Divestment At Swarthmore And ‘Hard Choice Foolishness

Divestment At Swarthmore And ‘Hard Choice’ Foolishness

The college and university student campaign to divest from fossil fuels as a protest against climate change began at Swarthmore College. It was therefore surprising when the board that overseas that institution’s investments recently voted against divestment.

Or maybe it wasn’t very surprising after all.

That’s because this sort of decision has been happening in so many places for so many years for the same ‘hard choice’ reason. We can therefore imagine that the discussion that led to this decision at Swarthmore must have gone something like this:

“We truly admire the students’ idealism in seeking divestment from fossil fuels,” one of the wise heads at the table would likely have said. “It’s the kind of idealism this school was built on, the kind of idealism that turns out students dedicated to building a better world.

“And for that reason alone,” this worthy might well have continued, “I would love to vote for divestment. Love to strike a blow, no matter how merely symbolic it would be in terms of actually bringing about policies toward fossil fuel.”

Here we can imagine the speaker’s expression turning deep and introspective before continuing: “I have grandchildren, too, you know, and the thought they may have to grow up in a world so badly tainted by our polluting, a world so brought to the brink of ruin by unbridled fossil fuel use, makes me sick at heart.”

Soul searching complete, the speaker gets down to the all-important adult issue of responsibility: “Alas, we have a responsibility, a fiduciary responsibility, when it comes protecting the assets of this institution. No matter how strong our personal feelings in this matter, or even the sincere and honorable wishes of our student body and faculty, we have to make the hard choice, the very hard choice, to retain our fossil fuel holdings.

“Moving on to the same next issue on today’s agenda….”

There it is again. The hard choice that pits environmental protection against economic well-being.

This so-called ‘hard choice’ has been made and is being made in so many places in so many ways by people who have so many kinds of responsibility, that one might suppose it has become hard wired into people’s brains — or at least the brains of people charged with making responsible choices that affect others.

The thing about this choice, however, is that it doesn’t exist. Never really did exist. In past years choosing to pollute for jobs and profits sake might have created short-term benefits with long terms negative consequences. These days there isn’t even that kind of time lag.

Put simply, fossil fuels are a lousy investment today. And renewables are not just the investments of the future.

Solar, wind, geothermal, et. al. have already taken over so much of the world’s energy markets and are so obviously poised to take a much greater share of these markets very soon, that buying and holding fossil fuel investments is like seeking to tap the future profit potential of horse drawn buggy makers in 1900.

So here’s my message to investment advisers at Swarthmore and other education institutions. Stop making those silly hard choices. Do your fiduciary duty and divest from fossil fuels. And do it quickly, before the failure of your economic analysis when it comes to energy investing becomes too apparent to your employers.

The author of this piece, Michael Silverstein, is a former senior editor with Bloomberg News. His latest book is Gorilla Warfare Against The Bureaucratic State (Confessions of a Lefty Libertarian).


The Future Of Transportation — Hydrogen

Vehicles in the future, perhaps a great many in the very near future, will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The reason: These are zero emissions vehicles. The only thing that comes out of their tailpipes is water or water vapor.

So where does the hydrogen come from? Most these days comes from natural gas. The problem here is that to get this hydrogen feedstock increasingly requires fracking, which has its own serious polluting drawbacks.

But fortunately there are alternative ways to produce hydrogen that are becoming available. In Germany excess power from wind turbines, power not needed to feed into the electricity grid, is being used to split water into its component hydrogen and oxygen parts. In California, these is a pilot project to use excess solar energy not feed into the electricity grid to do the same thing. Still another approach coming into view is to add carbon to solar-split hydrogen to make methane (aka natural gas) without the fracking pollution drawback.

The first mass produced hydrogen fuel cell powered cars are now starting to be sold by Toyota, Other car makers are expected to follow suit shortly. The future of transportation is about to arrive.

(The latest book from the author of this piece is titled Gorilla Warfare Against The Bureaucratic State—Confessions of a Lefty Libertarian)

Earth Day Poems

This being Earth Day, here’s some verse for the occasion…

Headline: 2014 was the warmest year ever recorded on earth.

A Harried American’s Response To Global Warming
By Michael Silverstein

It’s winter,
I’m cold,
Maybe global warming’s oversold;
Anyway I’ve bigger cares,
My 401(k)’s oil shares.

You say I’ll soon be mourning?
The new earth that’s aborning?
That human kind is spawning?

I’m not scorning the warning,
Just too busy this morning.


Energy Past And Future

Why do we raid the burial grounds
Of long dead creatures for coal?
For oil and methane from these old remains
Why is this our energy goal?

The sun and the wind, the motion of waves,
The heat ‘neath our feet underground;
Are there to be tapped, to be used, and enjoyed
Live energy sources abound.

We’ve gone from the horse for private transport,
Keep in touch in a host of new ways;
It’s time, truly time, for a better resort
Navigating the energy maze.


Canuting Renewable Energy

King Canute was a silly old coot
When his power he planned to be showing
With the help of his church he would stand on the beach
Tell the waters: “You gotta stop flowing.”

Fossil fuel kings and their money church pals
Now stand on the energy shore
To the sun and the wind and the heat of the earth
They proclaim: “We’ll permit just a bit but no more.”

Canute’s quirky play, to control ocean waves
Just reflected his times’ power thinking
Today (nothing new) fossil fuel’s power crew
Think their gaming can stop their own shrinking.


The Global Warming Poem

Locked in human-centric thinking
The content of our daily plays
The Mid East, Ukraine, and the markets,
Our focus of dismays these days.

Icecaps melting freakish storms
Species fall offs, floods and droughts
Growing worries, yes, we’re worried
But how important…most still have doubts.

When soon the process reaches end game
Our fool behavior, its course has run
The global warming tipping point
Has come, we’ll look and know
We’re done.


Utilities’ Solar Angst

Utilities are frightened,
They’re starting to run scared.
Solar energy’s becoming
Competition to be feared.

Solar units on more buildings,
Working better, getting cheaper,
For utilities’ own future,
It’s a bottom line grim reaper.

In Washington ‘bout energy,
Hot air and mindless gropes,
While a solar revolution
Circumvents the DC dopes.


Global Warming — The Poem

The planet’s on slow boil,
Its temperatures are rising,
You’d think more folks would worry,
Most don’t — which is surprising.

Greenhouse gases are the cause,
Their main source is CO2,
Long trapped methane getting loose,
Adds to this climatic stew

Shrinking ice caps, freaky weather,
Fauna, flora, disappearing
Oceans on more lands intruding,
Wiser heads now feel despairing.

Can we somehow meet the challenge,
Check this global wide assault?
Or just deny the threat is real,
And if it is say: “Ain’t our fault.”

Mike Silverstein’s newest book is Gorilla Warfare Against The Bureaucratic State (Confessions of a Lefty Libertarian)

The Economic Case Against The LNG Project In Philly — And the Case For A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Project With Far Greater Potential by Michael Silverstein

The Economic Case Against The LNG Project In Philly — And the
Case For A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Project With Far Greater Potential
by Michael Silverstein

The noisy protest last Wednesday at a Drexel get-together meant to showcase a proposed LNG production facility in Philly just hints at why this project won’t fly. Future opposition will not just come from a few noisy protestors. Very large, powerful, and well organized local environmental groups will demonstrate against it, and use the media and courts to delay it in a great many ways.

Delays are fatal for this project. The reason is because of what its promoters refer to as “a fast closing window of opportunity.”

There are a number of other places in this country that want approval to build such a facility. The DOE won’t approve them all. Because of opposition, Philly will not be able to fast track a project proposal (fast tracking in this case means dispensing with environmental safeguards) because local opposition won’t let that happen.

The LNG project as the basis for this city’s energy future is thus DOA. This is not only fortunate for the local environment, but for the local economy as well. The LNG project is a chimera. And its down-the-road damage to the city can be summed up in two words: Stranded asset.

The huge current demand for LNG in parts of the world like post-Fukushima Japan and Putin-plagued EU countries will be more than met by some of the dozens of other new LNG producing facilities now being constructed around the world. The current demand bubble from a lack of sufficient supplies will then be followed by a future supply bubble. The first new entrants in this field will sew up the market with 20-year contracts. Latecomers will get the dregs or nothing at all.

There’s nothing unusual or unpredictable about the process at work here. The oil and gas business is always boom and bust, near-term demand that calls forth excess supplies.

A Philly-based LNG producer (if one actually came into existence) would be among the last entering this competition. What we’d end up with then is a very expensive stranded asset – a polluting facility that no longer has a reason to exist. This project’s promoters by then would have moved on to another community with a stressed economy where they would again dangle a promise of local riches and jobs to advance their own short-term goals.

The better energy hub for Philadelphia

There’s another approach here, however, a different future vision, that really does have a huge future potential for Philadelphia, and which could benefit most of the same interests as the LNG chimera. It’s one built around hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells.

Here it is in brief:

• Marcellus Shale gas is brought into the city via new union built pipelines, and goes to the same PGW facility now tagged for LNG production. This facility, however, is specifically geared to produce hydrogen (already long produced commercially from natural gas), but does so in a leading edge, more cost-effective way with the help of Drexel technologists.

• Part of this hydrogen is liquefied and exported, benefiting the port; another part goes to hydrogen fueling stations in this region, of the sort now just beginning to appear in California to service Toyota’s first mass market hydrogen fuel cell car, the Mirai, only a few of which will be sold this year in California, but will start selling in this region thereafter; PGW produced hydrogen for these vehicles could make PGW a major transportation fuel supplier as well as a home and commercial heat supplier.

• Still another part of this locally produced hydrogen could be feedstock for new hydrogen energy cells and related parts manufacturers, who would naturally be attracted here once the PGW facility is running.

• President Bush in 2003 heralded a hydrogen fuel cell future for electrical generation and transportation. There have been a number of failed efforts to make this happen since then. Advances with this technology and Toyota’s mass market initiative indicate the time has finally come to jump into this field.

• It’s thus exactly the right time when a city like Philly can actually become a world energy leader in a field about to blossom rather than just another energy wannabe follower. This is not a realm susceptible to near-term bubbles, or worries about longer term stranded assets. The world-changing future of hydrogen fuel cells has just begun.

One timing attraction of hydrogen as the basis of a Philadelphia energy hub involves Toyota. This automobile company today and a number of others considering a move into the hydrogen fuel market have no mid-Atlantic focus at present. A hydrogran facility at the PGW site is a perfect attraction for them

And then there’s the almost kismet quality of Sun City’s recent announcement that it is setting up shop in Philly. This company’s president is Lyndon Rive. His cousin is Elon Musk. The family’s business is leading edge energy development. Rive (and his brothers at Solar City) focus on solar energy for the home. Musk focuses on batteries and the Tesla electric car for transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells are the natural “third leg” of the family’s business, the perfect compliment to its present alternative energy home and transportation market activities.

One other important thing is worth noting when it comes to why a hydrogen fuel cell hub rather than a LNG hub is more promising for this city — the environmental angle. Environmentalists would oppose the fracking that brings out Marcellus Shale gas and pollution from related new manufacturing facilities whether a new Philadelphia energy hub is LNG or hydrogen related.

But… while LNG powered transportation is certainly incrementally less polluting than diesel powered, hydrogen fuel cell powered transportation in not just an incremental improvement. It is a revolutionary transformation. Zero emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in coming decades literally have the potential to save this planet. That fact could make a big difference in gaining acceptance for hydrogen in Philadelphia’s own economic future.

Here, then, is the deck of factors that could be played to bring into being a flourishing Philadelphia hydrogen-based energy hub:

• It benefits most of the same groups that would benefit from an LNG hub —union construction labor, PGW, Drexel, the Marcellus Shale crowd, etc.

• It would not only attract support from a new Wolf Administration for economic reasons, its zero-emissions angle could defuse some environmentalist opposition.

• The fact that in 2003 a Republican president, George Bush, proposed creating a hydrogen-based energy future could even attract Republican support in Harrisburg for this sort of Philly hub.

• There’s money available from the DOE in Washington for hydrogen energy promotion carried over from this 2003 Bush initiative.

• There’s currently no mid-Atlantic competition for a hydrogen hub the way there is competition for a LNG hub in this region.

• The timing for this hydrogen hub, given not only Toyota’s move into fuel cells cars but other auto makers as well, presents wonderful open ended economic opportunities for this city.

• There’s a Rive-Musk play here that cries out for tapping.

• There’s no rush-or-lose-it, stranded asset fears with hydrogen. It is the long-term future, not an expanding bubble.

I hope you find this analysis interesting. In passing, about me, I’m a former senior editor with Bloomberg’s flagship Markets Magazine.

Michael Silverstein
April 20, 2015