Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, December 21, 2007



Harper's Magazine (October 2007)

From "Lifelines, Lifetimes, and Timelines: Hoisting Ourselves Up the Fossil Chain", a presentation delivered June 14 at GO-EXPO, an oil-industry conference held in Calgary, Alberta, by "Shepard Wolff"and "Florian Osenberg", impostors posing as officials working for the US National Petroleum Council and ExxonMobil's alternative-energy program. "Wolff" and "Osenberg" are members of the Yes Men, an activist group based in Brooklyn. After the presentation, both men were issued tickets for trespassing. Lee Raymond retired as CEO of ExxonMobil in 2005 and now chairs the NPC.

SHEPARD WOLFF: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm very sorry Lee Raymond couldn't make it today. He's in Washington, discussing a landmark National Petroleum Council study with President Bush before he announces the study's conclusions, complete with presidential approval, later today. But I am very pleased to be able to give you a sneak preview of that study, which shows that the United States and Canada must expand production from the Alberta tar sands by a factor of five within the next five years, and prescribes precisely the sort of government noninterference that will make this a reality. I'm especially pleased that ExxonMobil will be playing a key role in that policy - by developing a renewable energy source that will actually benefit from our development of conventional fuels while providing a fallback position for energy sustainability under any conditions that arise.

[Slide : Beautiful horizon]

But first, I need to say how wonderful it is to see, on all the faces here today, the childlike exuberance of a great industry in full flower, biting deep into all of life's opportunities and, like a giddy and well-fed infant, savoring that life to the fullest.

[Slide: Man holding up ear of wheat]

And why not? Our product, after all, has made possible everything we see around us-our whole civilization. We depend on oil for food, and for getting food to our tables. Without oil, at least four billion people would starve - and even those of us left would have a very tough time.

But I'm not here today to pat us all on the back; I'm here to speak of Plan Bs. Because the dire situation I've just mentioned is in fact possible.

[Slide: Lightning]

As we know, if climate science is right, there's a growing possibility of global calamities, triggering migration, death, and conflicts on a scale never before imagined. This spiral of trouble would make the oil infrastructure utterly useless, and starving would become the new black. We don't believe this will happen. Statistically, the chances are still far below fifty percent. But even if they're just ten percent, we as responsible corporate citizens must consider what we would do to keep the fuel flowing. We owe it to ourselves, to our shareholders, and to the very concept of sustainability.

We at Exxon firmly believe that a free market will, if left to its own devices, always find solutions to the dilemmas humanity faces. And in this case, there's a surprisingly simple solution - one that goes hand in hand with current energy policies and actually depends, for example, on our continued development of the tar sands.

[Slides: The birth of the sun; a barren earth; life; animals]

To explain how it works, let's take a trip into the past. Five billion years ago, our sun was born. For the next billion years, Earth was a wasteland, full of nothing but the dead stuff of nature.

[Slide : Sequence of evolution]

Then, one day, matter in its infinite ingenuity discovered a fabulous new way to store energy. It used sunlight and good old-fashioned rock smarts to turn water and dirt into something that could store power long enough to walk around and develop speech. Today, we call it life - but it's just an incredible solar battery that pushed its way across eons, past the shifting of continents and the burning-out of stars, transforming itself into countless species, and leaving them behind-all the way into the present -

[Slide : Suited man in conference hall]

- and into this conference hall right here today.

[Slide : Map of Mesopotamia]

Along its age-old path, this battery we call life kept getting smarter, until the Mesopotamians. Then, one day, a resident of ancient Uruk made a crucial discovery: other beings were great at storing energy.

[Slide: Resident of Uruk]

Who first had the idea to use the oil of a recently living animal to light his or her house? Whoever that Einstein was, he or she single-handedly created the energy industry and thus revolutionized civilization. For the next few thousand years, animals were burned for light and warmth.

[Slide: Puffin]

Even today, Shetland Islanders are said to lop the heads off puffins and put wicks in the stumps to make candles.

[Slide : Captain Ahab]

Europe's big innovation in this matter was the discovery of the ultimate mobile energy storehouses - those mighty leviathans of the deep, the whales, which until the late 1800s remained Europe's preferred source of illuminant energy.

[Slide: Canadian striking oil]

Then, in the mid-1800s, some folks here in Canada discovered that nature had already done a large part of the work that men were still risking their lives for! At some point, maybe an asteroid hit.

[Slide : Canadian under asteroid]

Or perhaps the earth's temperature just swung wildly south. Pretty much everything died, and the fields of death, ensepulchered by eons, were compressed into great, deep oceans - of oil. This "petroleum", so much more abundant than the fluids of the more recently departed, made possible an unprecedented scale of market performance, leading inexorably to the panoply of amazing technologies we see in the exhibit halls here today. The battery we call life had finally come into its own.

Again, there are dark mutterings today that climate change linked to oil use could lead to massive population loss, migrations, and conflicts, making pipelines and oil wells useless. Without oil, the earth's carrying capacity would go from six billion people to as low as 200 million. That would be a great tragedy. Yet why must we tremble like little children before a monster? Why can't we instead be like the man from Uruk, that Ur-industrialist who discovered a new source of energy for the world? After all, if we can ensure an uninterrupted supply of fuel in even the worst of calamities, there will be plenty of ways the market can address the new situation. What we really need is something as plentiful as petroleum but much less dependent on infrastructure - or something as useful as whales but infinitely more abundant. And therein lies the key. Just as the death of ancient life-forms meant oil for us today, so in a fuelless world the massive hydrocarbon store flowing out of the biosphere could mean a massive new resource - if we know how to tap in. Why wait millions of years? The energy is there right now. All we need to do is climb back up the fossil chain and close the circle of life.

[Slide : Vivoleum logo]

We're calling this product Vivoleum. Basically, it compresses the work of brute, stupid time into hours rather than eons. Any biomass whatsoever is quickly and cheaply turned into something close enough to gasoline to run my Escalade.

[Slide : Animation of factory]

We envision large-scale plants that will process many thousands of barrels per hour. The feedstock is cold-pressed through a series of vortex separators, blowdown evaporators, et cetera, and then further refined into ethanol, biodiesel, and so on. The plants will be fully off-site-remote-capable, requiring a minimum of on-site hands to operate. But not all plants need be large or sophisticated - the technology is simple, and the low pressures and temperatures required will allow small-scale -even mobile - refining capacity.

[Slide: Space]

Anywhere biological resources find themselves freed, Vivoleum can grant the at-risk civilization an income stream - where and when it's most needed. It's so compact that it could even work in outer space!

[Slide: Ford plant]

Here on Earth, every Vivoleum plant will be built with environmentality in mind, with living roofs just like Ford's plant in Dearborn, Michigan. All downstream waste will be turned into secondary products such as a building material we're calling Vivaboard, and the liquid effluent can be used as agricultural-grade organic brown water. These will be the greenest manufacturing centers ever built, signaling love for the earth through their very existence.

[Slide : Boxcar from the Holocaust]

Cultural sensitivity will also be paramount. Historical parallels will need to be considered carefully. But this train of thought needn't derail us. After all, when the railways in Egypt used mummies to fuel their locomotives, they were using a limited resource that could not be replenished, and they were committing a crime against history still keenly felt by Egyptologists. The Vivoleum feedstock, on the other hand, is renewable and unprecious, and it responds to the needs of a shrinking market by increasing supply, which in turn stimulates the market: the dance of capital appears in full flower.

[Slide: Captain with telescope peering over tar sands]

Indeed, unlike all other alternative-energy sources, Vivoleum will need no government push - current policies won't have to change. Vivoleum will never encroach on the market's natural right to continue seeking new pastures. The Alberta tar sands, for example, can continue providing a stimulus to Canada, the US, and the global market; and in the event climate change does prove unmanageable, Vivoleum will allow the living superstrate of our precious planet to yield an acceptable future.

Ladies and gentlemen, now I'm going to introduce someone who will explain Exxon's real purpose in coming here today - to honor an individual no longer with us. Here is the head of public relations for the Exxon Vivoleum program, also a special adviser to the NPC on Vivoleum: Florian Osenberg.

FLORIAN OSENBERG: Thank you, Shepard. Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, I'm holding in my hand a candle. Right now there are people fanning out through the room handing out candles just like this. I want each of you to take one, and then I want you to pass the flame to your neighbor. I guess you already know something about passing the flame. From what I hear, you had the Olympic torch here in Calgary, and you managed to keep it from going out even with the oil boom to distract you.

Let me tell you a little bit about these candles. First of all, you'll notice some irregularities, maybe even bits of hair and the like. That's because they're all custom-cast and one-of-a-kind. I already see a couple of you holding your noses. This is something we haven't been able to eliminate yet, but it'll burn off quickly - impurities tend to float to the head.

[Holds up a candle]

You might look at your candle and think, What's the big deal? It's just a simple candle. Well, you're right. But that's the point. Like petroleum's liquid subterranean feedstocks, Vivoleum's ambulant feedstocks can be rendered into just about anything: paraffin, gasoline, even plastic to make a container - for an energy drink, for example. Anything.

But what's truly amazing about these candles is not that they're slightly irregular, or even that they're made from Vivoleum. What I'm personally in awe of is that the Vivoleum they're made from comes from one point-source, made available by a very generous man. His name was Reggie Watts, a real everyman, an ordinary person who, as ordinary people sometimes do, did something extraordinary. Indeed, more than anyone else I can think of, Reggie gave his all so that our company - and indeed our whole industry - could continue to fuel our fight to the finish. It's because he played such an important role in this product's development that we're honoring him here today. With no further ado, Reggie Watts!

[Video begins. An African-American man with a large Afro is sweeping a loading dock and singing Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life".]

OLDER BUSINESSMAN: I knew Reggie because he was our cleaning man in the Houston head office.

YOUNGER BUSINESSMAN : Reggie was a great worker. He did a great job at our company.

WOMAN AT DESK: Down-to-earth, kindhearted, willing to do anything for anybody.

MAINTENANCE WORKER: He would always be singing, because that's the type of guy he was, always happy. When Reggie was there, the workplace was alive.

REGGIE WATTS: I worked in Maintenance for a while, moved up to Maintenance 2. Started doing cleanup, toxic cleanup. People said I was afraid of it, but I wasn't. I just wasn't. We had a level-three alert. I dunno, I just kind of blew it, I guess. After I heard from the doctor that I was going to die, I felt like I had something to live for.

YOUNGER BUSINESSMAN: I t was a very brave choice that Reggie made.

WATTS: I'm gonna die anyways. So, yeah, might as well give it a whirl!

YOUNGER BUSINESSMAN: Reggie was willing to make that sacrifice for the betterment of humanity, so for that we all salute him.

WATTS: I think I would like to be a candle. I think a candle would be fun because there are so many uses for a candle. I think that would be nice, like, if I was a candle on a table when people, when they first met each other. On a date. I think that would be great. I would love that. That'd be a hoot.

[Sings "You Light Up My Life". The video ends, and the organizers eject the presenters from the stage.]

WOLFF: [Speaking to reporters on the conference-room floor] We're not talking about killing anyone. We're talking about using them after nature has done the hard work. After all, 150,000 people already the from climate change-related effects every year. That's only going to go up - maybe way, way up. Will it all go to waste? That would be cruel.

Bill Totten


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