Bill Gates and the oil sands

2008-08-24

in Canada, Economics, Rants, The environment

In the past, I have been impressed by the philanthropy of Bill Gates. Now, after spending billions of dollars combating poverty and infectious disease, he seems to be flirting with investments that would counteract his earlier goals. Along with Warren Buffet, Gates recently toured the Athabasca oil sands, supposedly in search of investment opportunities.

We are now at a juncture in time where we understand the magnitude of the threat posed by climate change, as well as the growing role the oil sands are playing in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is simply immoral to assert that just because a resource is under your feet, you can exploit it regardless of the harm that does to others. While it is theoretically possible that future technologies will reduce the harm caused by oil sands extraction and upgrading, such technologies do not exist today and cannot serve to justify the destruction that is ongoing.

If Gates does decide to invest, he will be adopting a deeply hypocritical position with respect to good global citizenship and the challenges facing the global poor. The IPCC and others have stressed that it will be many of the world’s poorest people who suffer most from climate change. Projected impacts include droughts, famines, storms, and the increased spread of some infectious diseases. Hopefully, the actual sight of boreal forest being stripped mined and rendered toxic through greenhouse-gas-spewing industrial activities will put him off the investment idea.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah August 24, 2008 at 4:10 pm

I fear that assessments of the relevance of moral considerations may be inversely proportional to the profitability of the venture.
Nice pic – colours inverted?

Milan August 25, 2008 at 12:10 am

With most investors, I could understand that, though perhaps not approve of it. I thought the whole point of Bill Gates was that he had made so much money that he planned to work on improving the lot of humanity.

Milan August 25, 2008 at 12:19 am

Regarding the picture:

It was originally a black and white image (taken of a bench in Central Park, Manhattan). I cropped it and adjusted the contrast. I then applied a Neon Glow filter, before adjusting the final levels.

. August 25, 2008 at 11:21 am

Green.view
The politics of sand

Aug 25th 2008
From Economist.com
What constitutes sustainability?

IT’S official: extracting oil from Canada’s vast deposits of bitumenous sand is unsustainable. So, at any rate, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) implicitly concluded when it ruled that Royal Dutch Shell was misleading the public by describing its tar-sands operation as “sustainable”.

WWF, the environmental NGO that lodged the complaint with the ASA, dislikes the tar sands (or oil sands, as Shell prefers to call them) because turning them into fuel consumes much more energy than refining crude oil does. If that energy is made by burning natural gas—as it is in all tar-sands projects at the moment—and so involves extra emissions of greenhouse gases, then the resulting fuel is two or three times as bad for the atmosphere as normal petrol or diesel. That is no good for the world’s climate, and so, in WWF’s view, unsustainable.

Sarah August 25, 2008 at 12:32 pm

Well, rich philanthropists only answer to themselves, so their ‘giving’ is always dependent on their personal judgements and on continuing to remain rich. I suppose at worst he could argue that he would get rich off the tar sands and spend it on developing better energy sources, rather than getting rich of it and buying more jets, hummers and boats.
This looks to me like another example of why state provision of funds for socially beneficial projects is better than relying on charity, but alas my view seems to be out of style at present.

Milan August 25, 2008 at 1:17 pm

Presumably, Mr. Gates is more open to moral arguments from outsiders than an investor only concerned about a cash return should be. Mr. Gates is already spectacularly rich, and has decided to spend his money (and much of Mr. Buffett’s) largely on helping the world’s poor. Hurting them at the same time simply doesn’t make sense.

The oil sands don’t require any funds for benevolent projects. They simply require the will to internalize the external costs involved with oil sands extraction and processing. At present, oil sands operations are a bit like those who forge cash. The governmental position seems to be: ‘Maybe the cash forging does hurt everyone in the long run, but making them stop would destroy their business and have a dire short term impact on the local economy.

R.K. August 25, 2008 at 1:22 pm

You should write Bill a letter.

Anon August 25, 2008 at 9:00 pm

Photo gallery of Israeli girls in the army

By Lisa Katayama on Photo

Photographer Rachel Papo’s Serial No. 3817131 is a beautiful photo essay depicting the everyday lives of young women in the Israeli army. Papo herself was born in Ohio and raised in Israel. She served two years in the Israeli Air Force starting when she was eighteen before returning to the US. The project is named after her own ID number during service.

. August 25, 2008 at 9:38 pm

Fishy investments
Gates and Buffet to invest in tar sands and spawn more two-headed fish?
Posted by Joseph Romm (Guest Contributor)

Two heads are apparently not better than one — certainly not for fish and apparently not for the super-rich either.

If you thought that the two richest Americans got that way by being green — or had suddenly become green because they are now giving their money to charitable causes — you were mistaken. The National Post reports that last week that the two gazillionaires “quietly flew into northeastern Alberta on Monday, where they took in the oil sands, apparently with awe.”

Who wouldn’t be awed by the “biggest global warming crime ever seen” — an investment so tempting even BP is selling out its environmental credentials to invest in? Who wouldn’t be awed by Canada’s version of liquid coal? Who wouldn’t be awed an environmental blight so unprecedented that last week a mutated two-headed goldeye fish was found downstream? George Poitras of the Mikesew Cree said,

Amos October 5, 2008 at 4:57 am

What about all the babies that are being killed in abortions? What about all the imorality Hollywood is teaching our children? the breaking up of marriages and the way this sacred institution called marriage is being brought to naught in Nations all over the world, the gay rights and homesexuals teaching this generation that it’s right to do what’s wrong and wrong to do what’s right. What about all these things? Where is yo anger over the death of millions of people in Africa due to preventable diseases like Malaria and TB?

Why are u so infuriated about petty things like an oil field here or an oil field there? About the cutting of trees in the Amazon or gorrilas being killed in the Congo and Whales in Japan? Where is your anger over the deaths of people due to war in the Dafoe, the deaths or children in Somalia & Ethiopia because of malnutrition. You worry so much about the environment and about animals; if a little tortoise is treated badly there’s an outrage & a terrible furore all over the world, but you care very little about people, about the people around you struggling to make ends meet; struggling to provide for their families or send their children to school.

And whether u hate him not, Bill Gates is continue to make his billions. What about you?

Milan October 6, 2008 at 10:29 am

Amos,

What about all the babies that are being killed in abortions? What about all the imorality Hollywood is teaching our children? the breaking up of marriages and the way this sacred institution called marriage is being brought to naught in Nations all over the world, the gay rights and homesexuals teaching this generation that it’s right to do what’s wrong and wrong to do what’s right. What about all these things? Where is yo anger over the death of millions of people in Africa due to preventable diseases like Malaria and TB?

I agree that diseases in Africa are a big problem. I disagree about all the other issues you raise. I have no particular objection to Hollywood and abortions. I support gay rights and gay marriage.

Just because other problems exist in the world doesn’t mean we should ignore the huge ecological cost of the oil sands. If Bill Gates decides to invest there, it would be a shameful and destructive choice.

Why are u so infuriated about petty things like an oil field here or an oil field there? About the cutting of trees in the Amazon or gorrilas being killed in the Congo and Whales in Japan? Where is your anger over the deaths of people due to war in the Dafoe, the deaths or children in Somalia & Ethiopia because of malnutrition. You worry so much about the environment and about animals; if a little tortoise is treated badly there’s an outrage & a terrible furore all over the world, but you care very little about people, about the people around you struggling to make ends meet; struggling to provide for their families or send their children to school.

The carbon dioxide emissions associated with the oil sands are not ‘petty.’ They are an increasingly large share of Canada’s excessively high total level of emissions, and one that is set to grow as the US becomes more concerned about importing oil from overseas.

I care about malnutrition and genocide as well as the environment. In the end, however, maintaining a stable and livable climate is crucial for perpetuating human life. It is not the only problem we need to address, but it is one upon which all others rest.

And whether u hate him not, Bill Gates is continue to make his billions. What about you?

Given the externalities associated with economic activity, it seems likely that the average billionaire is significantly less moral than the average member of the general public.

. March 10, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Gates Foundation stuck in tar, part 1
Can the problems of the developing world be solved by ignoring global warming?
Posted by Joseph Romm

Salon has published my article on the biggest flaw in the strategy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I’m going to expand on that article in a two-parter here.

“A source said Gates and Buffett, who in recent months said he favors investing in the Canadian oil sands because it offers a secure supply of oil for the United States, visited the booming hub to satisfy “their own curiosity” but also “with investment in mind.””

The tar sands are an environmental abomination that require huge amounts of natural gas to produce fuel with far higher life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than oil. They have rightly been called by Greenpeace the “biggest global warming crime ever seen.” The Catholic bishop whose diocese extends over the tar sands posted a scathing pastoral letter in January that challenges the “moral legitimacy” of tar sands production.

. March 24, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Bill Gates Urges Action to Prevent Climate Change

Do efforts to prevent climate change need a new public face?

Bill Gates seems to think so.

In his annual letter, which was released this week, the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation applauds the growing interest in climate change because droughts, floods, and other extreme weather conditions will primarily hurt people in impoverished countries.

“The negative effects will fall almost entirely on the poor, even though they did not cause the problem. I hope that the increased public interest in reducing climate change will also increase the political will to provide aid that will help the poor mitigate its negative effects,” he writes.

Milan January 28, 2010 at 7:27 pm
. February 14, 2010 at 6:17 pm

“So Gates is looking at nuclear as the most likely miracle. “A molecule of uranium has a million times more energy than a molecule of coal.” He and Nathan “Mosquito Zapper” Myrhvold are backing a nuclear approach. It’s called Terrapower, and it’s different from a standard nuclear reactor. Instead of burning the 1% of uranium-235 found in natural uranium, this reactor burns the other 99%, called uranium-238. You can use all the leftover waste from today’s reactors as fuel. “In terms of fuel this really solves the problem.” He showed a photo of depleted waste uranium in steel cylinders at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky — the waste at this plant could supply the US energy needs for 200 years (woah!), and filtering seawater for uranium could supply energy for much longer than that.

TED’s Chris Anderson asked: If this doesn’t work, then what?

Gates: If you get in that situation – there is a line of research on geoengineering that could give us 20 additional years to get our act together. But that’s a last resort. Gates wants to solve the problem without geoengineering.”

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