Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Rural Energy Challenge: How the Liquid Petroleum Gas Industry Seeks to Exploit the Developing World


This past week, representatives of the World Liquid Petroleum Gas Association (WLPGA) met in Bali, Indonesia for their annual World Forum.  It was the typical mix of high fees ($2000 for Association members), seminars, cocktail parties and gala dinners.  But it was also a showcase for the industry’s new commitment to expanding their market in the developing world.  Within the industry it is referred to as "The Rural Energy Challenge."  It is the question of how to exploit the developing world's rural populations into purchasing as much liquid petroleum as possible.

One of the main focuses of the conference was the launch of the “Cooking for Life” program.  Described on the WLPGA web site as, “A 5-year global campaign…to reduce death and illness caused by traditional yet harmful cooking fuels used by millions worldwide,” Cooking For Life seeks to Introduce, “LP Gas as a clean and safe alternative for cooking in developing countries,” through the combined efforts of governments, public health officials, NGOs and, of course, the Petroleum Gas Industry. 

The industry has already begun to draw international criticism for its widespread use of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a process of LPG and oil extraction that involves the high pressure injection of water, sand and toxic chemicals into underground shale formations.  Linked to a rise in earth quakes in the Midwest and widespread contamination of well water, the process is exempt from the parameters of the Clean Water Act.  Companies are not required to reveal the mixture of contaminants that they are releasing into the water supply, and heavy lobbying efforts by the industry have prevented many uses of the practice from being linked to water contamination.  Fracking is gradually encroaching upon other countries as well, a moratorium on the practice having been lifted in South Africa as recently as earlier this month. 
The process is perhaps most famously known for its ability to make water flammable:

Regardless of this violent extraction process, LPG sits squarely within the realm of nonrenewable fossil fuels, a distinction which the industry puts great time and effort into distancing itself from.  The WLPGA paints itself as a clean burning and environmentally sound “modern energy,” a cheap alternative to coal that, at least in the United States, could lead to independence from foreign energy imports.  

The role of liquid petroleum as a solution for third world health risks is spelled out in a recently published study commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania, and funded by the WLPGA.  The study notes that 2.0 million deaths occurred in 2009 due to indoor air pollution, the tenth highest cause of avoidable death worldwide.  This risk is isolated within low and middle income countries where solid fuels such as coal, wood and biomass are used for cooking.  The study then draws a connection between this health issue and the solution inherent in higher usage of clean burning liquid petroleum gas.  Granted, one of the studies main points is that, “More research is needed to understand the appropriateness of policies given the health, economic and environmental tradeoffs among the fuel alternatives.”  Alternative methods, from solar energy production to cleaner burning stoves and improved ventilation, suggest a plethora of methods existing alongside that of more widespread LPG usage.  But accepting this would muddy the narrative of the WLPGA.    

Here, a woman cooks with a solar cooker supplied by the Senegal Solar Cooking Initiative, just one of the many alternative responses to the indoor contaminants issue ignored by the WLPGA. 

Source: Senegal Solar Cooking Initiative 

Just one example of how the WLPGA is masking its market based intentions is in the Global Alliance For Clean Cook Stoves.  This coalition of governmental, private and NGO organizations is part of the United Nations Foundation and describes its mission as seeking to, “Save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions.”  The organization’s web site displays a banner of smiling children in some undefined Sub-Saharan village, but even a cursory examination of the site’s content soon leaves any mention of health issues far behind.  “The Alliance has identified the creation of a thriving global market for clean cook stoves and fuels as the most viable way to achieve universal adoption”, reads one of the group’s mission statements.  Having already conducted “Market Assessments” in 16 countries, the alliance’s main priority is the manipulation of international markets to make them better suited to receive the full supply of patiently waiting liquid petroleum.

After all, who could argue with smiling brown people standing around stoves?  

Source: The Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

It is not just world health statistics that allow the LP industry to create an image of a clean and progressive fuel provider.  In the first four months of this year, US Co2 emissions saw a surprising and dramatic drop, plummeting to the lowest levels in twenty years.  The reason for this drop was quickly attributed to the increase in domestic electricity generation from natural gas.  According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas is the fastest growing segment of US energy use.  Between 2004 and 2011, the percentage of domestic electricity derived from natural gas increased from 17.9% to 24.8%.  During this same period, the seemingly unshakable dominance of coal as the nation’s go to source for its energy saw a subsequent decline, decreasing from 49.8% to 37,.5%.  Finally, in April of this year, the two sources converged at an even 32%. Within the ensuing months, natural gas became, for the first time, the nation’s top supplier of electrical power. 

For those seeking to further bolster the image of natural gas as a clean alternative energy source, the connection was clear.  Admittedly, liquid petroleum is a cleaner burning fuel than coal.  But the direct connection between the drop in Co2 and the rise in gas usage is not as direct as the industry would prefer to see it.  A report by Co2 score card indicates that, though coal reduction plays a part in this decrease, it is more to blame on lower usage of fuel in general due to the mild winter of 2011-2012.  The report cites mild weather as responsible for 43% of this reduction.  Conversely, coal to gas conversion is responsible for only 21%.  On top of all this, the drop in emissions was based in Co2, while the main greenhouse gas emitted by frack wells is methane, a gas twenty times more potent than Co2.  

Source: University of Connecticut 

According to the US Department of Energy and the EIA, there is little indication that natural gas will remain a cheap alternative relative to coal.  The cost of LPG is increasing even as the cost of coal is seeing slight declines, and a reverse of the supply pattern and Co2 decline is expected to reverse in the following year as coal regains its dominance of the energy chain.    

Meanwhile, numerous countries are already being used as success stories of the LPG industry.  In Indonsiea, Senegal and Brazil, combination of subsidies and marketing have made LPG into the top energy source.  But these changes often come with stark socioeconomic contrasts.  Senegal in particular has seen its subsidies indirectly benefitting the wealthiest segments of its population, with only 19% of the LPG allocations servicing the poorest individuals, while in Brazil less than half of rural residents use LPG as their main fuel source.  As stated in the findings of U Penn, “While universal subsidies have been able to rapidly reduce solid fuel usage in favor of LPG, they fail to be a sustainable solution for the poorest members of its population.”

Source: Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Instead of being cast by its opponents as a speculative industry with no regard for the adverse effects of its methods, the Petroleum Gas Industry has found a way to drape itself in altruism.  Using the issue of household contaminants as a wedge, it has already begun to reshape its image while expanding into a vast, untapped population of potential customers.  With the statistics of the World Health Organization on their side, and supported by groups like the Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves  the move to exploit the buying power of the third world is instead being cast as a gallant march towards progress. 

Among all the industry talk about market exploitation and expansion, it is this implicit condemnation of an “undeveloped” life style that is perhaps most insulting.  Talk of creating “environmental and economic benefits for the developing world” reeks of a kind of tacit judgment of any life style that does not service the fossil fuel industry.  Drawing a line between what is “modern” and what is not as a means to expand the market for fossil fuels is a position that simultaneously insults millions of people in rural populations and misrepresents the undeniable issues of indoor air contaminants as only curable through market based innovations.    

To end on a positive note, here is an anti fracking protest in Capetown, South Africa. 


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