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E. Wayne Ross
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John h. Rodgers
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Oil Propaganda Wars
In November 1999, the High Court in London ruled that the UK government had failed to uphold the EU Habitats Directive when it awarded offshore oil licenses in British waters of the North Atlantic. Wildlife and ecosystems were being put at risk in this Atlantic Frontier. But now the island of St. Kilda, the UKs only natural World Heritage site, is safefor the moment. Greenpeace UK, who took the government to court, has won a landmark victory. The oil industrys response to the court decision was to raise the spectre of lost jobsthe usual corporate hogwash when profits are perceived to be threatened.
Oil companies have a long history of waging propaganda wars. School children are not exempt from the battle zone. That was the reality that confronted me as a climate scientist last year when I took part in a lively conference for senior school pupils on the topic of Resources from the Sea. The event was supported by the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA), a consortium of oil and gas companies operating in British waters. It opened with a fast-cut, loud advertising video extolling the virtues of hydrocarbons, with only a cursory nod to climate change and the 1997 Kyoto Summit. It was at Kyoto where developed countries had agreed to an overall 5 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012.
The motivation behind UKOOAs involvement in the conference was to provide balance to the debate about the oil industry in the wake of Brent Spar. Lest we forget, Brent Spar was the retired North Sea oil-storage buoy that Shell UK had planned to dump in the North Atlantic until citizen protests around Europe forced a dramatic U-turn in 1995.
Oil company support for school science events is just one part of a much bigger picture of corporate involvement in education. According to Sharon Beder, an environmentalist at the University of Wollongong in Australia and author of the 1997 book, Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism, big business is infiltrating school lessons to get them while theyre young. Beder continues, Teachers are being overwhelmed with free and unsolicited curriculum material from public relations firms, corporations and industry associations. In most cases, the [material] gives students a distorted picture of environmental issues and other problems, social choices and tradeoffs.
In the United States, McDonalds and Dominos Pizza are giving schools a percentage of profits from fast food sales, encouraging children to coerce parents into buying pizzas and hamburgers in order to raise money. Industries in the U.S., Canada, and Australia are taking advantage of schools short on funds by feeding them educational material, filled with company logos that are designed to encourage youngsters to buy company products.
The oil industrys message, through science events like the one I attended, is that modern civilization is dependent on the hydrocarbon business. The industry can only survive so long as it propagates this myth. A related misperception is that environmentalists are anti-science/technology. Supporters of people-centered, environmentally sustainable development are the real progressives. New advanced technologies which conserve resources and reduce pollution, and which enable individuals, local communities, and developing countries to become more self-reliant, are crucial.
Nick Milton, formerly a Greenpeace campaigner, explains, The skills of the oil industry could easily be converted to exploiting the UKs rich potential for renewable energy, and create a net gain in jobs into the bargain. A recent report produced for Greenpeace showed that the Northeast of England, with its long history of heavy manufacturing and offshore work, provides an ideal site to develop a successful offshore wind industry. Milton continues, Over 30,000 new jobs could be created if the UK government committed to an initial, readily achievable target of just 10 percent of our electricity from offshore wind in the next ten years. Denmark is already investing over U.S.$1 billion in offshore wind as part of a strategy to boost its wind-driven electricity generation, from todays eight per cent, to as much as 50 per cent by 2030.
American journalist Ross Gelbspan reports that a renewable energy study in the United States shows that for every million dollars spent on oil and gas exploration, only 1.5 jobs are created. But for every million spent on making solar water heaters, 14 jobs are created. For manufacturing solar electricity panels, 17 jobs. For electricity from biomass and waste, 23 jobs. Renewable energy is a win-win resource: good for the environment and good for employment. Renewable campaigners say that this is the kind of business enterprise, rather than the oil industry dinosaur, that we should be selling to the next generation of schoolchildren.
Last, and most definitely not least, there is the question of greenhouse gas emissions. Using figures from the 2,500-scientist Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it can be shown that we can afford to burn no more than one quarter of existing fossil fuel reserves without causing significant ecological damage, including major food production losses in vulnerable parts of the world. And as emissions continue to rise, there is an increasing incidence of extreme climate-related events, such as severe droughts and devastating wind storms, like the cyclone which swept through Orissa, India towards the end of 1999, with the loss of up to 10,000 lives.
Sadly, the Climate Talks in Bonn last November were not infused with any commensurate sense of urgency. American big business is still attempting to buy its way out of making real cuts at home, in a country where 4 percent of the worlds population are responsible for around 25 percent of emissions. The news media carry reports of the possible climatic impactsmore flooding, more frequent and severe storms, even the possible shutdown of the Atlantic Ocean conveyor belt, plunging western Europe into a new ice age. We hear considerably less about the corporations determined to prevent a shift from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewable energy.
Instead of unfounded fears of oil industry job losses, the question we should be asking is, how will the oil industry compensate those hundreds of millions of people whose lives and livelihoods are at risk from fossil fuel-generated climate change? Z
David Cromwell is a physical oceanographer and writer. His first book, Private Planet, is due to be published by Jon Carpenter later this year.