Monday, January 08, 2007

Flare Fighterz

Wasn't planning any further posts today, beyond alerting you briefly, and furtively, to the fiasco that is my latest Sugarzine column, which wasn't written when drunk, but might as well have been.

But I have a post in me, borne of a comment that for reasons that are obscure to me Will Bunch decided not to allow on Attytood, preferring instead to give over the floor to assorted trolls and flamers [UPDATE: After being blocked a second time I have contacted Mr. Bunch, who says that it is a know issue, and he is looking into it. He does attract a lot of trolls, though]. It concerns a recent story by the LA Times about the investment policy of the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation. The article basically concludes that the foundation's investments belie its lofty goals of improving the human lot.

It's not unfamiliar territory, since fund managers for foundations with philanthropic goals often face such dilemmas. Several of them, noting that many foundations were built on the back of questionable business practices, have chosen not to let it trouble them. And it should be noted that by comparison with some of the old money sloshing round the eastern seaboard, Gates' fortune was acquired by clean and largely legitimate means.

But where the reporters have aimed for greatest impact is by juxtaposing the beneficiaries of the Gates Foundation's largesse with the suffering the ill effects they continue to suffer at the hands of the Foundation's investments. The first of these, Justice Eta, was vaccinated thanks to a Gates programme, but suffers respiratory problems from a refinery owned by Eni, the Italian oil major in whcih the foundation owns a decent-sized stake. As the article notes:

"The oil plants in the region surrounding Ebocha find it cheaper to burn nearly 1 billion cubic feet of gas each day and contribute to global warming than to sell it. They deny the flaring causes sickness. Under pressure from activists, however, Nigeria's high court set a deadline to end flaring by May 2007. The gases would be injected back underground, or trucked and piped out for sale. But authorities expect the flares to burn for years beyond the deadline."

This suggests, by the way, that the oil companies are happy to be burning the gas that comes up as a by product of their oil extraction activities. But the fact is, they aren't. If they can capture the gas produced as a byproduct, liquefy it, ship it to the US or Europe, and sell it to electricity generators there, they'll make a killing right now.

In fact, several do. The LAT lists Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Total of France is the main companies responsible for flaring in the delta. By a not remotely weird coincidence, these firms are all involved in current or future production, in a joint venture with Nigeria National Petroleum, of such liquefied natural gas.

The reasons for continued flaring are a little more complicated, and have much to do with the capacity for infrastructure improvement of NNPC. There is, in this instance, little that the majors can do, and much they'd prefer to do to in the normal course of turning a buck from the ruthless exploitation of the earth's resources.

As i hope you can tell from this, I'm not utterly in love with the majors' ways of doing business. I've found them to be as secretive, obstinate, and duplicitous as the next market observer. I also think that there's a very valid debate as to how charities invest their funds, although I'd note that the group of utterly spotless companies would probably not form a liquid enough pool of opportunities for Foundations' funds without being the subject some serious market distortion.

But if you're going to make such a stark juxtaposition, I think you need to explain it in a little more detail.


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