Final Sawyer Seminar Discusses Geographies of Energy

audience-sawyerRania Ghosn and Pete O'Connor.

On Friday, April 22, the John Sawyer Seminar on Energy Transitions and Society convened for its eighth and last meeting. The session entitled Geographies of Energy featured Peter O’Connor and Rania Ghosn, and was moderated by Cutler Cleveland, Professor of Geography and Environment at Boston University.

Peter A. O’Connor is a doctoral candidate in the Geography and Environment Department at Boston University, and author of the Pardee Paper No. 12 Energy Transitions. His presentation highlighted factors affecting past energy transitions in the United States, as well as those likely to impact future transitions. He addressed the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) for conventional petroleum production as well as for one of its potential substitutes, oil shale. He shared an analysis for U.S. historical energy usage, which considered not only fossil fuels but traditional energy sources such as firewood, wind, water-power, and human and animal muscle power. The data demonstrate significant reductions in energy intensity (energy consumption per dollar of real GDP) throughout most periods of American economic development. Finally, he presented energy intensity trends for other countries as a point of comparison and as a starting point for further research.

Rania Ghosn is a postdoctoral fellow at the Pardee Center, and editor of New Geographies 2: Landscapes of Energy. Her presentation drew on her research on the Trans-Arabian Pipeline to spatialize the deployment of energy systems, map some of the physical, social, and representational territories of oil in particular, and analyze the spatial and socioecological transformations in landscapes and livelihoods that occur as places are incorporated into systems of energy. She highlighted that high-energy urbanism, while extending across the earth to fuel cities and heat homes, has rested on the industry’s capacity to appropriate and centralize flows while divesting itself of the environmental costs brought about by the global expansion of the extractive frontier, and that by sliding them to the periphery, to the offshore and the desert. She argued that debates over energy transitions invite a geographic grounding, to foresee and possibly avoid the potential perpetuation of uneven geographies of power in the sunbelts, fields, and wind corridors of the world.

Following the presentations the audience engaged in a lively discussion with the panelists. Professor Cleveland began the Q&A session by asking the presenters to reflect on the primacy of price in earlier energy transitions. Some of the other issues discussed resistance to earlier transitions, the investments of the oil industry in public relations campaigns, the ecological repercussions of large-scale renewable projects, and whether the question of energy transitions was inherently a moral one.

The Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and the BU Department of Geography and Environment have convened the John Sawyer Seminars on Energy Transitions and Society throughout the academic year 2010-2011. Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the seminar series has met once each month to address the question of energy from diverse perspectives, such as history, business, policy, development, international relations, and geography. It is hoped that the collection of seminar papers will be published in a book format.