Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Repurposing petroleum to build electric cars

The Hill illustration, Madeline Monroe/iStock

Today is Friday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here.

The “heavy, gloppy” leftovers from the petroleum refining process could become a key ingredient in making electric vehicles lighter, less expensive and more efficient, according to a team of scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As worldwide oil prices continue to escalate and electric vehicles become an increasingly attractive option to buyers, the researchers sought out a way to reduce the price point of these cars and make them operate better.

While materials made from carbon fiber — like those used for some tennis rackets or bicycles — combine strength with light weight, they are expensive to produce in comparison to those made from steel or aluminum, according to the scientists, who published their findings on Friday in Science Advances.

But the MIT scientists have found a way to make these fibers out of the “ultracheap feedstock” available from petroleum refinement called “petroleum pitch,” which is essentially a mix of heavy hydrocarbons.

“Pitch is incredibly messy,” research scientist Nicola Ferralis said in a statement.  “That’s actually what makes it beautiful in a way, because there’s so much chemistry that can be exploited. That makes it a fascinating material to start with.”

Today we’ll look at India’s recent decision to buy oil at a steep discount from Russia. Then we’ll move beyond the Earth’s atmosphere for a researcher who’s trying to build a framework for governing human conduct in orbit.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or feedback to selbein@thehill.com and sudasin@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.


India buys Russian oil, rebuffs pressure to sanction

The state-owned Indian Oil Corp. purchased 3 million barrels of crude oil from Russia this week to fulfill the country’s energy needs, despite pressure from Western nations to refrain from such transactions, The Associated Press reported.

Not only has India decided against an embargo on Russian oil, but New Delhi has also expressed intentions to purchase more, an Indian government official told the AP.

The Financial Times described India, the world’s third-largest energy consumer, as having “snapped up multiple cargoes of Russian oil.”  

First words: “Already committed oil cargoes from Russia that can’t find buyers in Europe are being bought by India,” Alex Booth, head of research at data analytics firm Kpler, told the Times. 

“Exports to India surged in March before any official announcement by New Delhi,” Booth added.  

Why did India make this choice? It was a steal of a deal. While the U.S., Britain and other Western countries have been discouraging India from taking such a step, Russia was offering a steep discount on oil sales — 20 percent below global benchmark prices — the AP reported, citing Indian media sources.

Recent global price surges have been a challenge for India, which relies on imports for 85 percent of the oil it consumes, according to the AP. Meanwhile, the country’s demand for oil is expected to jump 8.2 percent this year.

Sides of history: Earlier this week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that although Indian purchases of Russian oil wouldn’t violate U.S. sanctions, the country should “think about where you want to stand when history books are written.”



While India had not been sourcing much oil from Russia due to associated high shipping costs, Vivekanand Subbaraman, research analyst at Ambit Capital, told the Financial Times that “this appears to be changing.” 

“I think that all three state-owned refiners will purchase oil from Russia given how import dependent and politically sensitive energy is for Indians,” Subbaraman said.

On the defensive: Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi emphasized on Thursday that several European countries are still importing energy from Russia and that Russia has not been a major supplier of oil for India, the Hindustan Times reported.

Follow the money: One potential financial route for doing business with Russia cited by Indian media outlets has been a Soviet-era payment mechanism that trades Indian rupees for Russian rubles directly.  

This was a process designed during the Cold War to circumvent the U.S. dollar, New Delhi-based news analysis site ThePrint reported. India paid rupees for items purchased from Russia, equivalent to the value of the product in rubles.  

But government officials are doubtful that this type of payment mechanism could work in the same manner today, according to ThePrint.  

India’s view: Regardless of the payment method, India requires trade with Russia for its survival, Amit Cowshish, a retired Indian defense ministry official who previously oversaw India’s military acquisitions, told The Washington Post.

The country’s armed forces would be devastated within a year if New Delhi could not trade with Moscow, according to Cowshish. 

Read more here.


Heading off resource wars in space 

Timiebi Aganaba-Jeanty says that outer space has become a “totally Wild West” as a growing number of governmental and commercial entities elbow their way into the ambiguous legal environment above the Earth. 

Aganaba, a professor of Space and Society at Arizona State University’s (ASU) Interplanetary Initiative, sat down with Equilibrium to discuss how ideas from environmental law can help prevent conflict  through the new space race.

First words: In facing questions such as how to dispose of waste, how to mine resources and how to share vital goods including water and oxygen, “we have this frontier mentality that we can learn from and say, ‘Well, we don’t want to take the same mistakes into space,’” Aganaba told Equilibrium. 

Environmental law in space? Aganaba found that environmental law was a surprisingly good lens to study the fragile environment of human life in space.

A vast ocean: Like the oceans, whose size does little to protect the vulnerable, vital coasts, space’s apparently infinite vastness conceals the fact that the area available for human economic activity is shockingly limited — as are the resources of oxygen and water needed to survive there.  

Take the question of water and oxygen: In space they’ll be scarce, and future astronauts or colonists will have to either bring them along — or mine them from the environment. 

But the mining laws of Earth translate poorly to space, Aganaba said. The overarching legal treaty for space governance — the Outer Space Treaty, which she described as “the Constitution of space” — prohibits countries from “appropriation” of extraterrestrial environments.



“Non-appropriation” has been broadly interpreted to mean no planting of flags or claiming of territories — which on Earth are key first steps to the exploitation of resources, such as hydrogen and oxygen that colonists could have to mine to fabricate air and water. 

That’s a big legal challenge: “All the capitalists have a big problem with that,” Aganaba said, “Because they’re like, ‘Why would I go into space, invest in finding a mine — and then it belongs to the whole world?’”  

One possible answer: Some argue that while the mine couldn’t be appropriated, the resources could.

Countries could say that they won’t own, say, pieces of territory on the Moon, “but we will protect the rights of our citizens who actually go and get it.” 

But ‘protection’ is a risky concept: It runs into the other glaring hole in the Outer Space Treaty: The problem of military activity in space. When the treaty was signed in 1967 by the U.S., the then-Soviet Union and the U.K., space was only reachable by the craft of the two main superpowers. 

Space is already militarized: “We keep saying, ‘Should space be militarized? Should space be weaponized?’ without really recognizing that it already is,” Aganaba said. 

“The U.S. interpretation is peaceful means non-aggressive,” she added, but pointed out that during the 1991 Gulf War, space-based surveillance and communications steered missiles to their targets. “Would you say using GPS to navigate missiles is aggressive or not?”

What kind of space do we want? Without a firm, agreed-upon international legal environment for space, Aganaba argues we’ll get further conflict and militarization. 

Last words: “As a diversity, equity and inclusion person — I don’t want a domain that is exclusively militarized or for just the dominant actors,” Aganaba said.  

“As an African, if there are resources up there, if there are benefits up there, you know, the regular kids in Africa should be able to benefit from that too.” 

Read the full interview — which touches on the pivotal role the African Union could play in developing a new model space law — here.


Follow-up Friday 

Work from home, drive less, fly less to head off oil shocks: energy agency 

Manchin’s mixed messages a challenge for Democrats 

  • Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) played a key role in ending climate hawk Sarah Bloom Raskin’s candidacy at the Federal Reserve. Democrats are struggling to strike a balance between appeasing Manchin and recognizing that the senator is “burning hot when it comes to fossil fuels,” E&E reported. 

Lake Powell reservoir drops to dangerous lows 

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Monday.

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