On Falling Gas Prices

The holidays have come and gone and a new year is upon us. Life is good here in Stony Brook: the future is bright, and a fresh semester is under way. As we enter into this new year though, I find myself confounded by a recent phenomenon: falling gas prices. From passing conversations to national news, cheap gas seems to be making headlines everywhere. And while falling prices might mean good news for the average consumer, the ensuing consequences of cheap oil weigh heavily upon my thoughts.

As a Sustainability Studies major at Stony Brook University, I am trained to see the world through a holistic lens. I study the interface between man and nature and learn of the global imbalances that we have created over time. From sea level rise, to poverty and resource scarcity, the challenges we face as a result of human behavior are abundant and compounding. So, in response to falling gas prices, I began asking questions. Primarily, why are oil prices dropping? Furthermore, how long can they continue to do so?

These are my findings:

The price determinants of oil range from economic, to environmental and political/social circumstances. Firstly, oil exploration and production is entirely dependent upon investments. Investments are put forth on the basis of expectation and with the purpose of generating profit. If prices are high and predictions are positive then investors invest. That wave of incoming capital typically results in improved infrastructure and increased production.

Too much investment though can result in overproduction and an eventual drop in prices. As it turns out, the S&P 500 Oil and Gas Industry Index shows a steady climb in investments throughout the last year, as well as a subsequent drop in prices right around the time gas prices began to fall (1). (In order to offset overshoot, investors will typically reduce their capital inputs into oil production). Based on these trends, we can at least partially attribute falling gas prices to economic overshoot.

In addition to economic influence, oil supply is also subject to political and social conditions. While more and more oil is being produced, fewer countries are producing that oil. Therefore, political controversy of any sort can have an enormous impact on oil supply. In November of 2014, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) failed to reach an agreement on production curbs (2). As a result, production levels soared, sending oil prices down further.

Finally, just as the global market has begun to falter, the U.S. has become the world’s largest producer of oil. With the advent of new fracking techniques, oil is now cheap and abundant in the U.S. and global supply continues to grow. However, the U.S. does not export any of its crude oil, so that surplus of fuel remains local, in effect nullifying American gas imports (3). As a result, American gas prices are at their lowest point in years.

So from economic, to political and environmental reasons, the recent trend of falling gas prices basically boils down to the issue of oversupply. As consumption climbs though, and investors allow the scales to balance, the issue of oversupply will eventually subside. And so the oscillating pattern of supply and demand will forever continue, with prices high one semester and low the next, until we are one day forced to confront the realities of climate change, or we run out of oil altogether.

As our population grows and the effects of climate change manifest, we will eventually be forced to make a decision – do we carry on down this short road of oil dependency, or do we make the switch to more efficient alternatives? To me, the answer seems obvious. However, it is not so easily attained. In order to move on from oil use, a global effort is required. And as an environmentalist, it is my goal to promote that effort. So, in consideration of these realities we face, I implore my readers to use less, study often, and share more.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As I compose this entry, I find my hand empowered with a renewed sense of vigor and creative passion.  The pen flies faster than the ink can flow as I desperately grasp at the energy and intellect emanating throughout this remote campus.  The Omega Institute is a Mecca for environmental educators, activists, and students alike providing a platform for globally minded citizens to share, collaborate, and inspire.

This past weekend I had the immense honor of attending a workshop at Omega in Rhinebeck, New York and got a firsthand look at a revolution in action.  There, I sat in on presentations from some of the world’s most prominent environmental leaders as they all helped to create a framework for one thing – Change.

From Van Jones, to Jeremy Rifkin, to Vandana Shiva, we heard stories from around the globe about the need for change and how we can achieve it.  There were moments of hope and inspiration, as well as heartbreak and compassion.  Some messages were technical and instructive while others were heartfelt and full of emotion.  Together, these stories created an overwhelming sense of community and breathed new life into an exhausting movement.

As we know, life on Earth is in serious trouble.  Atmospheric compositions are changing, sea level is rising at an exponential rate, vast numbers of species are dying out, and all the while we continue to burn away at a finite stock of ancient fuels.  Our infrastructure is entirely dependent upon 20th century technology set to collapse with the imminent exhaustion of these limited resources.  Yet, we continue to invest.

All in all, the United States (along with the rest of the world) is headed in a very ominous direction.  So, “where do we go from here”?  That was the theme at Omega this past weekend, and as it turns out we’ve come up with a few solutions.  From persistent activism to investments in technology and the engagement of underprivileged youth, there are so many things to be done, but so little time to do them.

As the world responds to our legacy of pollution, we are moving closer and closer to the edge of a steep cliff.  But what’s to stop us from walking in the other direction?  As Van Jones put it, “break down leads to breakthroughs.”  We are at a unique moment in human history where we are finally beginning to understand the depth and magnitude of our impact.  In response to this understanding, we are seeing changes in policy, land and energy use, and the involvement of people everywhere.

In his talk, Jeremy Rifkin explained the transition we are making into a “sharing economy on collaborative commons.”  As we develop more efficient technology and move toward an integrated, collaborative lifestyle, we will see communities working together to achieve a more sustainable future.  But it all starts at the ground-up; with equality, sharing, and organization.

Our future is not to be determined by a select few profiteers, but by all of us.  And thanks to places like the Omega Institute, environmentalists from around the globe are able to collaborate on and explore alternative pathways to a communal future.  All we need to do is work together.  Through local collaborative efforts, we can inspire global change.

– A big thank you to the Omega Institute for organizing such an inspirational event and to all who shared their stories and helped me to attend.

Why is Biodiversity Important?

A popular topic in sustainability and a key component in any discussion of ecosystem services is biodiversity.  Put simply, biodiversity is the variety and abundance of organisms in a given landscape or ecosystem.  When thinking about biodiversity, most people begin with the plants and animals that they can visually identify.  While these macroorganisms certainly help to define the biodiversity of an area, they make up only a fraction of a given ecosystem.

The abundance of flora and fauna in an area is dependent on a number of variables, but especially soil composition and health.  Thinking in terms of trophic levels, this makes sense.  Without healthy soil there is a limit to plant development and diversity, which in turn limits the ability of animals to populate an area.  Therefore biodiversity starts from the ground up.

ScienceDaily recently summarized a study focusing on soil biodiversity and its influence on grassland structure and performance.  This study (led by Yale) determined that plant diversity and performance is especially influenced by soil organic content.  Researchers found that the absence of earthworms, beetles, and other soil-based organisms had a remarkable effect on plant productivity.

This study helps us to understand the relationships between organisms and the influence these relationships have over the surrounding landscape.  “The results reflect the long-term ecological impacts of land use changes, such as the conversion of forests to agricultural land, researchers say.”  Understanding the connections between soil biodiversity and landscape structure is of increasing importance as our population grows and agriculture intensifies.  If we continue to apply toxic chemicals to our crops, we might discourage soil biodiversity and eventually condemn these landscapes to a barren state.

To read more about the study follow the links to the summary or the scientific article.

Here is the link to the ScienceDaily review

Here is the link to the full scientific article

A Discussion on Cities and Nature

I was listening to NPR this morning and tuned in on a conversation about cities and nature.  Human infrastructure has reached nearly all parts of the terrestrial environment, but the majority of our population can be found in just a handful of places, especially along the coast.  Rising populations, increased energy use and development all contribute to a changing landscape, ecology, and climate.  As our influence over nature is obvious and undeniable, it is necessary to understand the relationships that these urban areas have on their surroundings.  This discussion does a good job of identifying the important questions we should be asking and explains some of the interactions that go on between cities and nature.  Give it a listen!

Listen to the NPR broadcast here!

A Brief Article on Climate Change

Long time no post!  It’s been a busy couple months since my last contribution to the page and I thought I would break the spell with an article that I found through the Environmental Defense Fund.  This article briefly discusses the ways in which we can observe climate change.  While climate change is often described in terms of temperature, the effects of a changing climate are wide ranging.  From sea level rise, increased ocean acidity, melting ice sheets, glaciers, and permafrost, we can physically measure the effects of climate change.  For someone who wants to brush up on their climate change knowledge, this article is a quick and informative read.

What are some of the other ways in which we can observe climate change?  Furthermore, what do these effects mean?  What are their consequences both short-term and long-term?  Take a look at the article and feel free to add your thoughts.

Why “slowed” global warming is not what it seems

“The End of the Amazon” – Who’s responsible?

Earlier today a friend of mine introduced me to an article about the Ecuadorian government agreeing to drill for oil in the heart of the Amazon.  Naturally I was a bit resentful of the issue as oil drilling damages ecology, soil health, and water quality, but as I read the article I began to question the reasons why Ecuador would dare to destroy their own homeland.  As it turns out, Ecuador is quite capable of providing for its own energy needs.  However, Ecuador’s economy is primarily driven by the exportation of oil to other countries, namely the United States.  So the problem is not that Ecuador is in desperate need of oil to sustain its own energy habits, it is that the Ecuador depends on excessive energy use by other countries to keep its economy afloat.  Although the article frames an important issue relevant to everyone, it fails to mention the real problem – that is our own energy consumption.  If we reduce the demand for oil, then oil producers will have no choice but to produce less.  So the solution to preventing this disaster is not through purchasing protection from Ecuador, but through reducing our own energy use.  To learn more about this problem and solutions to energy consumption, I suggest reading “Green Illusions” by Ozzie Zehner.  This book exposes the paradoxes of environmentalism and illuminates a path to a more sustainable future that many of us fail to contemplate.  Here’s a link to the original article about oil drilling in the Amazon:

Link to Article

One man’s fight against food waste

As the population continues to grow, so too does the gap between rich and poor.  One way to limit that gap is to restrict food waste as much as possible.  Although we have plenty of food to feed the world’s population, it is the current allocation and use of these resources that encourages world hunger.  As is the case in many countries throughout the world, much of our food in the U.S. is imported from poorer countries where resources are cheap and abundant.  However, our withdrawal from these foreign food banks limits these supplying countries in their ability to provide for themselves.  In addition, the majority of our food goes to waste in the U.S., which perpetuates social divisions and economic differences.

In an effort to shed light on this problem and encourage people to waste less, Baptiste Dubanchet is fueling a 3,000 mile bike ride from Tours, France to Warsaw, Poland with nothing but salvaged food from the waste bin and support from strangers.  Baptiste’s lesson is well timed, much needed and hopefully it will inspire change for many.

Watch Baptiste’s trip here!

Read the full article here!

Records made from trees!

Listen to the sound of nature through records carved from ordinary trees.  The sounds produced by these tree trunk records are every bit as dramatic as a common nocturne.  Reminiscent of Aldo Leopolds reflections on the Good Oak in his “A Sand County Almanac,” one can almost feel the growth of the tree through the years as the record spins.  Definitely worth a listen and a ponder.




June 26, 2014

Welcome to Stony Brook’s latest environmental forum.

I created this site out of my eagerness to be heard.  Like many students at Stony Brook, I have spent innumerable hours compiling research and composing articles about various topics in my field.  Now I want to share my work and give others the ability to do the same.  Therefore I invite anyone interested in my idea to add to it, give feedback, and build on it with your own work.


Richard Robinett