the eyes have it

PHOTO POST

To see, or to be seen? That is the question.

The birds and plants in the woods and waters of Port Darlington show us some of the ways in which the invention of the eye has shaped life history.

Many birds (for example the Yellow Warbler, above, and the Scarlet Tanager, below) are famously flashy. It seems unlikely that the beautiful appearances of these birds would have evolved if they never saw each other, but only sensed their world through hearing, smell, taste and touch.

Scarlet Tanager (click images for larger view)

Yet the urge to be hidden is just as influential as the urge to be seen – leading to a fabulous array of camouflage schemes. Sometimes one bird manages both tricks.

The Cedar Waxwing has a striking crest, and seen from one side its red wing tips and yellow tail tip really jump out. Yet with its predominantly subdued earth tones it can blend into shadowy forests very well.

Cedar Waxwing

Many creatures can’t see but still leverage the power of vision for their own benefit. Look at some of our woodland flowers, whose stunningly vibrant colours call out to pollinators.

Wild Violet

 

Trout Lilies

In this regard one of our most common woodland flowers is a marvellous mystery. The Mayapple spreads mostly by runners. Its pollination strategies have a poor rate of success, partly because its flower produces no nectar. And its striking white flower grows underneath large leaves, facing downward.

 

Mayapple in June

The chilly spring has delayed the bloom of Mayapples into early June this year. To savour this beauty, stand in a patch of Mayapples, bend down until your nose touches your toes, then rotate your head 180° so you can look upward into the beautiful flower just about 30 centimeters above the ground. And while relaxing into this pose, remember to breathe, so you can drink in the rich aroma of this flower.

But back to the creatures of the sky and water – one of the recent visitors to our shoreline was a Ruddy Turnstone, named for its colour and its habit of turning pebbles over to spot the insects on which it feeds.

Ruddy Turnstone

The Turnstone nests in the high arctic and didn’t stick around here long. But a summer resident bird uses similar colours in an entirely different pattern. And like the Turnstone, Woodpeckers use their eyes both for long-distance navigation and for close-up work in dining on tiny bugs.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

This Red-Bellied Woodpecker appears to have found a good home high above a flooded woodland along Bowmanville Creek.

Room with a View

Waterfowl have been foraging in the same woods, including this Blue-Winged Teal spotted just before sunset.

Twilight in Flooded Forest

A resident Beaver also swims back and forth through these woods, perhaps enjoying the fact that large branches can now be floated home rather than dragged through the bush.

Sunset Shift

Beavers are said to have poor eyesight, and if you’re quiet you can get very close before they spot you and dash back to the water or do their slap and dive. But they do their best work at night and underwater, and their eyes cope with these challenges very well.

To see, or to be seen? The Grackle is famous for its flashy iridescence but its appearance is striking in another way too. As it patrols the rich ground under a bird feeder, its eyes not only see but are seen. With those intimidatingly stark black-and-white eyes shouting “I see you!” the Grackle warns all rivals.

Eye On You

Just another in the myriad ways that vision has shaped life.

And without eyes, we would neither raise our eyebrows nor sit in wide-eyed wonder.

I Wonder …

Photo at top: Yellow Warbler in Thicket (click here for larger view)

 

plastic swamp

The billions of pieces of plastic floating in ocean gyres begin their watery journeys in ditches and creeks in almost every location inhabited by people. Many are tossed into tributaries in the centre of continents, far upstream from any ocean, including the small watershed where I live.
Also published at Resilience.org

The neighbouring coastal marshes where I spend many hours have much in common but there’s an important difference: they belong to separate “garbagesheds”.

There should be no need for such an ugly word, but as water moves through watersheds in our disposable civilization, that water gathers a lot of garbage and deposits it, at least temporarily, in catch points such as marshes.

Westside Marsh is part of the tiny (5.4 km2) Westside Creek watershed, which includes only a small amount of residential or commercial development – and thus this garbageshed1 collects relatively little garbage.

Bowmanville Marsh, by contrast, belongs to a watershed with thirty times as much area, including nearly all of the “developed” areas of the town of Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. Throughout this marsh, wherever water can sometimes flow and vegetation can filter that flow, there is garbage.

The plastic garbage may or may not be the worst of it, but since it tends to stay on the surface it is the most visible.

In the Bowmanville/Soper Creek garbageshed which drains through this marsh, the ditches and brooks carry plastic bottles toward Lake Ontario, and log jams on the creeks often catch hundreds of pieces. Flimsy and ubiquitous mass-market water bottles make up by far the biggest share.

Hydration (click image for larger view)

It only takes one good downpour to jostle some of the bottles out of this trap. Some pieces move quickly downstream and into Lake Ontario, while other pieces float a short distance into flooded woods or into the reeds where they stay for weeks, months or years.

Hydration with Straw

As a nature lover I usually go into the marsh to marvel at all the life and beauty that remains here, and that beauty is the usual focus of my photography. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware, and often to be sickened and appalled, by the presence of plastic waste in every nook and cranny of the marsh.

Hydration with 150 Calories

There once was a time when people didn’t need to have a drink in their hand, their pack or their purse at all times, every day, everywhere they go. Obsessive fear of dehydration generally guided only those making long journeys across inhospitable drylands.

There once was a day when people could routinely spare the time to sit down and drink hot beverages from open cups which afforded them the aroma of fresh coffee.

But advertising factories relentlessly manufactured new needs, and materials wizards cooked up mountains of packaging that was cheap enough to throw away after one use.

Hydration with Sugar and Milk

 

Hydration with Less

 

Hydration with Intoxicant

Were it not for this seemingly never-ending stream of garbage, there would be no need for “adopt-a-roadway” clean-up campaigns by civically-minded citizens – and in the long run, we’d be much better off taxing single-use plastics out of existence rather than trying to pick them out of grasslands, forests, marshes, creeks, lakes and oceans.

But in the meantime, it is far easier to pick up trash bottles from easily accessible roadside ditches than it is to wade into creeks, pick through logjams, or push canoes through stands of reeds trying to grab plastic detritus piece by piece.

Every bit of trash picked up from a ditch is one less piece making its way downstream.

Hydration with Additives

But when high water lifts long-trapped bottles out of the marsh and into Lake Ontario, our plastic avatars move into a far wider garbageshed – perhaps, one day, joining a great garbage gyre in the ocean.2

Hydration at Sea


Photo at top of page: Hydration with Shine (larger view here)

 


1When this word popped into mind I suspected that others must have thought of it too. But my internet search turned up just one similar usage of “garbageshed”, by theologian and ethicist Malinda Elizabeth Berry.

2According to Wikipedia, the North Atlantic garbage patch “is estimated to be hundreds of kilometers across in size, with a density of over 200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.” Researchers from The Ocean Cleanup project claimed that the Great Pacific garbage patch “covers 1.6 million square kilometers. … An estimated 80,000 metric tons of plastic inhabit the patch, totaling 1.8 trillion pieces.”

flight paths

PHOTO POST

Amateur photographers who try, as I do, to capture birds in flight soon learn that the smaller birds tend to be more difficult to catch than the big birds.

You need to get that much closer to a small bird, and with some exceptions they tend to be skittish. Their takeoffs are amazingly quick and their wings beat very fast, which means you need a very fast shutter speed, which in turn means only very strong light will do.

So it’s a great idea to start with the Great Blue Heron.

Launch Pad (click images for larger views)

These beautiful birds hang around from April until November, giving you lots of time to learn their habits. When they fly, they often settle down again not far away, giving you another chance for a photo if you missed the first try, if the lighting is wrong or the background is too cluttered.

Scout

Our medium-size feathered residents are more challenging. Many duck species, for example, have famously fast take-offs. Though you may see them often, it’s easy to get a collection of pictures showing colourful blurs, or just some tail feathers exiting the photo frame.

Gulls, on the other hand, can glide along in the face of a fierce wind with only the occasional wing movement. When a Ring-Billed Gull swoops along close to shore, just above the waves, it’s possible to get some easy photos. For the photos below, the Gull’s fishing habits helped. Over and over it made a slow pass against the wind, then swooped high and caught a ride downwind a hundred meters, then came past me slowly again.

Reading Right to Left

With birds that are just migrating through, serendipity plays a larger role. Six Short-Billed Dowitchers visited Bowmanville Marsh a few nights ago, likely on their way to nesting grounds near James Bay or in sub-arctic Quebec. We’re on their flight path, but opportunities to photograph them may be rare as they only drop by briefly, unannounced.

Stopover

Serendipity also played a starring role in the following photo. While I was training my camera on a window-mounted feeder intent on getting some snaps of hummingbirds, a Baltimore Oriole set down for just a few seconds on a wicker chair just below the feeder. A quick framing and re-focus gave me a chance for just one shot – but it worked, with a clay planter and indoor greenery on the other side of the window adding complementary colours.

Oriole with Wicker Chair

Fortunately three hummingbirds soon arrived as well, and it was clear this feeder was disputed territory.

Hummingbirds, Face to Face

The determined hummingbirds thrust and pounced as fiercely as some of their distant dinosaur ancestors, and none of them got much to eat for the next hour.

Archilocus Rex

At last a single hummingbird settled in for a long drink at another feeder. “Watch this”, he seemed to say, “Flying isn’t my only trick!” – and with slight movements of his neck a patch of beautifully-patterned feathers flashed from black to ruby-red and back again.

Light Tricks

Photo at top: Time Flies Like an Arrow (Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Red-Winged Blackbird) – click here for larger view

walk on the wet side

PHOTO POST

Through the past week’s intermittent rains returning migrants have joined our full-time residents around the bird feeders and in the marsh, while green shoots have begun to decorate muddy creek banks.

Cardinal Number Two (click images for larger view)

This Black-Capped Chickadee looks for food in a freshly-pruned Forsythia.

Black-Cap Times Two

Our many sparrows include a Tree Sparrow (which likes to feed on the grass beneath a bird feeder) and a Song Sparrow (seen below on a fallen tree beside Bowmanville Creek).

Tree Sparrow on Wet Canvas

 

Still Life with Song Sparrow

Tree branches would barely show against the sticky mud flats along Soper Creek – except for the vivid mosses growing on the wood and the lichens growing on the moss.

Branch of Green

One such lichen, Cladonia asahinae, grows particularly on Chorisodontium aciphyllum, Polytrichum strictum, and Andreaea species of moss. You may prefer an alternate description: these are the cups used by forest pixies to collect and drink the morning dew.

Pixie Cup Lichen

But the tall stems on this moss also do a good job of hanging on to a morning fog.

Forest on the Forest Floor

Just a few steps away some of the first big leaves are emerging from the same saturated mud.

Green Red and Blue

The abundant moisture helps bring out the rich colour in fractured tree stumps.

Robin on Wet Stump

Even on a dull morning in the marsh, Canada Geese have ways of adding their own colour.

Interpretations May Vary

But by late afternoon on a calm, clear day, it can be warm enough to climb up onto a log and dry off in the warm sun.

Sunset Turtle

Top photo: Cardinal Number One (click here for larger view)

the colours that are spring

PHOTO POST

The calendar says spring started weeks ago – and there has been a quiet explosion of new colour. As modelled by our migratory birds, the season’s first flashy hues run to black, white, and the whole gamut of earth tones.

The marsh, of course, hasn’t warmed enough to start sending up new vegetation.

Ripple Painting 17 (click images for larger views)

But the restricted colour palette works beautifully for the secretive diving machine known as a Pied-Billed Grebe.

Pied-Billed Grebe

The Hooded Merganser uses similar colours to make a bolder statement.

Hooded Merganser

And the female of the so-called “Red-Wing Blackbird” can achieve either perfect camouflage or stand-out beauty with this pattern of browns and golds. Who needs red or black?

Gold-Winged Brownbird

Unlike most of the birds, the mammals in the marsh don’t migrate and most of them don’t change colours with the season. But they are getting out and about much more since the ice and snow has gone.

The muskrat and the beaver patrol the same banks at the junction of Bowmanville and Soper Creeks, and they wear the same rich colours. Do they tease each other, when we’re not listening, about their opposite choices in tail fashion? “Hey Beave, you must get strong muscles lugging around that massive rudder.” “I’ve been thinking, Rat, that your delicate little butt-rope must be great for doing a warning slap that won’t disturb anybody’s sleep.”

Soper Creek Muskrat

Bowmanville Creek Beaver

No doubt the beaver is as eager as the rest of us to see fresh green branches emerging from the drab mud. For the Eastern Phoebe, though, the creek banks are the colour of home – home being nests of mud and dried grass hidden near the edges of woods.

Eastern Phoebe

The Eastern Phoebe is one of the earliest returning migrants, along with the more numerous Red-Wings.

Watching Water & Sky

Tone Poem

The even hardier Canada Geese have waited here all winter and many are now sitting on nests in the marsh – when they aren’t making spectacular landings. (Never mind a few missing tail feathers.)

Landing Gear

Whether it’s touchdowns or liftoffs, the marsh is full of excitement.

Exit Left

The Common Mergansers, above, add a rare dash of green to this early-spring pallette. Likewise, in the right sunlight the otherwise black-and-white Bufflehead flashes an iridescent headdress with shades of maroon, blue and green.

Black-and-White in Colour

And if you must see green to feel that it’s spring, the Mallard drake says “Look no further”.

The Green Starts Here


Top photo: Common Mergansers in Misdirection (larger view)

 

Bicycling on the Polar Sea

Thirty years ago this week, near the end of my first winter in the Northwest Territories, I completed a bike ride I’d been planning for months: north along the Mackenzie River ice highway from Inuvik to the coast, and then across the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk.

The journey seemed like the sort of thing one might want to blog about – except that “blog” wasn’t yet a word and the World Wide Web had not been invented.

In the hope that 30 years late is better than never, here’s that blog post now.

(Note: this ice highway closed for the season for the last time in April, 2017, and has since been replaced by the four-season, gravel surface Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway.)

 

Wednesday April 5, 1989 – near Reindeer Station

How do you bicycle from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk? You ride north down the Mackenzie River, about 160 kilometers. At the mouth of the river you hang a right onto the Beaufort Sea, and after about 30 more kilometers, just past the pingos, you roll ashore into downtown Tuktoyaktuk.

Obviously you don’t want to try that in the summer, because the carefully maintained ice highways of Canada’s western arctic region wash out to sea by the end of May. And it’s tough to do in winter – the sun shines not at all or only a few hours, and the temperature stays at –40° for days on end.

I had slept outside in temperatures of –40, but only when I was a short walk away from Inuvik where I could go inside and warm up for the day. And I wasn’t particularly keen to be out in the mid-winter deep freeze for days on end.

So I planned my ice-road excursion for the Arctic spring, when the sun shines past 10 at night, the mercury might rise to above zero during the day, and a cyclist can get a deep northern suntan all the way from chin to forehead.

Being a cautious sort, I still wanted to be prepared in case a spring blizzard blew in, dropping temperatures to the –30°C range. This meant I needed big boots, down pants, down parka, sheepskin face mask, and my biggest mittens – all articles of clothing I couldn’t wear while riding because they were too warm, but things I would need if I had to sit out a storm. Adding all that to two down sleeping bags and a ThermaRest mattress made for a big load, and I spent many hours figuring out how to pack it all so that everything was convenient to get at but still balanced on the bike.

And then there was the question of food. Even on a two- or three-day ride to Tuktoyaktuk I would burn a lot of energy, but what if I were stranded by a blizzard? I decided to take enough food for a week. A big bag of caribou meat, which I had sliced thin and dried earlier in the winter, would be my main protein source. Since the meat was lean and wouldn’t provide nearly enough calories, I also carried a bag of rolled oats, another of toasted buckwheat, and several sticks of butter. (Winter camping is so convenient! You don’t have to worry about your butter getting soft and messing up your bags.) With clean snow to melt I didn’t need to carry water, but the gear and food still added up to an extra 50 kilos on my bike.

The weather was warm as I left Inuvik – about –10°C – but snow soon started to fall and a north wind blew it into my face. I settled into a comfortable pace, at which I would produce just enough body heat to keep myself warm but not so much that I would work up a sweat. The road was generally smooth with a thin layer of hard-packed snow along the edges to give me traction. Here and there I would encounter 50 meters or so of glare ice, and on one such patch I took a tumble. I was unable to get enough footing to lift my loaded bicycle upright, and I had to drag it back to road’s edge before I could stand it up. Thereafter I got off and shuffled across any unavoidable patches of glare ice.

I was told I could see Reindeer Station – for several decades headquarters of the Canadian government’s experiment in arctic ranching – from the river bank at km 55. I found cabins, locked, and dog teams, barking, but no humans to inquire of. I walked my bike up a snowmobile trail into the woods and made my camp about 6 pm. By then the sun had emerged and in the shelter it was cozy. The forest provided escape from the wind, and black spruce branches and dry willow twigs made for a roaring campfire – a luxury I didn’t count on finding after another day’s ride north.

When I put on my sheepskin face mask that night to settle into sleep, I was surprised to find my cheeks and nose uncomfortably hot. In spite of the cloudy sky, and in spite of the fact that I had faced north almost all day, enough sunlight had reflected off the snow to give me a sunburn, which I hadn’t noticed as long as cool air acted as a local anæsthetic.

Thursday April 6, 1989

Where am I tonight? Something like 75 km north of Reindeer Station, overlooking a wide channel of the Mackenzie River, relaxing in my sleeping bag in a trench in a snow bank.

I had intended to spend this morning hiking to the abandoned buildings of Reindeer Station. But by the time I’d eaten my porridge there was a strong south wind and I decided to take advantage of it right away. I pedaled north and watched the trees flanking the Caribou Hills to the east dwindle and then disappear. Every half-hour or so a pick-up truck or semi-trailer passed me, usually bringing curious stares, friendly honks of the horn, and occasionally an offer of hot tea from a thermos. At midday I saw a curious apparition slowly approaching on the northern horizon. A massive tractor was creeping down the road toward me, pulling twenty trailers on skis. The oil companies were concluding their winter drilling activities, pulling equipment away from drilling platforms out on the sea ice.

By late afternoon I was beyond the tree line. The scenery was big, hills rolling away gently forever; the scenery was small, ripples in the snow, little wind sculptures mirroring the topography of the hills themselves, and when I looked down while walking I felt like a ten-thousand-meter giant gazing at distant mountains from on high. At the top of the world I had found heaven, and I wanted to bask in the sunshine savoring this season of light.

I knew the Beaufort coast was only a few hours ahead, and then another hour or two would bring the end of a trip I’d anticipated all winter. I didn’t want the journey to finish for another day so I stopped riding at five p.m. From the snow-plowed road along the ice I searched the landscape for shelter. At a curve in the river, it appeared, the wind would blow directly over the five-meter bank, leaving in its lee a calm space in which I could make my bed. I hoisted the loaded bike over the windrows that marked the highway and set off for my place in the sun. The wind-blown snow was not quite hard enough to pedal across but firm enough that if I got off and walked, the bike rolled along smoothly beside me. After ten minutes I was home for the night.

The first item to come out of my packs was a snow knife. The winter’s winds had piled more than three meters of snow here, packed in a 45° slope. After a half-hour’s work I had cut out enough blocks of snow to make a nice flat trench to sleep in, with the bigger blocks stacked around the head end to further shelter me from eddies in the breeze and to reflect the sun shining directly at me from the far side of the river. Out from the packs came the mattress and sleeping bags, the down parka and down pants, the heavy mitts and felt-lined boots – no sense catching a chill while basking in the sun.

After a short rest I took a half-hour hike up over the river bank and into the brisk breeze on the hills. There I was able to gather a big armload of branches from willow shrubs. Back at my sheltered camp, the twigs burned as fast as I could throw them onto the fire, but with constant tending of the blaze I managed to create hot water from heaps of snow.

Supper’s opening course was hot tea and cold kwok – thin slices of raw frozen caribou meat. Then came the house special – boiled caribou and buckwheat stew. Around 10:30, as the sun-dogs were slipping below the horizon, I pulled off boots, heavy socks, down pants and wool tights, sweaters and mittens, pulled on a sheepskin face mask and down hood, and crawled into bed. Some hours later when I got up and took a short walk to cool off, I was surprised to see light not only in the sky but also on the surface of the river a few hundred yards out. The illusion of light shimmering on flowing water was a shock – until I realized I was seeing the aurora borealis reflected off smooth ice in the middle of the highway.

Friday April 7, 1989 – Tuktoyaktuk

When I got up this morning to celebrate the last day of the journey I thought I might have some tough going. At this latitude the Mackenzie River had widened considerably, and the closer I got to the coast the rougher the road became. On the wide expanse of ice there were pressure cracks big enough to swallow my front wheel and pitch me overboard. I had to watch the road carefully, swerving back and forth to cross the cracks at a sharp angle. But the wind had picked up in my favour as I passed Whitefish Station, a fishing camp which in winter consisted only of a collection of tent frames.

At midday I met the arctic coast and turned east to ride along the sea ice to Tuktoyaktuk. Soon two pingos appeared on the coast – volcano-shaped formations formed in very wet soil as a core of ice gradually rises up out of the permafrost over thousands of years. A little later I could make out the golf-ball dome and screens of the DEW line* radar station, and then the smaller houses came into view.

Fifty-five klicks today, and I was surprised to see Tuk on the horizon so soon. I’m hungry and wind-burnt and tired, but this ride was almost too easy and, after months of anticipation, the end of the ride came far too soon.


Colour photos were taken with a
Minox 35, and black-and-white photos were taken with a Minox C, April 1989.


*The Distant Early Warning Line was a string of radar stations built across the Canadian arctic in the late 1950s to give advance warning of a possible Soviet nuclear attack launched from across the Arctic Ocean. Most of the stations were deactivated in 1988.

13 seconds in march

PHOTO POST

In these parts we can usually hear spring coming long before we can see it.

On the second day of March when this coyote was making midday rounds, the marsh was frozen solid and it didn’t even feel like spring – except that the snowflakes landed almost like soft rain.

Midday Rounds (click images for larger view)

But non-wintering birds had already started to appear, and the quiet of winter was punctuated by sounds we hadn’t heard here for months.

Smooth Operator

A few Long-Tailed Ducks started to show up in late February. This one was taking shelter in the harbour on a blustery early-March afternoon.

A more surprising visitor on the same day was a Common Loon, which had been stranded after landing on a rooftop in Oshawa. Unable to launch into flight except from water, this one was rescued and set free in Bowmanville harbour.

Portrait of a Loon

A quick look around

One way to gauge the spring was by watching the ice dwindle on the harbour breakwaters. Though the ice at the very ends of the breakwaters is still hanging on, ice on the lower rocks was gradually washed away by waves or melted by the strengthening sun.

Breakwater, March 13

Breakwater, March 27

It was a warm sunny afternoon when we had a delightful surprise visit from a pair of Trumpeter Swans.

Nice to meet you

The largest native bird in North America, Trumpeter Swans were nearly extinct in the mid-20th century, and had been extirpated from Ontario some 200 years ago. But dedicated work by volunteers over the past 30 years has resulted in a population of hundreds of these birds in Ontario, along with as many as 50,000 on the continent as a whole.

These feet are made for swimming

In spite of a few warm afternoons, most nights and mornings have stayed below freezing, and it’s hard to think how some of the really small birds stay warm.

Fluffed

The Black-Capped Chickadee seems to stay comfortable right through the winter – but at least it has the ability to fluff up its luxurious plumage for maximum warmth.

Announcement

The Red-Winged Blackbirds return from their migrations long before there is a hint of new growth in the marsh, and perhaps they stay warm through aerobic vocal workouts.

Slippery Slope

The song of a Killdeer in March is more surprising. A pair stopped by the harbour on March 27 and found the sand at water’s edge was still an icy slide.

But each spring sunrise lets us know the chill is only temporary.

Due East plus 13

Top photo: Due East (click here for larger view). The top photo and the bottom photo were taken 13 seconds apart.

Pulling the plug on fossil fuel production subsidies

Also published at Resilience.org

How long would the fossil fuel economy last if we took it off life support?

Or to state the question more narrowly and less provocatively, what would happen if we removed existing subsidies to fossil fuel production?

Some fossil fuel producers are still highly profitable even without subsidies, of course. But a growing body of research shows that many new petroleum-extraction projects are economically marginal at best.

Since the global economy is addicted to energy-fueled growth, even a modest drop in fossil fuel supply – for example, the impact on global oil supplies if the US fracking industry were to crash – would have major consequences for the current economic order.

On the other hand, climate justice demands a rapid overall reduction to fossil fuel consumption, and from that standpoint subsidies aimed at maintaining current fossil fuel supply levels are counterproductive, to say the least.

As a 2015 review of subsidies put it:

“G20 country governments are providing $444 billion a year in subsidies for the production of fossil fuels. Their continued support for fossil fuel production marries bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for the climate.” 1

This essay will consider the issue of fossil-fuel production subsidies from several angles:

  • Subsidies are becoming more important to fossil fuel producers as producers shift to unconventional oil production.
  • Many countries, including G20 countries, have paid lip service to the need to cut fossil fuel subsidies – but action has not followed.
  • Until recently most climate change mitigation policy has been focused on reducing demand, but a strong focus on reducing supply could be an important strategy for Green New Deal campaigners.

Ending subsidies to producers can play a key role in taking the fossil fuel economy off life support – or we can wait for the planet to take our civilization off life support.

Producer subsidies and the bottom line

A 2014 paper from the Oxford Centre for the Analysis of Resource Rich Economies takes a broad look at subsidization trends in many countries and over several decades. In “Into the Mire”2, Radoslav Stefanski aims to get around the problem of scarce or inconsistent data by, in his words, “a method of so-called revealed preference to back out subsidies.”

Stefanski does not focus specifically on subsidies to producers. Instead, he is concerned with inferring an overall net subsidy rate, which is the difference between subsidies aimed at either fossil fuel producers and consumers, and the taxes levied on fossil fuels at the production and consumption end.

He finds that “between 1980 and 2000 the world spent – on average – 268 billion USD (measured in 1990 PPP terms) a year on implicit fossil fuel subsidies.” Starting from the late 1990s, however – when it should have been clear that it was globally essential to begin the transition away from fossil-fuel dependence – the rate of subsidization grew rapidly in several regions.

In particular, Stefanski finds, “the vast majority of the increase comes from just two countries: China and the US.”

In North America, he says “until the 1990s the policy was fairly neutral with a slight tendency towards subsidization. Subsequently however, fossil fuel subsidies exploded and the region became the second highest subsidizing region after East Asia.”

Not only did the global price of oil see a rapid rise after 2000, but North American production saw a huge growth in production through two unconventional methods: hydraulic fracturing of oil-bearing shale, and mining of tar sands. These oil resources had been known for decades, but getting the oil out had always been too expensive for significant production.

A 2017 paper in Nature Energy shows how crucial subsidies have been in making such production increases possible.

Entitled “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, the paper quantifies the importance of state and federal subsidies for new oil extraction projects.

The authors found that at then-current prices of about US$50 per barrel,

“tax preferences and other subsidies push nearly half of new, yet-to-be-developed oil investments into profitability, potentially increasing US oil production by 17 billion barrels over the next few decades.3

The projects that would only be profitable if current subsidies continue include roughly half of those in the largest shale oil areas, and most of the deep-sea sites in the Gulf of Mexico – all areas which have been critical in the growth of a reputed new energy superpower often referred to triumphantly as “Saudi America”.

From Erickson et al, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, 2017.

The authors also estimate the greenhouse gas emissions that will result from continuing these subsidies to otherwise-failing projects. In their tally, the additional carbon emissions coming from these projects would amount to 20% of the US carbon budget between now and 2050, given the widely accepted need to keep global warming to a limit of 2°C. In other words, the additional carbon emissions from US oil due to producer subsidies is far from trivial.

Extending this theme to other jurisdictions with high-cost oil – think Canada, for example – the authors of Empty Promises note “the highest cost fields that benefit most from subsidisation often have higher carbon intensity per unit of fuel produced.”4,5

The Nature Energy study is based on an oil price of US$50 per barrel, and says that subsidies may not be so important for profitability at substantially higher prices.

Another recent look at the fracking boom, however, reveals that the US fracking boom – particularly fracking for crude oil as opposed to natural gas – has been financially marginal even when prices hovered near $100 per barrel.

Bethany McLean’s book Saudi America6 is a breezy look at the US fracking industry from its origins up to 2018. Her focus is mostly financial: the profitability (or not) of the fracking industry as a whole, for individual companies, and for the financial institutions which have backed it. Her major conclusion is “The biggest reason to doubt the most breathless predictions  about America’s future as an oil and gas colossus has more to do with Wall Street than with geopolitics or geology. The fracking of oil, in particular, rests on a financial foundation that is far less secure than most people realize.” (Saudi America, page 17)

Citing the work of investment analyst David Einhorn, she writes

“Einhorn found that from 2006 to 2014, the fracking firms had spent $80 billion more than they had received from selling oil and gas. Even when oil was at $100 a barrel, none of them generated excess cash flow—in fact, in 2014, when oil was at $100 for part of the year, the group burned through $20 billion.” (Saudi America, page 54-55)

It seems sensible to think that if firms can stay solvent when their product sells for $50 per barrel, surely they must make huge profits at $100 per barrel. But it’s not that simple, McLean explains, because of the non-constant pricing of the many services that go into fracking a well.

“Service costs are cyclical, meaning that as the price of oil rises and demand for services increases, the costs rise too. As the price of oil falls and demand dwindles, service companies slash to the bone in an effort to retain what meager business there is.” (Saudi America, page 90)

In the long run, clearly, the fracking industry is not financially sustainable unless each of the essential services that make up the industry are financially sustainable. That must include, of course, the financial services that make this capital-intensive business possible.

“If it weren’t for historically low interest rates, it’s not clear there would even have been a fracking boom,” McLean writes, adding that “The fracking boom has been fueled mostly by overheated investment capital, not by cash flow.”7

These low interest rates represent opportunity to cash-strapped drillers, and they represent a huge challenge for many financial interests:

“low interest rates haven’t just meant lower borrowing costs for debt-laden companies. The lack of return elsewhere also led pension funds, which need to be able to pay retirees, to invest massive amounts of money with hedge funds that invest in high yield debt, like that of energy firms, and with private equity firms—which, in turn, shoveled money into shale companies, because in a world devoid of growth, shale at least was growing.” (Saudi America, page 91)

But if the industry as a whole is cash-flow negative, then it can’t end well for either drillers or investors, and the whole enterprise may only be able to stay afloat – even in the short term – due to producer subsidies.

Supply and demand

Many regulatory and fiscal policies designed to reduce carbon emissions have focused on reducing demand. The excellent and wide-ranging book Designing Climate Solutions by Hal Harvey et al. (reviewed here) is almost exclusively devoted to measures that will reduce fossil fuel demand – though the authors state in passing that it is important to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies.

The authors of the Nature Energy paper on US producer subsidies note that

“How subsidies to consumers affect energy decision-making is relatively well studied, in part because these subsidies have comparatively clear impacts on price …. The impact of subsidies to fossil fuel producers on decision-making is much less well understood ….” 8

Nevertheless there has been a strong trend in climate activism to stop the expansion of fossil fuels on the supply side – think of the fossil fuel divestment movement and the movement to prevent the construction of new pipelines.

A 2018 paper in the journal Climatic Change says that policymakers too are taking another look at the importance of supply-side measures: “A key insight driving these new approaches is that the political and economic interests and institutions that underpin fossil fuel production help to perpetuate fossil fuel use and even to increase it.”9

The issue of “lock-in” is an obvious reason to stop fossil fuel production subsidies – and an obvious reason that large fossil fuel interests, including associated lending agencies and governments, work behind the scenes to retain such subsidies.

Producer subsidies create perverse incentives that will tend to maintain the market position of otherwise uneconomic fossil fuel sources. Subsidies help keep frackers alive and producing rather than filing for bankruptcy. Subsidies help finance the huge upfront costs of bringing new tar sands extraction projects on line, and then with the “sunk costs” already invested these projects are incentivized to keep pumping out oil even when they are selling it at a loss. Subsidy-enabled production can contribute to overproduction, lowering the costs of fossil fuels and making it more difficult for renewable energy technologies to compete. And subsidy-enabled production increases the “carbon entanglement” of financial services which are invested in such projects and thus have strong incentive to keep extraction going rather than leaving fossil fuel in the ground.

Carbon-entangled governments tend to be just as closely tied to big banks as they are to fossil fuel companies. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that in 2018 the G7 Fossil Fuels Subsidy Scorecard noted that “not a single G7 government has ended fiscal support or public finance to oil and gas production, with Canada providing the highest levels of support (per unit of GDP).”10

Fossil fuel producer subsidies and the Green New Deal

Major international climate change conferences have long agreed that fossil fuel subsidies must be phased out, ASAP, but little progress has been made.

The first step in getting out of a deep hole is to stop digging, and at this point in our climate crisis it seems crazy or criminal to keep digging the hole of fossil fuel lock-in by subsidizing new extraction projects.

Many major fossil fuel corporations have expressed their support for carbon taxes as a preferred method of addressing the climate change challenge. I am not aware, however, of such corporate leaders advocating the simpler and more obvious approach of removing all fossil fuel subsidies.

Perhaps this is because they know that carbon taxes almost always start out too small to make much difference, and that every attempt to raise them will stir intense opposition from lower- and middle-income consumers who feel the bite of such taxes most directly.

The costs of producer subsidies, on the other hand, are spread across the entire population, while the benefits are concentrated very effectively among fossil fuel corporations and their financial backers. And by boosting the supply of fossil fuels, especially oil, to a level that could not be maintained under “free market” requirements for profitability, these subsidies maintain the hope of continuous economic growth based on supposedly cheap energy.

The sudden popularity of “Green New Deal” ideas in several countries raises essential questions about political strategy. There is no single silver bullet, and a range of political and economic changes will need to be made. Though one major goal – eliminate most fossil fuel use by about 2030 and the rest by 2050 – is simple and clear, there are many means to move towards that goal, not all of them equally effective or equally feasible.

A swift elimination of producer subsidies, and a redirection of those funds to employment retraining and rehiring in renewable energy projects, strikes me as a potential political winner. Major fossil fuel interests, including big investment firms, can be counted on to oppose such a shift, of course – but they have shown themselves to be determined lobbyists for the preservation of the fossil fuel economy anyway.

Among the overwhelming majority of voters without big financial portfolios, the cessation of handouts to corporations strikes me as an easier sell than carbon taxes levied directly and regressively on consumers.


Photo at top: port of IJmuiden, Netherlands, September 2018.


Footnotes

1 Empty Promises: G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production, published by Overseas Development Institute and Oilchange International, 2015, page 11

2 “Into the Mire: A closer look at fossil fuel subsidies”, by Radoslav Stefanski, 2014.

3 Peter Erickson, Adrian Down, Michael Lazarus and Doug Koplow, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, Nature Energy 2, pages 891-898 (2017).

4 Empty Promises: G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production, published by Overseas Development Institute and Oilchange International, 2015, page 17

The same hurdles to unsubsidized profitability apparently apply outside of North America. See, for example, this article detailing how major fracking ventures in Argentina are likely to stall or fail due to declining subsidies: “IEEFA report: Argentina’s Vaca Muerta Patagonia fracking plan is financially risky, fiscally perilous”, March 21, 2019

 Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World, by Bethany McLean. Columbia Global Reports, 2018.

McLean’s reading echoes the analysis in the 2017 book Oil and the Western Economic Crisis, by Cambridge University economist Helen Thompson.

Peter Erickson, Adrian Down, Michael Lazarus and Doug Koplow, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, Nature Energy 2, pages 891-898 (2017).

Michael Lazarus and Harro van Asselt, “Fossil fuel supply and climate policy: exploring the road less taken,” Climatic Change, August 2018, page 1

10 G7 Fossil Fuels Subsidy Scorecard, Overseas Development Institute, Oilchange International, NRDC, IISD, June 2018, page 9

Designing Climate Solutions – a big-picture view that doesn’t skimp on details

Also published at Resilience.org

Let us pause for a moment of thanks to the policy wonks, who work within the limitations of whatever is currently politically permissible and take important steps forward in their branches of bureaucracy.

Let us also give thanks to those who cannot work within those limitations, and who are determined to transform what is and is not politically permissible.

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy is published by Island Press, November 2018.

An excellent new book from Island Press makes clear that both approaches to the challenge of climate disruption are necessary, though it deals almost exclusively with the work of policy design and implementation.

Designing Climate Solutions, by Hal Harvey with Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, is a thoughtful and thorough discussion of policy options aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Harvey is particularly focused on discovering which specific policies are likely to have the biggest – and equally important, the quickest – impact on our cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. But he also pays close attention to the fine details of policy design which, if ignored, can cause the best-intentioned policies to miss their potentials.

One of the many strengths of the book is the wealth of graphics which present complex information in visually effective formats.

A political acceptable baseline

Though political wrangling is barely discussed, Harvey notes that “It goes without saying that a key consideration of any climate policy is whether it stands a chance of being enacted. A highly abating and perfectly designed policy is not worth pursuing if there is no chance it can be implemented.”

He takes as a starting point the target of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has received agreement in principle from nearly all countries: to reduce emissions enough by 2050 to give us at least a 50% chance of avoiding more than 2°C global warming. (We’ll return later to the question of the reasonableness of that goal.)

Throughout the book, then, different aspects of climate policy are evaluated for their relative contributions to the 2°C goal.

Working with a climate policy computer model which is discussed in detail in an appendix and which is available online, Harvey presents this framework: a “business as usual” scenario would result in emissions of 2,253 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent from 2020 to 2050, but that must be reduced by 1,185 Gigatons.

The following chart presents what Harvey’s team believes is the realistic contribution of various sectors to the emission-reduction goal.

“Figure 3.4 – Policy contributions to meeting the 2°C global warming target.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 67)

The key point from this chart is that about 70% of the reductions are projected to come in three broad areas: changes to industrial production, conversion of electrical generation (“power sector”) to renewable energy, and cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions in line with their true social costs.

(The way things are categorized makes a big difference. For example, agriculture is slotted as a subset of the industrial sector, which boosts the relative importance of this sector for emissions-reduction potential.)

Harvey buttresses the argument by looking at the costs – or in many cases, cost-savings – of emissions-reduction policies. The following chart shows the relative costs of policies on the vertical dimension, and their relative contribution to emissions reduction on the horizontal dimension.

“Figure 3.2 – The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 59)

 

The data portrayed in this chart can guide policy in two important ways: policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

It may come as a surprise that the transportation and building sectors, in this framework, are responsible for only small slices of overall emission reductions.

Building Codes and Appliance Standards are pegged to contribute about 5% of the emission reductions, while a suite of transportation policies could together contribute about 7% of emission reductions.

A clear view of the overriding importance of reducing cumulative emissions by 2050 helps explain these seemingly small contributions – and why it would nevertheless be a mistake to neglect these sectors.

To achieve climate policy goals it’s critical to reduce emissions quickly – and that’s hard to do in the building and transportation sectors. Building stock tends to last for generations, and major appliances typically last 10 years or more. Likewise car, truck and bus fleets tend to stay on the road for ten years or more. Thus the best building codes and the best standards for vehicle efficiency will have a very limited impact on carbon emissions over the next 15 years. By the same token, even the most rapid electrification possible of car and truck fleets won’t have full impact on emissions until the electric grid is generally decarbonized.

These are among the reasons that decarbonizing the electric grid, along with cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions, are so important to emissions reduction in the short term.

Meanwhile, though, it is also essential to get on with the slower work of upgrading buildings, appliances, transportation systems, and decarbonized agricultural and industrial processes. In the longer term, especially after 2050 when it will be essential to achieve zero net carbon emissions, even (relatively) minor contributions to emissions will be important. But as Harvey puts it, “There is no mopping up the last 10 percent of carbon emissions if we don’t eliminate the first 90 percent!”

International case studies

Harvey gets deep into the nuances of policy with an excellent discussion of the differences between carbon taxes and carbon caps. This helps readers to understand the value of hybrid approaches, and the importance in some countries of policies to limit “leakage”, whereby major industries simply shift production to jurisdictions without carbon prices or caps.

The many case studies – from the US, Germany, China, Japan, and other countries – illustrate policy designs that work especially well, or conversely, policies that have resulted in unintentional consequences which reduce their effectiveness.

These case studies also provide a reminder of the amount of hard work and dedication that mostly unsung bureaucrats have put in to the cause of mitigating climate disruption. As much as we may mourn that political leadership has been sorely lacking and that we appear to be losing the battle to forestall climate disaster, it seems undeniable that we would be considerably worse off if it weren’t for the accomplishments of civil servants who have eked out small gains in their own sectors.

For example, the hard-won feed-in tariffs and other policies promoting renewable energies for electric generation haven’t yet resulted in a wholesale transformation of the grid – but they’ve resulted in an exponential drop in the cost per kilowatt of solar- and wind-generated power. Performance standards for many types of engines have resulted in significant improvements in energy efficiency. These improvements have so far mostly been offset by our economy’s furious push to sell more and bigger products – but these efficiency gains could nevertheless play a key role in a sane economic system of the future.

The 2° gamble

Although most of the book is devoted to details of particular policies, Harvey’s admirably lucid discussion of the urgency of the climate challenge makes clear that we need far greater commitment from the highest levels of political leadership.

He notes that the reality of climate action has been far less impressive than the high-minded rhetoric. With few exceptions the nations responsible for most of the carbon emissions have been woefully slow to act, which makes the challenge both more urgent and more difficult.

Harvey illustrates this point with the chart below. The black solid and dotted lines represent the necessary progress with emissions, if we had been smart enough to ensure emissions peaked in 2015. The red lines show what may now be the best-case scenario – an emissions peak in 2030 – and the much more drastic reductions that will then be required to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming to 2°C or less.

“Figure I-7. The longer the delay in peaking emissions, the harder it becomes to meet the same carbon budget.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 9)

We might well ask if a 50% likelihood of worldwide climate catastrophe is a prudent and reasonable policy aim, or certifiably bonkers. Still, a 50/50 chance of disaster is somewhat better than assured civilizational collapse, which is the destination of “business as usual.”

In any case, the political climate has changed considerably in the short time since Harvey and colleagues prepared Designing Climate Solutions. With the challenge to the political status quo embodied in the Green New Deal movement, it now seems plausible that some major carbon-emitting countries will enact more appropriate greenhouse-gas emission targets in the next few years. If that comes to pass, these new goals will need to be translated into effective policy, and the many lessons in Designing Climate Solutions will remain important.

What about fossil fuel subsidies?

In a book of such wide and ambitious scope, it is inevitable that some important facets are omitted or given short shrift.

The issues of deforestation and forest degradation are duly noted, but Harvey declines to delve into this subject by explaining that “The science, the policies, and the actors for reducing emissions from land use are very different from those for energy and industrial processes, and they deserve separate treatment from experts in land use policy.”

The issue of embodied carbon does not come up in the text. In assessing the replacement of fossil-powered vehicle fleets by electric vehicles, for example, is the embodied carbon inherent in current manufacturing processes a significant factor? Readers will need to search elsewhere for that answer.

Also noteworthy is the absence of any acknowledgement that economic growth itself may be a problem. For all the discussion of ways to transform industrial processes, there is no discussion of whether the scale of industrial output should also be reduced. In most countries today, of course, a civil servant who tries to promote degrowth will soon become an expert in unemployment, but that highlights the need for a wider and deeper look at economic fundamentals than is currently politically permissible.

The missing subject that seems most germane to the book’s central purpose, though, is the issue of subsidies for fossil fuels. Harvey does state in passing that “for many sectors and technologies, pricing is the key. Removing subsidies for fossil fuels is the first step – though still widely ignored.” Indeed, many countries have paid lip service to the need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, but few have taken action along these lines.

But throughout Harvey’s extensive examination of pricing signals – e.g., feed-in tariffs, carbon taxes, carbon caps, low-interest loans to renewable energy projects – there is no discussion of the degree to which existing fossil fuel subsidies continue to undercut the goals of climate policy and retard the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In my next post I’ll take up this subject with a look at how some governments, while tepidly supporting the transformation envisioned in the Paris Agreements, continue to safeguard their fossil fuel sectors through generous subsidies.


Illustration at top adapted from Designing Climate Solutions cover by David Ter Avanesyan.

the light of a nearby star

PHOTO POST

A tree at the base of the Port Darlington breakwater stands watch over wind and waves and grows a new coat during winter storms.

Last week’s blasts from the west whipped up the waves and funnelled splashes high into the tree.

Crescent (click images for larger views)

By the heat of the noon-day sun the glow was a glorious spectacle.

Splash, slowed

But the sun’s rise through this tree called me to the beach at dawn, day after day.

A moment of sunrise

Cold fire with twigs

Sunrise moment II

Convergence


Photo at top: Arcs (click here for larger view)