself had worked on Shell's drilling rigs. But soon he ran out of the money he needed to pursue the case. A case filed in Port Harcourt in 1993 hasn't been decided to this day.
The village of Goi met its end in October 2004, after a major oil spill in the nearby Trans-Niger Pipeline. An oil slick spread through the channels for days and finally caught fire. The lagoon burned for almost a week, and 15 hectares (37 acres) of mangrove forest was in flames. Goi became a ghost town.
Dooh's father died in 2011, but before his death he decided to file another lawsuit against Shell, this time with the help of Friends of the Earth, which now supports his son in The Hague.
The suit came as a shock to Shell. Among the Dutch upper classes, it had long been seen as impudent to so much as criticize the oil giant. It seemed unbelievable that four Nigerian fishermen could take the company to court. But that was only the beginning.
For the first time in 103 years, the company was also called to testify before the Dutch parliament. Ian Craig, Shell's director for sub-Saharan Africa, sought to justify the environmentally harmful practice of flaring off natural gas, which is a byproduct of oil production, as well as the spills by claiming that such adverse effects were not a problem in another West African country, Gabon. Craig also claimed that Shell's operations in Africa were subject to the same standards as anyplace else.
Former Shell employee Bopp van Dessel tells a different story. "The facilities in Nigeria were in conformity with neither internal nor international standards." While the company used shiny drilling equipment in Western countries, van Dessel hardly recognized the same equipment in Nigeria. "Every Shell facility I saw was dirty. There was a terrible stench, and it was clear to me that the area was being devastated."
The Distance between Nigeria and the Netherlands
To be on the safe side, Shell attorneys took over from executives at hearing for the case brought by the four fishermen in The Hague. But this time, the millions upon millions of dollars the company has spent on social projects are not going to help Shell.
To be sure, the company has invested a significant amount of money in Nigeria, building roads and schools, and paying for programs to help people set up businesses. But of what use are such programs when human drinking water is contaminated? New hospitals are a good idea, but it's grotesque to realize that most of the patients are being treated for health issues associated with contaminated water or respiratory problems caused by the constant gas flares.
The attorneys were almost weepy when they presented one of their key arguments, asking the judges to consider that the managers of the subsidiary, SPDC, are not just confronted with a foreign language, but also with a completely different "legal culture," to which they are not accustomed. "The distance between Nigeria and the Netherlands is large, not only in geographical terms."
But sometimes the government and the company are surprisingly close. Shell CEO Voser, for instance, likes to appear personally to discuss a planned petroleum law with the Nigerian president. And according to one company report, Voser even sees his bonus affected when there are oil spills in Nigeria. According to Wikileaks, Shell's longstanding regional vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa, Ann Pickard, boasted of having her own people situated in all government ministries.
And then there is Shell's theory that all three spills that are the subject of the trial in The Hague were the work of saboteurs or oil thieves. "It's hard to believe everything that Shell ascribes to thievery," says Nnimmo Bassey, an architect who was forced to go underground by the former military regime. "Allegedly almost seven million liters are being tapped every day," says Bassey, a winner of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize and one of Nigeria's best-known activists. "Such numbers are impossible to check."
There is an agency to investigate leaks and spills, says Bassey with a smile, but it's "dependent on Shell's expertise and helicopters." The oil multinational's only comment is that it has a professional working relationship with all government authorities, as it does in the case of the leak that contaminated Alali Efanga's fish ponds in Oruma in 2005. He too is suing Shell. And in his case, everything once again points to sabotage, at least that's what the company says. But according to internal company reports, there was already talk of "extensive and severe wall loss" in the pipes in the mid-1990s. In 1999, corrosion in the neighboring Kolo Creek Pipeline was deemed "unmanageable."
"The pipe was already leaking periodically before 2005," says Efanga, who now works as a financial accountant. Shell has no comment on the incident. The company also did not respond to questions as to how, if there had been sabotage, the grass around the site in question could remain intact, and why the saboteurs would have dug a hole more than 2 meters (6 feet) deep to drill a hole into the bottom of the pipeline.
"There are laws enabling people to seek damages, but no one enforces them," says David Amakiri, the king of Oruma, who works for Shell. He is not particularly complimentary of the company. Did the community benefit for the oil boom? He says that Shell built a road to his royal palace, an assembly hut where photos of him and his ancestors hang above worn sofas. "That was all. Since 1971."
It will be a long time before fish can be caught in Oruma and Goi again -- 30 years, UN employees told Eric Dooh, who wants to return to his lagoon. He hopes to one day build a small bed-and-breakfast in this spot with the nice view of one of the meandering delta waterways. One day, he says.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
01/31/2013 05:41 PMFour at Once: Volcano Quartet Erupts on Kamchatka
A unique show is taking place on Kamchatka these days: Four separate but nearby volcanoes are erupting simultaneously on the Russian peninsula. A Moscow film crew has produced an awe-inspiring 360-degree video of the natural fireworks.
Volcanic eruptions are hardly a rarity. It seems that a new one goes off every few weeks or so somewhere in the world. But a string of four volcanoes erupting in close proximity to one another is virtually unheard of.
That, though, is what has taken place in recent weeks on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's far east. Four different cones and mountains, all within 180 kilometers (110 miles) of each other, have been active simultaneously since late November. Given that volcano experts don't believe that the four volcanoes are being fed from the same magma source, the parallel eruptions would seem to be the geological equivalent of winning the lottery.
And, as a photography team from the Moscow-based Airpano discovered, the phenomenon presented a fantastic opportunity to produce some awe-inspiring images and videos. Indeed, the quartet of lava and ash-spewing peaks are so close to one another -- they lie within 180 kilometers (110 miles) of each other -- that that the film crew recently visited all of them in a single day. (Use your mouse or arrow keys to change your viewpoint once you click in to the video below.)
That volcanoes erupt in Kamchatka is, of course, hardly news. The peninsula, which has a total land mass that is slightly larger than Germany, is one of the most active parts of the infamous "Ring of Fire," the zone of volcanic and seismic activity that encircles the Pacific Ocean. Three tectonic plates -- the North American Plate, the Okhotsk Plate and the Pacific Plate -- collide beneath Kamchatka, with the peninsula's coastal range boasting 30 active volcanoes.
All four of the volcanoes now erupting have shown significant activity in recent years. Most recently, Tobalchik began spewing lava on Nov. 27 of last year, creating the impressive lava flows visible in the 360 degree video taken by Airpano. Shiveluch, the northernmost of the four, prefers shooting columns of ash high into the air, which it has been doing on a regular basis during the last four years since a magma dome in its crater exploded. Besymjanny awoke with a bang in the 1950s following 1,000 years of dormancy and has been active since then, with huge clouds of ash rising on a regular basis. Finally, the southernmost of the quartet, Kisimen, has been erupting regularly since 2010, and there is concern that it could perform a repeat of the violent explosion which sheered off half of the mountain some 1,300 years ago.
Click this link and use your cursor to move the helicopter around the volcano: it's really cool.http://www.spiegel.de/static/360grad/kamtschatka/
US carbon emissions fall to lowest levels since 1994
Energy-saving technologies and a doubling in renewables led to the reduction in climate pollution, new figures show
Suzanne Goldenberg US environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 February 2013 11.34 GMT
COP15: US carbon emissions from diesel trucks passing windmills of windfarm near Banning, California
The reduction in climate pollution – even as Congress failed to act on climate change – brings America more than halfway towards Barack Obama’s target. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images
America's carbon dioxide emissions last year fell to their lowest levels since 1994, according to a new report.
Carbon dioxide emissions fell by 13% in the past five years, because of new energy-saving technologies and a doubling in the take-up of renewable energy, the report compiled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) said.
The reduction in climate pollution – even as Congress failed to act on climate change – brings America more than halfway towards Barack Obama's target of cutting emissions by 17% from 2005 levels over the next decade, the Bloomberg analysts said.
By the end of last year, America's emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions had fallen 10.7% from the 2005 baselines.
That drop puts Obama in a better position to defend his environmental achievements, which have often gone overlooked in the bitter rows over climate science.
It may also buoy up America's standing in the global climate negotiations.
"There have certainly been some solid results on the board in the US as a result of all these changes," Ethan Zindler, a BCSE analyst said.
A report last year by the independent thinktank Resources for the Future also suggested America was on course to meet those targets.
Lisa Jacobson, president of the BCSE, said the Bloomberg findings exposed the conservative argument that acting on climate change would be a drag on the economy. Instead, carbon emissions declined even as GDP was going up, she noted.
As described by Bloomberg, the US is in the throes of a major shift in energy production. Coal fell to just 18.1% of America's energy mix last year, down from 22.5% in 2007. Oil use also declined.
The explosion of natural gas production, thanks to fracking, filled much of the gap. America got 31% of its electricity from gas-fired power plants last year.
But the report found steadily expanding installation of wind, solar, hydro and geothermal energy. Renewables represented the largest single source of new growth last year, reaching $44bn in 2012, the report said, the report said.
Over the same time span, total energy use fell since 2007, by 6.4%, the report said. Most of the emissions cuts were due to installing more efficient heating and cooling systems in commercial building.
Other cuts in emission came from transport, with 488,000 Americans last year opting for hybrid and plug-in vehicles.
Australian government pledges to protect Great Barrier Reef
Unesco warned last year that the World Heritage Site could be listed as 'in danger if there was no progress by 1 February
guardian.co.uk, Friday 1 February 2013 11.05 GMT
The Australian government pledged to stop coal port or shipping developments that would cause damage to the Great Barrier Reef as it responded to a Friday deadline amid UN warnings that the reef's conservation status could be downgraded.
Unesco warned last year that the World Heritage Site could be listed as "in danger" if there was no evidence of progress by1 February on protecting the reef from threats that also include climate change and the predatory crown-of-thorns starfish, which is wearing away the world's largest living structure.
"The Great Barrier Reef is an iconic Australian environmental asset, the government is absolutely committed to the protection of the reef and our oceans," said federal environment minister Tony Burke as he released the country's report to Unesco. "We will not cut corners or give an inch on protecting it."
Heralded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the 2,000 km (1,200 mile) Great Barrier Reef is home to 400 types of coral, 240 species of birds and 1,500 species of fish. It is worth AU$6bn a year in tourism to the local economy.
But coal is one of Australia's top export earners and the state of Queensland is the country's largest coal producer. The reef faces growing threats from shipping driven by coal project expansions.
Unesco, which gave the reef World Heritage status in 1991, made a number of proposals to the national and Queensland state governments on managing the reef, such as halting further port construction and limiting ship numbers.
"The World Heritage Committee can be assured that no new port developments or associated port infrastructure have been approved outside existing long-established major port areas since the committee made this recommendation," the government's report said.
"A project will only be approved by the Australian government environment minister if the residual impacts on protected matters, including 'outstanding universal value', are determined to be not unacceptable."
The Australian government has already invested A$200m in its Reef Rescue programme and said on Friday it would provide an additional $800,000 to fight the crown-of-thorns starfish, which prey on the reef and have multiplied amid nutrient rich flood waters in the past few years.
Most of the extra funding will be used to employ a second boat to remove the starfish from "high-value tourism reefs" identified as under threat, with the remainder going to the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) to investigate a long-term solution.
A recent study by AIMS researchers found that the pace of coral loss on the reef has increased since 2006 and if the trend continues, coral cover could halve again by 2022, with the southern and central areas most affected.
Globally, reefs are being assailed by myriad threats, particularly rising sea temperatures, but the threat to the Great Barrier Reef is even more pronounced, the AIMS study found.
The government said in its report it believed the reef has the "capacity to recover if the right conditions are in place."
Green groups, who are hoping place the reef on the political agenda this year amid campaigning for a federal election in September, said the report does not go far enough.
"The sheer size and speed of port and associated development along the reef coast is unprecedented, said Robert Leck, the campaign director of the World Wildlife Fund. "There's more dredging, more ships and more turtles and coral dying."
02/01/2013 11:47 AM
'The Last Bit of Paradise': Giant Dam Threatens Brazilian Rainforest
By Jonathan Stock in Altamira, Brazil
The construction of a giant dam in the Amazon region of Brazil is threatening parts of the world's largest rainforest. But the indigenous tribes living here are keeping quiet in return for millions of dollars in promises.
They search for dead meat, and rummage through the trash. They come from the forest and live on the city's waste. They're called "urubus" in northern Brazil, black vultures with curved beaks and lizard-like heads.
The old people say the birds bring bad luck. There are now thousands in the city of Altamira, more than ever before. They blacken the sky when seen from a distance, and at closer range their silence is unsettling. Black vultures, lacking the vocal organ found in birds, the syrinx, rarely make any noise at all.
"The urubus," says Bishop Erwin Kräutler, "are an unmistakable sign that the city is in chaos." Kräutler, a native Austrian, is the bishop of one of the world's large prelatures, which is larger than Germany. He talks about chaos, speaking into every camera that's pointed at him, and he speaks loudly -- too loudly for the big landowners, the corporations and the government. His enemies have placed a bounty on the bishop's head for the equivalent of almost €400,000 ($543,000), and even the largest newspaper in northern Brazil wrote that it was time to "eliminate" him.
Bishop Kräutler is now 73. He's been living in Altamira, on the edge of the rainforest and in the middle of the Amazon region, for almost 50 years. For the last 30 years, he has been fighting the construction of the dam directly adjacent to the city, a project that is financially lucrative for many in the area.
He and his friends from environmental organizations advise the victims, file lawsuits against government agencies and plan rallies. He has spoken with prosecutors and the country's supreme court, has met with the president twice and was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize, but all to little avail.
Altamira's population is expected to reach 300,000 soon, up from only 100,000 not too long ago. The developers call the dam Belo Monte, or "beautiful mountain," while the dam's opponents call it Belo Monte de Merde, or "beautiful mountain of shit." The dam attracts workers, causing the city and its garbage dumps to grow, which in turn attracts black vultures from the jungle.
Kräutler's fight is a struggle against the biggest construction site in the largest rainforest on earth. The first of 24 turbines is expected to be up and running in 2015. Starting in 2019, the dam will have as much generating capacity as 11 nuclear power plants. To achieve this, 18,000 workers are moving as much earth as was moved to build the Panama Canal. They are creating a reservoir larger than Lake Constance to build the world's third-largest dam, which is also expected to become a symbol of Brazil's motto "Ordem e Progresso," or "Order and Progress."
"When you therefore shall see the abomination of desolation," Kräutler says, quoting Matthew, Chapter 24, Verse 15. He says that the reservoir will be a dead, putrid lake, and that the dam will spell the end of the river that feeds into it, the Rio Xingu, the largest tributary of the Amazon, which flows directly past the bishop's see. According to Kräutler, there will be a rise in dengue fever, the river upstream from the dam will flood the city, and the government will have to resettle at least 40,000 people, especially the poorest of the poor, who tend to live near the water.
Meanwhile, the indigenous people living downstream from the dam will be left high and dry, forced to leave their land when they can no longer catch fish. Kräutler calls it "the last bit of paradise."
'Avatar' in Brazil
He is convinced that the government, contrary to its promises, will build more dams along the river to produce the electricity it needs for industry and for economic growth in the entire country. Brazil's power consumption is expected to increase by more than half by 2020, at which point Belo Monte will cover one-tenth of the energy needs for a country almost as large as Europe. Given the dam's estimated construction cost of almost €11 billion, say proponents, how significant is a single bend of the river, and how significant are a few hundred local tribes people?
The dam is Brazil's most controversial project. Everyone in the country has an opinion about Belo Monte, especially after it was criticized by a few actors in the serial TV dramas known as telenovelas that are so popular among Brazilians. On the surface, it appears to be a relatively straightforward situation. On the one side of the controversy are the Norte Energia construction consortium, corrupt government officials and the Energy Ministry, and on the other side are the indigenous people, the rainforest and hundreds of thousands of turtles. It's an age-old conflict, pitting good against evil, like the one depicted in director James Cameron's film "Avatar," in which native people shoot arrows at the bulldozers of big corporations.
When Cameron came to the Amazon region in the spring of 2010, because he believed that the story depicted in his film had suddenly become a reality, he arrived on a propeller plane and was taken up the bend in the river in a motor boot. He spoke to a group representing several indigenous tribes. The Cacique Giliard Juruna, a headman of sorts, was also there. He had seen Cameron on television and was proud of the fact that the director had come to the region.
Cameron said: "You already have the greatest wealth in the world." He pointed to the river and said: "You have fish." He pointed to the forest and said: "You have the forest." It was his way of explaining their world to the locals. He also said: "You have the kind of wealth that my world doesn't understand." Then he returned to the city and donated half a million dollars.
It was the same message that his film had conveyed: The local people are saints, but to survive they need a white man, like ex-Marine Jake Sully in "Avatar." One wonders how much that visit actually changed Cameron and what he meant by the wealth that our world doesn't understand. Cameron seems a little like the musician Sting, who once sang at a benefit concert for the indigenous people of the Amazon, but who also flew to New York on the Concorde once and raved about how great it felt to be flying at twice the speed of sound.
Rotting Fish on Riverbanks
Village spokesman Giliard is the son of the best fisherman in Moratu, a child of the Xingu River, as he says, and the great-grandchild of the last great shaman who, as the story goes, could kill people with his breath alone. Giliard lives in the river bend behind the dam, in the place Kräutler describes as a paradise.
He has just been shopping in the city, where he bought a large piece of beef, two packs of Derby Azul cigarettes, a Chinese-made Tiger Head flashlight and extra batteries. He is wearing a T-shirt with the words "Championship - Living your Lifestyle" printed on it. Giliard puts on his helmet, gets onto his Honda and, before pulling the clutch, says: "I don't have a driver's license, so we'll have to drive around the police checkpoints."
He drives out of Altamira, past the fields where investors will soon build new supermarkets, and past housing for the workers. Some of them are from neighboring tribes and think nothing of working on the dam. He continues driving out into the rainforest, as the evening fog rises. Jupiter has risen. The trees aren't on fire yet.
But they'll be burning again tomorrow, set on fire by landowners who need the space for their cattle. To get home, Giliard must cross the excavated canal being built -- day and night -- between the planned dam and the planned power plant.
On the one side, they are filling in his river, which will soon carry only as much water as it normally carries in the dry season, a river where dead fish are rotting and the water is becoming muddier. On the other side, they blast through the rock twice a day to create holes for turbines as big as houses.
German companies are being paid just under half a billion euros to supply four of the turbines, along with generators, all the transformers and the entire automation system. They are part of a consortium headed by engineering giant Siemens and Voith, a mechanical engineering firm. Mercedes is supplying the trucks, while Munich Re is insuring a portion of the project. As it happens, Germany needs the aluminum that Brazil exports and produces in such an energy-intensive way.
It's late in the evening by the time Giliard reaches his village on the edge of the forest, a collection of 12 houses under a starry sky. He puts away his motorcycle, and then he wades gingerly into the river, as if he were afraid to shatter the mirrored surface of the water. The river is so wide that the opposite bank disappears into the darkness, almost unimaginably enormous by German standards.
The generator is running. The Cacique greets his children and turns on the TV. He watches the rich in their telenovelas, idling their lives away without having to work. What does he think when he crosses the canal that cuts through his forest? "I'm ashamed that we could allow it to happen," he says.
Giliard is at work the next morning. His tool is a Swedish chainsaw for hardwood, a Husqvarna with an anti-vibration system that operates at 9,300 rpm. He is standing barefoot on a Brazil nut tree, known locally as a "castanheira." It's on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list of threatened species and is one of the largest trees in the Amazon. This particular specimen is a beauty, well over 100 years old. Giliard is going to saw the tree into planks.
The lumber would fetch a lot of money on the market, but Giliard wants to build a house with it. He marks the cutting line on the light-colored wood with used oil and a chalk line, tightens the chain on his saw and opens the throttle. Later, when it's quiet again, the birds have fallen silent, and the clearing smells of gasoline, Giliard, exhausted, drinks water from a blue plastic container. Does he really believe that the tree has a soul?
His brother, sitting next to him, bursts out laughing. But Giliard tries to remain polite. These are the kinds of questions only white men ask, men who have never dragged lumber across the ground with a winch, burned down trees or built new houses. "No," he says, "we don't believe in that anymore."
Remembering the Trees
Two days later and two hours upriver, Pedro Blanco, a spokesman for the construction consortium, is standing on a hill, looking away from the Rio Xingu, which has begun to dry up. Blanco's job is to explain what is happening below, where the river will be cut off, where suction devices will pump up the sludge, and where the roots of the trees will dry up.
Instead, Blanco is using his iPhone to photograph one of the last castanheiras left standing. The workers separate garbage on the construction site and rescue baby turtles, and they also leave certain protected trees unharmed. Blanco takes a close-up picture of the tree bark, with the dark leaf canopy in the background contrasting sharply with the sky above. "Porque é bonito," "because it's beautiful," he says later. Of course the tree has a soul, he says, "everything that lives has a soul."
Giliard and Blanco are like dissonant tones in a song. One of them should love nature but sees it as a raw material. The other one should love his dam but romanticizes nature.
Volunteers and environmentalists rave about the region's 25 tribes, with their 24 different languages, as different as Chinese and Arabic, and about the dozens of different notions about creation. But Giliard, the Cacique of the Juruna tribe, speaks Portuguese. He doesn't like the new road to his village, and yet he takes it because it's usually faster than traveling upriver by boat.
His father is a fisherman, but the village children want to become teachers or soldiers. A tree is a tree for Giliard. He hopes his village will one day have a doctor and a secondary school, and will provide people with the opportunity to make enough money to get by. That is wealth to him. Why should he live the way director Cameron thinks Amazon Indians should live?
The old people say that there used to be a beach on the Rio Xingu. But today there is nothing but waste floating by where there once was sand. Norte Energia had in fact planned to build a sewage treatment plant, but the waste is still released directly into the river.
When Bishop Kräutler first came to Altamira as a young man from the Austrian town of Koblach, it felt full of promise. Today, he says, it feels more like a war. Four policemen protect him at all hours of the day, and he doesn't take a step or deliver a homily without them. The bishop fought for the indigenous people's right, as enshrined in the constitution, to determine what happens to their land. During the dispute, a truck slammed into his car, killing the person in the passenger seat.
He opposed a $500 million (€369 million) loan from the World Bank. He is a thorn in the side of the businesses that hope to strike it rich with the dam, businesses that are often among the biggest donors to political parties. He points out a hole in a rock behind nine security cameras. It was where an employee was shot to death in 1995, and where a nun was killed 10 years later. She, too, had fought against the dam.
Kräutler would love to go jogging again, outside in front of his house and along the river he loves. But the police forbid it. It is one of the precautionary measures they take to keep him from getting killed. Instead, he now gets his exercise by walking in the cloistered courtyard before sunrise every morning, 65 steps up and 65 steps back, walking for as long as it takes to say three rosaries. He has been deprived of his outer freedom, he says, but they can't take away his inner freedom.
Trappings of Modern Luxury
Today, Altamira is the kind of city where it's possible to have your dog picked up, blow-dried and massaged for the equivalent of €30. Employees wash the sidewalks with detergent in front of some hotels. The dam brings money into the city. Even the prostitutes in the brothel for workers say: "Protecting nature is all very well and good, but life has to go on."
Tens of thousands, including workers and suppliers, are flooding into the bloated city. Every few days the power goes out for several hours and when that happens workers continue unloading new refrigerators from donkey carts by candlelight. Advertising slogans blare from loudspeakers on mopeds, slogans like: "Now you can fulfill your dreams."
With the trappings of modern life -- plucked eyebrows, installment loans for cars, tuxedos for children and so much waste that it attracts the urubus -- Altamira is a city that needs electricity, just as James Cameron, Erwin Kräutler, Pedro Blanco and Giliard Juruna need electricity. Belo Monte will give them that electricity. That's the promise. The project will only be economically viable if additional dams are built.
To build the dam, they have locked the admonishing Dom Erwin, as the bishop is known locally, in his own house. He says that many of the Indians have been kept quiet with the money from compensation payments for their land, which the dam will destroy. The indigenous people are expected to receive €570 million from the government. Although prominent tribesmen have repeatedly protested against the dam, most have given up.
The developer pays for Giliard's TV set, his Honda, his diesel fuel, his chainsaw and his new boat. In early January, he and a group of like-minded citizens blocked the access road to the dam, shutting down the work for days. They demanded more money, about €100,000, to make up for the silted river water, but in the end they agreed to accept only a third of that amount from the developer.
Bishop Kräutler has a term for this: "modern glass beads." It isn't genocide, he says, but "auricide," or genocide through gold. The Indians now come into the city and use the money they were given to buy things they never needed before. On the other hand, the indigenous people view the river as the "house of the gods."
Observing the Vultures
For many, however, more important than the house of the gods today is the Caso do Índio, or the House of the Indian. It's a bleak building, a sort of boarding house for those who once owned the land. Many arrive there, big-eyed and timid, pulling suitcases and holding turtles.
This is where the indigenous people sleep when they have something to do in the city, or are waiting for money. There are pieces of paper attached to the doors with the names of the tribes, looking like unsolved puzzles: Xingu, Arara, Araweté, Xikrin, Kayapó, Juruna, Parakanã, Asurini, Xipaya.
A woman who lives there has forgotten how to say her name in her native language. She dreams of fat children. She calls it a good dream. She likes the city because there are no wild animals there. She doesn't like it that the white people think indigenous people are lazy. She is afraid of frogs. She likes MSN better than Facebook, which she uses through her sister's account. She prefers Samsung to Apple. She likes the eye shadow she is wearing.
The Indian woman says that language is the most important thing, that it preserves her identity. But her husband is from a neighboring tribe, and she doesn't understand him when he speaks his language. Instead, they speak Portuguese with each other and their children.
Money is the Indians' weakness, says Kräutler, and the managers of the dam company are like black vultures. When the vulture is searching for a meal, it flies high above the ground, all of its senses focused on the carrion, and glides down to feed on the dead body. But if the bird cannot find carrion, it hunts the weak. A flock of vultures can even kill a calf, as the birds peck away at the most sensitive areas: the eyes, the tongue and the nose. The calf goes into shock, and the vultures move in for the kill.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
February 1, 2013
U.S. Proposes to Protect Wolverines
By FELICITY BARRINGER
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service proposed Friday to give Endangered Species Act protections to the wolverine, one of the largest and hardiest members of the weasel family, largely because climate change is whittling away its wintry habitat in the northern Rockies.
The action was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Arizona, and Defenders of Wildlife, whose efforts to get federal protections for the species were rebuffed during the administration of President George W. Bush.
About 300 of the elusive animals live and forage in the high mountains of the Northwest.
If made final, the proposal to list the animal as threatened would put wolverines, like polar bears, elkhorn coral and staghorn coral, into a small but growing group of species whose survival is threatened by global warming, rather than traditional threats like predators or logging.
“Extensive climate modeling indicates that the wolverine’s snowpack habitat will be greatly reduced and fragmented in the coming years due to climate warming, thereby threatening the species with extinction,” the proposed rule said.
The fierce predators, whose wide feet and sharp claws keep them agile during mountain winters, weigh 25 to 45 pounds when fully grown but will fight a bear that strays into their territory. They raise newborn kits in burrows deep beneath snows that do not melt until mid-May.
After being trapped to near-extinction as part of the 19th-century fur trade, wolverines were so rare that they fell out of the public consciousness or were confused with wolves, an entirely different species. Even the actor Hugh Jackman, who plays the Marvel Comics character Wolverine in the “X-Men” movies, recently said he had prepared for the role by studying wolves.
But for scientists and naturalists who monitor the species, wolverines are a source of fascination with intricate biological mechanisms, including a thyroid that supercharges their metabolism and an extra coat for insulation. Their jaws are strong enough to crack the frozen bones of their prey. The new proposal, as written, would not restrict logging or winter recreation — like snowmobiling — in the wolverine’s habitat, but it would end the intentional trapping of the animals.
Timothy Preso, a lawyer handling the lawsuit, praised the proposal, saying it offered “a welcome promise of new efforts to protect the mountains where wolverines are found and the intervening lands they’ll need.”
The Christian Science Monitor
Are human-caused and natural global warming different? Study says yes.
A study suggests that human-caused and natural global warming episodes affect rainfall rates differently. The finding could help scientists better forecast what's ahead.
By Pete Spotts, Staff writer / January 31, 2013 at 4:28 pm EST
Human-triggered climate warming appears to leave a unique fingerprint on global rainfall rates compared with natural warming, according to a new study.
While rainfall rates increase whether the long-term warming trend is natural or not, the rate of increase appears to be higher during natural warming trends.
The result might help resolve a long-standing discrepancy between changes in rainfall projected in global climate models and changes projected by studying the historical record, researchers say.
The study suggests that "carbon dioxide has a fundamentally different mode of warming than natural climate change" – one that leaves a unique signature on rainfall rates, says Jeff Severinghaus, a climate researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. While the effect is most pronounced the the Pacific basin, the work "is about something more fundamental.... Natural and human-caused climate change really produce different effects."
"It will become increasingly clearer, as time goes on, that the rainfall patterns that we're seeing are not same ones we see in past warm periods," he adds.
In general, current climate forecasts project higher precipitation rates for the tropics and high latitudes, with already-dry areas in the subtropics experiencing additional drying.
Some trends in extreme precipitation already appear to be emerging. Since the 1950s, more regions of the globe appear to have experienced an increase in extreme precipitation events than have shown a decline – with the most solid evidence coming from North America, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But the global rate of change one might expect from a given amount of warming as greenhouse-gas concentrations rise and the climate warms, and how that plays out regionally, still generates lively discussions among climate researchers.
To help answer such questions, the research team, led by Jian Liu, a climate researcher at Nanjing Normal University in China, looked at the tropical Pacific's past. The tropical Pacific and its interplay with the atmosphere play a key role in setting up rainfall patterns around the globe.
The team found that something unexpected happened there during a prolonged period of warming known as the Medieval Warm Period (950 to 1250 AD). Though the global average temperature was cooler than it is today, the rate of increase in rainfall was higher than today's rates.
This seemed to buck the well established principle that, as the atmosphere warms, it holds more water vapor – the raw material for precipitation of all types.
Based on its modeling studies, the team suggests that conditions in the tropical Pacific led to higher rainfall rates during the Medieval Warming Period because they were driven by higher than average solar activity and a lack of volcanic activity. Meanwhile, today's warming is dominated by greenhouse gases, which act in a different way and lead to lower rates of increase.
During the Medieval Warming Period, the sun's output and the low volcanic activity meant that direct heating of the ocean surface by sunlight was unimpeded by aerosols from volcanic eruptions. That added warmth to an already warm western tropical Pacific, increasing evaporation and the rise of warm, moist air into higher, cooler parts of the atmosphere.
As the water vapor condensed, it released as heat the energy that had turned it into a vapor. This heating fueled further convection, boosting the build-up of thunderstorms with intense rains. The collective action of powerful updrafts feeding the thunderstorms strengthened the surface trade winds that blow from east to west. Those prevailing winds encouraged stronger upwelling of deep, cold ocean water along the South American coast, and that sharpened the contrast in sea-surface temperatures between the eastern and western tropical Pacific.
Greenhouse gases' new wrinkle
Dr. Liu's team showed that greenhouse gases have thrown a wrinkle into the process.
Instead of heating the surface of the western tropical Pacific – as happened the Medieval Warming Period – greenhouse gases heat the lowest layer of the atmosphere, or troposphere. This reduces the temperature contrast between the ocean surface and the air above it, easing the pace of convection and throttling back on the level of thunderstorm activity.
The trade winds relax, the upwelling slows, and the temperature contrast between the eastern and western tropical Pacific surface waters ease. The relaxed trade winds also allow the warm pool to migrate east, shifting its position along the equator in ways that allow its convective activity to alter atmospheric circulation patterns far from this center of action.
The contrast in sea-surface temperatures in the eastern and western tropical Pacific – and the location of the warmest water – can significantly shift regional rainfall patterns beyond the tropics.
Previous research into what should happen in the tropical Pacific as greenhouse gases rise had yielded opposite conclusions.
One model found that the temperature difference between the cooler eastern tropical Pacific and the warmer west intensified in a warmer climate, according to a study by Mark Cane, a climate researcher at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, N.Y., and a member of the team reporting the new results in the current issue of the journal Nature.
But a different, more detailed model came to the opposite conclusion that the temperature contrast would ease, according to a study by Jerry Meehl at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
"You'd think, 'OK, we've had increasing greenhouse gases for quite awhile, and we should be able to have observations to show us how the tropical Pacific is responding,' " Dr. Meehl says. "But the observations are not that good going back into the earlier parts of the last century."
Now, the new study suggests that "we are all right," he says.
The results also may provide fresh reasons to be wary of "geoengineering" – attempts to stem global warming by changing the earth, for example building an umbrella of tiny aerosol particles high into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space.
"One conclusion from this work would be: Don't fool yourself into thinking that will simply undo the damage that extra greenhouse gases do," says Dr. Cane.
If the only goal is to reduce global average temperatures, "you could probably do it," he says. But, he adds, attempts control the amount of radiation reaching Earth's surface "will not restore everything back to where it was" – in this case, precipitation patterns.
02/01/2013 03:56 PM
Full Throttle Ahead: US Tips Global Power Scales with Fracking
By SPIEGEL Staff
The United States is sitting on massive natural gas and oil reserves that have the potential to shift the geopolitical balance in its favor. Worries are increasing in Russia and the Arab states of waning influence and falling market prices.
Williston, North Dakota, is a bleak little city in the vast American prairie. It's dusty in the summer and frigid in the winter. Moose hunting is one of the few sources of entertainment. But despite its drawbacks, Williston has seen its population more than double within a short period of time.
The city is so overcrowded that new arrivals often have no place to stay but in their motor homes, which, at monthly parking fees of $1,200 (€880), isn't exactly inexpensive. And more people continue to arrive in this nondescript little town.
The reason for the influx is simple: Geologists have discovered a layer of shale saturated with natural gas and oil deep beneath the city. The Bakken formation, spanning thousands of square kilometers, has become synonymous with an American economic miracle that the country hasn't experienced since the oil rush almost 100 years ago.
North Dakota now has virtual full employment, and the state budget showed an estimated surplus of $1.6 billion in 2012. Truck drivers in the state make $100,000 a year, while the strippers being brought in from Las Vegas rake in more than $1,000 a night. President Barack Obama calls the discovery of Bakken and similar shale gas formations in Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Utah a "stroke of luck," saying: "We have a hundred years' worth of energy right beneath our feet."
A Vital Nerve
The future of the American energy supply was looking grim until recently. With its own resources waning, the United States was dependent on Arab oil sheiks and erratic dictators. Rising energy costs were hitting a vital nerve in the country's industrial sector.
But the situation has fundamentally changed since American drilling experts began using a method called "fracking," with which oil and gas molecules can be extracted from dense shale rock formations. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the United States will replace Russia as the world's largest producer of natural gas in only two years. The Americans could also become the world's top petroleum producers by 2017.
Low natural gas prices -- the price of natural gas in the United States is only a quarter of what it was in 2008 -- could fuel a comeback of American industry. "Low-cost natural gas is the elixir, the sweetness, the juice, the Viagra," an American industry representative told the business magazine Fortune. "What it's doing is changing the US back into the industrial power of the day."
The government estimates that the boom could generate 600,000 new jobs, and some experts even believe that up to 3 million new jobs could be created in the coming years. "My administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy," Obama said during his most recent State of the Union address.
The gas revolution is changing the political balance of power all over the world. Americans and Russians have waged wars, and they have propped up or toppled regimes, over oil and gas. When the flows of energy change, the strategic and military calculations of the major powers do as well.
It is still unclear who the winners and losers will be. The Chinese and the Argentines also have enormous shale gas reserves. Experts believe that Poland, France and Germany have significant resources, although no one knows exactly how significant. Outside the United States, extraction is still in its infancy.
The outlines of a changed world order are already emerging in the simulations of geo-strategists. They show that the United States will benefit the most from the development of shale gas and oil resources. A study by Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, concludes that Washington's discretionary power in foreign and security policy will increase substantially as a result of the country's new energy riches.
According to the BND study, the political threat potential of oil producers like Iran will decline. Optimists assume that, in about 15 years, the United States will no longer have to send any aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf to guarantee that oil tankers can pass unhindered through the Strait of Hormuz, still the most important energy bottleneck in the world.
The Russians could be on the losing end of the stick. The power of President Vladimir Putin is based primarily on oil and gas revenues. If energy prices decline in the long term, bringing down Russian revenues from the energy sector, Putin's grip on power could begin to falter. The Americans' sudden oil and gas riches are also not very good news for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
European industry is also likely to benefit from falling world market prices for oil and gas. But according to prognoses, without domestic extraction the Europeans' site-specific advantages deteriorate.
German chemical giant BASF has already invested a lot of money in the United States in the last two years. In Louisiana, for example, it has built new plants for the production of methyl amines and formic acid. "The local natural gas price is a criterion that affects the question of where we invest in new production facilities," says BASF Executive Board member Harald Schwager. At the moment, the United States has a clear advantage over Europe in this regard."
So far, the political debate in Germany has been dominated by concerns over adverse environmental effects. Fracking has become a dirty word for citizens' initiatives and environmental groups.
The concept of pumping water laced with chemicals into the earth at high pressures to crack open layers of rock several thousand meters beneath the surface makes many citizens uneasy, even though the technology has, in principle, already been used for decades in conventional gas extraction in the northern German state of Lower Saxony.
At the same time, Germany's energy and climate policy would in fact be a reason to use the new gas reserves. Flexible gas power plants would be the best approach to offsetting unpredictable fluctuations in wind and solar electricity, thereby maintaining a reliable power supply. Besides, burning natural gas generates up to 60 percent less climate-damaging CO2 than burning coal.
With the help of natural gas, the Americans have been able to reduce their CO2 emissions associated with energy production to the lowest level in years. This is one of the reasons the country plans to replace one in six coal-fired power plants with gas power plants by 2020.
At the Munich Security Conference this weekend, fracking will be at the top of the agenda for the first time. In fact, one of the agenda items is called "The American Oil and Gas Bonanza." In past years, nuclear weapons and threats from international terror were discussed at the conference, but this year one of the hot topics is the "Changing Geopolitics of Energy." This shows how important the issue has become. "It is perhaps a permissible exaggeration to claim a natural gas revolution," John Deutch, a former undersecretary at the Energy Department and CIA director, and now a professor at the elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. Deutch has been monitoring the development for years.
America 's Energy Miracle
In the late 1990s, American oil and gas companies used new technologies to advance into previously unexplored layers of the earth. They drill up to 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) into the shale, then make a sharp turn and continue to drill horizontally. Then they inject a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into the drilled well at high pressure. This creates small fractures in the surrounding rock, allowing gas and oil to be released and rise to the surface through pipes.
New technologies are drastically reducing drilling costs. In 2012, shale gas already made up 34 percent of total production, and the technology is constantly improving. The sector is booming, and there are dozens of new companies searching for additional, previously undiscovered deposits.
In the future, the United States could even go from being a net energy importer to a net exporter. But that would require a true policy shift. Since the oil shock of the 1970s, the export of domestic petroleum resources has been banned in the United States. Many companies also have an interest in keeping as much of the cheap natural gas in the country as possible, as it provides them with a competitive advantage over foreign competitors.
According to a study, lower natural gas prices last year created a benefit worth more than $100 billion for US industry. "The country has stumbled into a windfall on the backs of these entrepreneurs," says study co-author Professor Edward Hirs of the University of Houston.
And perhaps things will indeed improve substantially. The US government has identified a new deposit in Utah, although additional major advances in technology are needed to make extraction economically viable. The Utah deposit contains an estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of extractable oil, or as much as the world's entire proven oil reserves to date.
Russia on the Losing End
A building in the southwestern section of Moscow juts into the sky like a rocket. The architectural message of the headquarters of energy giant Gazprom, which towers over everything else around it, is clear: The only way is up. Until recently, there was still an overwhelming consensus that nuclear weapons and energy commodities like oil and gas are the two currencies that gave a country its superpower status. Russia, the world's largest exporter of natural resources, has both in abundance.
President Putin built his dominance at home and his foreign policy on Russia's wealth of natural resources. Oil and gas revenues make up about 50 percent of the national budget. The president needs Gazprom's billions in revenues to keep his supporters, mostly government employees, retirees, blue-collar workers and farmers, happy with expensive social benefits. Gas also plays a central role in the plan to expand Russia's sphere of influence into the former Soviet republics.
But now the American natural resources boom threatens Putin's dreams of an imperial resurrection of his country. It is already struggling with falling gas prices. Gazprom's operating profit shrank by more than 25 percent in the first nine months of 2012.
The Russians are now forced to give their customers, like Germany's E.on and Italian energy company Eni, discounts in the billions. Still, the Europeans are reorienting themselves. In the first three quarters of 2912, Gazprom sales fell by 43 percent in the Netherlands, 30 percent in Slovakia and 20 percent in France.
The Kremlin Is Alarmed
No one in Moscow can rattle off these statistics as quickly as Vladimir Milov. He was deputy energy minister after the turn of the millennium, and today he heads a small opposition party. Milov believes Gazprom is a giant with clay feet. "America is announcing the shale gas revolution, while Gazprom and Russia remain in hibernation," he says.
If liquefied natural gas from the United States lands at the ports of Rotterdam, Hamburg or Odessa in the future, it will further increase the pressure on prices. And if Moscow remains intransigent in the discussion of an Iran resolution in the UN Security Council, Washington could threaten to flood the market with natural gas.
If that happened, Russia's attempt to influence the world market price through a natural gas group similar to OPEC would also be off the table once and for all. Last July, Russia invited the world's large gas exporters to discuss improved cooperation, but to no avail. If the United States exports a portion of its enormous resources, price and production agreements will likely become impossible once and for all.
The Kremlin is alarmed, despite Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller's dismissive characterization of the revolution as an exaggeration in the style of "American Hollywood films." Shale gas will play only a secondary role in the market, says Miller, citing the billions Western energy companies are investing in pipelines and the traditional exploration of Siberian gas fields.
But new pipelines are expensive, and it is completely unclear whether the South Stream pipeline, which is to transport Russian gas from the Black Sea to Italy, across a distance of 2,380 kilometers (1,490 miles), and will cost an estimated €16 billion to build, will ever pay off. Miller's spokesman Sergey Kupriyanov admits that the new technologies work in America's favor.
But another trend is being overlooked, says Kupriyanov. "The demand for gas will increase worldwide," he explains, "because the economies of the rapidly growing emerging countries need energy and, in the future, more automobiles and soon more ships will be operated with environmentally friendly natural gas."
It seems certain that Russia will remain an important supplier of commodities. But its political threat potential will shrink if the countries of Western Europe and Ukraine have more alternatives to Russian natural resources. Moscow will likely become the biggest political loser of the America natural resource boom. But what does it look like at other key points in the business?
No Blood for Oil
The Middle East, for example, is a dangerous region, repeatedly racked by war in the last few decades. The Americans attacked Iraq twice to secure their oil supply.
More than 20 US warships are stationed in Bahrain, including an aircraft carrier, as well as several destroyers and submarines. The US Navy's Fifth Fleet is intended to secure the Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman. Some 35 percent of the global oil trade involving ships passes through the Strait.
With its efforts in the Gulf, the American military is not only protecting trade routes, but also the monarchies in the region. In return the Saudis, still the world's largest oil producer today, have ensured that OPEC pursues a moderate price policy. But the tradeoff of security against oil is costly for the Americans.
Washington pays billions for its military presence in the Middle East. And the costs are not just material. The fact that American troops were deployed to the war in Kuwait from Saudi soil was the catalyst that triggered former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's fight against the United States.
According to BND estimates, the Americans could soon dispense with energy shipments from the Middle East altogether. It is conceivable that the United States could then no longer have a direct interest in protecting the flow of oil out of the Gulf region, London-based energy expert Alan Riley recently wrote in the New York Times.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the United States will withdraw from the region in the foreseeable future. "The United States will remain dependent on international energy markets for a long time to come," says Joseph Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Besides, US interests in the Middle East are not limited to oil. They also include both containing Iran and fighting Islamist terror. Finally, protecting Israel also plays a central role in American foreign policy.
"Anyone who thinks that the Americans could withdraw from the Middle East understands neither the dynamics of the oil markets nor the geopolitical relationships," says Braml. One reason that America will maintain a presence at the Strait of Hormuz, he explains, is to be able to shut off the energy tap to the Chinese if necessary.
Still, the Europeans, in particular, could face new political challenges. "It ought to become easier for America in the future to demand more help from others in securing the energy supply," says security expert Michael O'Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. This applies to Washington's NATO allies, he adds, and to Japan, South Korea and even India.
For Germany, this would probably not mean sending its own troops to the Gulf. But it would have to make a stronger contribution to the costs of the US mission.
According to the BND's assessment, the Chinese will be significantly on the losing end of American oil wealth. The country will become even more dependent on the Gulf region than it is now, and yet it is still not in a position to protect the transport routes on its own. This makes it vulnerable, the BND argues, and gives the United States more room for maneuver with its global political rivals. But what does all of this mean for Germany?
'Typical German Behavior'
In a study conducted last year, the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in the northern German city of Hanover concluded that even Germany has substantial untapped natural resources beneath its soil: between 700 and 2,300 billion cubic meters of extractable shale gas, or 200 times the country's current natural gas production. "This means that shale gas from domestic reserves, if used extensively, could contribute significantly to Germany's natural gas supply," say the institute's experts. Representatives of energy companies ExxonMobil and Wintershall estimate the marketable value of this treasure at up to €1 trillion.
The Hanover study makes it seem as if Germany could immediately start drilling. It also states that environmental concerns are unfounded, because the method in question has been around for a long time, although it has only been used so far in other types of rock.
"The risks of fracking activities in the geological subsoil are low compared with potential accidents in above-ground activities," the study reads. In other words, if an oil truck tips over on the road, the risk of groundwater contamination is much greater than with fracking. But the study also points out that it would be best to stay away from regions vulnerable to earthquakes.
But the concerns about fracking prevail in politics. The government of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a coalition of center-left Social Democrats and the Greens, imposed a moratorium of sorts, and it has even refused to issue a permit for an exploratory well requested by ExxonMobil. And in Lower Saxony, where the fracking process has already been widely used in conventional gas deposits, the mood has shifted after the recent SPD-Green Party win in state parliamentary elections.
The critics base their arguments in part on a position taken by the Federal Environment Agency, which is of course particularly sensitive when it comes to environmental matters. According to the agency's position, fracking should only be allowed under the strictest of conditions, which in turn displeases proponents.
"It's typical German behavior," says BASF board member Schwager, "to initially see only the risks with every new technology, instead of thinking about the opportunities.
Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler have learned their own lessons from the dispute among experts. Fracking, they state in their position papers, is technically complex and environmentally controversial. In other words: Let's not touch it with a 10-foot pole, at least until after the national parliamentary election in the fall.
REPORTED BY ALEXANDER NEUBACHER, RALF NEUKIRCH, MATTHIAS SCHEPP, THOMAS SCHULZ
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
February 2, 2013
Colorado Communities Take On Fight Against Energy Land Leases
By JACK HEALY
PAONIA, Colo. — For a glimpse into the complications of President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, follow a curling mountain road through the aspens and into central Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where billboards promote “gently grown” fruits and farmers sell fresh milk and raw honey from pay-what-you-can donation boxes.
Here, amid dozens of organic farms, orchards and ranches, the federal government is opening up thousands of acres of public land for oil and gas drilling, part of its largest energy lease sale in Colorado since Mr. Obama took office.
In all, leases for 114,932 acres of federal land across Colorado are being auctioned off next month — a tiny piece of what Mr. Obama lauded during last year’s campaign as a historic effort to increase domestic natural-gas production. Those holes have to be drilled somewhere, and the move to lease public lands in this valley has stirred a fierce debate, one that has aligned Republican residents more closely to the government’s plans than Democrats.
Coloradans in solidly red cities west of here are the ones who have written letters to the government supporting the lease sale, saying it will bring jobs and tax revenues. In Paonia, where political lines are more evenly split, residents have come out overwhelmingly against the idea of drilling, saying it threatens a new economy rooted in tourism, wineries and organic peaches.
“It’s just this land-grab, rape-and-pillage mentality,” said Landon Deane, who raises 80 cows on a ranch that sits near several federal parcels being put up for lease. Because of the quirks of mineral ownership in the West, which can divide ownership of land and the minerals under it, one parcel up for bid sits directly below Ms. Deane’s fields, where she has recently been thinking of sowing hops for organic beer.
“All it takes is one spill, and we’re toast,” she said.
Paonia takes its environmental debates seriously — so much so that in 2003, someone upset over insecticide spraying set off a bomb in the headquarters of the town’s Mosquito Control District (no one was hurt).
For years, activists in town raged against the century-old coal mines located about 10 miles up the road, before eventually reaching a détente with the industry, which provides hundreds of jobs in the valley. Paonia is also home to an award-winning community radio station and the High Country News, a nonprofit newspaper that covers land and environmental issues across the West.
Last week, the forces of government and upset citizens collided like two weather fronts in a packed, stifling town meeting.
Officials from the Bureau of Land Management explained the situation: Under 90-year-old laws, companies and people can nominate public lands for drilling, and the government is obliged to auction them off after months of review and public comment. The officials explained that they had removed some of the most sensitive and contentious pieces of land from consideration and that they were still reviewing which parcels to lease, but said the auction was happening.
About 200 residents sat on the floor, lined the walls and spilled into the hallway, jeering and hooting as officials insisted — sometimes patiently, sometimes brusquely — that hydraulic fracturing was safe, and that there would be little environmental impact on the valley. They applauded as town council members pressed federal officials on drilling’s effect on the town’s air, water and economy — eliciting responses that were as unsatisfactory to the crowd as a bushel of mealy peaches.
“I can’t guarantee you there won’t be a spill,” Lonny Bagley, the land management agency’s deputy state director for energy and minerals, told the audience. “I can’t guarantee there won’t be a blowout.”
Paonia’s mayor, Neal Schwieterman pressed officials on why they had used a 30-year-old resource plan to evaluate whether drilling would mesh with the valley’s lifestyle and growing tourism economy. Why not delay any lease sale, he asked, until the bureau could write a new blueprint for land management in the area?
“People would like it if we said, ‘O.K., we’re just going to stop,’ ” Helen M. Hankins, the bureau’s state director, told the crowd. “We really don’t have that luxury.”
She added: “It’s not the kind of world everybody would like to see.”
Real estate and tourism groups have also spoken against the leases, saying that gas rigs and a torrent of new truck traffic would drive away second-home buyers and hurt a tourist trade that has sprung up from almost nothing in the last 15 to 20 years. Proposed gas leases near Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park were met with howls of protest, and the Bureau of Land Management changed or withdrew several of the parcels from the sale because they were on steep slopes or had qualities of wilderness lands.
Sitting quietly in the crowd was Bruce Bertram, who monitors oil and gas activity here in Delta County on behalf of the county commissioners. There have been 27 wells drilled in the county over the last decade, and only one on federal land. Like it or not, he said, drilling was already at the doorstep to the valley.
“Some of the folks aren’t making a good judgment about what’s good and bad,” he said. “There’s a built-in distrust of government and business. And that permeates through the whole area.”
Even if the land is leased out for drilling, months and years of red tape and public review lie between drillers and the gas-rich rock underneath the tree-covered ridgelines and rolling mesas. Less than one-tenth of the federal lands here in western Colorado leased out for drilling have been developed.
During the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney criticized Mr. Obama’s policies for leading to a drop in drilling on public lands, saying that government regulations had made it too slow and cumbersome for companies to get permits.
But much of the decline in Colorado has been because of rock-bottom natural-gas prices — which fell in part because of abundant new supplies — and a boom in oil drilling on private lands in northern Colorado and western North Dakota. In Colorado, the public acres leased out for energy production have fallen, from 97,232 in 2009 to just 4,393 in 2011 and 64,435 last year. Now, with natural gas prices so low, it is an open question whether any energy companies will risk the money and resources to drill in the valley.
But if next month’s lease sale is a sign of a turn in the industry, small farmers like Wayne Talmage worry about the future of a place nicknamed “The American Provence.” It has been 40 years since Mr. Talmage — a philosophy student — left behind academia to move here to start White Buffalo Farm, which grows organic peaches, apples and pie cherries. One afternoon, as he helped a friend pull crates of cider apples out of cold storage, he pointed to ridgelines towering above his property, where gas wells could one day sit.
“We’re unbelievably blessed by this place here,” he said. “We could be unblessed really quickly.”
Windfarms break energy record in Spain
Past three months saw windfarms produce more electricity than any other source for first time, trade body says
BusinessGreen, part of the Guardian Environment Network
guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 February 2013 09.56 GMT
Over the last three months wind farms produced more electricity than any other power source in Spain for the first time ever, an industry group has said.
The country delivered over six terawatt hours of electricity from wind farms during January, according to data from grid operator Red Electrica de Espana, the Spanish Wind Energy Association said in a statement.
"Since November 1, wind has been the top technology in the electrical system," the group said in a blog posting. "The last time any technology exceeded six terawatt-hours of monthly generation was in 2010, when it was combined-cycle gas turbines."
The performance means wind energy exceeded output from both nuclear and coal-fired power stations and represents more than a quarter of Spain's total power generation.
Spain has been looking to boost its wind power capacity as part of the government's efforts to cut carbon emissions.
The news came in the same week as German wind energy industry association BWE said it expects developers to add between 3GW and 3.5GW of capacity this year, far outstripping the 2.4GW installed in 2012.
The surge in new capacity will be largely driven by new offshore wind farms coming online and will mean the country remains on track to meet its goal of generating around 40 per cent of its electricity form renewables by 2020, up from about 25 per cent currently.
Arctic nations' oil spill plans too vague, say environmentalists
A draft document by the Arctic Council fails to define liability for accidents in an icy region opening up due to global warming
guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 February 2013 10.19 GMT
Arctic nations' plans to start co-operating over oil spills are vague and fail to define companies' liability for any accidents in an icy region opening up due to global warming, environmentalists said on Monday.
A 21-page document by the eight-nation Arctic Council, seen by Reuters and due to be approved in May, says countries in the region "shall maintain a national system for responding promptly and effectively to oil pollution incidents."
It does not say what that means in terms of staff, ships, clean-up equipment or corporate liability in a remote region that the US Geological Survey estimates has 13% of the world's undiscovered oil and 30% of its undiscovered gas.
The countries have drafted the document as companies including Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips, Lukoil and Statoil are looking north for oil despite high costs and risks. Shell's Kulluk oil rig ran aground in Alaska on 31 December in near hurricane conditions.
"The document doesn't get to grips with the risks of a spill in a meaningful way," said Ruth Davis of Greenpeace, which passed the document to Reuters. Officials confirmed the text was genuine.
Greenpeace, which wants the Arctic to be off-limits to drilling, said it was "so vaguely written as to have very little practical value in increasing the level of preparedness."
"We should be far beyond this rudimentary document," echoed Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant and former professor at the University of Alaska often critical of the oil industry. He said the council should put more stress on preventing spills.
The Arctic Council – comprising the United States, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland and Denmark including Greenland – sees co-operation as big progress for the region, where sea ice shrank to a record low in the summer of 2012.
"There will be a lot of improvements compared to today – quite simply by making it much easier for countries in the Arctic to help each other when needed," said Karsten Klepsvik, polar expert at Norway's foreign ministry until end-2012.
The document, for instance, sets up 24-hour emergency contacts in the eight nations, seeks national rules to allow quick transport of clean-up equipment across maritime borders, better monitoring and joint training exercises.
Environment ministers from the Arctic Council will meet in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, on 5-6 February to discuss the draft.
The Arctic document makes clear it is non-binding, except for repayment of costs when one country helps another. It says it is "subject to the capabilities of the parties and the availability of relevant resources."
Global warming is making the Arctic region more accessible to shipping, mining and oil exploration. Oil spills could be extremely hard to clean up, perhaps trapped in or under ice that can be carried across international boundaries by ocean currents and winds.
In 2011, Arctic Council foreign ministers including outgoing US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, agreed a plan for search and rescue – a prelude to harder work on defining rules for oil and gas.
The document says it will apply a general principle that the polluter pays, but does not define corporate liability. Steiner said Arctic-wide unlimited liability would make companies and insurers more cautious.
"Greenland suggested that we should include a system of liability in the agreement. There was no agreement on this," Klepsvik said. "We are a consensus body. We realised that it would take years and years to reach a conclusion" on liability.
And he said big oil companies showed they do pay for damage. BP had paid $23bn in costs and claims by late 2012 after its 2010 blow-out in the Gulf, the worst offshore spill in US history.
Exxon Mobil says it paid more than $4.3bn after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground just south of the Arctic in 1989, spilling more than 250,000 barrels.
Japanese whaling industry 'dead in the water', says animal welfare group
Charity says industry struggling to survive despite government bailout and calls for resources to be diverted to whale-watching
Justin McCurry in Tokyo
guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 February 2013 12.36 GMT
Japan's whaling industry is "dead in the water" and cannot survive without huge taxpayer subsidies, according to a study.
The report, to be published on Tuesday by the charity International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), draws on Japanese government data for the first time to build a case against the use of millions of dollars in public subsidies to prop up the industry amid a dramatic decline in consumption of whale meat.
Last year those subsidies included ¥2.28bn (£15.6m) siphoned off from the budget for reconstructing the region devastated by the March 2011 tsunami.
The report, seen by the Guardian, calls on the government to divert resources to Japan's fledgling whale-watching industry as a "pro-economy, pro-whale" alternative to its annual "research" hunts in the Antarctic. "Whaling is an unprofitable business that can survive only with substantial subsidies and one that caters to an increasingly shrinking and ageing market," the report says.
Annual subsidies, channelled through the Institute for Cetacean Research, average about ¥782m (£5.3m), it said, adding that the government spent at least ¥30bn (£205m) on whaling between 1987 and last year.
In addition, part of a separate profitable fisheries programme is being used, in part, to fund the refitting of the whalers' factory ship, the Nisshin Maru, which will enable the fleet to operate for at least another 10 years.
Japan refuses to abandon its whaling programme, despite years of opposition from countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Patrick Ramage, the director of Ifaw's global whale programme, said that was due in part to the influence wielded by politicians representing coastal fishing communities with links to whaling, and bureaucrats at the fisheries agency.
"There's also the fact that Japan doesn't appreciate foreigners telling them what to do, and that allows them to play the cultural imperialism card," he said.
The report says official claims that whaling is a historical and cultural necessity are "profoundly and increasingly untrue".
Studies conducted on Ifaw's behalf by the Japan-based E-Square and Nippon Research Centre show whale meat consumption has fallen to about 1% of its 1960s peak, when it was a vital source of protein. Current stockpiles of unsold whale meat have increased to nearly 5,000 tonnes, about four times greater than they were 15 years ago.
"With growing wealth and modernisation, the people of Japan have lost their yen for whale meat," the report says. "Yet fisheries officials and other government figures continue to siphon off millions of taxpayer yen to prop up an industry that is effectively dead in the water."
Prof Masayuki Komatsu, a former agriculture ministry official who teaches ocean and marine resource policy at the national graduate institute for policy studies in Tokyo, agrees that whaling in its current form is economically unsustainable. His solution, however, is to increase the annual whale catch in the Antarctic and north-west Pacific so prices drop enough to attract a new generation of consumers.
"For older Japanese, whale meat is something special that you are happy to pay a premium for," he said. "But young people have never experienced the taste. It's not special to them and there are plenty of other sources of protein they can turn to. Japan needs to sell whale meat at a competitive price, similar to that of pork or chicken, and to do that it needs to increase its annual catch."
According to an Ifaw survey published late last year, 89% of Japanese people said they had not bought whale meat in the past 12 months.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986, but a clause in the ban allows Japan to catch up to about 1,000 mainly minke whales in the southern ocean every winter, and to sell the meat on the open market. Komatsu believes the IWC ban should be lifted to allow Japan to catch "at least" 1,000 whales a year.
The cost of sending the fleet to the Antarctic and clashes with the Sea Shepherd marine conservation group have forced the fleet to return with a fraction of its quota of about 950 whales in recent years. Late last year, the whalers left port several weeks late and are expected to take only about 300 whales, Komatsu said.
Australia, which last week demanded Japan's whaling fleet leave its exclusive economic zone as it prepares for this winter's slaughter, has taken its campaign to end the Antarctic whale hunts to the international court of justice in the Hague. A ruling could come this year.
"The fisheries agency is using international opposition to whaling to build domestic support," Ramage said. "But I don't think that argument is selling any better than all that whale meat now sitting in warehouses. Whatever judgment the court makes, it won't change the reality that in the end, the decision on whaling is going to be made in Tokyo."
The Ifaw report calls for the development of whale watching along Japan's coastline, a move that, unlike the Antarctic hunts, "will turn a profit and directly benefit costal communities".
Ramage said: "Whale watching is an economically beneficial alternative that's taking off in Japan and deserves government support."
February 3, 2013
Vast Oil Reserve May Now Be Within Reach, and Battle Heats Up
By NORIMITSU ONISHI
FELLOWS, Calif. — Secure in this state’s history and mythology, the venerable Midway-Sunset oil field near here keeps producing crude more than a century after Southern California’s oil boom. Many of its bobbing pump jacks are relatively short, a telltale sign of the shallowness of the wells and the ease of extracting their prize.
But away from this forest of pump jacks on a flat, brown landscape, a road snakes up into nearby hills that are largely untouched — save for a handful of exploratory wells pumping oil from depths many times those of Midway-Sunset’s. These wells are tapping crude directly from what is called the Monterey Shale, which could represent the future of California’s oil industry — and a potential arena for conflict between drillers and the state’s powerful environmental interests.
At one such exploratory site, tall pump jacks stood above two active wells on a small patch of federal land. For now, the operator, Venoco, has been storing the oil in two large tanks. But construction is scheduled to start soon on pipelines, and more wells are planned.
Comprising two-thirds of the United States’s total estimated shale oil reserves and covering 1,750 square miles from Southern to Central California, the Monterey Shale could turn California into the nation’s top oil-producing state and yield the kind of riches that far smaller shale oil deposits have showered on North Dakota and Texas.
For decades, oilmen have been unable to extricate the Monterey Shale’s crude because of its complex geological formation, which makes extraction quite expensive. But as the oil industry’s technological advances succeed in unlocking oil from increasingly difficult locations, there is heady talk that California could be in store for a new oil boom.
Established companies are expanding into the Monterey Shale, while newcomers are opening offices in Bakersfield, the capital of California’s oil industry, about 40 miles east of here. With oil prices remaining high, landmen are buying up leases on federal land, sometimes bidding more than a thousand dollars an acre in auctions that used to fetch the minimum of $2.
“We’ve seen a significant increase in the last three to five years in the price paid from our sales,” said Gabriel Garcia, assistant field manager at the federal Bureau of Land Management’s office in Bakersfield. “Some of that has to do with speculation on new technologies, and some of that has to do with the high price of oil.”
The Monterey Shale has also galvanized California’s powerful environmental groups. They are pressing the state to strictly regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the drilling technique that has fueled the shale oil and gas boom elsewhere but has drawn opposition from many environmentalists. In December, the State Department of Conservation released a draft of fracking rules, the first step in a yearlong process to establish regulations.
Severin Borenstein, a co-director of the Energy Institute at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said technological advances and the high price of oil were driving interest in the Monterey Shale, just as elsewhere.
“Everyone has known that there is shale oil not just in the Monterey Shale but also in North Dakota and Wyoming and all over the country,” he said. “Back in the ‘70s, there were discussions that there’s all this oil and all we’ve got to do is get it. Now 40 years later, the technologies have become available to actually get it in a cost-effective way.”
While oil is found less than 2,000 feet below the surface in fields like Midway-Sunset, companies must pump down to between 6,000 and 15,000 to tap shale oil in the Monterey.
Though production has been declining for years, California remains the country’s fourth-largest oil-producing state, after Texas, North Dakota and Alaska. So far, little of the crude is derived from the Monterey Shale, whose untapped deposits are estimated at 15.4 billion barrels, or more than four times the reserves of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.
“There are billions of barrels of oil buried in the Monterey Shale, and as far as I know, nobody’s been able to find it yet,” said Neil Ormond, the president of Petroleum Land Management, a company based in Clovis, Calif. “But I think there’s going to be more people looking for it. You can’t let a few dry holes discourage the whole thing, because if you find oil, you make money.”
A landman, Mr. Ormond bought leases on more than 10,000 acres of federal land in an auction organized by the Bureau of Land Management. Landmen usually work for oil companies, acquiring leases that allow them to explore and drill for oil.
Landmen have also been increasingly approaching individual landowners and buying mineral rights, though these private transactions are hard to track, said Tim Kustic, California’s state oil and gas supervisor.
“That’s an early precursor to an increase in exploration and drilling activity,” Mr. Kustic said.
The two companies with the biggest stakes in the Monterey Shale, Occidental Petroleum and Venoco, are increasing their exploration efforts, including a joint three-dimensional seismic survey of one area.
Companies with experience exploiting the Bakken Shale, including the New York-based Hess, have recently set up operations in Bakersfield, too. Jon Pepper, a spokesman for Hess, said it was “too early to talk in any definitive way” about the company’s plans in the Monterey Shale.
But the oil companies’ plans for the Monterey Shale are already drawing increasing scrutiny from environmental groups. Though oil companies have engaged in fracking in California for decades, the process was only loosely monitored by state regulators.
The Monterey Shale’s geological formation will require companies to engage in more intensive fracking and deeper, horizontal drilling, a dangerous prospect in a seismically active region like California, environmental groups say.
Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, are suing the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Conservation to prevent the opening up of further land to oil exploration and to enforce stricter environmental practices.
“If and when the oil companies figure out how to exploit that shale oil, California could be transformed almost overnight,” said Kassie Siegel, a lawyer at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Fracking poisons the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is one of the most, if not the most, important environmental issue in California.”
Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry lobbying group, said oil companies had safely used fracking for decades in California, mostly combined with traditional vertical drilling.
“Nobody can point to any incident or impact that has taken place,” Mr. Hull said.
After the California Department of Conservation released its draft of fracking regulations, environmental groups criticized a clause that would allow companies not to disclose the chemicals used in fracking to protect trade secrets.
Jason Marshall, chief deputy director of the Department of Conservation, said companies seeking to withhold such information would have to adhere to the state’s trade secret protection laws.
“The baseline assumption of these regulations is the disclosure of what’s in the fluids,” he said. “It should be the exception when someone is trying to exercise a trade secret protection.”
January 31, 2013
North Dakota Went Boom
By CHIP BROWN
Long before the full frenzy of the boom, you could see its harbingers at the Mountrail County courthouse in Stanley, N.D. Geologists had pored over core samples and log signatures and had made their educated guesses, and now it was the hour of the “landmen,” the men and women whose job was to dig through courthouse books for the often-tangled history of mineral title and surface rights.
Apart from a few fanatics who sometimes turned up at midnight, the landmen would begin arriving at the courthouse around 6 a.m. In the dead of winter, it would still be dark and often 20 or 30 below zero, and because the courthouse didn’t open until 7:30, the landmen would leave their briefcases outside the entrance, on the steps, in the order they arrived. And then they would go back to their cars and trucks to wait with the engines running, their faces wreathed in coffee steam. Sometimes there were more than 20 briefcases filed on the courthouse steps. The former landman who told me this — Brent Brannan, now director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Program — said he sometimes thought he could see the whole boom in that one image, briefcases waiting for the day to start, and it killed him a little that he never took a picture.
For many years North Dakota has been a frontier — not the classic 19th-century kind based on American avarice and the lure of opportunity in unsettled lands, but the kind that comes afterward, when a place has been stripped bare or just forgotten because it was a hard garden that no one wanted too much to begin with, and now it has reverted to the wilderness that widens around dying towns. In a way, of course, this kind of frontier is as much a state of mind as an actual place, a melancholy mood you can’t shake as you drive all day in a raw spring rain with nothing but fence posts and featureless cattle range for company thinking, Is this all there is? until finally you get out at some windswept intersection and gratefully fall on the fellowship of a dog-faced bar with a jukebox of songs about people on their way to somewhere else.
All of which may explain the shock of coming around a bend and suddenly finding a derrick illuminated at night, or a gas flare framed by stars, or dozens of neatly ranked trailers in a “man camp,” or a vast yard of drill pipe, or a herd of water trucks, or tracts of almost-finished single-family homes with Tyvek paper flapping in the wind of what just yesterday was a wheat field. North Dakota has had oil booms before but never one so big, never one that rivaled the land rush precipitated more than a century ago by the transcontinental railroads, never one that so radically changed the subtext of the Dakota frontier from the Bitter Past That Was to the Better Future That May Yet Be.
It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in the small communities of western North Dakota, good and bad. It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime. It has confounded kids running lemonade stands: 50 cents a cup but your customer has only hundreds in his payday wallet. Oil has financed multimillion-dollar recreation centers and new hospital wings. It has fitted highways with passing lanes and rumble strips. It has forced McDonald’s to offer bonuses and brought job seekers from all over the country — truck drivers, frack hands, pipe fitters, teachers, manicurists, strippers. It has ginned up an unreleased reality show called “Boomtown Girls,” which follows the lives of “five bold and brave sisters” in the formerly drowsy farm center of Williston, N.D. Williston, whose population has tripled in the past 10 years, lies in the middle of the 150,000-square-mile Williston Basin, a depression in the crust of the earth that geologists now believe contains one of the largest oil fields in the world.
In the fall of 2011 in Crosby, N.D., Continental Resources, the oil company with the most acreage leased in the basin, erected a self-congratulatory granite monument celebrating its work in the so-called Bakken Formation, the Williston Basin rocks that, as Continental put it, ushered in “a new era in the American oil industry.” The number of rigs drilling new wells in North Dakota’s part of the basin reached a record 218 last May. It has now leveled off at around 200, as thousands of wells have been completed under deadline pressure to secure expiring mineral leases. Many thousands more will be spudded in the next two years as the boom moves from discovery to production and crews drill “infill” wells, complete pipelines, fortify roads, enlarge refineries and build natural-gas pumping stations and oil-loading train yards.
North Dakota’s last oil boom, 30 years ago, collapsed so quickly when prices crashed that workers in the small city of Dickinson left the coffee in their cups when they quit their trailers. Apostles of “Bakken gold” insist that what’s different this time is that this time is different, the history of frontier avarice notwithstanding. This is the boom that is going to change everything without the remorse and misgivings that have marked the aftermath of so many past orgies of resource extraction. This is the boom that won’t leave the land trashed, won’t destroy communities, won’t afflict the state with the so-called Dutch Disease in which natural-resource development and the sugar rush of fast cash paradoxically make other parts of the economy less competitive and more difficult to sustain. This is the boom being managed by local people certain they know how to look after their interests and safeguard the land they live on. This is the Big One that North Dakota has been waiting for for more than a century.
“This is our time,” Clay S. Jenkinson told me one morning over coffee at a Bismarck Starbucks, where he often goes to write. Jenkinson, a humanities professor, is a North Dakota author and columnist best known for his impersonation of Thomas Jefferson on public radio. “It’s our gold rush, our Silicon Valley. It reverses decades of anxiety about out-migration and rural decline and death. Suddenly the state that never had anything is in the middle of an oil boom that is larger than anybody could have predicted. We aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize it. People aren’t interested in stepping back.”
You won’t find a better ambassador of what the oil industry calls “the play” in western North Dakota than Loren Kopseng. Kopseng — 65, a deer hunter, a Bud Light drinker, a profane churchgoer with four kids and two ex-wives — refers to himself as a “petro-preneur.” The oil company he started almost 30 years ago is headquartered in Bismarck, but the thrilling part of his billion-dollar business is based 100 miles northwest in the Williston Basin. Kopseng is a conservative Republican, and like many North Dakotans, he includes government regulation in the same category of pleasant experiences as droughts, floods, grasshoppers and prairie fires. But he’s honest enough to concede (with an anguished moan) that his private-enterprise principles aren’t hypocrisy-free, given that his own bacon has been saved “many times” by the state-owned Bank of North Dakota, which became prominent when North Dakota was a bastion of radical agrarian populism in the 1930s.
It was with a touch of truant glee that Kopseng skipped out of his office to fly me around the oil fields on a windy morning last spring. He pulled on a green Fighting Sioux sweatshirt and climbed into the cockpit of his Aviat Husky, a maroon-and-yellow single-engine plane with two seats, one behind the other.
And then we were off, banking over the low-slung rooftops that ring the state’s Capitol, an 18-story stone-and-concrete landmark built in 1934. North Dakotans are as proud of their Capitol as they are of their boom-based unemployment rate (3.2 percent, lowest in the nation), and many were stung when a Minnesota state legislator last spring compared it to the headquarters of an insurance company.
We crossed the Missouri River, the plane beating on above a sea of grass. Infinity nagged at the scale of things. It was almost possible to imagine the land as it appeared to Lewis and Clark when the Corps of Discovery came up the Missouri in 1804 — but only if you looked past the toy-size trucks crawling west on Interstate 94 with drill pipe and water tanks; and the locomotives lumbering east with hundred-unit trains of black oil-tanker cars in tow. The westward march of American industry was written in the quarters of plowed earth and section line roads, in the power-transmission towers and smoke-signal steam puffs drifting from a Tesoro refinery; it was visible even on the far horizon, at the edge of a fretted but still bracing emptiness, in the shape of giant windmills and the silhouette of a coal gasification plant. Each and all were contemporary manifestations of an economic imperative that dates back to the triumph of the treaty breakers who usurped the Native Americans and commodified the land, and to the waves that came in their wake, the great white hunters who cleaned out the buffalo, the agents of the bone boom that followed who sent trainloads of buffalo skeletons back East to be used to refine sugar, the iron-horse magnates, the immigrant farmers and pioneer ranchers ruined by the “dirty ’30s,” and later the first oil and lignite coal barons and the government dam builders who tamed the Missouri.
“Keep an eye out for radio towers,” Kopseng said over the headset.
Flying was Kopseng’s dream job before he got the idea of building an oil company. He began studying for his pilot’s license as a freshman in college. When he graduated (sidetracked for a year and a half by a stint in the Army that included seven months in Vietnam), one of his first jobs was flying a small plane for a highway contractor. He always worked — he helped his parents run apartment buildings in Bismarck, and for six summers starting at age 12, he fed the chickens and pigs and bucked hay and branded cattle at his grandparents’ ranch in Slope County in the western part of the state.
Kopseng first came down with oil fever in the late 1970s, when fortunes were being made domestically in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo. He struggled for five years, learning expensive lessons. “I had a lot of lemonade wells,” he sighed. He went broke twice, maxed out his credit cards and even borrowed money from his mother — loans that came with sharp remarks about his clothes and hair. After he married and started a family, it was his wife’s friends who looked at him sideways. While they were buying houses and investing in mutual funds, he was in debt-work-out negotiations with Halliburton.
“I embarrassed myself,” he said.
In 1984, at a particularly low ebb, he met Don Russell, a merchant from Mandan, who’d done well in the not-obviously-related businesses of peddling tires and packing meat. Russell, who died in 2011, also wanted to get into oil and gas. The timing might not have seemed auspicious; companies were quitting the Williston Basin, unable to sell their product for more than it cost to produce. But with Russell handling the financial end, Kopseng began accumulating distressed oil and gas wells. He brokered oil-field equipment; he bought and sold leases; he jumped into the natural-gas market just as it was being deregulated. In 1997 he and Russell consolidated various energy-related businesses into the privately held United Energy Corporation.
U.E.C. hasn’t drilled a well of its own since 1998, but today it holds a nonoperating interest in close to 2,000 oil and gas wells. It transports by rail 82,000 barrels of oil a day to refineries. In 2012 the company earned a net profit of $44.8 million on revenues of $5.7 billion. Best of all, in a state where until recently young people often had to leave to find work, his two sons — Ryan, an oilman, and Sander, a lawyer — joined the company and built successful careers down the hall.
As the Husky droned west, the land began to change, growing drier, farms giving way to ranches. Below was the country of the Missouri Slope, where homesteaders discovered the fallacy that rain followed the plow.
And then suddenly there were oil wells. Well after well, 6,000 or more. Many were production wells — weathered pump jacks pulling up oil (or natural gas and natural-gas liquids) from holes drilled over the years. New or freshly painted pump jacks were nodding over recent discoveries. At that moment, 209 rigs were drilling fresh holes. Wells being hydraulically fractured were ringed by 20 or more water tanks spread out on square mounds of brick-red “scoria” — a clay sintered by underground coal fires and used for drill pads and roads in North Dakota. Some well sites were tucked in the lee of ravines or perched on bluffs or strung out along the line of a county road, one per mile, like square coasters on a bar.
North of the Missouri River, around the town of Parshall in Mountrail County, the wells started almost on a line that coincided roughly with the 102nd meridian. South of the river, the boundary was marked by Highway 49.
“That’s the line of death,” Kopseng said. “The edge of the thermally mature part of the oil field. If you drill to the east of that, you’re dead.”
He banked the Husky over a pennant of flare gas fire, and from the size of the flame estimated the well was producing 1,500 barrels of oil per day. More than a third of the gas that comes out of the oil wells in the basin was being flared off, but that percentage is declining as pipelines and facilities to process it come online. Night satellite photographs that were once pitch-black now show a massive gas flare luminance in the northwest corner of the state. In July the World Bank reported that flared gas from the Williston Basin was the main reason the United States has jumped to 5th from 14th (behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq) on the list of gas-flaring nations. This practice raises the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the gas primarily responsible for global warming.
Yet in the midst of so much empty, untrammeled land, the roaring fires and messy drill pads didn’t evoke images of industrial blight like the apocalyptic black wastes of the Alberta tar-sands operations or the eaten-off mountaintops of West Virginia coal country, or for that matter, the landscape of New Jersey around the port of Newark. From the Husky, it was easy to overlook environmental issues and fathom the appeal of oil development — easy to see the allure of a derrick dressed up in lights and looming 10 stories over a desolate landscape where the leading academic solution to social and economic stagnation had been to surrender and let the land lapse into buffalo commons.
We circled around the southern end of the basin above Dickinson, then flew west and north above the willows in the ravines and coulees of the Little Missouri River. Green junipers blazed on the broken rainbow clay and sandstone cliffs of the North Dakota Badlands, where 26-year-old Theodore Roosevelt came in 1884 to recuperate after the deaths of his wife and his mother on the same day. The two ranches he acquired are now part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We skimmed along the Montana border, then banked east over the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Kopseng took pictures — he’d done all the aerial photography for U.E.C.’s annual report. Rodeo winds were bucking the Husky all over the sky, but nothing could dampen his enthusiasm for the sights of the basin — nothing save my stomach. There was undisguised horror in Kopseng’s voice when he realized I had been obliged to open an airsickness bag in the back seat.
We put down at the Williston airport and hiked across a dirt lot full of mud-caked water trucks. Two dozen horn-handed men were bent over their lunches in an airport-motel restaurant; the only women in the place were the waitresses.
“People asked me why I don’t gamble,” Kopseng said, digging into his lunch. “I don’t need to gamble because the oil and gas business is gambling. But it’s also geology, chemistry, business. Every day is different.”
After the plane was replenished with $147 worth of aviation gas, we headed east toward Bismarck. Down below, dust clouds were boiling around a convoy of trucks hauling frack water and equipment on a county road. A decade ago you could have spread a picnic blanket on a lot of back roads in western North Dakota and safely taken a nap.
They have been through this before, the people of North Dakota, first in the ’60s, a decade after oil was discovered in the state. And then again in the late ’70s, when the boom was driven by rising oil prices. Monthly oil production, which peaked in 1984 at 4.6 million barrels, fell to half and then went sideways for nearly a quarter-century. By February 1999, there wasn’t a single rig drilling new wells in the state, and oil development looked to be yet another cautionary tale in the familiar boom-and-bust history of the region — no better than previous resource bonanzas at stemming the exodus of young people, or at halting the decline of prairie towns, or at doing much of anything to ameliorate the image of a place where the Legislature brooded over the icy connotations of the word “North” and twice entertained the idea of simply calling the state “Dakota.”
And then around seven years ago — driven by technological refinements that have made North Dakota a premier laboratory for coaxing oil from stingy rocks — the state’s Bakken boom began in Mountrail County. At the time, North Dakota was ranked ninth among U.S. oil-producing states. By 2010 it had climbed to fourth. In July 2012, monthly oil output reached 20.97 million barrels, and North Dakota was the largest oil producer in the country after Texas.
Viewed in the global market, the state’s oil output isn’t huge — Saudi Arabia produces about 10 million barrels a day — but North Dakota’s oil boom now accounts for 11 percent of U.S. oil production, and it is the main reason the state government currently has a $3.8 billion surplus.
What may be even more remarkable than the growth of the past two years is the extent to which the oil comes from one group of rocks. Of the 20 oil-producing geological formations in the Williston Basin — including some like the Madison that have yielded large volumes of oil for decades — the Bakken Formation now accounts for 91 percent of North Dakota’s oil production.
None of the Bakken rocks are visible on the surface — at their deepest they lie more than two miles underground — but outcrops of the brand can be seen everywhere in restaurants like Bakken Buffet, Bakken Residence Suites and a plague of Rockin’ the Bakken bumper stickers. The formation, named for Henry O. Bakken, a farmer who leased his land for an early well, consists of three layers, sandwiched, in a commonly used analogy, like an Oreo cookie. The Middle Bakken layer, a band of grayish dolomitic sandstone and siltstone from 30 to 70 feet thick, sits between the Upper and Lower Bakken intervals, carbon-rich beds of black shale between 20 and 50 feet thick.
Petroleum geologists have known the cookie was full of light, sulfur-free oil since 1953, but they didn’t know exactly how much or how to extract it economically. Most of the Bakken oil is “tight.” The rocks are not porous and permeable enough for the oil to flow on its own. If you hold a piece of Middle Bakken, it’s hard to believe it contains oil at all, or that it could function as a “reservoir” for oil migrating under pressure from the carbon-rich shale around it. It feels as hard as a flagstone terrace. But under ultraviolet light, you can see telltale “oil shows,” and it has a faint smell of diesel fuel.
Significant amounts of Bakken oil were produced from conventional vertical wells beginning in 1961, but for many years the formation was considered problematic: you had to be lucky or skillful enough to find an area of the shale that was naturally fractured. Generally the formation was too thin to provide a worthwhile pay zone for a vertical well.
What made people rethink the viability of the Bakken was horizontal drilling. The first horizontal well in the Bakken was spudded by Meridian Oil in 1987, long before the current boom. Meridian engineers went down more than 10,000 feet and then burrowed sideways into a bed of Upper Bakken shale that was only eight feet thick. Later, as improved instruments gave drillers a more precise sense of where they were and what kind of rock they were in, they were able to steer drill bits between the black halves of the Oreo. The sandstone of the Middle Bakken retained the shape of the drill bore better than the Bakken shale. Approached from the side with a horizontal shaft, the reservoir rock could be contacted for thousands of feet rather than for the hundred or so feet a vertical well would afford. The Bakken today contains some of the longest horizontal wells in the world, “laterals” that extend as far as three miles from the drill pad to otherwise unreachable oil under Lake Sakakawea or beneath the Williston airport.
Impressive as it is to execute a 90-degree turn in a well bore thousands of feet underground, horizontal drilling alone was not enough to tap the tight oil in the Bakken. About 95 percent of the Bakken won’t yield its oil unless millions of gallons of pressurized water full of sand and various chemicals are pumped down the well to crack open hairline channels. (The sand, or proppant, props the channels open.) The first areas of the Bakken to be hydraulically fractured were on the Montana side of the Williston Basin in the Elm Coulee Field, where oil was discovered in 2000. Early treatments there were called “Hail Mary fracks” because geologists and engineers would just drill a well, pump in frack fluid and pray for a robust result. The technique is more exact now. Certain grades of sand or sometimes proppant made of ceramic beads are matched to certain kinds of rock, and the wells are fracked in stages, as many as 40 stages per well.
Just how much oil is in the Bakken is still unknown. Estimates have been continuously revised upward since a 1974 figure of 10 billion barrels. Leigh Price, a United States Geological Survey geochemist, was initially greeted with skepticism when, about 13 years ago, he came to the conclusion that the Bakken might hold as much as 503 billion barrels of oil. Now people don’t think that number is as crazy as it seemed.
“Right now our best guess is there are 169 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken, and that’s undoubtedly wrong,” says Ed Murphy, state geologist at the North Dakota Geological Survey. “There’s no way to be right. It’s like guessing how many jelly beans are in a jar.”
The current recovery rates for Bakken reserves typically range from 1 to 6 percent, but recovery rates are a function of both technology and market prices. “With the best technology, we can recover 4 to 8 out of every 100 barrels of oil in the Bakken,” says Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. “Every 1 percent increase in the rate of recovery means another billion barrels.”
As long as prices stay above $60 a barrel or so, oil will be a mainstay of the North Dakota economy for a generation or more. After drilling companies finish securing leased acreage, it will take 20 years to develop the 35,000 to 40,000 production wells needed to fully exploit the “thermally mature” part of the Bakken shale, an area about the size of West Virginia. Production from a typical Bakken well declines rapidly but on average produces modest amounts of oil for 45 years and earns a profit of $20 million. But as the volume of oil in the Bakken shale is still a moving target, and recovery techniques are increasingly sophisticated, some estimates put the life of the Bakken play, and the attendant upheaval it is causing in North Dakota, at upward of a hundred years.
One rainy May morning, I headed out to see the oil patch by car, driving north from Bismarck 110 miles to Minot, then west on Route 2. Some of the most tangible effects of the boom have been tattooed into the roads. Officials calculate that each well in western North Dakota requires about 2,000 truck trips in its first year of operation. Multiply that by hundreds of annual new wells, and it’s clear why county and state highway departments are engaged in an epic struggle against potholes, rutting, asphalt shoving, alligator cracking and other pavement maladies. The biggest danger on many dirt and gravel roads is blinding plumes of dust. Many potions have been concocted to suppress the stuff. The dust busters in Williams County discovered that spraying a soy-based oil works well, but it isn’t practical because it makes the roads taste so good that cows come out of the fields and try to eat them.
Traffic used to be so scarce that drivers would wave as they passed an oncoming car; now there are record numbers of accidents. To assess the impact, the state highway department has a special van that drives around with an onboard computer, an infrared detector and six cameras and produces a ride rating for every mile of the region’s highways; the higher the number, the worse the ride. “I said I was just going to coast into retirement, and then all hell broke loose,” says Walt Peterson, the Williston district engineer for the highway department.
The rain lifted outside Stanley at the junction of Route 2 and Highway 8 — stretches of which had the worst road ratings in the state. I stopped for gas at a Cenex convenience store called Bakken Central, where help was wanted for all days, all shifts. Water trucks in the parking lot wore petticoats of mud. Inside, sooty-faced roughnecks with pale circles around their eyes and dazed expressions wandered through the aisles with armloads of beef jerky and 20-ounce cans of malt liquor. The store was selling showers: a half-hour of hot water for 10 bucks; $15 for a couple. Across the highway, workers were pouring concrete for a new Fuel Force gas station and rolling out sod on a fresh tract of homes.
Seventy-two miles beyond Stanley, I pulled into Williston, which proudly advertises itself as the boyhood home of the N.B.A. coach Phil Jackson. It’s all but impossible to find a place to stay in Williston, but on weekends many oil workers clear out, and I was lucky to get a motel room with a cracked plastic bathtub that had been cleverly patched with duct tape. Pickup trucks were waiting in long lines for drive-through dinners at Hardee’s.
One morning, Ward Koeser, president of the Williston City Commission, offered to show me around. Koeser, a 63-year-old former math teacher whose grandfather came to North Dakota to farm in 1901, started a communications company that sold field radios during the oil boom of the early ’80s. He was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 1994 and returned to office five times.
“We had 12,500 people in the 2000 census, and we wanted to grow beyond that,” he said, heading to the northern edge of town. “We tried to diversify our economy and create more permanent jobs. We brought in a plant to split and polish peas. We hosted events for developers and growers — farmers in the area grow lentils and potatoes and durum wheat — but we couldn’t get beyond 12,500. The downtown area was struggling for 25 years. Young people were leaving and not coming back, and farmers were moving to town and retiring. We were a graying community. Now. . . . ”
He seemed stunned by the pace of change; or maybe just exhausted. The twice-a-month town-commissioner meetings that used to take 45 minutes can now run from 6 p.m. to midnight. “We have 800 to 900 new houses coming onto the city tax rolls by the end of the summer,” Koeser told me as we drove around some of the embryonic neighborhoods. They had names like Bakken Heights and Harvest Hills. The city had to be careful, he said, because during the last boom, Williston got stuck with $28 million in debt after putting in streets and sewers for housing developers who bailed when oil prices collapsed. But now, land near the airport that was $500 an acre a decade ago was selling for as much as $180,000 an acre; the airport itself was slated for relocation. The town bought a 20-room apartment complex so that new city workers could have a place to live and was obliged to offer prospective police officers a housing allowance of $350 a month. Williston has hired nine cops in the last two years, trying to keep up with the crime rate, which was booming along with everything else. (Aggravated assaults in the oil patch doubled in four years.)
Koeser pulled over in the middle of a neighborhood that was nothing but curbs and driveways and empty lots.
“This whole area was a field two years ago,” he said. “By this fall every one of these lots will have a house. I love construction and new buildings. It’s new life, new families moving in. But it’s just happening too fast. Every master plan the city has prepared is obsolete by the time it’s printed. You’d like to have more time to think things through, but everybody is in such a rush.”
One of the more curious aspects of oil development in North Dakota is that the people making arguments against rampant growth, environmental degradation and the messy business of extracting oil are somewhat few and far between, proverbial voices in the wilderness. Probably the loudest of these is John Heiser, a fourth-generation North Dakotan rancher and part-time park ranger who lives near Grassy Butte, and who has been railing against the pace of the boom from the start. Last February he wrote in The Bismarck Tribune that the state’s politicians were not hearing what “everyday people out here are saying — that is, stop the oil madness wreaking havoc with the land, wildlife and Western heritage we’ve long cherished.” Not long before, the Crosby Journal editor Cecile Krimm called the region an “economic disaster area,” citing swamped sewage systems, crumbling roads, dizzy rents and labor shortages as reasons that officials ought to be trying to brake a runaway train.
But oil development, and fracking in particular, raises little of the hue and cry it does in Eastern states sitting above the natural gas in the Marcellus shale. Even a well-publicized investigation by the news Web site ProPublica that reported that there were more than “1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater and other fluids” in North Dakota in 2011 passed without much fuss.
A more typical attitude is represented by Harold Hamm, chief executive of Continental Resources. “Why do [critics] always start talking about the challenges?” Hamm said in a speech he gave at Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck in May. “What challenges? Spending all the money?” Hamm, who is known as the Baron of the Bakken by virtue of having more than a million acres leased for drilling, led Mitt Romney’s energy committee, which proposed giving states control of oil leases on federal lands.
One reason for the lack of dissent may be that there just aren’t that many people in North Dakota — the state has a population density of less than 10 per square mile; Pennsylvania has 284, New York 411 — and the people who are there appear to have weighed the benefits against the costs. And perhaps, given the state’s history of hardship, they don’t feel entitled to qualms about social and environmental costs; maybe ambivalence about fat years seems self-indulgent, a failure to appreciate how lean life on the frontier once was and could well be again.
It may also be that the lack of dissent reflects the way North Dakotans idealize themselves as more inclined to endure than to complain, certain it takes a special temperament to live in such forbidding country, where winters are brutal and culture is thin. North Dakotans are among the most prudent people in North America — even amid record surpluses, the electorate last year rejected a proposal to abolish property taxes — and their history tells them that after the tumult of a boom, the landscape, in the words of former Gov. Arthur A. Link, will “be quiet again.”
Link, who died in 2010, was a popular, plain-spoken Democrat who was born in the tiny town of Alexander in the heart of the Williston Basin — a town that once opposed a bypass fearing it would dry up and die if Highway 85 were routed around it, and now is on the verge of choking to death on boom-truck traffic. Nearly 40 years ago, when the boom of the moment was lignite coal, not oil, Link gave a speech at an annual meeting of the North Dakota Rural Electric Association. It’s been called “North Dakota’s Gettysburg Address.”
“We do not want to halt progress,” the governor said. “We do not plan to be selfish and say, ‘North Dakota will not share its energy resources.’ . . . We simply want to ensure the most efficient and environmentally sound method of utilizing our precious coal and water resources for the benefit of the broadest number of people possible. And when we are through with that and the landscape is quiet again, when the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar. . . . when the last bulldozer has pushed the last spoil pile into place, and the last patch of barren earth has been seeded to grass or grain, let those who follow and repopulate the land be able to say, our grandparents did their job well. The land is as good and, in some cases, better than before.”
It’s hard to say whether the hope and grandeur of that vision are deeper than its delusions. In truth, it seems less an assessment of what humanity can expect when it is done devouring the earth’s nonrenewable resources than a prayer that reflects a faith unique to the place where Link was born, faith that all those caved-in cabins, withered towns and stillborn dreams — and whatever is left when the oil is gone — can be redeemed.
Chip Brown is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about the filmmaker Whit Stillman.
Alec Soth is a photographer in Minnesota. He recently published “LBM Dispatch No. 3: Michigan.”
Editor: Sheila Glaser
February 4, 2013A Burden of Care Over Seized Exotic Wildlife in Thailand
By THOMAS FULLER
KHAO PRATUBCHANG, Thailand — Thailand wants to shed its image as a place where many types of wildlife — turtles from Madagascar, marmoset monkeys from South America, baby sun bears, exotic birds — are for sale, an international trade driven by the global market in exotic meats and rare pets.
Over the past two years, officials here have captured more than 46,000 animals from traffickers, vendors and trappers, more than double the 18,000 seized the two previous years.
But now the government faces the quandary of what to do with all the creatures it has saved — a sort of Noah’s ark of endangered species, except that this ark would most likely sink under the weight of all the elephants, tigers, bears and monkeys.
“The more we arrest, the more animals we have to take care of,” said Theerapat Prayurasiddhi, deputy director general of the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation.
While many say that porous borders, corruption and lax enforcement remain problems, the crackdown comes as Thailand is set to host a major meeting in March to discuss the main international agreement on trafficking, the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
The burden of taking care of seized animals was underlined in October, when 16 malnourished tiger cubs were recovered from the back of a smuggler’s truck. Caretakers at the Khao Pratubchang Wildlife Breeding Center here in Ratchaburi Province have been overwhelmed by the 24-hour care and the specialized food and medicine the cubs require.
“It’s like having a child — there are so many details,” said Sathit Pinkul, the head of the center. “You always have to be around when they are hungry,” he said, imitating the meow of a needy cub. “We’ve become their personal attendants.”
The center houses 45 other tigers, 10 leopards and 13 other small felines known as fishing cats and Asian golden cats, which are slightly bigger than house cats but more fierce.
Wildlife centers across the country are already at capacity. A center near Bangkok houses more than 400 screaming monkeys. One in Chonburi Province has 99 bears, one who has been named Airport because she was rescued from a smuggler’s suitcase at an airport. (Others have been named more randomly: Lonely, Fat, New Year.) Thai law requires that the animals be kept as evidence until legal proceedings are completed — or for five years if no suspect is arrested.
Some of the animals can eventually be released into the wild, including common species of monkeys, snakes and pangolins, which resemble small armadillos and are prized in China for their meat. (Many animal parts, including rhinoceros horns, are used in traditional Chinese medicine.)
But the tiger cubs, raised by humans, face life in captivity.
“I’ve attended a lot of international meetings, and I’ve never heard about a tiger being successfully introduced into the wild,” Mr. Sathit said, adding, “They have less of a predatory instinct.”
The cubs are likely to live out their life span of more than two decades at the wildlife center, in cages that sit among the bamboo groves. They will be down the road from 11 orangutans who were abandoned as babies on the resort island of Phuket, and a five-minute walk from the rare Fea’s muntjac deer that was shot by a hunter but is recovering and holding onto the fawn she is gestating.
Not many zoos are interested in more tigers, Mr. Sathit said, and euthanasia is not considered an option.
“They are living creatures like us,” Mr. Sathit said. “We must take care of them.”
The center orders one ton of chicken every week from a local slaughterhouse — which sometimes runs out of meat.
Feeding the birds and beasts at government centers across the country costs about 1.7 million baht, or $57,000, a month. The Department of National Parks has established a fund to help defray the cost and receives private donations, mainly from celebrities and wealthy Thais.
Some animals are easier to take care of than others. Caretakers at the wildlife center in Chonburi Province do not bother to lock the cage of the slow loris, a nocturnal primate with big round eyes that lives up to its name.
Monkeys are more problematic, particularly the variety known as the crab-eating macaque, which during a recent visit violently shook the bars of their cages.
“The maintenance staff spends their day fixing cages,” said Thanapol Kongsapsirianand, an official at the center.
Many monkeys have escaped from the Chonburi center and regularly raid the bird enclosure to steal food. They have also corrupted the pig-tailed macaques that live in the nearby jungles and taught them the finer points of burglary. “The jungle monkeys were friendly before the caged monkeys taught them bad behavior,” Mr. Thanapol said.
Click to watch slideshow: http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2013/02/04/world/asia/20130205-THAILAND.html?gwh=998062B39EF04798A6875639643FFF07
Click to watch video: http://www.nytimes.com/video/2013/02/05/world/asia/100000002037337/trafficked-through-thailand.html