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Richard Martin

A View from Richard Martin

Recommended Energy Reads This Week

A weekly roundup of the best and most important energy reads on the Web, compiled by MIT Technology Review energy editor Richard Martin.

  • December 4, 2015

The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!
There is a new Great Game unfolding in Central Asia, and it centers on the belt of mountainous land that stretches from southeast Turkey, across northern Syria and Iraq, and into northwestern Iran: the land of the Kurds, or Kurdistan. The region is home to not only 30 million or so ethnic Kurds, the largest ethnic group worldwide that lacks its own nation, but also rich reserves of oil and gas. Iraqi Kurdistan is thought to have the world’s eighth-largest oil reserves. The civil wars in Iraq and now Syria have created political space for the Kurds to establish quasi-independent enclaves that are likely, eventually, to achieve a large degree of autonomy or even statehood. And that makes the Kurds a possible economic force in the region. In Syria, according to this long piece of reportage by Jonathan Steele in the New York Review of Books, “some 2.2 million Kurds have created a quasi state that is astonishingly safe—and strangely unknown abroad.” The oilfields of Rojava, as the Kurdish enclave is known, are dormant, for now, but the ability of the Kurds to fight off the Islamic State and establish a relatively stable haven means that they are unlikely to stay that way.

Russia, Turkey Trade Accusations Over Who Bought Oil from ISIS
Meanwhile, the historic role of Turkey as an entrepôt for the energy flowing out of Central Asia to world markets has been heightened even as black-market oil sold by the Islamic State finds its way to energy-strapped countries around the region. The tense standoff between Russia and Turkey following the downing of a Russian fighter jet on November 24 took new shape this week as “Russian military officials laid out what they say is ‘hard evidence’ that Turkey is involved in an oil trade with ISIS.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has flatly denied the charges, but the exchange has added another level of complexity to a fluid and exceedingly tangled set of alliances and counteralliances that continue to mutate as the Syrian civil war moves into its sixth year.

The Sultan of Turkey
Erdogan himself is playing a dangerous game, joining in the international coalition seeking to unseat ISIS in the territory it controls while essentially fighting a cold war against Russia and refusing to negotiate with Kurdish separatists and find a solution to the long separatist conflict within its own borders. Oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea region to the port of Ceyhan, on Turkey’s Mediterranean, have fueled Erdogan’s ambition to be a regional power broker. But his policies “are the cause of many of his country’s failures in Syria,” reports Christopher de Bellaigue, also in the NYRB, and the suicide bombing that killed 102 people at a peace rally in Ankara in October underlined the risks those policies entail.

OP21 Edges Towards Loss and Damage Deal
Meanwhile, in Paris, the grand pronouncements of world leaders gave way to tense negotiations as representatives at the global summit on climate change sought to reach a workable agreement that binds countries to specific cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases. That agreement, according to this analysis on Politico Europe, is highly likely to include some form of compensation to poorer southern nations that are already feeling the brunt of climate changes fueled largely by the burning of fossil fuels by larger, richer nations in the Northern Hemisphere. Affluent nation governments are adamantly opposed to any language imputing legal liability for loss and damage as a result of climate change in developing nations; but they have gradually recognized that any international program to limit climate change must involve compensation for the countries that will suffer the  most as the planet warms and sea levels rise. “If loss and damage is not addressed adequately, there will be no outcome in Paris,” said Pa Ousman Jarju of Gambia, a spokesman for the Least Developed Countries group of 48 nations.

Don Blankenship, West Virginia’s “King of Coal,” Is Guilty
No roundup of the week’s energy developments would be complete without the news that Don Blankenship, the vilified former CEO of Massey Energy, was found guilty of conspiring to violate safety rules at his mines in Appalachia. Those mines include the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners died in 2010 in the worst U.S. mine disaster in 40 years. If you want to follow the fall of Blankenship and the decline of the coal industry in detail you should read my book Coal Wars and follow the Twitter feed of the indispensable Taylor Kuykendall, of SNL Energy. For a good summary that captures the epochal changes roiling America’s former coal heartland, read this article by Evan Osnos of the New Yorker. Like most commenters, Osnos notes that Blankenship was convicted only of one misdemeanor count—the jury acquitted him on the felony counts of lying to regulators and Wall Street that could have netted the coal baron 30 years in jail. As it is, Blankenship is unlikely to spend a day in prison. “But the trial will have a legacy,” writes Osnos. “It delivered a verdict not only on Blankenship but on his punitive credo that, as brutal and unrewarding as the coal life can be, it is all that his people should hope for.”

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