The oil industry has often heard itself being criticized from within for not being bolder in sending a broadly positive message about what it does. Hydrocarbons make modern life possible; without them, we’re back to the mid-1800’s. And we should be telling the world that, pushing back against the naysayers. That’s the gist of the criticism.
That wasn’t on display at the World LP Gas Forum in Miami this week, where I was asked to moderate a panel of LPG experts entitled “Mind the Gap.” The gap in this question is the growing surge of LPG supply and the very real question of how it is going to get consumed.
There were two things that really struck me in the few hours I was there, whether it was during the panel or walking past the dozens and dozens of exhibitors. First, this is a business deeply affected by worldwide petroleum trends — does LPG get used to make a petrochemical, can it power a car cheaply, or does it get used to cook food? But it’s one that is also incredibly close to its customers. That’s obvious at the displays of more types of LPG canisters and dispensers than anyone not in the business really knew existed.
And maybe because it’s so close to their customers, the speakers at the forum make no apologies for what they do. In fact, they revel in it, because they know their products are heating homes and cooking food, not just at some ski lodge in Aspen but also in the jungles of the Amazon…or Haiti.
It was Haiti that was the focus of the keynote speaker, celebrity chef and restaurateur Jose Andres. He opened his remarks by noting that when he was growing up, his father often forced him to go out and get the firewood to do the family’s cooking. Even then, he said, he wanted to be preparing the meal. But his father noted that he who controls the fire controls the cooking.
He then talked about his group’s work in Haiti after its devastating earthquake. (His company is the ThinkFood group.) He noted that wood remains a key source for cooking, which means that mothers are holding their babies while cooking over a charcoal fire, exposing that child to all sorts of toxic smoke; that spending hours getting firewood keeps kids away from school, ensuring their continued poverty; and that stripping the land of vegetation to secure firewood ensures poor farming and excessive soil runoff into the ocean, cutting the fisherman’s yield.
Andres talked about a project “deep inside” Haiti, where more efficient charcoal stoves cut the amount of wood needed. “I wish I could be taking them LPG, but the infrastructure isn’t there yet,” he said.
And then the full-throated defense of LPG began. “You see everything I have shown you and cooking is at the heart,” Andres said. “Cooking is essential. And we need to eliminate this cycle of death so we can create this cycle of beauty. We have to give the people the power to control the fire.”
“And nothing has a bigger impact than to make sure that every person in the world has access to clean energy to feed their families,” he said. Note the use of the term “clean energy.” It’s been essentially hijacked by advocates of solar, wind and biofuels. But Andres knows better. He’s been to places like Haiti. He knows nobody is going to stick up a bunch of windmills or solar panels there and then bring in electric stoves for cooking.
But LPG, with its relatively simple infrastructure — this was noted by others at the meeting, not just Andres — can get that job done while displacing cooking with wood, an environmentally destructive practice.
“LPG will bring heat to those who are cold,” Andres said. (You can’t really say his voice was rising, because he was already pretty driven by this point.) “And LPG will bring health to those who are sick. And LPG will bring safety. And LPG will make sure that the nets of the fishermen are filled every day. This is the power of LPG.”
He showed a picture of wood: “one day this will be the past,” he said. Then he showed a picture of a small LPG cylinder, the kind a poor family somewhere in the world might use. “And this will be the future,” he declared.
It was the strongest defense of petroleum I’ve ever heard, and it didn’t even come from somebody in the business.
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