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Energy policies and the nightmares of advisers

By Najib Saab, issue 134, May 2009  

"Renewable energy is a nightmare." I was highly surprised with this statement attributed to Saudi Arabia's Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources Ali Al-Naimi, which made center stage in the headlines of hundreds of articles and comments in newspapers and online. This statement is in total contradiction to what we have heard from the same minister in his speech to the annual conference of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) in Manama, when he called for the adoption of energy efficiency measures, as energy wastefulness is an exploitation of national wealth and a source for pollution, and endorsed renewable energy.

It also contradicts with a commentary by Minister Naimi published in this magazine, in which he focused on the necessity for investment in clean and alternative energy technologies, especially solar energy.

The commentators have misused the phrase "renewable energy is a nightmare" to launch a vicious attack on Naimi and Saudi Arabia. At the forefront of this offensive was Raymond Learsy, author of the book "Over a Barrel: Breaking Oil's Grip on Our Future". When we read that particular book we concluded that it targets the Arab oil in particular, as if it is more polluting that oil from other countries!

However, the campaign against Naimi was not limited to the circles well known for their anti-Arab stands, whether related to politics, history or oil, but expanded to include environmental groups within Arab countries, who joined the chorus protesters.

The statement attributed to Naimi has specifically embarrassed us, as we have published a complete opposite statement by him a few months ago, which was featured on the cover of this magazine. However, when we investigated the roots of the recent statement, we were surprised that it does not relate to the context of the whole text from which it was deliberately selected. In the speech that Mr. Naimi delivered at the Energy Summit in Houston, he said "While the push for alternatives is important, we must also be mindful that efforts to rapidly promote alternatives could have a chilling effect on investment in the oil sector... A nightmare scenario would be created if alternative energy supplies fail to meet overly optimistic expectations, while traditional energy suppliers scale back investment".

As Naimi indicated that the world is heading to developing alternatives to fossil fuels, he reiterated Saudi Arabia's commitment to the development of renewable energy technologies, led by solar energy along with the reduction of emissions from traditional fuels, by enhancing efficiency and carbon storage and sequestration.

Going through the full text of Naimi's speech, we conclude that extracting the famous "three words" is like removing the second half of "No God but Allah". Now, if we understand the intentions of people like Learsy, we fail to figure out why some Arab environmental groups still insist on copying the ideas of others, just like parrots without verification and review.

It is well known that the oil industry requires continuous investments in facilities for production and refineries. If such investments are reduced to minimal levels and the renewable energies could not deliver the projected output in time, the world may face a shortage of energy required for meeting the basic needs of the growing populations. What Naimi called for was to continue investing in developing reliable traditional energy sources at reasonable levels, in parallel with allocating more resources to develop practical, economic and efficient renewable and alternative energy technologies. Where is the crime in such a logical paradigm?

Actually, the projected increase in human population at a rate of 50% in 50 years, and the ever-increasing demands of billions of people in China and India who are entering the modern economic cycle will double the demand for energy, will in turn increase demand on all energy sources, whether traditional or alternative. It is necessary that investments in alternative energy sources will be matched with parallel investments in developing cleaner technologies of traditional energy.

If this is the situation, why then the vicious offensive is launched on the Saudi minister, with a deliberate misinterpretation of his statement? Unfortunately this is not the only reason. The least we can say about certain statements circulated by some Arab oil sources is that they are not helpful to project good image of oil producers. Reuters has recently quoted an adviser to a prominent OPEC oil minister, as saying that "the UN negotiations on climate change threaten our existence". The reason, according to his argument, was that oil producing countries have not yet diversified their economies and are thus unprepared for alternatives.

Fair enough, let such countries start working on the diversification of their economy and invest in the development of clean and alternative energy sources. There can be no justification for delay after now.

If a memory can bring wisdom, I recall that when the EU countries started to introduce what was termed "carbon taxe" in some 20 years ago, while the efforts to combat climate change were in the very beginning, the embassy of an Arab oil producing country asked me for suggestions to deal with the situation. At that time there was a fear that such a tax would result in a reduced demand on oil due to increased prices. My written advise was "do not stand against science and the world. Instead of objecting the oil tax that supposedly aims to combat climate change, oil producing countries should ask to share 50% of the revenues of the tax to use in developing cleaner energy production technologies and supporting national sustainable development programmes."

Had oil producing countries done this since 20 years, instead of wasting time listening to the nightmare scenarios of some advisers, they could have diversified their economies and developed alternatives and became partners in future technology. We hope that what we are currently observing, from Abu Dhabi Company for Future Energy (Masdar) to the King Abdullah University for Technology and the Energy Fund in Saudi Arabia, are serious steps in a nightmare-free path towards the future free from nightmares.

Arab Environment in 10 Years
ARAB ENVIRONMENT IN 10 YEARS crowns a decade of the series of annual reports produced by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) on the state of Arab environment. It tracks and analyzes changes focusing on policies and governance, including level of response and engagement in international environmental treaties. It also highlights developments in six selected priority areas, namely water, energy, air, food, green economy and environmental scientific research.
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Environment in Arab Media
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