By Walter Borden
“The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.” Theodore Roosevelt
What’s In a Petrodollar?
Fossil Fuel producing nations should extract their resources consistent with the health needs of their people, air, land, and water. History shows us that regulation plays an essential role in this mandate. Energy marketers insist regulations are counterproductive. Implied though not often stated, nations like Russia and China can more easily form capital and drive labor demand from fossil fuel exploitation because they can act largely unencumbered by regulation. This unproven assumption ignores the escalating costs of unconstrained fossil fuel extraction to present and future generations. Should we be more concerned about poisoning our planet for future generations than leaving large amounts of debt for them? I argue yes. Does the regulation of fossil fuel extraction impede aggregate labor demand? The evidence indicates no. The earth is the source of all money so worrying about debt instead of planetary health puts the cart before the horse. A sick, weakened planet will create less value, profit, and wealth. Concurrently, as oil supplies wane, systemic risk will form around basing currencies on fossil fuels, oil in particular. Searches for fossil fuel resources will grow into fierce and destabilizing conflicts. Increasingly scarce tracts of clean, fertile land can only deepen them.
Unregulated Nations and Quality of Air, Water, Land and Life
Russia and its oil country exemplify the realities of unregulated, petrodollar capitalism. Its oil producing areas constitute what experts describe as our planet’s worst ecological oil catastrophe. Based on reporting from the Associated Press, estimates are that roughly one Deepwater Horizon-scale leakage occurs about every two months. Outdated infrastructure, minimal and unenforced regulation allow for oil to contaminate soil, kill plant life, and damage habitats for mammals and birds. State-funded research shows 10-15 percent of Russian oil leakage enters rivers with nearly 500,000 tons flowing into the Arctic.
From Chernobyl to more recent paper mill pollution seeping into Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which holds one-fifth of the world’s supply of fresh water, Russia’s lax regulatory posture renders great swaths of territory uninhabitable and fallow. Russian oil spills are more numerous than in any other oil-producing nation. “Oil gets spilled literally every day,” said Dr. Grigory Barenboim, senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Water Problems. His is not alone. And by all accounts the estimate is conservative since under Russian law, leaks less than 8 tons rate as “incidents” and can thus go unreported. By contrast, the U.S., the world’s third-largest oil producer, logged 341 pipeline ruptures in 2010 — compared to Russia’s 18,000 — according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The republic of Komi, just south of the Arctic Circle, is the scene of Russia’s largest oil spill. Up to 40 kilometers of two local rivers were polluted, killing thousands of fish. Respiratory diseases rose by over 28 percent in the year following the leak. Komi’s officials blamed neglected infrastructure and oil companies reporting that “companies that extract hydrocarbons focus on making profits rather than how to use the resources rationally.”