fuel


We have a laboratory that shows us what happens to a vital and sensitive coastal wetland subjected to massive and repeated oil spills. So far very little has been done to study it. The Niger Delta, one of the 10 most important wetland and coastal marine ecosystems in the world, has experienced an average of one oil spill per day, collectively the equivalent of one Exxon Valdez spill per year, for five decades, 50 years. Half the life created in a warm coastal wetland is created in the top two millimeters of slime on the surface of the marsh mud, the food base of the entire coastal wetland, as illustrated below. If this layer is covered by oil and dies, all the animals up the food chain risk starvation. In the 8 minute video Curse of the Black Gold. you can hear a man telling us that in his Niger Delta fishing community where they have fished for generations, there is now no one who can make a living as a fisherman.

Half of the all the life created in the nature-rich Louisiana coast, one of the world's most productive estuaries, or in any warm coastal wetland, takes place in the thin layer of slime on top of the marshes. Microscopic creatures are a key part of the Gulf marsh ecosystem. (nola.com, click to enlarge enough to read)

Right now BP’s Deep Horizon well is spilling what may be the equivalent of one or more Exxon Valdez spills per week. The well may be compromised downhole (from dougr at the Oil Drum) and leaking in multiple locations. How, and even if it can be stopped are open questions to which no one appears to know the answer. In the Niger Delta we have the laboratory for how this massive a spill might effect people, plants, animals, land, and water. But it has been very little studied. The effects of this oil spilling on people has been almost completely ignored.

Meredeth Turshen wrote of the Niger Delta in 2004:

Specific effects of oil development on women’s health seem not to have been investigated. Although I found an article on the effects of exposure of crocodiles to sub-lethal concentrations of petroleum waste drilling fluid in the Niger Delta basin, I could find nothing on the health of women who live near oil wells and oil production stations, and nothing on reproductive outcomes in areas adjacent to petrochemical plants. Yet it is known that cadmium, chromium, mercury, and lead are contained in the refinery effluents that are constantly discharged into nearby bodies of water. At high concentrations these metals cause metabolic malfunctions in human beings. They enter the food chain through the drinking water and the local fish that people consume.

Right now we are just beginning to see similar exposure to US citizens.

Oil spills have destroyed lives and livelihoods throughout the Niger Delta. You can see and hear what has happened to people:
Click here to view the 8 minute video Curse of the Black Gold.
It is based on Ed Kashi’s book of the same name, Curse of the Black Gold.

Neither the oil companies nor the Nigerian government want anyone to know what is going on. Investigation and research is actively discouraged. Those engaged in research or reporting may find themselves threatened and at risk of arrest, beatings, injury and death. And now The Mercenaries Take Over, mostly hired by the oil companies to protect their interests and prevent interference and investigation.

The same thing is happening in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has hired mercenaries to keep the news media and the public away from the places the oil has come ashore and prevent investigation.
Louisiana response to Gulf of Mexico oil spill obstructed by BP and federal agencies, state officials say
or
Barriers to news coverage of Gulf of Mexico oil spill remain despite promises

Journalists covering the Gulf of Mexico oil spill have been yelled at, kicked off public beaches and islands and threatened with arrest in the nearly three weeks since the government promised improved media access.

The threats and dangers are not now as pervasive and severe as in the Niger Delta. But they are there, and this is just the beginning. You can see in the following picture the vast extent of the oil spill, covering 18, 473 square miles on June 19, and growing. Much of that oil will be coming ashore in the wetlands. Storms are likely to drive it to land and inland. Much oil remains suspended in the water along with a great deal of methane that has been escaping with the oil. The oil and methane will kill marine life and make their habitat uninhabitable.

Strong thunderstorms form large, dense masses of bright white cloud in this MODIS/Aqua satellite image of the northeast Gulf of Mexico taken the afternoon of June 19, 2010. But it's clearer than the MODIS/Terra image taken the day before, and reveals fresh oil upwelling around the location of the leaking Macondo well, source of the ongoing BP / Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Slicks and sheen span 18,473 square miles (47,847 km2) on this image. Thin patches of slick and sheen appear to be making landfall from Gulf Shores, Alabama to Perdido Key in Florida, and from Grayton Beach State Park to the Seacrest / Rosemary Beach area along the Florida coast. (from SkyTruth on Flickr: flickr.com/photos/skytruth/4722626008/ , click to enlarge)

In Nigeria Claytus Kanyie says:

The aquatic life of our people is dying off. There used be shrimp. There are no longer any shrimp.

And another Nigerian fisherman speaks:

If you want to go fishing, you have to paddle for about four hours through several rivers before you can get to where you can catch fish and the spill is lesser … some of the fishes we catch, when you open the stomach, it smells of crude oil.

Soon this will be true in the Gulf of Mexico, as will all the health effects and economic impact of wetlands saturated with oil, and of a sea depleted of oxygen and filled with oil and toxic chemicals.

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Africa at night by satellite

The Economist has an article this week in which it points out that power shortages are one of the biggest brakes on development.

SEEN from space, Africa at night is unlit—as dark as all-but empty Siberia. With nearly 1 billion people, Africa accounts for over a sixth of the world’s population, but generates only 4% of global electricity . . . most of the attempts at electrification in the 1970s and the 1980s failed. In some countries, dictators pillaged power stations for parts and fuel. In others, power stations were built but not maintained. Turbines were run at full capacity until they broke, then were abandoned. By some counts, only 17 of Nigeria’s 79 power stations, many dating from this period, are still working; . . . The World Bank reckons that 500m sub-Saharan Africans are without what it calls “modern energy”.

I know the constant lights out in Ghana this summer have been devastating for small business, and for employees in any business that uses electric power, which is most all of them. Rawlings got rural electrification under way. But if there is no power, power lines don’t help a lot. The Economist reports there are a number of plans and projects underway throughout the continent:

Many African governments are looking at alternative sources of energy to make up their projected shortfalls. Hydropower is clean, from the point of view of greenhouse-gas emissions, but most of the easy alternatives, notably coal, are dirty. Donors committed to cutting global carbon emissions are unlikely to favour more dirty coal-fired power stations of the sort that predominate in South Africa, although the government there claims that it wants to clean them up. Some fossil fuels, however, are less damaging than coal. A pipeline planned for west Africa, which will carry gas that is now flared off in oilfields, could stabilise electricity supply in coastal cities.

Few Africans in rural areas have access to electricity. Connecting them to national grids will be slow and expensive. Yet Lilliputian windmills, water mills, solar panels and biomass furnaces could have a big collective impact. The cost of lighting a shack takes 10% of income in the poorest households and the kerosene lamps are highly polluting. In response, the World Bank has rolled out “Lighting Africa”, an ambitious effort to get 250m of the poorest Africans on clean-energy lighting by 2030.

Talk of the mass production of biofuels in Africa is premature, but advances have been made. Some investors are backing jatropha, a plant whose seeds produce an oil for burning in generators. There is also an effort to tap geothermal energy. The Great Rift Valley, from Eritrea to Mozambique, could produce 7,000MW. Kenya hopes to get 20% of its energy from geothermal sources by 2017.

Engineers think they can also use the steady winds in Africa’s mountain ranges for power production. And if the costs of using the sun’s warmth can be reduced to 30% below its present cost, vast solar farms could offer cheap, clean energy for African cities and in doing so boost incomes in rural areas. Egypt, which relies mostly on natural gas, is looking hard at solar power.

The biofuels worry me a bit. If Africa goes into biofuel production, will it be for African power? or for US and European use? Much of what I’ve been reading lately talks about Africa growing biofuel for the US market. And although this article talks about how hydropower is clean, it can still have profound environmental impact, which is not mentioned here. We can see examples of this with the Chinese dams on the Mekong, and the consequent effect on water supply in Southeast Asia.

Small scale local projects can make a huge difference.

I was relieved the article did not mention nuclear power. Some are talking about that, and it would be an unmitigated disaster. No one has figured out what to do with nuclear waste. It is a huge, though mostly silent problem in the US. Europe has been dumping nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia, some of which washed up with the tsunami. And the regulation and management, which is unreliable here in the US, would, depending on which government in which country, be likely to be less dependable, more erratic, and a danger to everyone.

ADDED 8/23 – After studying the map above, it looks like the brightest spots are Cairo, the Niger Delta, and Pretoria. Everything I read about the Niger Delta says there is little to no electricity, and what there is, is frequently off. So what is causing the light? Other things I read say that you can see the fires from space that flare the gas off the oil, and that there are children in the delta that have never known a dark night. Is the light coming out of the Niger Delta from gas flares?

Head, from the Treasure of King Kofi Kakari. Akan people, Asante subgroup. Ghana. Gold. London: Wallace Collection.

The thinking of the Bush/Cheney Administration is so 19th century that I find it staggering.

In 1873-74 the British fought the Ashanti in the name of “free trade”. What that meant then was, rather than the Ashanti controlling the gold trade, the British should control the gold trade.

Henry Stanley probably offered the best short explanation of the origins of the Anglo-Ashanti war. “King Coffee”, (Asantahene Kofi Kakari) he said, “is too rich a neighbour to be left alone with his riches.”

And that seems to be the approach the Bush/Cheney administration has taken to Africa in creating Africom. Africa is too rich a neighbor to leave alone.

Not only does the Bush/Cheney administration want to control African oil in the name of free trade. When you read the proposals, it also looks like they want to turn Africa into a vast plantation, think 19th century Caribbean sugar plantation, or think of the rapacious labor and environmental practices of Florida’s Big Sugar, to grow sugar cane bio-fuel for the US market.

b real said… (in the comments on the previous post)

here’s a heritage foundation paper that came right before hallinan’s article

Africa’s Oil and Gas Sector: Implications for U.S. Policy

two of the key recommendations made in the paper that stood out to me are:

1.) “The Department of State, Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Agency for International Development (USAID) [local interests need not apply!] should develop a comprehensive strategy to improve the investment climate in Africa, focus­ing on privatization of the oil and gas industry’s assets and reserves.”

and

2.) “The DOE, U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and Department of the Treasury should work with Congress to remove tariffs and quotas on sugarcane ethanol before 2009.”

“Africa offers the ideal tropical climate for pro­ducing ethanol from sugarcane.”

“To tap Africa’s potential and expand U.S.–Africa energy cooperation, real barriers will have to be overcome, especially the U.S. 54-cents-per-gallon tariff on ethanol. This tariff violates the principles of free trade and undermines U.S. energy security.”

they also recommend that all the euro energy companies form a “coordinating forum”, led by the u.s., to promote privatization & apply leverage to african energy producers.

it’s essentially all laid out there in the open…

And the effect of this free trade?

. . . the impact of free trade on Africa will be profound. “The majority in Africa . . . will be faced with losses in both agricultural and industrial goods,” and small African farmers will be unable to compete.

As part owner of small farms in Ghana, I find this terrifying.

DAVE CLARK/AFP/Getty Images
ODIOMA, NIGERIA: A villager walks through the ruins of the southern Nigerian community of Odioma, a fishing and trading centre, and a historic centre for the Ijaw people in the oil-rich Niger Delta. It was burned to the ground on 19 February 2005 by government troops. 17 people were reported to have been killed and two women raped when soldiers raided the town of Odioma. The attack was ostensibly to arrest members of an armed vigilante group suspected of killing 12 people, including four local councillors. Some of the raiders were reported to have been recruited by a sub-contractor of Shell’s subsidiary in Nigeria and to be responsible for security in an area where oil exploration was being conducted, despite their alleged criminal record. The suspects were not captured but 80 per cent of homes in Odioma were razed. . . . “We have nothing… If we protest, they send soldiers. They sign agreements with us and then ignore us. We have graduates going hungry, without jobs.” Eghare W.O. Ojhogar, chief of the Ugborodo community in Delta State

Here is the core of the debate over African oil development:

  • Can oil revenues be made to work for Africans or will they profit only the corrupt few?
  • Are oil revenues destined to fuel civil wars and pay for the abuse of human rights or can they build peace and prosperity?
  • Is oil development in Africa’s interest or in the interest of the United States (or, I would add, can the two interests be balanced)?
  • Can African oil and gas reserves be exploited without harming the environment, or is the expansion of the world’s oil-based economy ultimately inimical to our collective future on this planet?

There has been an enormous amount of contact and activity between the US and African countries in recent months.

From oil rich northern Angola up to Nigeria, from the Gulf of Guinea to Morocco and Algeria, from the Horn of Africa down to Kenya and Uganda, and over the pipeline routes from Chad to Cameroon in the west, and from Sudan to the Red Sea in the east, US admirals and generals have been landing and taking off, meeting with local officials.

They’ve conducted feasibility studies, concluded secret agreements, and spent billions from their secret budgets. Their new bases are not bases at all, according to US military officials. They are instead “forward staging depots”, and “seaborne truck stops” for the equipment which American land forces need to operate on the African continent. They are “protected anchorages” and offshore “lily pads” from which they intend to fight the next round of oil and resource wars, and lock down Africa’s oil and mineral wealth for decades to come.

. . . it’s about the oil. And the diamonds, and the uranium, and the coltan. But mostly about the oil.


When we ask the question; i
s oil development in Africa’s interest or in the interest of the United States? I would argue that unless it can be made in the interest of both, it is in the interest of neither. Unfortunately, the leadership in both places seems to have very little interest in the well being of the people they govern. And the leadership in both the US and in Africa seem to be thinking very short term. Even those countries in Africa that have some form of democracy, seem to want to practice something closer to a Bush administration style kleptocracy, rather than practicing more representative democracy.

And without more local and democratic participation in the decision making, and the profits, we have an unfolding environmental nightmare that is a political nightmare as well.

“West Africa alone sits atop 15% of the world’s oil, and by 2015 is projected to supply a up to a quarter of US domestic consumption.” A foretaste of American plans for African people and resources in the new century can be seen in Eastern Nigeria. US and multinational oil companies like Shell, BP, and Chevron, which once named a tanker after its board member Condoleezza Rice, have ruthlessly plundered the Niger delta for a generation. Where once there were poor but self-sufficient people with rich farmland and fisheries, there is now an unfolding ecological collapse of horrifying dimensions in which the land, air and water are increasingly unable to sustain human life, but the region’s people have no place else to go.
. . .
In a typical gesture of disregard for local black lives and livelihoods, the natural gas which sits atop many oil deposits but is more expensive to capture and process than petroleum is simply burned off or flared at African wellheads. Throughout the 1990s it is estimated that 29 million cubic feet per day of Nigerian natural gas was disposed of in this manner. Many of the flares, according to local Niger delta residents, have burned continuously for more than twenty years, creating a toxic climate of acid fogs and rains, depositing layers of soot and chemicals that stunt or kill ocean and riverine fish and livestock, and poison the few surviving crops. For this reason, flaring at oil wells has long been outlawed in the US. But many African communities near the mouth of one of the planet’s largest rivers are now entirely dependent on water trucked in from outside.
. . .
Local Africans are demanding respect and a share in what is after all, their oil. They are now routinely, viciously suppressed in eastern Nigeria, in Equatorial Guinea and elsewhere, by African troops trained and equipped with American tax dollars. When resistance continues, as it certainly will, America is preparing to up the ante with more American equipment, with military and civilian advisers, with bombs, bullets and if need be, with American bodies. That’s what AFRICOM is about, and what it will be doing in the new century.

I hope this is an unduly pessimistic view. But keep in mind that it’s the Bush administration that is “looking after” US interests here. With the history of western involvement in Africa in mind, which continues to the present day, and the track record of Bush/Cheney, this pessimism looks like matter-of-fact realism, maybe even sunny optimism.

This is probably the single largest foreign policy-related failing among American politicians and members of the policy and media elites: A failure to make a serious effort to ask how things look from the perspective of other countries.



Chernobyl, site of the worlds worst nuclear accident.
20 years later the population still suffers terrible health problems.

Energy experts” are recommending nuclear energy for Ghana. There is renewed interest around the world in nuclear energy, which is perceived as the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to increase electrical supply in a country.

Nuclear power is a big mistake.

Until now, nobody, in any country, has figured out a safe way to dispose of the nuclear waste from nuclear plants.

This, along with the health hazards, are what stopped the construction of nuclear plants in the United States. Nuclear waste is accumulating in the existing plants and causing health problems in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Bush administration has tried to get nuclear construction started again, but there is still no solution to the waste. It was all supposed to be transported to Nevada and buried. But transporting it across country is terribly dangerous. And there is no way to guarantee that once buried, it will not get into the surrounding land and ground water. Citizens of Nevada and around the country are fighting this with the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.

European countries are already using African countries, and the oceans off the coast of Africa as dumping grounds for nuclear waste.

. . . for the past 15 years or so, European companies and others have used Somalia as a dumping ground for a wide array of nuclear and hazardous wastes.

“There’s uranium radioactive waste, there’s leads, there’s heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, there’s industrial wastes, and there’s hospital wastes, chemical wastes, you name it,” he said. “It’s not rocket science to know why they’re doing it because of the instability there.”

. . .

The Asian tsunami dislodged and smashed open the drums, barrels, and other containers, spreading the contaminants as far away as 10 or more kilometers inland.

. . .

The results of the contamination on coastal populations, Mr. Nuttall says, have been disastrous.

“These problems range from acute respiratory infections to dry, heavy coughing, mouth bleedings, abdominal hemorrhages, what they described as unusual skin chemical reactions,” he noted. “So there’s a whole variety of ailments that people are reporting from these villages where we had a chance to look. We need to go much further and farther in finding out the real scale of this problem.”

And –

Poor countries are victims of that illegal trade, which constitutes a threat to their biodiversity and culture, and hurts their chances for development.


In addition, what guarantees do we have that the plants will be well managed and that inspectors can not be bribed? Accountability is a problem in the United States, which has fairly good inspection regulations and law enforcement. The people who operate the plants in the US are still not always as careful about safety as they should be. They most certainly cannot be trusted without reliable oversight.

Two thirds of the energy produced by nuclear power is waste in the form of heat. It creates thermal pollution in the water supply, such as the Hudson River in New York state. Do we want more water pollution in Ghana?

Ghana should turn thumbs down to nuclear power.

It turns out the food or fuel competition over corn may be a much more serious and immediate problem than anyone realized. Lester R. Brown of the Earth Policy Institute writes:

World May Be Facing Highest Grain Prices in History

Investment in fuel ethanol distilleries has soared since the late-2005 oil price hikes, but data collection in this fast-changing sector has fallen behind. Because of inadequate data collection on the number of new plants under construction, the quantity of grain that will be needed for fuel ethanol distilleries has been vastly understated. Farmers, feeders, food processors, ethanol investors, and grain-importing countries are basing decisions on incomplete data.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that distilleries will require only 60 million tons of corn from the 2008 harvest. But here at the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), we estimate that distilleries will need 139 million tons . . . half the 2008 harvest projected by USDA.
. . .
This unprecedented diversion of the world’s leading grain crop to the production of fuel will affect food prices everywhere. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of wheat and rice, both because of consumer substitution among grains and because the crops compete for land. Both corn and wheat futures were already trading at 10-year highs in late 2006.

The U.S. corn crop, accounting for 40 percent of the global harvest and supplying 70 percent of the world’s corn exports, looms large in the world food economy. Annual U.S. corn exports of some 55 million tons account for nearly one fourth of world grain exports. The corn harvest of Iowa alone, which edges out Illinois as the leading producer, exceeds the entire grain harvest of Canada. Substantially reducing this export flow would send shock waves throughout the world economy.
. . .
And this soaring demand for corn comes when world grain production has fallen below consumption in six of the last seven years, dropping grain stocks to their lowest level in 34 years.
. . .
The grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. (emphasis mine)
. . .
Soaring food prices could lead to urban food riots in scores of lower-income countries that rely on grain imports, such as Indonesia, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mexico.


Already, the price of Mexico’s staple food, corn tortillas, has increased 400%.

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