Green River, Utah, above Split Mountain Canyon
There’s been a fair amount of media this last two weeks about Shell’s decision to cancel exploration for oil in the Arctic Ocean. For the last few years, Shell has met strong resistance both in the regulatory environment, as well as in the Court of Public Opinion. It’s beyond ironic that the force that is allowing Shell’s exploration — global warming, caused by burning fossil fuels — has opened up the very area most imperiled by these actions to even more exploitation.
But even if you think global warming isn’t real, or even if it is, it isn’t caused my humans, that viewpoint is becoming increasingly irrelevant — especially with regards to the fate of fossil fuels. What is really happening with oil is as much a Death of a Social Structure. The large, centralized infrastructure and hierarchies necessary to use fossil fuels are increasingly under strain, from competition from distributed sources.
If I wanted to get all New-Agey on you, I could point to Tesla’s new wall-mounted Powerwall,or other, potentially New Tech Green solutions. But that’s not the point of this article, published in EnergyPost. These guys make the point that what is really undoing Shell is not Tesla, or solar. What’s undoing them is fracking, which can be local, run by small operators, and is independent of large developmental, super-efforts like hauling a mega-rig up to the Arctic, past hundreds of Kayaktivists.
Which should be intensely interesting to readers who believe what is written on this blog. Local/regional efforts, through their very nature, are much more empathetically connected to local communities, and are much more able to be affected by local public opinion — including outright bans of the activity. And lest ye think I’m beating my own drum — it is a duplex link. Shell persevered through multiple quarantines and protests because, quite simply, those protests were in places like Seattle and Portland. Not in their own backyard. It’s much harder for a local firm to do that. They have to be empathetic — because they are connected, like it or not.
What it means is that as social evolution continues, energy is going to become a distributed resource, and the natural emergent dynamics are going to force it to be clean. Those companies that are counting on ‘air cover’ from distant governments might get it for a while. But sooner, inexorably, they’ll be forced to yield.
Even with the Chinese, with the recent meeting between President Obama and President Xi Jinping, the worm is turning on global warming and air pollution impact, with China stepping forward with cap-and-trade solutions for carbon dioxide in advance of the Paris summit next year. Doubtless, some may say that this is merely a ploy by China to gain stature on the world stage — a standard Authoritarian v-Meme behavior. But anyone that says that hasn’t visited China in the last ten years, where air pollution in Beijing has been intolerable. If folks think that the Chinese Communist Party leadership maintains control by being unresponsive to Chinese concerns, well — I can’t help you with that one.
Companies like Shell are going to have to work hard to adapt to restore their reputation in light of this obvious trend. Only 15 years ago, they were being profiled as an exemplar of a Learning Organization by progressive management gurus like Peter Senge. Now they’re getting thrown out of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group on climate change.
There’s also a major point that should be obvious to the readers of this blog — but I’ll make anyway. Shell is under the gun not because of the Peak Oil phenomenon — that the world is running out of oil. We still don’t really know if the world is going to run out of oil. But I’m willing to bet that we’re not. What Shell is suffering from is superabundance of oil, and collapsing prices.
And this shouldn’t be a surprise. As we move out of social structures that are historically information-inefficient/incoherent, like the large Authoritarian power structures and Legalistic hierarchies, we should expect to see dramatic improvements in production and abundance. And regardless the predictable externalities — like the fracking crisis with water — it’s just a function of how the system dynamics operate.
What Shell’s crisis shows, more than anything else, is we need to stop taking as sage counsel the acolytes of energy that tell us there are no solutions except large, centralized solutions. This goes for power storage, as well as generation. If there is legal scaffolding to be developed (don’t forget — unscaffolded efforts are just as doomed to wreak havoc as old hierarchical structures) then let’s accelerate both.
Because when it comes to the carbon issue, we are running out of time. And Evolutionary Theory can show us where we need to be going.
Takeaways: The Future of Energy, like the Internet, is going to be distributed and interconnected. The best thing we can do is accelerate these trends, without throwing away our standards on the environment. It can work. But we are running out of time.