Hello! I hope you are all doing as well as possible right now. Since many of us are stuck inside for the time being, I’m going to try to revive this blog a bit.
For this first post, let’s talk about space-based solar power. The idea is a popular one; it is exciting (outer space!) and has some logic to it (there are no clouds, nights, seasons, or land-use-constraints in space!). Sadly, though, if you look into the topic – for example, if you read this very well-thought-out piece from Do The Math – you see that even with extremely optimistic assumptions, it seems unlikely that sending energy from solar panels located in space to earth will become economically worthwhile any time soon, if ever.
And yet, perhaps these analyses are missing something. From what I can see — with the huge, twin caveats that I haven’t looked too deeply into the subject, and that I understand almost nothing about the physics involved in it — recent discussions about space-based wireless power transmission have been limited almost entirely to the idea of generating power in space and sending it to earth in order to provide civilians with clean, reliable energy. There might, however, be alternative uses and methods for wirelessly-transmitting energy via space. For example:
sending space-based solar power to military outposts, in order to provide soldiers with power that is not reliant on vulnerable supply lines, is not bulky to haul around from place to place, and is not intermittent. This is how I first heard about the topic of space-based solar power: George Friedman discusses it in his book The Next 100 Years.
the same purpose as above, except that instead of the military outpost receiving power that is generated from space-based solar panels, it would instead receive power that is generated conventionally on earth, then ‘triangulated’: sent up to space, then back down to a different location on earth. Such a system could perhaps also work in tandem with space-based solar panels. Over time, for example, more panels could be launched, so that as the years go by the system would use more power generated in space and less power generated on earth. [Or, perhaps, if the system was located as an array of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (500-2000 km), rather than much further away in Geosynchronous orbit (40,000 km), having the system use power generated by earth-based sources might allow it to provide power 24/7, as would otherwise not be possible for a Low Earth Orbit system because Low Earth Orbit satellites spend about a third of the time being eclipsed by the earth, preventing any solar panels in such orbits from receiving sunlight at those times]
Because wars are themselves intermittent, a space-energy system built for military purposes might be able to double as a civilian system during times when military demand is low. […Also, if the system was built as an array of satellites in Low Earth Orbit, rather than in Geosynchronous orbit, then each satellite in the array would only pass over a given military outpost or region on earth for a very short amount of time. Most of each satellite’s orbit in such a system might be freed up for civilian uses as result].
There is also the question of how to provide satellites with energy, so that satellites themselves can be powered, both for military and non-military reasons. Militarily, for example, if satellites were to be physically attacked, it might perhaps be the case that their ability to protect themselves from any incoming projectiles would depend on whether or not they have more energy available to them than do the projectiles, which they could then outmaneuver. Thus it might be useful for satellites to receive power wirelessly, either from earth or from other satellites. And again, once such a system is built, it might also be able to find non-military uses, particularly since the military might not need to use the system much during peacetime. The system might then be available to power satellites for non-military uses. Or perhaps it could be used to power locations on earth
Obviously, I have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about here. So I’m asking, is there anything to these ideas? Are there other similar ideas that I’ve left out? How might these factors change the math when it comes to thinking about the future economics of energy in space?
Finally, if the civilians-piggybacking-on-the-military-surplus-capacity-of-triangulating-energy-from-earth-to-space-back-to-earth idea is anything other than totally ridiculous, which power sources would be best suited for it? Would solar panel companies in the Australian Outback benefit, for example, by being able to wirelessly send their otherwise-remote, Southern Hemisphere-summer energy to military and/or civilian locations in other parts of the world?
In Israel’s last major war, in 1973, 0.08 percent of Israel’s population was killed. During Israel’s last serious financial crisis, in the 1970s and early 1980s, its economy faced hyperinflation. In the four decades since, Israel’s casualty rates have declined while its real income, per capita, has risen. Israeli casualty rates as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict were 0.03 percent in the 1980s, 0.004 percent in the ‘90s, 0.03 percent in the 2000s, and just 0.001 percent since 2010. Israel’s per capita income has grown from $3,500 in 1975 to $35,000 in 2015. Since the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, Israel has had a casualty rate of 0.0004 percent. Its economy grew at 3-4 percent annually during this time, twice the average rate of the developed world. Since mid-2015, the Israeli economy has been outgrowing the developing world’s too.
It may be that Israel will continue this success in the years and decades ahead. But it may not. Israel might instead have to face new challenges to its economy and security, which are already becoming visible from afar.
One new challenge Israel may face comes from the development of software and devices that replace human labour. Thus far, labour and technology have been Israel’s twin competitive advantages. Part of the reason that Israel’s economy and tech sector have been growing is that Israel has a labour force that is far younger than those of Europe, Northeast Asia, or the United States. Soon, however, Israel may enter a phase in which, for the tech sector to continue succeeding, it will have to create technologies that will directly undercut Israel’s labour advantage. A glimmer of this future challenge can already be seen, for example in Intel’s 15.3 billion dollar acquisition of a driverless-car technology company, Mobileye, earlier this year. It was the largest windfall in Israeli hi-tech history—yet it could also put Israeli nahagim out of work.
A second threat to the Israeli economy may be climate change. Though it is very difficult to know when, what or even whether the impacts of climate change will be, it is obvious that the Middle East is not a part of the planet one would love to be living in if and when they do occur. As many in Israel must have been thinking during the recent spell of nearly 40 degree temperatures—especially inside Gaza, where electricity has been mostly unavailable—any future warming or drying in the Middle East is a frightening prospect.
Perhaps even more importantly, it is not certain to what extent Israel’s trading partners will decide to enact carbon tariffs in the coming years. Such tariffs could put Israel in a difficult position, as Israel relies on burning fossil fuels, particularly coal, to generate its electricity. Israel has actually benefited from this of late, since fuel prices have plummeted worldwide. But with the possibility of large countries deciding to enact tariffs on carbon (or methane) emissions, these energy sources represent a risk for the Israeli economy.
A third risk to the Israeli economy also comes from its commercial relationships with foreign countries. Israelis do a lot of business in the world; particularly in Europe, where Israelis live and work in countries like Germany while French and British Jews spend tourist and investment dollars in Israel. Israel imports more goods from German-speaking countries than from the United States. Israel also increasingly does business with Asia: Israel exports roughly half as much to Chinese-speaking economies as to the United States.
Today, however, Israel’s economic relationships with both Europe and Asia are at risk, at least in the short term, because of the slow economic growth in both those continents. Europe has barely grown in the past decade outside of Germany, and continues to suffer extreme unemployment in its Mediterranean countries. China, meanwhile, which was growing at over 10 percent just a few years ago, is now growing at just 6.5 percent. And that’s the official rate: most analysts guess China’s real rate is now only 3-6 percent.
Growth in European and Asian economies could bounce back, of course. But until it does, it bodes ill for Israel.
Most worrying for Israel should be Germany, which has thus far been the major exception to Europe’s economic and unemployment crises. Germany has lately shown signs that it may finally be on the verge of succumbing to Europe’s general sluggishness. Germany is an enormously export-driven country, but the economies it exports to are either struggling or, in the case of the United States, have been talking about raising tariffs on imports of German goods. Israel could be hurt if Germany falters, as it is Israel’s largest economic partner by far apart from the US. Lots of Israelis could flow back from Berlin, needing jobs.
Germany also shares a political trend with Israel: long-lasting leaders. Merkel is now in her 12th year as Chancellor and approaching her fourth election. Netanyahu is in his 11th year in office (when counting his previous three-year stint in the ‘90s), approaching his fifth election. As Ruchir Sharma, a top investor at Morgan Stanley, argues in his recent book, The Rise and Fall of Nations, countries with leaders who stay on too long past their “best before date”, like Bibi and Angela are doing, tend to watch their markets do relatively poorly over time. Time will soon tell whether or not Israel will conform to this rule. It already has done so once before (though perhaps coincidentally), when it struggled in the ‘70s after Labor’s long reign.
Finally, there is Israel’s security challenge. This has declined in the past generation, first because of Israel’s peace with Egypt and then because Israel’s rivals in Arabia and Iran became distracted by their own wars; notably the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the long Iraq war (1991-2017), and now of course the Syrian war (2011-2017). Israel’s smaller but nearer rivals, chiefly Hezbollah and Hamas, have also been distracted of late. Hamas’ supporters—in the Brotherhood, Damascus, and lately Qatar—have weakened. Hezbollah has become directly drawn into the civil war inside Syria. More recently still, in mid-2015, energy prices crashed, weakening Israel’s historic rivals in the Arab world, Iran,and Russia all at once. Though it is not certain how much these events have caused Israel’s casualty rates to drop, they have possibly played a big part.
But Israel is not the only power in the Middle East that can withstand both cheap oil and crises in the Arab world. The largest economy in the region, Turkey, can also do so. Indeed, Turkey is now facing a power vacuum in every direction. To its east are the oil economies of the Gulf Arab states, Iran, and Central Asia. To its north is another oil economy, Russia, plus a divided nation in Ukraine. To its west, Greece is stuck in a Great Depression, the Balkans are divided, and the European Union has fractured politically. And to its south, Syria, Iraq, and Libya (and more distantly, Yemen) are all at war. At some point, assuming that oil prices do not rebound, it might be presumed that Turkey will take measures to fill this vacuum.
Turkey’ government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been consolidating its own power domestically in the past two years. Erdogan’s three recent victories—in the election of 2015, the coup of 2016, and the referendum of 2017— has put him ahead of rival factions like Turkey’s secularists, Gulenists, and Kurdish parties. While Turkey’s relationship with Israel today is not too bad (they have put the Mavi Marmara incident of 2010 somewhat behind them) there is no guarantee what they will look like in the future. Turkey’s economy is now estimated to be 2.9 times larger than Israel’s, twice as large as Iran’s, 1.3 times larger Saudi Arabia’s, and even two-thirds as large as Russia’s. If oil stays cheap, Israel might soon find itself sharing the Middle East with a significant regional power for the first time since….well, since the Turks, a century ago.
Of course, this is taking a rather negative view of things. There are reasons to be hopeful about Israel’s future as well. The fact, for example, that fewer Israelis have been killed by Palestinians since 2002 than there were in just two years from 2001-2002, bodes relatively well for Israel and Palestine both. Between this reduction in casualties and the possibility of an eventual cease-fire in Syria (even if it is gained by way of a victorious Iranian-supported regime, or a Turkish invasion of Syria), the region might even find some peace.
More broadly, if the long, slow trend towards global peace, integration, and economic convergence, which began in 1945 and has (contrary to popular wisdom) continued since, is not derailed, Israel could be an ideal place to live. It is at the crossroads of Africa and Eurasia and of the Atlantic and Indian basins; it can speak English, Arabic, and Russian; it can attract Christian and Muslim pilgrims; and it has Jewish and Israeli connections globally. Israel could do well in a peaceful and equitable world, should such a world come to be.
On the other hand, history may not be so nice. Israel’s past forty years have been pretty decent, all things considered. But new challenges are coming. It is still not clear whether Israel will finally secure the peace and prosperity it has been labouring towards; or instead merely catch a glimpse of them from its current peak.
Amid the election victory of the intensely pro-coal, global warming denier Donald Trump, the UN’s annual Climate Change Conference is underway in Marrakech, Morocco, and is aiming to build on last year’s Paris Agreement. The conference began on November 7 and will run until the 18th.
Trump aside, getting any far-reaching climate deal done will be a herculean challenge involving unprecedented cooperation and goodwill between nations. Specifically, it will require cooperation between developed economies, which account for most greenhouse gas emissions in per capita as well as historical terms, and developing ones, which have the most urgent need for an increase in carbon emissions and carbohydrates consumption. Morocco, which is a developing, African, Muslim economy that shares the pillars of Hercules with its developed, European, Christian neighbour Spain, could therefore be among the most fitting places to accomplish such an effort.
Morocco exemplifies many of the greatest challenges as well as greatest opportunities of a world in which the use of fossil fuels is relegated to the back-burner. Using Morocco as a case study, one can explore in detail what the Day After Tomorrow could look like. Not the apocalyptic version of climate change that Hollywood has repeatedly shown us, but rather a more hopeful Day After Tomorrow: the lower-pollution world those at the conference in Marrakech are hoping to build.
On the challenge side of the ledger, Morocco is one of the poorer countries of the Arab world, and, while not an energy exporter itself, it does rely on business with and investment from the oil-rich Gulf. Moreover it is one of the largest food importers in the world (relative to GDP size), and is part of both the Arab and Saharan worlds which are similarly beholden to food imports. Given the energy-food-water nexus, which has many aspects, there is a far-reaching link between food and fuel prices. In any climate deal, countries like Morocco and regions like the Middle East must be supported in one way or another if they are to avoid economic crises due to food-price inflation and declining energy export revenues.
There is also a geopolitical and humanitarian component to this. Conflicts can be started in response to food prices: the current Syrian war may have been sparked or at least exacerbated by drought. Morocco has its own dormant food-related conflict with its gas-rich neighbour Algeria over Western Sahara, the large Moroccan-controlled former Spanish colony which holds perhaps three-quarters of global reserves of phosphate fertilizer.
In terms of opportunities in a lower-emissions world, Morocco has three factors working in its favour. First, its location at the exact crossroads of the Atlantic and Mediterranean puts it in a strong position to engage in fuel-efficient maritime trade with large markets like Europe, the Americas, and South Asia. Second, Morocco has renewable energy to harness: the Saharan sun, seaside wind (Morocco’s coast is over 1800 km long), and direct electricity-grid linkages via Spain to the hefty renewables output of Europe. Indeed, Morocco built the largest solar plant in the world this year, while Spain is the world’s fourth largest producer of wind power and tenth largest of ‘renewables’ in general. Beyond Spain, Morroco’s largest trading partner France is by far the least dependent on fossil fuels of any of the world’s biggest economies. Finally, Morocco is one of the few countries to speak three global languages pretty well: Arabic, French, and Spanish. As such it is well-placed to engage in emissions-free trading of services and media on the Internet. Morroco’s even getting decent at English now, because of tourists from the UK, US, and EU.
Morocco has, indeed, always been something of an outlier. Today, it is arguably the only country in the Middle East or North Africa that is not or does not border a failed or semi-failed state. In recent years Morocco has been one of the few places in the region where good news has not been too difficult to come by. And with Trump’s victory last night, and the end of the climate conference approaching next week, we could all use some more good news out of Morocco right now.
If extremely high taxes on greenhouse gas emissions were to be enacted worldwide, which part of Ontario would be poised to lead in terms of population growth and economic development as a result?
My guess would be St Catharines-Niagara, which at the moment is Canada’s 12th most populous census metropolitan area (just ahead of Halifax-Dartmouth), home to approximately 400,000 people.
A low-emissions city should at least a few of the following five characteristics, all of which define Niagara. One, it should be easily accessible by barge, as water remains far and away the most fuel-efficient mode of transportation. Two, it should not have much suburban sprawl. Three, it should be located close to other major cities in order to create urban economies of scale. Four, it should have a mild climate: not too cold or snowy in the winter, not too hot in the summer. And five, it should have an abundant source of clean power — and ideally also the ability to store up its energy in order to assist clean but intermittent power sources like solar, wind, and run-of-river hydro.
1. Water Transport
St Catharines-Niagara is one of only two urban areas in Canada or the US to be situated on more than one Great Lake. (The other is Sault St Marie). It links Lake Ontario to Lake Erie via the Welland Canal, a canal 43 km long and, in most places, 100-150 metres wide. The canal has seven locks on its northern end and one lock on its southern end; it takes ships around 10 hours to cross in full. However it has a lock-free middle stretch that is close to 25 km long, next to the city of Welland (pop. 50,000). It runs perpendicular to the Erie Canal, the longest shipping canal in the United States, which links Niagara Falls and Buffalo to New York City and Lake Champlain via the navigable Hudson River, passing by Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany along the way.
Canals, when they are not frozen in the winter, are in many ways the ideal form of water transportation. They lack the difficulties of rivers (bends, rapids, shallows, etc.) and seas (storms, tides, waves, etc.), and are not too wide to make building bridges or tunnels across them too expensive. According to the New York Times, “one gallon of diesel pulls one ton of cargo 59 miles by truck, 202 miles by train and 514 miles by [Erie] canal barge… A single barge can carry 3,000 tons, enough to replace 100 trucks”.
As recently as the 1890s, prior to the modern age of highways, cars, and trucks, the Erie Canal allowed Buffalo to become the eighth most populous in the US and fourth most populous inland city in the US. And while Niagara never shared in Buffalo’s prominence (in part as it was too close to the US border for comfort; it was captured in the War of 1812, and became the refuge for William Lyon Mackenzie and his supporters during the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837-38), the adjacent city of Hamilton did. Hamilton was Canada’s fourth most populous city during the 1890s, and was about half as populous as Toronto in 1870. Today, in comparison, Hamilton is only around 13 percent as populous as Toronto.
As land transport became dominant, however, Hamilton found itself blocked in by the Hamilton Harbour (which until then had been the main source of its success) as well as by the Niagara Escarpment. Toronto, in contrast, has been able to expand barrier-free, now reaching to Lake Simcoe in the north, Oshawa and Clarington in the east, and Hamilton’s suburbs in the west.
Admittedly, it is still quite expensive to build bridges across harbours or wide canals; they must be either high enough to let large ships pass below, or else be lift-bridges. The Welland Canal overall has two tunnels and ten bridges, all but one of which are lift-bridges. Given that the population of the region is split by the canal (St Catharines and Hamilton are to its west, Niagara Falls and Buffalo are to its east), these lift-bridges and tunnel crossings could lead to traffic bottlenecks if its population or economic activity were to experience growth.
This canal-crossing problem can be managed, however, by switching over from cars to public transit. Luckily for St Catharines-Niagara, such a switch which would be necessary anyway if greenhouse gas emissions were to be highly taxed.
Public transit, including new transit services like Car2Go, Uber, and UberPool, can allow canals to be crossed more easily via bridge or tunnel, by reducing traffic bottlenecks and by letting its passengers relax rather than drive when there are traffic bottlenecks. In addition, public transit can allow for easier canal crossings via boat, pedestrian bridge, cable car, or even ice-sled, by making transit available upon crossing. For the same reason, crossing canals will also become easier as parking apps like Rover and PocketParker become common (and if cars that come equipped with parallel parking sensors or can parallel park themselves become common), as people will be able to park a car easily on one side of the canal and then take public transit after crossing.
In the St Catharines-Niagara area, public transit will be similarly useful in helping to cross the Niagara River (which is one of the widest and, in places, the most treacherous rivers in southern Ontario), Hamilton Harbour (which has two bridges crossing it at present, and no tunnels), and perhaps even the 45 km Lake Ontario shortcut that separates St Catharines (and Buffalo) from Toronto.
2. Suburban Sprawl
St Catharines-Niagara, as well as the nearby urban areas of Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, are among the cities with a relatively high population density in Canada. Kitchener-Waterloo and Hamilton have the highest population densities among urban areas in Canada apart from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, according to the 2011 census, while St Catharines-Niagara has the seventh highest population density (though this does not take into account the 50,000 people living in Niagara Falls, NY).
Niagara may be particularly well-placed to benefit if suburban sprawl in general is reversed as a result of eco-taxes. This is because many of the big cities around Niagara have had their suburbs sprawl away from Niagara during their recent generations of suburbanization. As a result, a reversal of this sprawl would bring people back closer to Niagara.
Toronto has sprawled north and to a lesser extent east, away from Lake Ontario and Niagara. Northern Toronto suburbs like King city, Caledon, and Whitchurch-Stoufville tend have population densities that are far lower than in suburbs closer to the lake, like Mississauga, Oakville, and Oshawa — nearly 30 times lower in the case of Caledon compared to Mississauga. Indeed some of Toronto’s lakeside suburbs, particularly to its west (towards Hamilton and Niagara), are themselves among the cities with the highest population densities in the country. Toronto’s easternmost suburbs, on the other hand, like Clarington and Scugog, have relatively low densities too.
Buffalo’s suburbs sprawl away from the border with Niagara, meanwhile, and Detroit’s sprawl away from Windsor (which is 315 km from St Catharines). Cleveland’s suburbs away from Lake Erie, mainly to the south and west. If, then, suburban sprawl gives way to urban re-densification, it could lead to population growth along the coasts of both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which Niagara shares, as well as along the Buffalo and Detroit borders with Canada, which Niagara either shares or is at least not too far away from.
Another energy advantage of de-suburbanization is that it frees up land to be re-converted into farmland. This is important, as importing food is highly energy-intensive; food is much more bulky than most other goods, and also often requires refrigeration or freezing while it is being transported. This means that areas that are not suitable to agriculture — areas that include most of Ontario, as the Canadian Shield generally is not farmable in the economic sense — will not benefit as much from de-surbanization in an eco-tax world as areas that are best suited to be used for agriculture. For Ontario, these areas are Southwestern Ontario and adjacent lands of the United States.
3. Proximity to Major Cities
St Catharines is around 50km from Toronto by way of Lake Ontario and about 100 km from Toronto via land. To put that into perspective, Oshawa, Burlington, and Newmarket, all three of which are in the Greater Toronto Area, are around 45 km from downtown Toronto, and Barrie is around 85 km from downtown Toronto. St Catharines is also around 40 km from downtown Buffalo (and Niagara Falls is less than 30 km from downtown Buffalo), 65 km from downtown Hamilton, 120 km from Kitchener-Waterloo and from Rochester, 270 km from Cleveland, 300 km from Pittsburgh, and 320 km from Detroit, and 500 km from New York City and Washington, D.C.
St Catharine’s proximity to the New York City-to-Washington “Megalopolis” is unique and, in an eco-tax world, could be economically significant. If you extend the Megalopolis all the way north to Boston, however, then St Catharines’ proximity is less unique, as Ottawa and Kingston are both closer to Boston than St Catharines is. That said, the population density of the area between New York and Boston is quite a bit less than between New York City and Washington, so it is not clear Boston really should be counted as part of the Megalopolis core. St Catharines is also around 40 km closer to New York City and 250 km closer to Washington than Ottawa is, whereas Ottawa is only around 160 km closer to Boston than St Catharines is. Only Kingston then, among notable Ontario cities, can be said to be closer in proximity to the Megalopolis than St Catharines is.
Niagara, because of its relatively southern location and the temperate effect of the Great Lakes that surround it, has a mild climate compared to most other cities in Ontario. It tends to be around a degree warmer than Toronto in the winter and a degree cooler than Toronto in the summer, and it is much milder than the weather in more northern cities like Ottawa or Thunder Bay. It is also located outside any of the Great Lakes Snowbelts, unlike, for example, Sudbury or Barrie.
Niagara’s position next to the US border may also be significant, as eco-taxes could lead Americans to come north to where the climate is more mild, at least during the summer. The average annual daily temperature highs in Buffalo is 14 degrees celsius, compared, for example, to 29 degrees for Miami or 31 degrees for Phoenix. Cool climate zones may also end up using more eco-friendly energy for heating than hot climates do for cooling, because the weather gets coldest at night when there are typically surpluses of electricity available (including low-carbon sources, like wind, base-load nuclear, and run-of-river hydro), whereas it is hottest during the day when no such energy surpluses typically exist. Admittedly only seven percent or so of American households use electric heaters, but a high eco-tax could cause them to be adopted more widely. Plus, it is possible to stay warm using clothing and blankets rather cranking the heat.
The arid climate and diffuse population settlement in the US Southwest in particular leads to a high energy footprint. Any extended drought in the Southwest, for example, would necessitate water desalination, water treatment, or increased food imports, all three of which are extremely energy-intensive. The most extreme of these, Las Vegas, which is a gambling and tourism competitor of Niagara to a certain extent, relies on long-distance air travel, long-distance food imports, air conditioning during the day, and heating at night (the desert can get cold at night, after all).
Owning, renting, or Airbnb-ing a home or cottage in upstate New York or upstate Pennsylvania, in contrast, will help keep air conditioning costs down in summer. Moreover, because both are located in the Great Lake Snowbelts and Appalachia, these also be used recreationally during the winter. This may be an advantage too, given that eco-taxes will make it far more expensive to fly to the Rockies to ski, and given that aging Baby Boomers are going to be switching from downhill skiing to cross-country skiing. Similarly, eco-taxes could make Canadian vacationers who head south to escape the winter forgo flying to places like Arizona, California, and Mexico, and instead travel by train or bus to the US Southeast (and perhaps from there on by cruise or plane to islands in Cuba or the Bahamas). Such train and bus journeys will usually pass through Niagara.
5. Energy Production
In a world in which greenhouse gas emissions are highly taxed, it would no longer be viable for Ontario to import so many manufactured goods from Asia, since Asia is so far away and relies on burning coal to power its industrial activity. Ontario would instead have to manufacture more products locally, making up for its lack of low-wage labour by using machines, having foreign engineers and other skilled labour e-commute from afar, etc. Such industrialization, particularly as it will depend on machines to assist or replace human workers, will need a lot of low-carbon energy. Niagara Falls hydro (not counting the American side of the border) accounts for around 5-6 percent of Ontario’s power generation capacity, but more than 7 percent of non-fossil fuel generation capacity and more than 20 percent if you also ignore nuclear power. Niagara accounts for about a quarter of all Ontario hydropower, and its dams also happen to be located far further south than the majority of other dams in the province or country, meaning that the energy and capital used to maintain Niagara’s dams (and to maintain the electricity grid infrastructure that is connected to them) tends to be less than it is for other hydroelectric facilities. Most of Ontario’s other dams are either located near to or north of Ottawa – far north, in many cases – while most of the hydropower in the country comes from central or northern Quebec.
In addition, the hydropower facility on the US side of Niagara Falls produces 25 percent more power than those on the Canadian side of the Falls; it produces more power than all but three other dams in the United States and accounts for nearly 60 percent of New York state’s hydropower (and New York ranks third in hydropower among US states). It also has a pumped storage capability that by itself is larger than the hydropower storage available in all of Ontario outside of Niagara, which is significant since hydro-storage remains the leading method of assisting intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. (Batteries are still not generally up to the job of storing energy in a cost-effective or eco-friendly manner, in spite of all the hoopla surrounding Tesla).
Niagara is, similarly, home to nearly all of Ontario’s pumped storage hydro capacity. Moreover, it is located relatively close to the pumped storage facilities across the United States (apart from the pumped storage in California, but those have been under-utilized in recent years as a result of drought), not just those on the US side of Niagara Falls.
Niagara is also, along with the rest of Southwestern Ontario and the adjacent Bruce Peninsula, home to most of the province’s wind power production and solar power potential.
While 60 percent or so of Ontario’s electricity comes from nuclear, people do not want to live in urban areas that contain nuclear facilities. In addition, more than half of Ontario’s nuclear power capacity is located directly on the coast of Lake Ontario, 30-60 km east of downtown Toronto, which means that, when you combine their output with that of Niagara’s dams (not even counting the US Niagara dams), the coastlands of western Lake Ontario account for more than 40 percent of Ontario’s non-fossil fuel power capacity and nearly 40 percent of Ontario’s overall power capacity.
If, finally, you look at natural gas storage – both underground storage and LNG storage – Niagara is also well-placed. Natural gas could be useful in assisting intermittent sources like solar and wind, because like hydro, but unlike coal or nuclear, a gas-fired power plant can ramp up and down energy rapidly in response to the wind suddenly slowing or the sun suddenly being blocked by clouds. Most US underground storage is surrounding Niagara, in a broad sense.
In Ontario, which in contrast to the US has very little gas storage capability, much of the gas storage is around Sarnia, with potential further development in Goderich, both of which are not too far away from Niagara. Most LNG storage and peakshaving capacity, meanwhile — which, while smaller in scale than underground storage, is better for delivering gas quickly in order to assist wind or solar intermittency — is located mostly on the Northeast coast, much of it within New York state.
The gas pipelines that bring US gas to Ontario also mainly run through or near to Niagara. Ontario used to get its gas from Western Canada, but with the shale boom in nearby US states, particularly in Pennsylvania which has led the shale gas boom, the province has begun to use US gas instead. The shale boom has revolutionized the gas industry, and should it continue it may be likely to put the border areas of Ontario in a strong position relative to non-border areas, in terms of their energy economics.
With the economy of Western Canada hit hard by the fall in oil and other commodity prices that began last year, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, has begun to account for quite a large share of the country’s economic growth. Many Canadian economists – most of whom live in Ontario, as I do – assume this economic resilience is the result of Ontario’s economic diversity and size. Ontario’s population is much larger than that of any other Canadian province (see graph below), and its economy is mixed between services (in Toronto), government (Ottawa), industry (southwestern Ontario), and commodities (northern Ontario). Ontario’s economy is also more oriented toward the auto sector than other provinces are, and so may be benefiting more than others from the fall in oil prices.
Still, this may be missing the point to a certain extent. What really sets Ontario aside from other Canadian provinces is the proximity of large population centres in Ontario to large population centres in the United States. This is unique among Canadian provinces (see graph below), particularly if you ignore Quebec (which is separated from US populations by a language barrier as well as a political one) and British Columbia (which, perhaps not incidentally, is the other major province that has decent economic growth right now, in spite of the fact that it is a significant commodity exporter and has close ties to oil-rich Alberta). Ontario is the only province to have a handful of cities which straddle the US-Canada border. These include Detroit-Windsor, Buffalo-Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Sault St Marie, and Sarnia-Fort Huron.
Since the US economy has remained relatively strong in recent years, unlike those of Europe, East Asia, or much of the developing world, Ontario’s ties to the US may be what is driving Ontario’s economic growth. This should make Ontario concerned; the US economy has not had a recession for almost eight years now, so, in a certain sense at least, it is due for one soon.
Below, I have tried to show some of the ways in which Ontario’s proximity to the US is unique. I’ve gathered all the data myself using Google Earth and recent Canadian and American censuses, so if you think you’ve found any errors in the following graphs please let me know.
Ontario’s ties to the US have also meant that it is less dependent on inter-provincial trade of goods than other parts of Canada are: in recent years Ontario has conducted 2.5 times more trade with other countries (led by the United States, of course) than it has with other provinces. This is compared to just 1-1.5 times more for Quebec, Alberta, and British Colombia.
Economists and financial journalists in Ontario need to be more careful than they have been in the recent past. During the 2007-2009 economic crises they ascribed the relative success of Canada’s financial system (which is centred in Toronto, Ontario) to the fact that Canadian bankers and regulators were more prudent and conscientious than their peers in other countries, rather than to the fact that Canada was flush with capital at the time as a result of the sky-high commodity prices that existed just before and just after the financial crisis, and as a result of the fact that Canadian Baby Boomers were then in the prime of their financial lives (as Canada, unlike the younger US or older Japan, is dominated by the Baby Boomer generation).
But instead of acknowledge these facts, much of the Canadian media decided instead to help create a cult of personality around Canadian bankers and Bank of Canada leader Mark Carney — a cult of personality they have since exported to Britain, where Carney has become a figure of great importance (especially since Brexit and the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron) and the first non-Briton to ever become the central banker over the British financial system, a system that is far larger, far more worldly, and far less dependent on commodity sectors than the Canadian financial system is. Similarly, Ontario’s economic resilience is now being described (by some people) as if it was basically an inherent condition of the Ontario economy, rather than a result, at least in part, of Ontario’s unique ties to the growing US economy.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that Ontario is not a resilient place or that bankers and regulators in Toronto and Ottawa are not prudent and wise. And certainly I would like Ontario’s economy to continue growing, since it is my home. However, believing either one of these stereotypes about Ontario too much could be a dangerous mistake for investors or governments to continue to make.
It used to be, roughly speaking, that labour + energy = industrial output = military power.
This made Iran the natural power in the Middle East. Iran had far more energy than countries like Turkey, Egypt, Israel or Pakistan, and far more labour than the Gulf Arab countries or Libya:
The Gulf Arab monarchies have tried to overcome their relative deficit in labour by importing workers from Asia. However there are limits to such immigration, not only because of the fear that the immigrants could cause political instability (they are mostly men, and tend to be poorly treated), but also because it is not cheap to provide food and water in the desert.
The US has often worked to influence or contain this Iranian potential. It pressured the Soviets and British to withdraw from Iran following World War Two, helped to overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister in the 1950s, helped to unleash the Arabs on Iran in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and in recent years has opposed the Iranian-allied regime in Syria and played Good Cop-Bad Cop along with the Israelis in threatening to carry out airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear and military infrastructure.
Going forward, however, the traditional relationships between labour, industry, and military power may be breaking down.
Labour may no longer be so important to industry, as industrial labour will in many cases be replaced by machines or, in the case of skilled labourers like engineers and computer programmers, may sometimes be outsourced using high-quality digital communications. Having a large labour force may perhaps even limit the ability to industrialize, since countries with large populations could have to deal with robot-caused unemployment, competition for energy between the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors of the economy, and protests against local industrial pollution. This could put the Gulf Arab states at less of an industrial disadvantage when compared to countries with larger labour forces, like Iran.
Meanwhile, industrial output and labour are both less likely to translate into military power than they once were. In past wars, like the Iran-Iraq War or the Israeli-Arab Wars, wars were fought by giving lots of soldiers lots of weapons. This is, for example, one reason why the Israeli-Arab wars never lasted long. Israel did not have a large enough population to run its military and factories at full capacity simultaneously, so it had to end wars quickly in order to avoid running short on supplies. Otherwise it would risk becoming too dependent on US supply lines, as arguably occured when it was attacked by Egypt and Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
In the future, though, human soldiers may be replaced by machines in some cases, rendering population size less important in war. In addition, the quantity of weapons produced could continue to become less significant than their quality, given that weapons can now be destroyed by precise satellite-guided missiles. As a result, if the Gulf Arab states and Iran were to use their oil and natural gas reserves to become industrial powers, it would not have to translate into their becoming military powers. This could make existing Middle Eastern military powers like the US, Turkey, or Israel more likely to tolerate the industrialization of the Gulf.
The machine-driven industrialization of the Gulf Arab states and Iran could make sense for a number of other reasons as well:
— The Gulf region is even less populous than it may seem at first glance. This is because the vast majority of the populations of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Iraq live hundreds of kilometers away from the Gulf, and separated from the Gulf by mountains and desert. If you count only the provinces of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq that border the Gulf, the entire population of the Gulf region (including the smaller Gulf Arab states) is only around 30-35 million. It is also very hot there during the day, making physical labour difficult.
(Population Density of Saudi Arabia and Iran)
— The Gulf region is rich not only in oil, but also in natural gas. Iran in particular is the world’s third largest producer of natural gas, and is thought to have the second largest reserves (the largest by far if you do not count Siberia). Iran also directly borders landlocked Turkmenistan, which is thought by some to have the world’s fourth largest gas reserves.
Natural gas, however, is very difficult to transport long distances or to store up in large quantities. Qatar has managed to become rich from exporting its gas in liquified (LNG) form, but this only works because Qatar has a tiny population (2.3 million people) and as LNG prices in Asia and Europe have been high. For the rest of the Gulf’s gas, it would be difficult to replicate Qatar’s success. It might make more sense, then, for the gas to be kept within the Gulf, used there to produce energy for industrialization.
— The Gulf region is located at the centre of Eurasian and African trade routes, both by land and by sea. While all of the Gulf’s trade routes are politically fragile, this may actually make industrialization sensible, because it is easier to stockpile large amounts of manufactured goods or industrial raw materials for use during a crisis than it is to stockpile oil or especially gas. Industrialization would also give the region more economic autarky, which would be useful if its trade routes to the outside world were ever imperilled or cut. And the Gulf already possesses large industrial port areas as a result of its energy exports.
— Industrial areas which use machines can be clustered in ways that traditional, labour-based industrial areas cannot. Machines, after all, do not need lodgings, and are not bothered by pollution. Moreover, the Gulf itself could be a mega-industrial cluster, given that it has the world’s largest concentration of cheap-to-produce oil and gas by far. In other words, you might be able to have a bunch of local industrial clusters forming a huge, region-wide industrial cluster.
Industrial clustering could have a number of advantages. First, it could be easier to defend militarily, which, given the enormous expense and difficulty of missile defence systems,
could be significant. In the Gulf, the energy fields, power plants, factories, and ports could all be concentrated in a fairly small, defended area. If you ignore coal, there is nowhere else in the world that comes even close to being able to have this. (Texas is probably the closest…).
Second, clustering could perhaps help to allow for carbon capture and storage. Carbon capture and storage has thus far proven to be far from economical in most cases, and yet it is also necessary if the world wants to limit carbon emissions without ending consumption of fossil fuels. It could be that the way to make it economical is to cluster many power plants together in order to allow for economies of scale to form. Moreover, the only type of carbon capture and storage that has proven economical thus far is when carbon is used in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), being sent down oil and gas wells in order to increase oil and gas productivity. The Gulf already uses EOR in some cases, and has huge EOR potential as a result of the size of its oil and gas fields.
US Oil Demand
One factor that could help spur the industrialization of the Gulf would be if people in the rich world, particularly in North America, would stop driving alone in their cars so much. By switching to alternative forms of transport — whether carpooling, taking public transport, UberPool-ing, e-commuting, shopping online, taking a self-driving bus or self-driving electric car, etc. etc. — it may leave Gulf oil available for industrial use within the Gulf.
Then again, maybe none of this will end up happening. The Gulf may be ludicrously rich in easy-flowing oil and gas, but translating that energy wealth into industrial success will be no easy feat, with or without robots.
American coal companies’ stock prices have crashed in recent years, in response to the triple-whammy punch that is the US fracking boom, the environmentalist movement, and the slowdown in the Chinese industrial economy. As recently as January of 2016, the Dow Jones US Coal Index had lost around 92 percent of its market value since mid-2014, more than 97 percent of its value since 2011, and more than 98 percent of its value since its all-time peak in 2008.
Now, it may be that coal really is finished as a major industry in the US, but there is no reason to be certain about this. The market’s plunge is arguably more a sign of investor panic than of rational valuation: coal still accounts for around a third of US electricity generation and close to 40 percent of electricity generation worldwide. The economic outlook for the coal industry does not seem to have collapsed to the extent the Dow Jones US Coal index might suggest.
1. Climate Change
Burning coal is generally considered to be around twice as carb0n-intensive as burning natural gas. Carbon dioxide, however, is hardly the only culprit where climate change is concerned. Methane emissions are also a crucial component to climate change, for example, and industries like natural gas and meat production can be more methane-intensive than coal.
Thus far the natural gas industry, food industry, and many in the US government have neatly sidestepped the methane issue, refocusing American public attention toward carbon dioxide. They have done this by using the “we need to protect the planet for the sake of our grandchildren and future generations” approach. Methane emissions, after all, only contribute directly to global warming for a few years or decades at a time, whereas carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for many centuries.
The truth, though, is probably that this is deliberately misleading. Future generations may be perfectly capable of handling whatever climate change comes their way, or of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The really dicey climate change period is more likely to occur within the coming years or decades, when the world is not yet technologically advanced enough to protect vulnerable human (and animal) populations. Within such a time frame, emissions of gasses like methane can be even more impactful than carbon dioxide.
Today US methane emissions, measured in kilotons of CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent, are around ten percent as high as carbon dioxide emissions. Since the impact of each kt equivalent of methane upon global warming can be up to 80-90 times higher than carbon over the course of a twenty-year period, however, the overall effect of methane emissions can perhaps be worse for climate change than carbon emissions can.
Indeed, while the direct impact of methane fades over time, the indirect impact of methane emissions could remain for decades if they help to trigger a global warming feedback loop; for example, if it helps to cause sun-reflecting polar ice to melt, which could warm the planet and so cause even more polar ice to melt.
Thus, methane emissions arguably deserve more public attention and regulation. And if they are regulated, it may weaken the natural gas industry relative to the coal industry, as the gas industry in the US accounts for almost triple the methane emissions that coal does. Just this month, the US federal government has launched its first ever package of methane emission regulations for the oil and gas sector.
Methane, which is the main component of natural gas, can also be captured and then stored or used to produce energy. Capturing methane from the natural gas industry, however, is extremely difficult to do, because the gas sector is diffuse, consisting of hundreds of thousands of wells spread across dozens of states as well as in offshore fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Capturing and making use of methane that is released from coal mines could perhaps be easier to do, since coal production is more concentrated than gas or oil. There are only about 1000 or so coal mines in the country, and they are located mostly in Wyoming or the Midwest.
Another thing to note is that while burning natural gas is only a bit more than half as carbon-intensive as coal, much of the natural gas production in the United States comes as a byproduct of drillers trying to produce oil. This means that US gas is actually more carbon-intensive than it seems, since it would not be produced as much if the US was not also producing so much oil, and oil (or gasoline) is more than three-quarters as carbon-intensive as coal is.
This also raises the question: will the price of oil in the US remain low? If it does, it is likely to result not only in a reduction in oil production, but also in natural gas production (again, because natural gas is frequently a byproduct of oil), which in turn could cause coal to become more competitive relative to natural gas.
Oil in the US is used mainly for transportation, so it is possible that the revolutions now taking place in the transportation sector – for example, Uber (and companies like Uber), UberPool, Zipcar, electric vehicles, hybrids, e-commuting and e-commerce, using smartphone apps to make express busses finally become feasible, being able to watch a movie or do work on your smartphone or tablet while you are taking public transit or being carpooled, and the development of self-driving vehicles – could lead to such a reduction in oil use.
In the case of electric or hybrid vehicles, this could also lead to a major increase in electricity usage, potentially helping the coal industry at the expense of the oil and gas industry. And while electric cars may not soon be appearing in every driveway, it may not be too long before a widespread network of electric or hybrid Uber-esque vehicles and Zipcar-esque vehicles come into place.
If, moreover, self-driving vehicles do become a reality as well at some point, it could make vehicle-sharing services like Uber and Zipcar even more competitive, and could allow electric Uber vehicles and Zipcars to drive themselves to (and wait in line at) the nearest battery-charging station. This is an important factor, given that fully charging an electric vehicle often takes several hours.
Of course, many people think that coal is likely to lose out not only to natural gas, but also to alternatives like solar energy, which emit relatively little carbon dioxide, methane, or any other type of greenhouse gas. However, it is still not clear when or if industries like solar will be able to compete on a large scale with coal in developed economies like the United States.
Much has been made about the falling cost of solar panels They are often said to have become more competitive as a result of technological improvements, and are expected to continue doing so going forward. In fact there is an alternative plausible explanation about what has driven the falling cost of solar panels: government support in East Asia (especially China), Europe, and to a lesser extent North America. The solar industry may have benefited from attempts by governments in these regions to stimulate their slowing industrial sectors and reduce pollution at the same time.
If this explanation is true, then it is possible that the cost of solar panels going forward will not continue to fall as much as people now expect them to. Indeed, if China’s economy has the “hard landing” some fear it will, panel prices could even rise a lot as solar panel manufacturing output collapses.
Ultimately, though, climate change threats will continue to hamper the coal industry, unless at least one of two things happen. The first is large-scale carbon capture and storage. Though carbon capture and storage has been over-hyped in recent years , it cannot be ruled out entirely either. We will discuss this further below.
The second is climate change fatalism. If it becomes accepted that we already well past the point of being able to reverse global warming, then the priority could shift away from reducing carbon emissions and instead become achieving rapid economic advances in order to pay for the huge, global effort that adapting to climate change will entail. Ironically, coal could be employed as the cheap, plentiful resource used to spur such rapid economic growth. If this sounds a bit crazy, bear in mind that it is the approach that India and China are already implicitly (and at times explicitly) embracing at the moment. India in particular is still planning on building many new coal plants in an attempt to achieve economic growth.
Bangladesh, perhaps the most climate endangered among the world’s hugely populous nations, has resisted climate change fatalism. However if it runs out of hope that the world’s major economies will take the necessary measures to mitigate climate change, then it could end up getting on board with this philosophy too, since it desperately needs economic growth to lift its population out of the immediate poverty it faces.
Countries like Bangladesh have, in addition, been publicly toying with the unorthodox idea of purposely releasing gasses like sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere in order to deflect sunlight and thus reduce global temperatures. Indeed, certain industries already produce this effect over a limited timespan, due to the sulphur dioxide they emit. Such industries include coal-fired power plants and container shipping.
According to this article from the Guardian, the container shipping industry alone, over a five-year lifespan, may contribute a cooling effect significant enough to offset the warming caused by every car, bus, and airplane in the world combined. Still, this cooling effect diminishes over longer timespans as sulphur dioxide leaves the atmosphere, and, in any event, sulphur dioxide emissions also cause significant local pollution, such as acid rain.
2. Local Pollution
A lot of the most concerted pushback against coal has seemed like it is driven by fears of climate change, when really it is driven to a substantial extent by frustration with more local forms of pollution that the coal industry creates. In order for local anti-pollution activists to gain public support, they often, quite understandably, use climate change as a cover.
The threat of climate change alone, without local anti-pollution activism, has a more difficult time of creating meaningful pushback, because climate change is far less of an immediate and concentrated danger than localized pollution is. Pushback against local pollution, for example, historically played a significant role in causing American industry to outsource to places like China that were more willing to tolerate it. This is also, by the way, one reason why methane emissions have gotten off the hook compared to some other types of greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide: methane causes far less local pollution, even though its contribution to global climate change can be severe.
If coal can overcome its local pollution problem, then, it may be able to revive itself to some extent even in spite of the role it plays in global climate change.
There is a way that the coal industry may reduce its local pollution problem: disassemble and reassemble coal-fired power plants and relocate them to more sparsely populated areas, and largely mechanize the operation of coal-fired power plants and coal mining sites.
The mechanization of the coal industry is already well on its way (see graph below) and will probably continue in the coming years as a result of the “robot revolution”. Moving coal-fired plants to less populated areas would of course be enormously expensive; it would require not just moving the plants themselves, but also the building of new electricity lines.
Finding cheap routes to build electricity networks through is no easy task, nor is maintaining such electricity networks once they are already built. Plus, the longer the route, the more electricity is lost in transmission – and the routes would have to be quite long in order to locate the power plants in sparsely populated areas. Still, it could happen, if coal can remain cost competitive with other energy sources. More on this in the next section.
Local pollution is also a major reason why urban and suburban areas may start to use a lot of hybrid, electric, or Uberpool-esque vehicles, since conventional gasoline-powered vehicles create a lot of air pollution (and noise pollution) in areas in which lots of people live. Hybrids, if they can become cost-competitive with conventional cars, are ideal in this regard, as they typically cause air pollution only on rural or ex-urban roads where fewer people live.
If electric vehicles become common, it could boost demand for electricity (helping coal, potentially) and decrease demand for oil (helping coal by causing less natural gas production, potentially).
Finally, local pollution is most harmful in places where there are lots of physically vulnerable people; i.e. in densely populated countries where there are many young kids or senior citizens. The United States does not fit this description, as it is sparsely populated and most of its population is in the prime of their lives. The developing world, on the other hand, is often very young and densely populated, while Western Europe, Japan, and increasingly even China are old and densely populated. Pushback against local pollution in China in particular could cause some industrial activity – and its attendant demand for electricity – to relocate to North America.
Robots could benefit the coal industry in multiple ways. First and most obviously, they are likely to cause American electricity demand to soar, because robots are often extremely energy-intensive to use and because they could lead manufacturing that in previous decades has been outsourced to countries like China and Mexico to be brought back to the United States.
The same is true in other developed economies, like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, which are already totally reliant upon coal and other fossil fuel imports to power their economies. In 2014, Japan and especially South Korea were the biggest purchasers of US coal, with the exception of the Netherlands (a European trade hub), Britain, and Brazil. East Asia is also the primary destination for more than three-quarters of Canadian exports of coal, which are split about equally between China, Japan, and South Korea.
Indeed it seems like ancient history now, but prior to United States sanctions on Japan in the 1930s, Japan was getting around 60-80 percent of its oil imports from the United States. It is not totally out of the question that a somewhat similar pattern could re-emerge, with the US exporting fossil fuels to East Asia once again, as the US may want each of these countries to remain strong enough to “contain” China.
South Korea and Taiwan are particularly dependent upon energy imports (see graph above). And the United States is very approving of its alliances with these two countries because they help to “counterbalance” (to use another geopolitical euphemism) both China and Japan, which by most accounts remain by far the world’s second and third largest economies.
For Japan, robots could particularly cause electricity demand to surge, given that Japan may need to use a lot of them to replace its rapidly aging, high income labour force. Japan’s other alternative thus far has been to outsource labour to countries like China and Thailand, however it is not clear how much Japan is willing to continue becoming dependent on these countries, and meanwhile millions of Japan’s domestic workers are approaching retirement age.
A second way robots could help the coal industry is by causing electricity demand to rise overnight. One of the drawbacks of coal power has been that coal-fired power plants, unlike hydroelectric dams or, to a lesser extent, compared to natural gas plants, cannot easily ramp up and down their electricity production. This has meant that, like nuclear plants, they tend to over-produce electricity overnight, when the cost of producing the power is often higher than the price it sells for. However, since robots don’t sleep, they may drive up the demand for electricity at night. In addition to coal and nuclear, this may also help wind power, since it is often windier overnight than during the day. But it could hurt solar power.
Robots could perhaps also help allow coal-fired power plants to be moved to or built in sparsely populated areas where their local pollution will not be as bothersome, since robot-run factories may not need to employ many humans. This could also prevent new, long electricity lines from having to be built and maintained in some cases, as the power plant could be located right next to the robot-run industrial areas.
Robot-run factories and coal-fired power plants could also be constructed next to or near the coal mines themselves. This could be a big help to the industry, as coal has very high transportation costs because of how bulky coal is compared to other resources, for example oil, and because coal cannot be moved by pipeline. (Moreover, the transportation of coal often creates significant pollution next to the railways, roads, or barges it is being carried on).
Lignite, in fact, which is used commonly in Europe, has such a low bulk-to-value ratio that in most cases it transported only extremely short distances, and often by conveyer belt. A lot of sub-bituminous coal, which is very common in the US, is not much more dense in its energy content.
Given this bulkiness, coal could also benefit from robots that aid in the transportation sector: namely from self-driving trucks. Coal is often mined in mountainous areas, where building railways is difficult and expensive (railways cannot handle inclines or sharp bends easily, compared to roads). Building railroads to reach mines, or trucking the coal to the nearest railroad, can be an enormous expense. In the US and Canada coal mining also occurs in wintry and relatively remote locations, for example in northern Alberta or in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, which can cause transport costs to be higher still.
With self-driving trucks, however, you do not need to pay a driver wages or insure a driver against the event of injury in a mountain-road accident, which saves money, and self-driving trucks can work all night, which improves efficiency. In fact, even large trucks are often too large to use on mountain roads and tunnels (or if there are mountain roads capable of handling them, they are often very expensive to build and maintain), but with self-driving trucks it is possible to use small trucks instead because you don’t have to worry about paying drivers’ wages or insurance. It would otherwise take a lot more drivers to transport coal via small trucks compared to large trucks, since small trucks can carry much less coal per trip.
Self-driving trucks could be a huge boon for the coal industry, then. Indeed, because many mining roads are privately owned by mining companies, they may be able to begin using self-driving trucks before normal roads do, since the biggest barrier to adopting self-driving trucks elsewhere may be public regulations.
And of course, there may also be plenty of opportunities for robots to increase efficiency in the actual mining of coal itself.
4. Developing Economies
Many developing nations have embraced coal because it is cheap, but this process could slow or even reverse in the future. If it does, it could allow the US to pick up some of the coal slack that developing countries give up, since there is only so much carbon that the world can handle, and since in some cases it could lead manufacturing to relocate to the US. It could also cause the developing world to import more LNG or renewable energy sources from the US, pushing up the cost of those energies in the US when compared to coal.
First, as climate change fears rise, developing countries could begin to have to scale back on coal, whether because their own populations become worried (the developing world in general is more vulnerable to climate change than the developed world is) or because the developed world decides to slap carbon tariffs on their exports.
Second, local pollution in much of the developing world has become so intense that it may cause – and in some cases, is already causing – increasing pushback against coal.
Third, as was mentioned earlier in the article, robots could allow developed countries to “reverse outsource” their manufacturing industries, which would sharply reduce demand for energy in the developing world.
Fourth, if urbanization slows in the developing world – which it could, because of such “reverse outsourcing” taking away urban jobs, because of the spread of cell phone and Internet access into rural areas, because of urban air pollution becoming intense and undesirable, and because urban temperatures in developing countries are frequently extremely high compared to rural areas (particularly rural highlands) – then the developing world will demand energy sources that can be accessed in rural areas where there are little or no electricity grids: solar panels, diesel generators, small wind turbines, etcetera. But not coal, which is generally burned in big power plants to power cities and factories.
Instability in the developing world might also benefit the US coal industry, allowing the US to increase its coal exports. If, for example, China falls into regional chaos like it did for decades prior to the Communist takeover of the country in the late 1940s, then it could put at risk some or many of the energy supply routes that link China’s energy-rich interior provinces (like Shanxi, Heilongjiang, and the “autonomous regions” of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia) to China’s major urban areas on the coast (like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Beijing-Tianjin, Taipei in Taiwan, and many others).
Shanxi and Inner Mongolia combined have accounted for more than 15 percent of global coal production in recent years. If China’s coastal cities cannot secure energy supplies from within China, they may turn to importing coal from countries like Australia and even the US instead. This may not be likely to happen, but it is a “black swan” possibility that is worth taking note of, given China’s historical regionalism and the enormous energy and coal consumption of China’s coastal provinces.
This is also true of other energy sources. China’s natural gas, hydro, and most of its oil production, for example, are also located in interior provinces like Heilongjiang, Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Yunnan. They are in fact often located extremely far in the interior, such as in the Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, which produces a substantial portion China’s oil, natural gas, and coal.
Xinjiang has a deep ethno-religious divide between Turkic Muslim Uyghers and its more recent Han Chinese settlers, and has very difficult terrain that has historically made it prone to separatism, irredentism (with the Turkic Muslim populations of neighbouring, now-independent Central Asia) and “warlordism”. In Xinjiang, mountains cover an area larger than England and regularly reach heights higher than the highest Rockies. Much of Xinjiang is also covered by deserts or semi-deserts, and the region is so far inland that its capital city, Uruqmi, “has earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the most remote city from any sea in the world. It is about 2,500 kilometres (1,600 mi) from the nearest coastline”.
China has, similarly, also pinned hydro hopes on Tibet; a risky proposition given its intensely difficult terrain, remoteness, ethno-religious resistance to Chinese settlement and domination, and position as the source of most of India’s, China’s, and Southeast Asia’s live-giving rivers.
China’s energy imports come mostly, however, from Siberia, Central Asia, or from Oceania, Africa, or most often the Middle East (by way of the Strait of Hormuz, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, and South China Sea). Should these supply routes be imperilled, Chinese coastal cities could be forced to import energy across the Pacific from the Americas instead.
13 percent of China’s oil imports comes from Angola, even, according to the US Energy Information Agency, more than from any country apart from Saudi Arabia (16 percent). Angola, apart from being a formerly war-torn country that remains full of material poverty and ethnic division, is located very far away from China, on the Atlantic rather than Indian Ocean coast of the African continent. For its oil to reach China, it must first round the southern tip of Africa, passing waterways controlled by Angola’s regional rival South Africa.
It may also become more economical to have solar power harnessed in the developing world more than or instead of in the developed world. This is because in the developing world, peak energy may increasingly occur at the same time as peak sunlight: in order to power air conditioning for billions of people when its 30-50+ degrees Celsius outside. In the developed world, in contrast, air conditioners are already widespread, and in many places peak energy use occurs when the sun is not bright, for example to power heating units in the winter, or to power perennially overcast places like Britain or Seattle, or to keep the lights on during super-long winter evenings in Scandinavia, or perhaps eventually to power electric cars overnight.
The developing world may also be increasingly likely to use airplanes more often than the developed world does. This is an important point, as airplanes arguably contribute to climate change more than all the cars on the world’s roads combined (at least, over a five-year timespan), since they emit lots of greenhouse gasses at high altitudes. Developing countries may need to use airplanes more because much of the developing world is located in areas where land-based transport can be difficult: in mountainous or hilly areas, in deserts, in the Tropics, in archipelagos, in rural areas, in conflict-prone areas, and in densely populated cities with terrible traffic jams.
The developed world, on the other hand, may even replace its own airplane usage with land-based transport in some cases, as a result of the technological advances occurring within the land-based transportation sector. Instead of flying from New York City to Florida, Sydney to Melbourne, or even London to Barcelona, people may take the train or bus instead (making use of the wi-fi on the train or the bus along the way, as well as the ability to use services like Uber and Zipcar to get around once they have arrived at their destination) or eventually even take a self-driving vehicle.
During World War Two, inter-continental weapons did not exist, so US shores were safe from attack (with a few exceptions). During the Cold War inter-continental weapons did exist, but the US was saved from attack by its massive deterrent of nuclear and conventional weapons.
Today, however, precision “smart-bombs” and precision cyber-weapons exist, putting the US at risk (in theory, at least) of a surprise attack on its military and industrial infrastructure. Because a large-scale precision attack would cause very few deaths by WW2 or Cold War standards – a factory could in some cases be destroyed overnight and kill only the night watchman, while cyber-weapons can disable an entire electricity grid without killing anyone – it could mean that an enemy country could be more willing to take the risk of launching such an attack. In other words, the technological advances that are making war less deadly may also end up making war more likely to occur.
The Pentagon is undoubtedly going to spend hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars to defend against and prepare for such a possibility. It has already done this in recent decades with its ballistic missile defence systems; however these might be inadequate on their own, as North America could simply be too big a place to protect in its entirety.
As the precision-weapons era matures throughout the militaries of the world, the Pentagon may decide to take the additional step of shielding US industry by clustering a few “mega-industrial areas”, capable of producing both military and essential non-military goods, that it can then build more impenetrable defence shields (including “cyber-shields”) around. The idea will be that it is far easier to defend an area the size of a city than it is to defend an area the size of a continent. Other militaries around the world may do a similar thing.
The question is, then, if these military-shielded mega-industrial areas do become a reality, will it be coal that powers them?
It seems quite plausible that it will be. The main alternative, natural gas, is difficult to transport by truck, and natural gas pipeline networks and gas production sites could be vulnerable in the event of war, as could be electricity grids. Coal, however, can be transported by truck, and much of the coal production in the US is already concentrated in just a single state in the heart of the country, Wyoming. Moreover, coal can be stockpiled in enormous quantities, whereas gas is very difficult to store in large quantities.
Oil could conceivably be used instead of coal, but the US has few oil-fired power plants, and oil would be needed in large quantities to power the many military vehicles and fleet of trucks the US would need to fight a war, so it would not necessarily be available to use for electricity production.
Other countries too might use coal if they decide to build military-defended mega-industrial areas. Many significant countries in the world have coal mines or coal reserves, yet do not produce natural gas or oil in as significant quantities. These include Germany, India, England, Turkey, Poland, and China, for example. Moreover, countries can build up huge stockpiles of imported coal, which they cannot do with natural gas.
A mega-industrial region of this kind, backed by the military, could perhaps also allow carbon capture and storage to finally become economically viable. Carbon capture and storage is a key component of mitigating global warming if fossil fuels are not going to be phased out, yet thus far it has been far from economical. But whereas it has not been achievable for a single power plant, if you cluster many power plants together in one area, it could maybe allow for the economy of scale necessary to make carbon capture more affordable.
If, finally, tensions between Russia and “the West” continue to deteriorate, or if the situation in Ukraine continues to destabilize, it might lead to European countries to have to turn to imports of energy from the Americas to make up for the natural gas and coal they would have to stop importing from Russia and Ukraine. This too could help to push up the price of US coal.
I am just playing devil’s advocate here, of course. I don’t actually have any idea what the future of the American or global coal industry will be. Still, judging by the fact that the Dow Jones US coal index has nearly tripled since the start of 2016 (though it still remains around 80 percent lower than it was as recently as mid-2014), I may not be the only one to be doing this.
Today’s low oil prices are probably not the result, even in part, of elderly men ruling over the world’s major energy-exporting nations. Still, it may be worth noting that the sons of Saudi Arabia’s modern founder, Abdulaziz bin Saud, are finally nearing the end of their long royal lifespans, while the leaders of energy-endowed countries like Iran, Algeria, Angola, Oman, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan have now reached old age too, after multiple decades in office. Even Vladimir Putin is 63 years old, long past his judo prime. He was just 47 when he first came to power.
As Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi arguably showed in 2011, longtime aging rulers can sometimes give way to political upheaval that causes domestic oil and gas production to fall. Uncertainty over the vigour of some of the following leaders might indeed cause global energy exports to fall, and thus, perhaps, prices to rise:
Kuwait – Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah – 86 years old – In power since 2006
Sabah’s presumed successor, Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, is 78 years old. As recently as 2012 Kuwait was the world’s largest oil exporter outside of Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia – Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Saud – 80 years old – In power since 2015
Salman will probably be the last king to be chosen from among the 45 or so sons of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Saud. Salman’s youngest living sibling, his half-brother Muqrin, is turning 71 this year and, as of last year, is no longer the designated Crown Prince. The Saudi Crown Prince has since become Muhammad bin Nayef, Salman’s nephew, while the Deputy Crown Prince has become Salman’s own son Mohammad bin Salman
Algeria – Abdulaziz Bouteflika – 79 years old – In power since 1999
Bouteflika came to power during and after the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s. Today his health is in question. Algeria is estimated to be the world’s 16th largest energy producer and its fourth largest natural gas exporter.
Uzbekistan – Islam Karimov – 77 years old – In power since 1991
Karimov first came to power at the end of 1980s, when he became President of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic
Iran – Ali Khameni – 76 years old – In power since 1989
Kazakhstan – Nursultan Nazerbayev – 75 years old – In power since 1991
Oman – Qaboos bin Said al Said – 74 years old – In power since 1970
Qaboos first became ruler after overthrowing his father in a palace coup in 1970. He has no children or clear successor
South Africa – Jacob Zuma – 74 years old – In power since 2009
Zuma was Deputy President of South Africa from 1999-2005. South Africa is a major producer of energy, and a net exporter of energy, because of its coal reserves, though it is a net importer of oil
Nigeria – Mohammadu Buhari – 73 years old – In power since 2015
Buhari was previously Nigeria’s head of state during the 1980s
Angola – Jose Eduardo dos Santos – 73 years old – In power since 1979
Angola, one of the fastest-growing economies of the past decade, is now the world’s third or fourth largest oil exporter outside of the Middle East
Equatorial Guinea – Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasongo – 73 years old – In power since 1979
Equatorial Guinea is the 30th-40th largest oil producing country, but may have the world’s third highest per capita oil production, the highest outside the Middle East. Both the age of its leader and the number of years he has been in power are exactly the same as in Equatorial Guinea’s relatively nearby neighbour Angola
Sudan – Omar al Bashir – 72 years old – In power since 1993
Brunei – Hassanal Bolkiah Muiz’zaddin Wad’daulah — 69 years old – In power since 1967
Brunei is the world’s 40th-50th largest oil producing country, but may have the 6th highest per capita oil production
Brazil – Dilma Roussef – 68 years old – In power since 2010
United Arab Emirates – Khalifa Al Nayhan — 68 years old – In power since 2004
The Emir of Dubai is 66 years old, meanwhile
Colombia – Juan Manuel Santos – 64 years old – In power since 2010
South Sudan – Salva Kiir Mayardit – 64 years old – In power since 2011
Iraq – Haider al Abadi – 63 years old – In power since 2014
Masoud Barzani, meanwhile, who has been president of oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan since 2005 and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party since 1979, is 69 years old. Foud Massoum, a Kurdish politician who is Iraq’s president (a more ceremonial role than prime minister), is 78 years old and has been in office since 2014. Nouri al Maliki, who was Iraq’s prime minister from 2006-2014 and is now Iraq’s vice president, will turn 66 this June. Saddam Hussein was 42 years old during his purge of 1979 and 66 years old when the US invaded in 2003.
Russia – Vladimir Putin – 63 years old – In power since 1999
Malaysia – Najib Razak — 62 years old – In power since 2009
Mahatir Mohammad, meanwhile, is 90 years old. Malaysia is thought to be the world’s 25th largest oil producing country
Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdogan – 62 years old – In power since 2003
While Turkey is a significant net importer rather than exporter of energy, it is nevertheless capable of impacting the rest of the Middle East, and it has hopes to become a major energy nexus at the centre of the Middle East, North Africa, and Caspian Sea region. (Similarly, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009 and was previously prime minister from 1996-1999, is 66 years old)
Australia – Malcolm Turnbull – 61 years old – In power since 2015
Egypt – Abdel Fathah al-Sisi — 60 years old – In power since 2014
Sisi was also highly influential for at least a few years before 2014, following Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office in 2011
The following graph shows how old these countries’ rulers were in any given year between 1970 and 2015, and how old they will be in 2020 if today’s rulers remain in power for the remainder of the decade:
In the graphs below, the y-axis indicates the age of today’s rulers, the x-axis indicates the number of years they have been in power, and the size of the circles indicates the relative amount of energy that is produced by their country.
A typical assumption has been that China and Japan will be the primary beneficiaries of the canal. China, after all, leads the world in importing commodities and exporting bulk goods, and Japan has accounted for 40% of the world’s LNG imports – far more than any other country – in recent years.
Yet while China and Japan lead the pack in terms of the value of their absolute trade, they lag far behind both South Korea and Taiwan in the more relevant category of relative trade; that is, the value of their trade relative to the overall size of their economies. As can be seen in the chart above, the economies of China and Japan are generally not as trade-oriented as those of South Korea and Taiwan. As such, they might not benefit as much from the canal, which is intended to ease trade — in particular LNG trade, which the pre-expansion canal could not facilitate.
Of course, none of this means that South Korea and Taiwan are risk-free investments. They are not. Both, for example, have significantly more exposure to China’s economy, which has been struggling of late, than Japan does. All else being held equal, though, South Korea and Taiwan appear likely to be two of the greatest beneficiaries of the new canal.
Iraq’s population is thought to be just under 35 million, roughly the same as that of Canada and greater than any other Arab country apart from Egypt, Algeria, and possibly Sudan.
Most Iraqis, and almost all Iraqis who identify as Shiite Muslims, live in the low-elevation Mesopotamian plain, the part of the map below that is coloured in the darkest shade of green.
The only significant city to have a considerable Shiite population outside of this area is, perhaps, the city of Samarra, which is holy to Shiite Muslims. Yet Samara lies just barely beyond this Iraqi Shiite heartland, and is relatively small. It had 350,000 or so inhabitants prior to the US invasion of the country in 2003. In 2006 and then again in 2007 the Al-Askari Shrine, a mosque that was built in Samarra in 944 AD, was bombed, leading Shiite groups in Iraq to retaliate by forcing many Sunnis to leave their homes in Baghdad.
The largest cities in Iraq’s Shiite region are not located in the region’s centre, but rather around its outer edges. The largest by far is Baghdad, located in the north of the Shiite core region. Baghdad is perhaps 3-5 times more populous than any other city in Iraq; it may be home to nearly one in four Iraqis. It is maybe the most populous city in the entire Arab world, outside of Cairo. Historically it was the capital of an enormous caliphate, stretching from Central Asia nearly to the Atlantic Ocean, during most of the years between 762 AD and 1258 AD. Even as recently as the 1970s, before Iraq fought three major wars between 1980 and the present day, Baghdad was one of the leading cultural and commercial cities in the Arab world.
Baghdad has historically been the place where Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni areas meet, and where minority populations like Kurds, Christians, Jews, and Turkic peoples have all lived in significant numbers as well. Though the conflicts in Iraq during recent years and decades has changed this to a great extent, with many minorities leaving (the Jewish population, for example, has dropped from around 50,000 in 1900, which was perhaps a quarter of the city’s total population at the time, to nearly zero today) Baghdad remains the heart of the country.
Baghdad’s existence has probably been one of the main impediments to, and arguments against, splitting the country into three separate states as many have recently been advocating for. However because of its diversity and centrality, it was also the site of many of the violent deaths during the (in some ways ongoing) civil war. Since 2003 the city’s neighbourhoods have become more divided by sect, while the share of its population that identifies as Sunni has shrunk in size due to the fleeing of Sunnis and the inward migration of Shiites from southern Iraq.
Baghdad in 2003 Baghdad in 2007
Baghdad’s geographic significance comes from being located in the only spot, apart from the swampy southern coastlands of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come close to meeting one another. Around Baghdad the Tigris and Euphrates are just 30-40 km or so apart from one another, compared to about 150-200 km apart in most of southern Iraq, 120 km or so apart in the area to Baghdad’s immediate north, and 220-300 km apart in the northern Iraq-Syria region.
Baghdad is located 530 km from Iraq’s only coast (on the Persian Gulf), 450 km from Iraq’s border with Turkey, and 475 km from its western, desert border with Jordan. It is about 700 km from Tehran, 740 km from Aleppo and Damascus, 95o km from Riyadh, and 1300-1450 km from Mecca, Dubai, Cairo, Ankara, and Crimea.
Apart from Baghdad, the biggest Shiite city in Iraq, maybe even twice as populous as any other, is Basra. Basra is located in the only other place where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, just 95 km or so north of the coast of the Persian Gulf, and just around 20 km from the Iranian border and 40 km from the Kuwaiti border. Because it is located just 4 metres above sea level (compared to 35 metres for Baghdad), Basra’s climate is an extremely hot one, with temperatures hitting average daily highs of around 40 degrees celsius (105-ish fahrenheit) for almost five months a year.
The fact that this southernmost area of Iraq around Basra has the country’s only direct access to the sea, and that this access is funnelled narrowly and vulnerably through a strip of land that is only about 15 km wide, sandwiched between the oil-rich Arab monarchy of Kuwait and the oil-rich Arab-inhabited Khuzestan province of southwestern Iran, was probably one of the reasons why Iraq went to war against Iran throughout the 1980s and then attempted to annex Kuwait in 1990.
Grabbing Kuwait and Khuzestan would give Iraq unfettered access to the Persian Gulf, greatly increased oil resources, and a mountainous rather than wide open border with southern Iran. Kuwait alone, in spite of having a population of just 3.4 million, produces so much oil that its GDP is thought to be roughly 75% percent as large as that of Iraq itself, and 40% percent as large as Iran’s.
Today, however, it is not clear whether Kuwait and Khuzestan have majority-Arab populations as they likely did in the past. Two-thirds of Kuwait’s population is now thought by some to be foreign workers who have come to the country mainly from South Asia. Some have estimated that 30-40% of Kuwait’s Muslim population is Shiite, though it is difficult to be certain. Khuzestan’s population of 4-5 million, meanwhile, has perhaps become majority Persian; statistics cannot really be trusted in this area, given that they can be politicized.
The other largest cities of the Shiite region of Iraq also lie along the region’s edges rather than in its centre; they are located either along the Tigris River, as for example the cities of Amarah and Samarra are, or along the Euphrates River, as the world’s two holiest Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala are.
The Shiite region of Iraq is divided, in a certain geographical sense, along both north-south and east-west lines. The north-south divide is between landlocked Baghdad and coastal Basra, the region’s two major cities, with Baghdad located close to its northern extreme and Basra close to its southern one.
The east-west divide is between the Tigris and the Euphrates; the two rivers were historically separated from one another by marshlands in some places, which according to Wikipedia “used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia” before being drained during the second half of the 20th century — mainly by the government of Saddam Hussein, for political reasons. “After the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, the marshes have partially recovered but drought along with upstream dam construction and operation in Turkey, Syria, and Iran have hindered the process”. The “Marsh Arabs“, formerly half a million strong, are themselves considered to be a unique Iraqi ethnic group.
The Euphrates directly borders the Arabian Desert (Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and Ramadi are each located on the Arabian side of the river), whereas the Tigris runs closely parallel with Iran’s Zagros Mountains, which rise to heights as great as in the Colorado Rockies or Swiss Alps. Given its topography, Iraq has rarely been able to project force into the Zagros (though Saddam Hussein tried to do so during the deadly Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s); the Iranians, on the other hand, have often been able to influence politics within Iraq and occasionally even invade Iraq directly.
The division between Basra and Baghdad (such that it is) was seen to a certain extent in 2008, just prior to the US military withdrawal from the country, when the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved a significant offensive mission by the Iraqi Army aimed at pushing what was arguably the country’s main Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, out of Basra.
The Basra-Bagdhad divide goes back much further in history, however. Even when Iraq was ruled by the Ottoman Empire prior to the First World War, the country was divided into three administrative “vilayets”: Basra in the south, Baghdad in the centre, and Mosul in the north. The Ottoman era often saw the Europeans intrude into or make alliances with Basra, notably the Portuguese in the 17th century, and later the British. The British would return during the recent war: they were tasked with managing Basra while the Americans focused on other areas of the country.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab region also contains both north-south and east-west divisions. It’s two largest cities by far are Baghdad, which is located at the southern tip of the Sunni areas, and Mosul, which is located just 100 km from Iraq’s northern Turkish border and is currently held by ISIS fighters. This is the basis of its north-south division; its east-west division comes from the Tigris and Euphrates being located much further apart from one another north of Baghdad than in the south (where, around Shiite Arab cities like Basra, Karbala, and Kut, the waterways almost or completely converge), with desert lying in between them.
According to Wikipedia, “The Arabic of Mosul is considered to be much softer in its pronunciation than that of Baghdad Arabic, bearing considerable resemblance to Levantine dialects, particularly Aleppan Arabic. …Mosul Arabic is heavily influenced by the languages of the many ethnic minority groups which co-exist in the city: Kurmanji Kurdish, the Shengali (Ezdiki) of Yazidis, Turkmen, Armenian, and Neo-Aramaic. Each minority language is spoken alongside North Mesopotamian Arabic.”
“…Before 2014 takeover by ISIS, Mosul population comprised roughly of 60% Sunni Arabs; 25% Kurds, 10% Turkmens and 5% Assyrian. Following the takeover by ISIS, nearly all the population who were not Sunni Arabs (coreligionists of ISIS), fled or forced out, that is, 35% of the residents or just over half a million people.”
“Mosul, although not at a particularly high elevation, still receives much more rain than most of Iraq. Rainfall is close to three times that of Baghdad and over twice that of Basra”. Indeed, unlike the arid cities along the Euphrates, Mosul has a relatively populous hinterland, as it is located next to the foothills of mountains both to its east and to its north. Mosul is just 75 km from Erbil, the comparatively successful capital city of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region. “After the 1991 uprisings by the Kurds Mosul did not fall within the Kurdish-ruled area, but it was included in the northern no-fly zone imposed and patrolled by the United States and Britain between 1991 and 2003″.
Mosul is one of the two most important cities which lie on the border between Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurdish areas. The other is Kirkuk, which is less populous than Mosul but is where much of Iraq’s oil is produced. The oil in this Arab-Kurdish borderland has led to conflict during the past decade; and of course ISIS and the Iraqi Kurds continue to do battle today. According to the map below, both Mosul and Kirkuk (spelled Karkuk) are surrounded on three sides by the Kurdish-inhabited territories, near to the mountainous Kurdish border regions of Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
Mosul is located along the Tigris River, north of the place where, in Syria, the Euphrates makes a sudden sharp turn westward towards Aleppo and the Mediterranean Sea. As such, unlike in most other cities in Iraq, Mosul sits at a spot where the Tigris and Euphrates are relatively far from one another (though still only 430 km apart). This has allowed Mosul to serve historically as a sort of oasis in the desert for east-west trade travelling between northern Iran (and Asia) and the Mediterranean (and Europe). Mosul sits almost exactly between Tehran and the Mediterranean, in fact. It is also located halfway between Basra and Russia’s southern border; in other words, between the Persian Gulf and the Black and Caspian seas.
In late 2004 the US attack on Mosul was concurrent with the one on Fallujah, the latter battle arguably being the deadliest in the entire US-Iraq War. In 2014, six month prior to the ISIS seizure of Mosul (and Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk), ISIS “retook” Fallujah, which is just 40 km from Baghdad. ISIS also took control of the large dam upriver of Mosul, which according to Wikipedia has the fourth largest reserve capacity of any hydroelectric facility in the Middle East. Kurdish forces, with help from the US and Iraqi militaries, have since captured the dam.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab region, in spite of being relatively small in population because it is located in the desert, and also landlocked, has some advantages that Shiite Iraq does not. It has proximity to the Mediterranean, as well as access to the Mediterranean via the Euphrates which in Syria reaches as close to 200 km from it. The entire distance from the Persian Gulf to any part of the Eastern Mediterranean coast, in fact, is only about 1300 km.
This Mediterranean access, however, is partly why the Shiite Iraqis and Iranians would prefer to keep Syria’s non-Sunni Assad government and Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah in place, so as to block Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and Syria’s Sunni Arab majority from working together to export Iraqi oil to the West via the Mediterranean and hence become powerful.
The Sunni Arab region’s upriver location, moreover, provides a potential advantage within Iraq as, especially towards the south, the country is often lacking in rainfall and dependent upon agriculture that can be devastatingly flooded by the actions of northern dams. In addition, because the Euphrates winds about a lot within the Sunni region (see map below), its cities can often be surrounded on three sides by the river and on the fourth by both the desert and the incline of the walls of the Euphrates Valley, giving them a defensible position. A series of three lakes, finally, running 200 km from north to south, helps to divide Baghdad and southern Iraq from the Euphrates’ Sunni-inhabited northwest.
It has become very popular to point out that Iraq’s borders, and particularly the Iraqi-Syrian border, are “artificial”, imposed on the region by the British and French in the aftermath of the First World War. This statement is not untrue, but nor is it necessarily as straightforward as many have come to believe.
Those saying that Iraq’s borders are artificial often ignore a number of facts. First is that, unless Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and perhaps Lebanon are merged into a single state (a state which, given its position linking two oceans and containing the most oil anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia, could perhaps become the top power in the Middle East), or unless a united Kurdistan declares its independence in territories that are today part of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran (a declaration that could, and to an extent already has, led to war by those countries against Kurdish forces), then “artificial” borders must be drawn somewhere through the region.
Second, they ignore the fact that Iraq’s borders are actually not as random, geographically, as they are given credit for, as we discuss further below. Third, they ignore the fact that it is not only the West that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of Arab lands. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refused to give up Arab-inhabited regions of the Fertile Crescent they possess; a more consistent geographic or cultural rendering of Middle Eastern borders should perhaps have included Turkey handing over its province of Hatay to Syria (as Syria still officially claims it should) and Iran handing over its province of Khuzestan to Iraq.
And fourth, they often ignore the fact that the most “artificial” aspect of Iraq’s borders is not the fact that the borders themselves are drawn improperly, but rather is that Kuwait has been allowed to exist independently of Iraq at all. Why Kuwait, with its $53,000 per capita income, its nearly-autocratic monarchy, and its position that in effect walls-in Iraq’s only direct outlet to the ocean, should be allowed to maintain its political independence from Iraq remains a question, arguably, for those claiming that the real crux of Iraq’s problem is the “artificial” international borders between Iraq and Syria, or the lack of international borders between Sunni Arab Iraq, Shiite Arab Iraq, and Sunni Kurdish Iraq.
I am not saying that Kuwait should definitely be refolded into Iraq like Hong Kong and Macau were into mainland China or like Gibraltar may be into Spain. I am saying, though, that things may be a lot more complicated where borders are concerned than they are often acknowledged to be.
Iraq-Syria: The valley of the Euphrates is generally much wider on the Syrian side of the border than on the Iraqi side of the border. Until the river gets close to Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province, by far Iraq’s largest by territory size) and Baghdad, where the river valley widens out again, the valley generally extends less than 100 meters out from either side of the banks of the river in Iraq, whereas on the Syrian side of the border it extends around 5000 meters out on average:
Zooming in on the border:
It is on the Syrian side of the border that the river cities of Raqqa, the “capital city” of ISIS, and Deir al-Zour, a Syrian provincial capital that has been fought over intensely by ISIS and Syrian military forces, are located. Notably, however, the entire Euphrates valley between Baghdad and Aleppo is actually barely larger in size than Rhode Island. The maps one sometimes sees in the media of “ISIS-controlled territory” are, for this reason, somewhat misleading, as in many cases they do not differentiate between desert and non-desert areas.
The Iraqi-Syrian border was drawn in such a way as to give Syria all of the significant tributary of the Euphrates that meets up with the Euphrates just south of Deir al-Zour (see map below), and to give Iraq all of the large, “lonely”mountain of Sinjar (lonely in that it does not link up with any other mountain ranges), which got attention earlier in 2015 as a result of a humanitarian crisis occurring there. You can see the mountain in the image below, west of Mosul and next to Syria’s border to the mountain’s west and north. Sinjar City, in the shadow of the mountain, had a population estimated at 90,000, mainly of the Yazidi religious and ethnic minority that groups like ISIS have deemed heretical or “devil worshippers”.
In Syria’s northeast the border with Iraq juts out eastward in order to allow the Tigris to very briefly serve as the border between the two countries. On the adjacent Turkish-Iraq border, however, the border swings back and forth from one side of the river to the other; it is a more “artificial” border, perhaps. The Iraqi-Jordanian desert corridor, meanwhile, is extremely artificial, yet it serves the useful purpose (in theory, at least) of giving Iraq a link to Jordan’s Red Sea coast or, via Israel, to the Mediterranean. Though it is across the desert, in which ISIS now has influence, Baghdad is just 785 km from Amman and 860 km from Jerusalem.
Finally, there is the Kurdish border. Though this border artificially divides Kurdish peoples from one another, with most Kurds living in Turkey (even though, from an ethnolinguistic perspective, Kurds are more similar to Iranians than to Turks or Arabs), the Kurdish borders between Iraq and Turkey and Iraq and Iran both adhere for the most part to the geographic barrier of the Zagros Mountains, as can be seen in the map below.
This does not mean that the Kurds do not “deserve a state of their own”, of course, but, given the height of these mountains, it does mean that border is hardly arbitrary. The Kurds have, in fact, many internal linguistic and political divisions themselves, reflecting the ruggedness of their mountain landscape; these internal divisions are not usually mentioned in the media outside of the Middle East, which has become generally pro-Kurdish.
Still, Kurdish groups have, at least for the time being, been able to overcome their internal differences within the borders of Iraq. According to Martin Lewis of Stanford, “In constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order”.
Finally, here’s one last map for the road. It shows, again, just how complicated this region can be: