Seawater=Fuel≠Less Greenhouse Emissions: Why the Pentagon Can’t be Trusted to Take on Climate Change on its Own.

The concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails.

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After over a decade of research by the US Navy,  technology has been developed that converts the hydrogen and carbon from seawater into fuel. A scale-model replica airplane has been filmed flying using the new seawater fuel. A toy plane is hard to get excited about, but it shows that existing engines can use the energy source without being modified. It’s an impressive breakthrough that once again shows the scale of the Pentagon’s Research and Development wing. Pentagon projects, such as this one, can easily go undetected by mainstream media. The DoD doesn’t need the same level of press coverage that an Apple product requires for market purposes. However, companies just like Apple have benefited from federal programs like Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) which develop some of the world’s most cutting-edge systems. While these innovations came from national security concerns, they are often later applied commercially. (The application of GPS and other satellite-based systems is a perfect example). Seawater fuel may also become available to consumers down the road, but this shouldn’t be confused as good for the environment.

No one can predict with certainty the success of a new piece of innovation, but what is known is that the seawater-to-fuel process is years off from being ready for primetime. Navy researchers believe that US military ships won’t be able to produce their own fuel until the next decade.

This is where skepticism over the story has appeared from environmental activists, and why it’s warranted. Will deriving fuel from seawater actually help fight climate change? Researchers have disseminated the warning for years now that oceans are at their limits of carbon uptake, making the waters more acidic and less able to absorb manmade CO2. So the concept of fuel from seawater seems to be a tool against climate change… until you look into what it entails. The two main problems with this new fuel source is (a) even once we wait for it to be developed, is it worth it? and (b) a branch of the Pentagon controls the fate of the project.

The timeline, as mentioned earlier, shows that this technology is only a novelty for at least another ten years. The Navy has the raw ability to extract hydrocarbons from seawater, but when can we see a ship run off of the water that it takes in? (And in the case of the Navy, an aircraft carrier). It’s horribly counterproductive if the seawater is processed off site then transported to active fleets. The amount of petroleum required to just transport the seawater fuel product to deployed vessels would negate any carbon offset hoped of being achieved. Therefore, the next goal is to give military ships the capability of producing their own seawater fuel with an installation of onboard catalytic converters.

That said, even once on-site production becomes a reality ships will still rely on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there has been no mention of the catalytic convertors operating off of solar panels- instead the system will run off good ol’ gasoline, the amount of which is currently TBD. So as you can see, seawater-powered fleets is a far cry from a green revolution. But it’s a mistake to think that the US Navy is in the green revolution business. The Department of Defense has been, and will always be, in the business ensuring military readiness and global dominance. When the announcement on this technology was made, an enthuasitic Vice Adm. Philip Cullom explained why this is such a big deal:

“It’s a huge milestone for us,” said Vice Adm. Philip Cullom. “We are in very challenging times where we really do have to think in pretty innovative ways to look at how we create energy, how we value energy and how we consume it. We need to challenge the results of the assumptions that are the result of the last six decades of constant access to cheap, unlimited amounts of fuel.”

I don’t mean to vilify the Vice Admiral, his quote is accurate and honest assessment on how this development will be applied. This article’s purpose is to bring down any giddiness on the prospect of this technology being a move away from fossil fuels. Because as mentioned earlier,  the Department of Defense is in the business of increasing military readiness and global dominance.

Watchdog groups like Project Censored have identified the Department of Defense as the worst polluter in the world, well above the usual suspects of multinationals. I’m sure there are some that see these sorts of reports as far-left hyperbole, but that does not detract from the fact that the US military has an extensive track record of toxic dumping and unprecedented use of fossil fuels. This can be traced from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam to  Camp Lejeune here in the US. The DoD has shown that the institution does not see a strong connection between protecting the environment and national security. Now climate change is a far greater issue since it poses as an existential threat, and to the Pentagon’s credit they have identified it as such.

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Erin Brokovich standing with prostesters in DC  urging Pres. Obama to help families of Camp Lejeune

So is climate change the issue that will finally get the DoD to start cleaning up its environmental record? There is some optimistic evidence to say yes. Besides the Pentagon’s plans to cope with ensuing rising sea levels, the Obama Administration has made a pointed stance expanding the military’s role in the fight against climate change. In 2010, the Obama Administration announced the directive to get 20% of the DoD’s energy from renewables by 2020. The same administration signed into law the Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act which grants medical care to those made ill by the Lejeune water supply. Has the Pentagon truly begun to see the national security implications of it’s heinous record of pollution? I argue that the answer is between ‘barely’ and ‘meh’. Climate Change is undoubtedly on the Pentagon’s radar, but so is a zombie apocalypse. Just because the Pentagon is aware of something, doesn’t mean it will act on it- especially if it requires sacrificing the military supremacy.

You know that the Pentagon is acutely aware of the research done on climate change because they have conducted several studies themselves. Establishment R&D groups like the RAND Corporation have been perfunctorily contracted to analyze how the military could reduce it’s carbon footprint. If you take the time to read the exhaustive papers, you can tell that its understood greenhouse emissions have serious consequences for the nation. (No ‘global warming is a hoax’ sentiment in these circles). Unfortunately for climate advocates, the reports that show concern with climate change also strongly advise a continuous reliance on fossil fuels. (If you have time, you should at least read the summary from the RAND report). There are calls for a marginal increase in wind energy, but overall a heavy reliance on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future is the general consensus in the DoD. All hesitancy to use more renewable energy stems from the concern that it will limit the might of the US military. Renewable sources are unable to sustain the growing energy needs and would come at an increased fiscal cost as well. In the same 2011 RAND study, the authors came right out to say that seawater-to-fuel technology would be not be fiscally feasible. (pg 39). Did the authors know about the Navy’s work on the new fuel source? Who knows. What can be assumed is that RAND would probably be opposed to incorporating seawater-to-fuel capabilities if it detracts from military strength simply for greenhouse gas reduction. I apologize for the cynicism, but if solar is considered too cumbersome for RAND, then I’m sure they aren’t going to wait around for seawater fuel).

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The guy from Dr. Stranglove was based on a real RAND Corporation adviser

On an optimistic note, there is reason to believe that the Navy won’t be the sole owners of seawater fuel technology forever. As mentioned earlier, the Pentagon has developed some of the most groundbreaking innovations that have instrumental in building our current day economy. (AKA private businesses). ARPANET, a communication system constructed in the 1960s to survive a nuclear attack, was constructed by on the Pentagon’s dime. While it was designed for military purposes it later went on to be the foundation for the world wide web. The internet has been improved upon and expanded through private investment, being fully ingratiated into the world economy. So it’s not farfetched to think that private groups will work to make the seawater-to-fuel conversion a zero-emission process.

The seawater fuel breakthrough isn’t the only prospect the military has in curbing greenhouse emissions. There have been reports that Pentagon is funding research on converting ocean waves and common algae into energy sources as well. They are all exciting projects that have potential to move the country away from fossil fuels. But ‘potential’ doesn’t mean anything until it actually happens. Ultimately, this story shows that the government alone cannot be trusted to solve all problems. A tempered summary but at least it’s accurate.

Is the World of Energy that Fragile? : A Lawsuit Against Oil &amp Gas Shines Light on Coastal Erosion

A significant legal battle in Southern Louisiana has led to a discussion on the evolving relationship between the public and the fossil fuel industry. The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East (SLFPA-E), a local authority that monitors levee structures around Greater New Orleans, has filed a lawsuit against the numerous energy companies that drill offshore. SLFPA-E uses compelling data that indicates that the exploration and drilling of fossil fuels has severely damaged the state’s wetlands and coastline. Not only does this have ecological impacts, but a compromised coastline makes residents far more vulnerable to storm surges and flooding. Research conducted by public officials as well as energy industry scientists has definitively outlined that oil & gas companies are responsible for roughly one-third of coastal erosion.

NASA.gov
NASA.gov

Naturally, the accused companies strongly disagree with the validity of the suit. One Chevron executive referred to the lawsuit as ‘laughable’, and industry spokesmen displayed confidence that the state government would not let the charges remain. Sure enough, Gov. Jindal removed Jon Barry, head of SLFPA-E, roughly 2 weeks after the story broke and has since made moves to ensure that the suit fall flat.

It’s not hard to see how close the oil industry is with Louisiana politics as well as daily life. Just about every New Orleans convention or event is sponsored by Chevron, that includes Super Bowls, Alligator Festivals and King Cake competitions. It’s not only American companies either- Sasol, a South African multinational, has recently committed to investing up to $21 billion in Southwestern Louisiana. The benefits of having energy producers in your backyard are fairly obvious. It has been well-documented how folks with high-school diplomas are making close to six figures working on oil-rigs. However, the SLFPA-E lawsuit proves oil & gas extraction has negative impacts that are too overwhelming to ignore.

Lets be clear, the fossil fuel industry is here to stay in the Gulf. Uprooting oil & gas companies is just about unthinkable in the American South’s political climate. The industry is deeply ingrained within the Gulf economy providing over 50,000 direct jobs. After all, the majority of Louisianans were bitterly against the moratorium on oil exploration and drilling after the Deep Horizon oil spill. Lafourche Parish is known for having some of the lowest unemployment levels in the country, but during the moratorium the vast majority of constituents were left temporarily jobless. So unfortunately for climate change advocates, the debate concerning the future of fossil fuels is considerably narrower in Louisiana. However, this SFLPA-E lawsuit may finally be the politically safe platform that Louisianans have lacked in the past to rethink their intense loyalty to the energy sector- even if only in an incremental manner. While the lawsuit doesn’t bring any new concepts into the fold- oil companies’ ecological damage has been an issue for some time – it does have the benefit of timing.

Coastal America was faced with enormous premium increases after a restructuring of the National Flood Insurance Program. The NFIP being the federal agency that insures homeowners for water damage from storms. After the Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy and Isaac the National Flood Insurance Program fell into $24 billion of debt. Despite recent reforms to the NFIP, Louisiana residents are still at risk of home damage which means that actuaries would increase their NFIP premiums. Being battered by storms has always been part of the Bayou state experience. But the threat of property destruction is exponentially greater when the coastline buffer receding at such a fast rate. In fact, one of the primary reasons private insurers pulled out of the Flood Insurance market was because of coastal erosion. As proven by the aftermath of Katrina, insurance companies would be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars in claims, which would surely negate any revenue generated from monthly premiums.

It is without a doubt Louisianans have a strong financial incentive to support coastal restoration efforts. Even conservative leaders such as Gov. Jindal (who is hardly an environmentalist) uses millions of state dollars to rebuild artificial sand dunes across the inner Gulf. Now the main questions are: how expansive should coastal restoration operations be? And who pays for it? Unfortunately for the Louisiana treasury, state leaders aren’t ready to ask the energy companies to finance costly coastal restoration operations, even though they have proven to cause roughly a third of the damage. The billions of tax dollars collected from oil & gas companies help pay for Jindal’s coastal restoration efforts. But their current contribution barely puts a dent of the coastal destruction they have committed.

Chaland Restoration Proj

The SFLAP-E lawsuit, while sure to fail, could potentially get Louisianans to demand at least some compensation for coastline damage outside of the tax dollars generated from their day-to-day operations. Obviously there will always be strong opposition to any move that demands additional accountability from oil companies- but the argument that these corporations will leave the Gulf if compensation is requested should be viewed with intense skepticism. Conservatives will always insist that taxes and regulation scare away business….And in an increasingly global marketplace, this argument has validity. But when it comes to extracting fossil fuels, don’t governments have considerably more leverage?

To give an extreme example, when Hugo Chavez created ‘one of the most aggressive tax systems’, by increasing oil royalties from 1% to 16.6%, oil multinationals became incensed. Yet American multinationals continue operations in Venezuela to this day despite their cries of unfairness. No one in the US is asking for the level of compensation that Chavez demanded… yet the same sound bytes are used: ‘They don’t have to be here’. ‘They’ll go to China.’ ‘They’ll go somewhere more business-friendly’. Energy spokes people have continuously said, ‘Our shale is no different than elsewhere’. The concept of corporate-flight is a concern that routinely enters the debate whenever increased taxes or regulation is proposed, usually by those connected to the industry in question. The US and especially the Gulf have an enormous amount of shale formation along with a trained workforce. Plus unlike several countries that are major sources of energy, the US can guarantee a level of stability and safety for their workers.

The truth is, it is fairly rare for a oil & gas corporation to cancel a drilling operations because of increased taxes- Which is arguably what the SFLAP-E lawsuit demands from oil companies to help restore Louisiana coastline. Exxon Mobil has been aggressively extracting oil in Angola where they are taxed at a rate of 75%. Of course, they only actually pay a tax rate around 35% after the US government reimburses the difference. The massive tax breaks given to US oil companies has been a contemptuous issue for the American left for decades now and has even gained some steam in the Tea Party movement as well. These beginnings of bipartisan support are easy to understand when you recognize that American taxpayers are subsidizing the choice of Exxon Mobil to work within an unforgiving business climate. This corporate favoritism should be seen as even more egregious considering that it has proven to be borderline political suicide to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for coastline destruction back in the US.

Ultimately, the fossil fuel industry appears to be willing to put up with a lot of hassles when the payout is worth it. The risk-reward concept is hardly a groundbreaking economics, but is worth noting when you consider the vast resources the Gulf has in the form of shale gas. The Gulf stands in contrast to Kansas where Shell pulled out all operations in 2011 because of a unsatisfactory payout. Kansas played by the rules of the energy industry by hosting an almost nonexistent regulatory environment for horizontal fracking and some of the lowest tax rates in the country. Yet Shell decided that their shale deposits weren’t worth it even after buying 600,000 acres of land. Which brings me back to my main point: when you have the goods, the energy companies come to you. So shouldn’t we expect our government to maximize their leverage?

Unfortunately, for people in Louisiana who face sky high Flood Insurance premiums and an unusually high level of poverty- Republican leadership isn’t even close to interested in asking a little bit more from these oil titans. GOP leadership has recently begun testing the line that the role of government is to facilitate a business friendly environment. But even conservative voters should realize that government should facilitate a strong business climate while getting as much as possible for their constituents. Doesn’t the Shell-Kansas story indicate that it doesn’t matter how comfortable you make oil companies? These folks will set up camp in war-torn, tax gouging, corrupt capitols like Angola.

The broader issue of climate change is not a part of this coastal erosion discussion. Unfortunately, asking oil companies to curb emissions isn’t in the sphere of debate in Southern Louisiana politics. What is a manageable first-step is getting the oil & gas dependent states to start holding these energy corporations accountable for their most basic environmental degradation. Even though the SFLPA-E lawsuit has proven to be a non-starter, it provides a great opportunity for this first-step.