World Ocean Weekly

The Ongoing Race for Arctic Oil

The spoils of oil: pursuit continues, even as many alternatives emerge and investments are displaced.

credit: thomas hallermann | marine photobank

Oil, and the spoils of oil, are an ongoing siren song of temptation. Even with the accidents, the resultant pollution, the environmental damage, and the impact of foreign investment on local economies, the pursuit continues. Oil remains an enormous percentage of financial return for governments and corporations in Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United Kingdom, Norway, and the United States, where the critical supply remains at the heart of economic viability and growth. For years, oil in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaskan waters has dictated tax policy, local development, and regulatory controls, accidents and spills notwithstanding, even as the global market price declines and alternative energy technologies emerge to displace new investments and future returns.

Paradox abounds: Saudi Arabia announces a major new strategy to switch energy generation from oil to solar. Norway announces major social programs, new technologies, and other investment strategies looking beyond oil dependence. The United States vacillates from administration to administration, from subsidy and support for alternative energy innovation to the sale of new drilling licenses — even in places where the practicality is proven unfeasible and dangerous. Russia continues its own independent reliance on oil and gas as its major economic export even as geo-political leverage of that strategy declines. And then there is the specter of the Chinese.

Norway announces major social programs, new technologies, and other investment strategies looking beyond oil dependence. The United States vacillates from administration to administration, from subsidy and support for sun and wind energy innovation to a return to the old drill-baby drill sale of new licenses even in places where the practicality for drilling as already proven unfeasible and dangerous. Russia continues its own independent reliance on oil and gas as its major economic export even as geo-political leverage of that strategy declines.

credit: jackman chiu for unsplash

And it gets worse, as the United States announces that areas previously inaccessible or off-limits will now be open for drilling, the Arctic and full length of the Atlantic Ocean, south to north, to be auctioned to the highest bidder. It would appear that we have learned nothing from history, and that we are impervious to the further natural and community destruction that this return entails.

As technology advances, some of it is corrupted to serve this retro-spectral vision. Big data, machine learning, cloud computing, financed to private shareholder advantage at public taxpayer expense, is turned backward toward the search for new reservoirs of oil and gas in a complex calculation of who has be biggest reserves, who is going to control a world economy based on a bankrupt paradigm of growth at any cost enable by consumption until all the value is gone. Algorithms suddenly inform decision-making; automation removes the danger of the loss of human life in one of the most dangerous occupations on earth, regardless of the consequence of technical failure. The capacity to respond and clean-up after accident remains no more fully developed that it was before. The impact on local communities becomes greater with the loss of jobs and lesser as funds for social programs remain unavailable allocated elsewhere. And so we enter another circle down, and down again into the fossil fuel whirlpool, one turn further toward loss of control over any aspect of the destructive outcome with no concern for the future. It is at tragic entropic gyre without prescience or conscience.

These events are difficult and energy consuming to resist and counter. In autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, there is little room to oppose. In the European nations, there is political push-back, even the irony of the collision with progressive public polices that the public has already accepted intellectually and politically. In the United States, the opposition is galvanized to fight in the courts of law and public opinion. What a waste of human energy that is, when all that resource and resourcefulness could be invested in the clean technology that is to come, inevitably as the market rejects the illogic of vested interest and fear of change and adopts process and politics that leaves old world values, structures, and behaviors behind.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

WORLD OCEAN FUND: A Societal Call for Responsible Corporate Investment

One of the most powerful and hypnotic things about the ocean is the relentless succession of wave after wave, originated from some faraway place, stimulated by earth tremors, currents and tides, extreme weather, as a repetitive reminder of things powerful and changing beyond our control. We may not ever fully understand the ocean, but we are fully vested in its force and foment.

Now please forgive me an unexpected metaphoric shift from a natural phenomenon to an economic one – the vicissitudes of the equally diverse investment conditions and capital markets by equally changing, often inexplicable sources and conditions difficult to anticipate, much less harness as a power than affects us all, whether or not we are investors.

The power of one does, however, relate one to the other. As the ocean is the prevalent scape for human connection, it facilitate the markets through trade, transport, resource harvest, resource extraction, energy production, climate impacts on global agriculture, communications, and devastating storms – all of which can devastate the stability of capital exchange and determine the rise and fall of workers, corporations, nation states, and international relations. It is not so far-fetched to suggest the ocean and global financial conditions are integrated perhaps beyond even the ways we understand.

In January, Larry Fink, the Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, a $6.3 trillion asset manager issued the following statement: “Society is demanding that companies, both private and public, serve a social purpose.” Fink insisted that must be able to describe their strategy for long-term growth, preparation for changing conditions, review by directors, communication with shareholders that “reveal understanding of the societal impact of your business as well as the ways that broad, structural trends – from slow wage growth to rising automation to climate change – affect your potential for growth.” He continued, “Today, our clients, who are your company owners, are asking you to demonstrate the leadership and clarity that will drive not only their own investment returns, but also the prosperity and security of their fellow citizens.”  

This is an astonishing statement itself coming from one the world’s most influential asset managers and indicating that his company’s investment strategies and recommendations will focus on those companies who meet the challenge, and on those who do not.  A cynic might suggest that Mr. Fink is engaged in a clever, timely marketing ploy, but I doubt that very much. My conclusion is that as someone with an almost cosmic overview of the world economy, he sees beyond the predictability of investment assumptions to see the storm forming beyond the horizon that demands preparedness and response.

My point here is that this statement requires notice and change within companies with concretized organization and purpose that has brought serious consequence on our planet in the form of pollution of air, land, and sea, resource appropriation and exhaustion, uncertainty and volatility in production and exchange, and debilitating, perhaps irredeemable damage on communities at home and abroad, distribution of wealth, health,  and social justice. Add to that the financial cost of adapting and mitigating the destruction and you have a global balance sheet in critical deficit.

There is much similar talk these days of social impact and responsible investing. There are a growing number of investment options that abandon the vertical strategy of single stock ownership in favor of mutual funds for all sectors and investment returns, funds that spread risk, apply certain standards to shape the portfolio, and include multiple companies usually in a single sector – energy, health, financial services etc.

But what if we created an investment fund based on the reality of the ocean – a broad, inclusive, cross-sectorial horizontal fund that includes progressive companies engaged in inventive, forward-looking technologies and their applications that would spread the investment globally to all areas of enterprise, companies meeting and exceeding the BlackRock challenge?  How that might emulate the dynamic return of the ocean; how that might integrate sustainability and responsibility in the markets; how that might foment and shape change in the 21st century! .

You heard it here first. The World Ocean Observatory announces the first World Ocean Fund. Prescient individuals are lining up. Mr. Fink, call me.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.


< Social Investing: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly |

< The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (SRI)

< Socially Responsible Investing | Green America

< World Ocean Council | International Business Alliance for Corporate Ocean Responsibility




Emerging Ocean Technology: Sail Drones

“The future is in the hands of those who explore…and from all the beauty they discover while crossing perpetually receding frontiers, they develop for nature and for humankind an infinite love.” 

~ Jacques Cousteau Emerging ocean data technology from Alameda, California. FMI:

Technology over the past decades has been driven in large part by exploration of space. Rockets, orbiting stations, and satellites seemingly as prevalent as stars are common to our experience and don’t surprise much anymore. Pictures of Mars might grab our attention, and photographs of mighty storms coming ashore to wreak anonymous devastation do catch the eye, but we’ve grown blasé and, with our ever shortening attention span, cast about for new unknowns to know, new amazement to discover, and so we turn to the ocean about which, the cliché asserts, we know less about that we know of the moon.

The ocean is, without doubt, a place of endless fascination. BBC Television is currently broadcasting Blue Planet II, an astonishing compendium of underwater filming of ocean creatures.

Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) distribution of data monitoring devices in the Pacific.

The technology continues to expand and suddenly we know more and more about the ocean. The scientists will tell us that there is never enough data to conclude, but it is not for lack of trying. We now have a Global Ocean Observation System [GOOS], “a means to guide the ocean observing community as a whole to establish an integrated and sustained global observing system — one that includes ocean physics, bio-geochemistry, and ocean biology and ecosystems, and addresses the variables to be measured, the approach to measuring them, and how their data and products will be managed and made widely available to modeling efforts and a wide range of users.” If you look at a map of the number of observation stations and instruments, fixed and floating throughout the ocean today, the number appears comparable to similar visualizations of the number of ships at sea. It is a complicated, inter-governmental, inter-agency research collaboration costing millions, justified as a first step toward mapping the ocean, understanding how it works, and learning what inhabits there from the surface to the underwater mountain ridges to the anomalies hidden in the darkness of the abyssal plain.

A new technology has caught my eye. Sail drones: a new programmable, inexpensive mobile platform powered by wind that can provide cost effective data collection over large ocean areas, mitigating the cost of very expensive ship time, easily recoverable, delivering real time data to a portal that can be accessed by any computer or smart phone any where. The drone can be modified with custom sensors, operated remotely, steered to avoid extreme weather and collision, re-programmed at sea, to gather complicated, changing information on climate conditions, to monitor fish migration and management, and to study health hazards such has pollution events, acidification concentrations, and migration of hazardous chemicals over large ocean areas. The drones can do more than any fixed or floating buoy, is simpler to build, install, and maintain, and represents a major increase in productivity at a major reduction of expense. More than half of the older technology monitors are broken or obsolete, so the drones arrive at a moment the research community is looking for greater capacity, enhanced flexibility, and significantly lower cost. This latter is a key. With government funds dramatically reduced, the availability to finance fixed monitors, build and operate submersibles, and avoid expense of supporting research vessels, at literally thousands of dollars per day, is simply unaffordable. The drones are manufactured, installed, and operated by SAILDRONE based in Alameda, California, and has already performed over 60,000 miles of open ocean research expeditions in the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Atlantic. The drones were first launched in 2013, with a proof of concept voyage in cooperation with NOAA, and in 2016 the company received $14 million in venture funding to expand the fleet and meet demand for future operations.

Science opens our world by measuring and recording things. Sail drones and comparable technology is about measuring for the benefit of the scientific community; the BBC is about visualizing and engaging the public. The great oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau is famously quoted, “The future is in the hands of those who explore…and from all the beauty they discover while crossing perpetually receding frontiers, they develop for nature and for humankind an infinite love.” And then he concluded, “People protect what they love.”

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Arctic Futures: How to Speak, How to Listen

Lucas Jackson | REUTERS

We live in cacophonous time, language broadcasting, berating, and bewildering us at every moment in every space through every device, sending, receiving, sending, receiving… We can’t hear ourselves think much less communicate. Again and again, I realize that I must speak so many different and new languages to be understood – not just the old structure of many languages distributed around the world and translated simultaneously and transcribed into books stored in libraries that constitute the compendium of everything named, thus known.

And there are new languages: the languages of science, of finance, of data, of software code, of acronyms and forms of bureaucratic speak, of visual images, of abstract sounds, of dialects once thought forgotten, of gender identity, of new languages invented, and of vocabularies attempting to share ideas and values using the same words with different meanings.

There is today a constant hum of chatter as if we’re all speaking at once, and the terrible irony is that, even with all the translation and transcription and best intentions, we are failing to communicate on a global scale. One such example of cross-talk is much on my mind as I work on a book about the future of the Arctic, seemingly far away and not so pertinent, but an excellent example of how good people can use the same vocabulary, repeat the same phrases, claim to be listening assiduously, and not hearing a decibel of what the other means by saying.

The Arctic is a unique place to be sure – cold, distant, mysterious – but it is no more or less peculiar than any other place where human beings attempt to live, together and within a unique environment, be it equally as cold, distant, and mysterious as it can be in the midst of an urban density beyond imagination.  Whether by charts or maps, global positioning, stars, or dead reckoning, the challenge to place oneself within the vastness of ideas and disorder is inevitably a function of language, muttered to yourself in hope or hopelessness, or declaimed to all in a generational argument, a town meeting, a regional dispute, or the halls of government.

Is anyone listening? Does anyone really care?

John Salvino

In the circles of Arctic interest and governance, I hear a single conversation in two languages. First, there is the language of native peoples who for centuries have observed Nature as land and sea, as living among other living things, and have developed a wisdom of experience to be deeply felt, protected, and conserved as cultural value for future generations. Second, there is the language of other peoples from another place who have arrived, drawn by resources – minerals, fish, oil and gas -- to be extracted and consumed, and have asserted in a different language a wisdom of exchange, export, and economic value. little of which is left behind for anyone.

The single conversation centers on mutual intent, that the governance and use of natural wealth be implemented and executed by the benefit of all. But the two languages speak to a conflicting methodology and calculation of return and, no matter mutuality and intent, contradict in both process and consequence to everyone’s disappointment. What is supposed to be a constructive dialogue is actually a contradictory argument, spoken softly, incrementally, agreement postponed, mostly left unsaid.

Many are vested in the best part of the conversation and I respect their determination and resilience. But many are not however, many are advancing their governmental, corporate, and institutional goals, speaking in tongues, slowly building a construct of treaties, contracts, cooperative agreements, and aspirational reports that may have no more meaning for the natural resources, the cultural traditions, or the health and well-being of communities in the Arctic than what has occurred before.

J de Gier

Today, drilling for oil and gas is being reconsidered in Arctic waters. The extraction of uranium and other valuable minerals, on land and underwater, is being proposed with limited royalty paid. The development of tourism as an alternative source of revenue is being out-sourced to foreign capital and management. The northern sea routes are being envisioned as a means to bear witness to the beauty of the Arctic without contact, without concern for the consequence of accident or cultural compromise that will destroy that beauty. The paradox of nations declaring for solution to the global impacts of climate change while rushing to drill, extract, hunt and fish, and contribute overtly to the already compromised conditions is painful. The decline of the unique environment, the melting of sea ice and permafrost, the populations of flora and fauna, and the social distress of the indigenous communities is evident to an extreme that no words can deny. How to speak? How to listen? What we have here is a failure to communicate through words with no meaning, spoken persuasively, unheard.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.

Culture, Connection and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

Africa Town, a community established by the survivors of Cotilda

Remains of what may be Cotilda, the last US slave ship, discovered in a muddy riverbank in Alabama. Image by Ben Raines, AL.comThere is but one ocean, that is perceived historically as a surface for exploration, transport, and trade — all factors in the making of civilization worldwide. But below that surface lies the detritus of the dangerous endeavor of voyaging, loss by storm, warfare, and ignorance of such a dynamic and challenging environment. The ocean has enabled connection for all time, and has built through the exchange of knowledge, skills, and traditions a vast contribution to world culture.

One of the most tragic illustrations of this process is trans-Atlantic slavery — the buying and selling of slaves from Africa to the west, South and North America primarily — as cheap, dispensable labor. In the United States, there are three major contributions to our cultural identity: the existing culture of native peoples living here for centuries; the ensuing European culture transferred through waves of immigration from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Asia; and the arrival of African culture through slaves that changed our nation’s patterns of settlement, music and language in powerful, undeniable, positive ways. Indigenous people, European people, African people — we are an amalgam of acculturation that lies at the heart of who we are.

Ballast blocks from the Saõ José slave ship, which sank in December of 1794 off the coast of South Africa. The Slave Wrecks Project

We must never allow that fact, and those memories, to be lost, and to guard against such forgetfulness, we turn to material culture — the objects, sites, and other evidence of such history as our foremost tool for preservation. That commitment, evinced by museums, libraries, archives, cultural sites, and national and international organizations such as UNESCO, is an essential part of an endeavor to conserve and honor this collective past is all its forms and manifestations.

Recently, as reported in the Smithsonian Magazine online news, the remains of what is purported to be the last ship to transport African slaves to the United States was revealed following the effect of a powerful east coast storm and flood conditions in a muddy riverbank near Mobile, Alabama. Researchers claim that the ship may well be the Clotilda, built in the 1850s as a transport for supplies from Cuba, purchased by a local businessman, and, commissioned to purchase 110 slaves in Ouimah, a port town in the present-day African nation of Benin. While slavery was then legal in the state of Alabama, it was in violation of US federal law outlawing the slave trade some 52 years before. If the vessel is indeed Clotilda, it represents an end, the last shipment of slaves. But it represents also a beginning: the survivors of that ship reported to have formed a nearby community, called Africa Town, in the middle of the American deep south on the verge of the Civil War.

At the 2017 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as again reported by the Smithsonian, artifacts from another slave ship, the São José-Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese ship wrecked of the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, in 1794 en route to Brazil from Mozambique carrying 400 slaves, were displayed as unique remnants memorializing the maritime aspect of the slave trade, an iron ingot used as ballast and a pulley block, recovered from a 200 year old ship and characterized “as thought to be the first objects ever recovered from a ship wrecked by transporting enslaved people.” The objects were on 10-year loan to the museum and their conservation had been partially funded by the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, a program of the Cultural Affairs Office of the US Department of State. The grant of $500,000 had been designated in 2016 by the American Ambassador through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs as recognition of the importance of these artifacts as symbols of the unifying cultural relationship inherent in the vast interconnected history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The US Department of State Facebook page related to the US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has today this statement: “Due to the lapse in appropriations, this Facebook page will not be updated regularly.” That cannot be. Memory cannot be truncated by budget cuts or ideological dis-appropriation. The implications of acculturation cannot be, like the power of an ocean storm, denied. There is wreckage there, disconnection. Real, sad, and final.


PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, the weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.