A few years ago I wrote a rhetorical piece saying we should not have a pity party for fossil fuel companies. Since that time, I have noted how often business reporters will write articles (and sometimes clumsy headlines) that suggest that the decline of fossil fuel consumption is somehow a terrible thing. In Houston, where I live, we have a great newspaper HOUSTON CHRONICLE which can publish great pieces about the environment and energy. At the same time, its business section gives excessive and unduly sympathetic coverage to an industry which basically engages in odious (albeit legal) behavior. Houston grew rich from the oil and gas sector in an age where climate change wasn’t as clear cut. But now it is clear cut, and there is no special reason to give these industries the benefit of the doubt. I’ve long said that the tragedy of Houston is that its most talented and creative (and law-abiding) people were persuaded to work for an industry that produced harmful and odious results (more).
This page will list and criticize news stories (from the Chronicle and elsewhere) which I feel framed the subject wrongly — in a way to portray the fossil fuel industry more sympathetically than was necessary. There are many victims from climate change — and workers in these industries are victimized in a way. I grew up in a city where articles about fossil fuels were dressed up in language stressing hard-work and enterpreneurship — distracting from long environmental consequences. Even today, press releases and media stress the benefit of partial solutions and the fact that the industry obeys the law (not hard in a state with lax regulations). Apparently the welfare of a rapidly diminishing population of O&G workers is supposed to trump all other things. I often used to joke that the easiest way to tell the extent of a company’s ecological destructiveness is the amount of greenery (and flowing water) which appears in their ads and promotional material.
Here’s a list of the most egregious examples of fossil fuel reality distortion:
Uncertainty Cuts Both Ways
I thought Sunday’s front page story about climate change skepticism presented the issues in a muddled way. Indeed, why, did the article keep citing Steven Koonin and his book which is already under fire from climate scientists? Climate scientist Ben Santer wrote, “It is simply untrue that Prof. Koonin is confronting climate scientists with unpleasant facts they ignored or failed to understand. The climate science community treats uncertainties in an open and transparent way. It has done so for decades.” Merely stating that uncertainty exists about climate predictions ignores the fact that predicted harms could turn out to be even worse than predicted. Says Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt (two leading climate scientists), “there is a great asymmetry in risk between the high and low end estimates. Uncertainty cuts both ways and is not our friend.”
Practically speaking, policymakers and citizens can and should still make decisions based on available scientific information and assessment of risk. That is why the IPCC Summary for Policymakers uses clearly defined phrases like “virtually certain,” “high confidence” and “medium confidence” to help nonscientists weigh the cost and benefits of various actions. Unfortunately, delaying action on climate change imposes additional risks and costs on both our natural system and global economy.
A carbon fee and dividend is a fast and effective way to reduce the production and consumption of fossil fuels. It also brings substantial benefits: cash dividends to consumers, reduced deaths from air pollution (estimated at 100,000 annually in the US alone) and more jobs created (renewable energy historically has created many more jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuels do).
Robert Nagle (not a climate scientist!)
PERSONIFICATION OF SHALE
Dear Houston Chronicle:
In the Sept 27 HOUSTON CHRONICLE business section (page 1), we see the headline, “NEW MEXICO SHALE IS BRACING FOR POSSIBLE BIDEN REGULATIONS.” Please note that shale is an inanimate object incapable of having any mental processes or emotion. Solecism aside, it’s disturbing to lament the proposed reduction of a business practice which threatens both the planet’s climate and the local ecosystem (and potentially the water supply). The shale mining industry may provide short-term economic gain to a small number, but it also threatens the health and stability of our climate and the people and creatures that live on it.
The “Threat” of Solar Energy
Dear Houston Chronicle:
I need to quibble with some of the wording in the otherwise excellent report on the emerging solar industry by L.M. Sixel on Monday Dec 2.
According to the article, “Solar, however, may pose an even greater threat because unlike wind, it produces the most power when demand is highest — hot, sunny summer afternoons.”
“Threat”? I find nothing threatening about using solar power. But when air pollution from fossil fuels annually causes 4-7 million premature deaths globally (WHO Report, 2014 & Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, 2017) and 75,000-100,000 domestically, I certainly feel threatened by the continued use of fossil fuels in Texas. Far from being a threat, solar is an encouraging sign, a reason to hope for the future. According to one economic analysis (U. of Mass, 2009– PDF), “clean energy investments create 16.7 jobs for every $1 million in spending. Spending on fossil fuels, by contrast, generates 5.3 jobs per $1 million in spending.”
Sometimes the overly effusive coverage by the Chronicle about the fossil fuel industry can be offputting. If an industry’s business model is dedicated to PERMANENTLY degrading the livable world for EVERY SINGLE baby born today, tomorrow, next year, next decade — even the next century, then it’s a no-brainer that we ought to act sooner rather than later to stop it, especially because we ALREADY HAVE the technology to solve the problem and already have a good idea about how to do it right.