I grew up in Indonesia. It’s bustling with the fourth largest population of any country in the world. Its economy is growing rapidly, mostly due to its rich natural resources. While I lived there, many of my best friend’s parents worked in oil. Katie’s dad worked for Exxon Mobil. Sebi’s dad worked for BP. Chanel’s dad worked for Halliburton. My dad’s childhood best friend, Vivek, worked for Schlumberger. Fossil fuels surrounded me. Not only were they pumped into the tank of our Volkswagon, but they paid the salaries and supported the livelihoods of people close to me.
I first learned about climate change in elementary school in New Hampshire. I was astonished that global leaders could allow something so horrible and dangerous to occur. I took it upon myself to reduce, reuse, and recycle. I turned off the water when I brushed my teeth. I shut off the lights when I left the room. I did the things our teachers told us would make a difference.
Nothing happened. In fact, things got worse.
Since I moved to New Hampshire in August 2004, NOAA measurements show that atmospheric carbon dioxide has grown from 376 ppm to 404 ppm in February 2016. These numbers are unprecedented. Our planet’s normal changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide cannot explain the massive increase.
I don’t know what we can do about it.
I took Earth Systems, our school’s only earth science class, this fall. We covered a wide variety of subject material. We started the term with plate tectonics and sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rock. We passed through earthquakes, natural disasters, and global weather patterns. At the end of the term we reached natural resources and climate change. We started with the basics. How do coal, oil, and natural gas form? Where do we find them? How do we get them out?
All of these questions were straightforward. We looked at diagrams that showed how oil moved through porous source rock and rose until a dense cap rock kept it pooled below the surface. We looked at photos of Venezuelan oil shale and Canadian tar sands. I researched enhanced oil recovery and presented my findings to the class.
Our questions changed once our teacher assigned us one of the most important articles ever written about the oil industry: “The End of Cheap Oil” by Campbell and Laherrère. This 1998 article written by two men in the oil industry outlined their reasons for believing that conventional oil would be on the decline in less than ten years. This article made me begin to question who was responsible not only for our oil crisis, but also for climate change.
The oil industry is an international money making machine. In many countries, the US included, oil companies receive heavy government subsidies to find, extract, and refine oil. Our taxpayer dollars, whether we want them to or not, are paying for the destruction of our planet. Even if we cut down on our individual carbon footprint, we cannot stop supporting oil companies. We cannot blame the oil companies or the people working for them. They’re simply doing their jobs. Yes, every person should do what they can to decrease their own carbon footprint, but what can we do if our tax money is going to subsidize oil production? I do not know how to answer this question.
I realize I am biased. I have grown up too close to fossil fuels.
Since 2012, commodity export in Indonesia has decreased, and with it, the economic growth of the country has slowed down.
Last summer, I visited the Kaltim Prima Coal mine in in Sangatta, Kalimantan. KPC is one of the largest open pit coal mining companies in the world. I visited one of the largest of their 12 pits: the Bintang Pit. The Bintang Pit goes about 300 meters below ground level and is about 2 kilometers wide. The machinery used to remove dirt and coal is massive, and their system for exporting coal involved a 13 kilometer long conveyer belt, a loading area that could hold over a million tons of coal, and another system of conveyer belts that could load ships, docked at the end of a 2 kilometer long jetty, at the rate of 7,000 tons of coal per hour. The ship I watched being loaded would take about 20 hours to fill, and that’s considered a medium sized vessel.
Indonesia requires coal companies to reclaim the land they excavate, and the tour guides took us to visit the reclamation sites. They included a lake full of fish, dragon fruit gardens, and a cow farm used to teach local children about animals and farming. The town of Sangatta was flourishing. There were schools, places to play paintball, driving ranges, soccer fields, tennis courts and many other amenities I did not expect to find. Eighty percent of Sangatta’s population of 70,000 people are somehow connected to KPC. Most of KPC’s 30,000 employees are Indonesian, and a surprising number of them are women. I had the chance to meet and talk with a female mining engineer who happened to be Muslim. One of our tour guides told me that his wife, and lots of other local women, operate the dump trucks on the site. It’s thanks to KPC that these jobs exist, and I think that’s a wonderful thing.
My visit to KPC brought me even closer to the fossil fuels industry, and it made me wonder how I can bridge my relationship with people to my relationship with the earth. On one hand, I want to decimate fossil fuels. One the other, I realize how many people depend on it for a living. There are men and women in developing countries, and in well developed country, whose lives will be turned upside down if fossil fuel production stops. Can I put the importance of sustainability over the importance of millions of people employed by fossil fuels? Is there a feasible way to transfer these people into eco friendly jobs? Do I want to support divestment and ending subsidy if there are so many lives at stake?
I’ve watched Indonesia grow at an alarmingly fast rate, and I wonder what will happen if commodity export slows to a halt. How will the Indonesian economy find a new source to grow? Will the country I call home continue to grow its middle class? Like I’ve said, I have no answers to any of the questions I pose, and I fear that any efforts to stop producing and using fossil fuels will be too little too late.