Prelude in LNG major: Of Shell, #climate change and innovation

Innovation is double plus good? Well, depends…

preludestoryThe oil giant Shell is building a new ship, the BBC reports. Half-way through the story, after manfully capturing the scale of this big boy (it’s the biggest ship EVER. Over 400m long) we get, as they say in Hollywood, the “reveal.”

It’s going to be the FNG of fossil fuel extraction. It’s going to be a FLNG platform. That is, it’s going to be the world’s first Floating Liquefied Natural Gas Platform. It will, perhaps, “solve” pesky problems about pipelines and planning permission. And as with BP’s “Deep Water Horizon”, the clue is in the name.  And the name is… Prelude.

< Historical digression>

Shell got its corporate fingers very very badly burnt in 1995. It was trying to create a precedent where it could tow old oil rigs out into the deep Atlantic and sink them. Cost effective.  The first, as older readers may recall, was to be Brent Spar.  Greenpeace – and the car drivers of Europe who began to boycott Shell – scuttled the plan before Shell could scuttle the vessel (see Jeremy Leggett’s racy “The Carbon War for more details.)

</ Historical digression>

This ship-building project raises some interesting questions. We have what the European Union likes to call some “Grand Societal Challenges” (demographic shifts, food security etc). Maybe we will rise to those. But more likely, it seems, “we” instead will focus on some grand technological challenges, such as getting fossil fuels from the places that other technologies can’t reach.

Innovation is one of those words that has a halo around it, at least for people doing nicely out of technological intensification. It’s not quite “democracy”-good, but it’s not far off. Only luddites and hypocrites are opposed to “innovation”, right?

But halo words are by definition words with baggage. And we should be accustomed to checking what’s in the baggage before we let it travel with us. There are questions we should always ask.

Who is doing the innovating? For what purpose? What is the “opportunity cost”? That is, what ELSE could “we” be doing with all that money, all that steel, and – most of all – all that intelligence, ingenuity, enthusiasm and technical ability?  Is there a “lock-in” by pursuing some types of infrastructure?

And who is this “we” that I keep invoking, anyway?  It’s worth bringing up the story of the Lucas Aerospace Factory, which should be taught in primary schools.

In the mid-70s, a UK weapons company, Vickers Lucas, was planning to shut one of its factories. The workers did more than strike – they came up with a worked through plan for the factory to start making all sorts of social useful things (trams, dialysis machines etc.) And still be profitable.

It won’t do my career any harm to be quoting Adrian Smith of the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Essex Sussex. Here’s a bit from a Guardian article he penned in early 2014.

The Financial Times described the Lucas Plan as, ‘one of the most radical alternative plans ever drawn up by workers for their company’ (Financial Times, 23 January 1976). It was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. The New Statesman claimed (1st July 1977) ‘The philosophical and technical implications of the plan are now being discussed on average of twenty five times a week in international media’. Despite this attention, shop stewards suspected (correctly) that the Plan in isolation would convince neither management nor government. Even leaders in the trade union establishment were reluctant to back this grassroots initiative; wary its precedent would challenge privileged demarcations and hierarchies.

The management, perhaps not entirely comfortable with working-class people getting ideas above their station, nixed it. It’s almost as if technology has politics all the way through…

References and Further Reading

Cooley, M (1982) Architect or Bee? Boston: South End Press

Leggett, J. (2001) The Carbon War: Global Warming and the End of the Oil Era. New York: Routledge, pp. 209-13

Unruh, G. (2000) Understanding carbon lock-in [paywall] Energy Policy 28, 12 p817-830.

UPDATE 17/12/2014:  My friend John points me to this quote from start of a  2013 article in the Economist.

“IDEALLY”, said Jack Welch in 1998, when he was chief executive of General Electric, “you’d have every plant you own on a barge to move with currencies and changes in the economy.” Reality followed vision for Mr Welch, who was a pioneer of offshoring, setting up one of the first offshore service centres in Gurgaon on the outskirts of Delhi.

UPDATE 17/12/2014.  Many thanks to Adrian Smith of Sussex (not Essex!!) University for corrections.

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