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To Fear Peak Oil, Or to Pursue it? That is the Essential Limits to Growth Question

On a world in which fossil fuel burning is now in the process of setting off various events of geological scale, one of the things we could well hope for most is a peak in fossil fuel supply. Such an event would force countries and economies to adjust. To abandon business as usual economics and to rapidly shift to approaches that enhance and reinforce lifestyles and energy consumption behaviors that do not radically alter the world’s environment for the worst.

But, unfortunately, as we will see below, there is more than enough oil, gas, coal, brown coal, fracked oil and gas, gas hydrates, tar sands, kerogen and other fossil fuel stores to continue burning for years, decades and perhaps even centuries to come. So to hope for peak fossil fuel use, unless that peak is determined by responsible individual, community, and political action, is a false hope. An end that sets off terrible consequences. Even worse than those difficult to deal with problems we’ve already locked in.

USGS_-_Bazhenov_Formation_Oil_Reservoir

(The Bazhenov Shale Formation. An Arctic oil and gas reserve now accessible due to US driven technological ‘advancements’ in hydro-fracking. This vast pool of tight oil has 1.2 to 2 trillion barrels of oil in place of which 75 to 330 billion barrels are currently estimated to be recoverable [Depending on who is making the estimation — US or Russian Government]. It is, perhaps, not a coincidence that these reserves occur in the same region where troubling methane blow-holes first appeared this summer. It is this massive supply of oil that is being directly targeted by the Exxon-Mobile/Rosneft partnership before sanctions this week put the effort on hold. Accessing this massive carbon bomb would lock in billions of additional tons of CO2 release into the atmosphere while, by itself, delaying a global peak in oil production by years to decades. The consequences of burning this massive fuel source are almost certainly far worse than simply leaving it in the ground. Image source: Commons.)

*****

Back in the mid 2000s there was an oil industry energy consultant by the name of Matthew Simmons. And Simmons had developed a laser-like focus on a massive store of ‘easy oil’ in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. This store was locked in the great oil field called Ghawar. A self-pressurized dome that originally contained about 80 billion barrels of the hothouse gas firewater we call oil. Prick Ghawar with a drill and the stuff just came erupting out. Deceptively clear for all the btus of global atmospheric heating it contained.

At some point, the black magic of Ghawar began to fade. Saudi Arabia started to inject water into the Ghawar well to keep the oil flowing. This required more energy and increased costs. For Saudi Arabia and much of the world, the age of easy oil was coming to an end.

Simmons declared that peak oil was just around the corner. That global oil production couldn’t exceed 85 million barrels per day. And that the new, unconventional sources — locked in tight oil deposits and tar sands — were too difficult to extract. Peak oil analysts declared that the Bakken would never exceed a flow rate of 100,000 barrels per day. And the Eagle Ford Shale basin was just a glimmer in the eye of most analysts. Risks for an imminent peak in world oil supply did seem quite high.

Bakken_Reservoir_fields_in_Williston_Basin

(Map of the Bakken tight shale fields in the Williston Basin. The Bakken is estimated to contain 24 billion barrels of oil of which 7.3 billion barrels are currently considered to be technically recoverable. Image source: Commons.)

For some, for conservationists and those who are justifiably very concerned about the impacts of continued fossil fuel based carbon emissions on the world’s climate systems, the notion of an imminent peak in world oil supply came as welcome news. It would force economies to adjust to new structural and environmental realities and it would help to prevent some of the worst impacts of climate change. Certainly, there were still massive volumes of coal and natural gas to consider. But a peak in world oil production would lead to a variety of consumption reductions as well as help to advance renewable energy technology — so long targeted for delay and denial by oil and fossil fuel interests through their wealthy political backers.

For most market analysts and economists, peak oil was never an object. They believed the magic of market economics would always provide a new resource and that the price signal would be enough to produce more resources of different varieties. But these analysts were somewhat blind to the broader impacts of large governmental movements and of investment or failure to invest in new resources by communities, states, and policy-makers.

In many ways, all of these analysts held somewhat correct views. But contained to their narrow focus, they failed to accept where the others were correct or to see their own short-comings. A vocal portion of the peak oil analysts, led by Simmons, retained a narrow, and primarily easy oil and fossil fuel centered world-view that not only denigrated the effectiveness of new oil technology to over-come any peak oil situation, but also blithely dismissed much of the potential for renewables to take up for new energy production. They held a rigid view that only radically reduced consumption (and related implied wide-scale poverty and collapse back to 19th century standards of living) would result from peak oil and that such reduced consumption and collapse was needed and, indeed, would happen whether we liked it or not. Some conservationists seemed to glom on to the notion that renewables were not a desirable solution and this led steam to the anti-renewables faction.

Though the push for lower consumption from peak oilers and conservationists was somewhat helpful, without the renewable option their world-view led to more implied reliance on fossil fuels through active denial of alternatives. And it left the door wide open for new oil related extraction technologies to come charging in absent any wide-spread renewable energy adoption.

The market analysts were labeled ‘cornucopians’ by the more militant peak oilers or related agitators. In fact, this was a term that seemed to include anyone who supported any technology whatsoever, including sustainability based technical solutions. Contrary to peak oilers, the analysts pushed a view that the supply crunch, at first, wouldn’t happen. And, when they were proven wrong, went about cheer-leading for the new fracking technologies and for opening up the unconventional oil basins.

An outside group of progressives pushed hard for new renewable resources. And, given the opening provided by high fuel prices, they were partially successful, despite the constant attacks coming from renewable energy detractors and in spite of a broad front of oil industry advanced extraction technologies competing in the energy investment sector.

Consequent to Simmons’ warnings, a peak in conventional fuels did happen during the period of 2006 to 2008. Prices rocketed and economies were jarred by the shock. A shift toward more renewable energy and efficiency was driven by the crisis. Consumption fell and the world economy stalled in a combined energy and market derivatives crash. But the market signal and increased prices for energy unlocked technology that lead to the rapid expansion of production in Bakken, Eagle Ford, in Canada’s tar sands and in other far-flung basins around the globe.

EIA_Map_of_Eagle_Ford_Shale_Play

(EIA map of the Eagle Ford shale play in South Texas. It’s a basin that extends into North Mexico and contains an estimated 10 billion barrels of recoverable together with trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Image source: Commons.)

Today, the wretched energy and carbon intensive and highly polluting process that is fracking now squeezes 1 million barrels per day out of the Bakken formation. It wrings 1.7 million barrels per day out of the Eagle Ford formation. Add this staggering production gain to other fracking and conventional extraction efforts across the country and we find that the United States now produces a staggering 13.9 million barrels of liquid fuels per day.

This makes the US the highest volume liquid fuels producer in the world on the back of a terrible breaking of the ground and increasing extraction of a fuel source that is already in the process of wrecking the world’s climate.

Globally, despite struggling production in the Middle East and elsewhere, production of the firewater continued to rise. Canada’s tar sands production spiked to more than 2 million barrels per day with the Arctic state planning for a jump to 5 million barrels per day by 2030. An ongoing carbon bomb explosion that, by itself, could well be described as a tract of human-generated flood basalt.

These and other oil sources combined with enhanced extraction to push global daily oil production from 85 million barrels per day during the mid 2000s to approaching 92 million barrels per day in 2014. This on the back of oil reserves additions in the form of tar sands at 168 billion barrels of extractable oil (total reserve at around 300 billion barrels), Eagle Ford at 10 billion barrels of currently recoverable oil (total reserve at 80 billion barrels), West Texas at 30-75 billion barrels of recoverable oil, Bakken at 7.3 billion barrels of recoverable reserves, and many other regions around the world that are now seeing new oil extraction or enhanced oil extraction.

Permian_Basin

(The Permian Basin of West Texas now containing between 30-75 billion barrels of recoverable oil due to climate-endangering fracking technology. Image source: Commons.)

So Simmons was wrong on the issue of oil peaking at 85 million barrels per day, and many peak oil analysts along with him.

And so it goes with the global fossil fuels story. As of 2014 we burn more oil, gas and coal than we ever have and global peak oil has again been removed to some future date. The global carbon emission is now enough to completely overshoot the lower range IPCC emissions scenarios and we are staring down the face of the highly unpleasant middle and worst case ranges. So in this respect, a number of peak oilers were dreadfully wrong — peak oil did not save us from climate change. In fact, bad effects are now locked in and the debate has shifted to whether or not there is enough extractable oil, gas and coal to hit the worst case scenarios.

But if history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme. For now it appears that both Eagle Ford and Bakken, due to the nature of rapid fracked well depletion, will peak sometime during 2016 and 2020. And the peak oilers are now having a bit of a rally, as challenges to global production, many of them political, are also continuing to expand.

On The Verge of a Voluntary Peak

The environmentalists and scientists, thankfully, appear to be on the verge of successfully putting a crimp on Canada’s tar sands production. The US has sanctioned Russian oil production and a massive set of Arctic and shale reserves many times the US tight shale reserve hangs in the balance (a resource of ultimate reserves on the order of 1.2-2 trillion barrels of oil of oil in place). Barriers to fracking are rising and companies, facing a production glut today and investor uncertainty tomorrow, are in the process of consolidation and retraction.

China is pledging to vastly reduce fossil fuel consumption growth and many oil exporters are beginning to wonder if they’ll have a market for their products there. Around the world, the situation is similar as governments and consumers both push for less use of dirty, dangerous, depleting and costly fossil fuels.

In addition, renewable energy and alternatives have never been more widely available. Solar panel costs are down and EROEI is up. Wind power beats fossil fuel generation in most markets even when considering a natural gas glut due to fracking. Electric vehicles continue to become more widely available and CAFE standards around the world keep rising. An expanding movement is afoot to shift diets to less meat intensive ones — thereby pushing for a reduction in both the land and fossil-fuel use footprint of agriculture. And all these changes aim directly at reducing fossil fuel demand and consumption, generating impetus, along with the political movements targeting both new and old sources for an artificial, voluntary peak in fossil fuel flows.

And this is exactly what we would desire, a direct refusal of business as usual economics. A voluntary taking on of responsible action, economic transition, and behavior change needed to reduce and eventually eliminate an extraordinarily damaging carbon pollution. As has been said, the Stone Age didn’t come to an end for lack of stones. And this could well be the case with fossil fuels, if we actively make that choice. Whether or not it happens essentially depends on people’s perception of the need for it to happen.

Fear of Peak Oil as a Means To Force Continuation of Business as Usual

But the voluntary peak is no-where near a pre-ordained certainty. There is an extraordinarily strong array of political forces aimed at both denying the existence of climate-related harm and doing everything possible to extend business as usual fossil fuel extraction for so long as it is economically and technologically possible. To deny the expansion of renewable energy access and to block access to measures that reduce consumption. To, overall, degrade the political will to respond effectively to a climate crisis that is directly linked to ongoing fossil fuel burning.

And one potential political lever for this forced extension is advancing the fear of peak oil. For if people are wrongly led to believe that peak oil is a worse event than climate change, then it is unlikely people will make the changes necessary to transition away from fossil fuels. They, like the climate change deniers, will cling to fossil fuel extraction in the same way passengers unaware of the existence of life-rafts will cling to the upper tiers of a sinking ship.

How does fear of peak oil work? It’s simple.

First deny, degrade or ignore any potential value to human civilization for renewable energy sources (this is easy for oil industry folks, because they’ve had years of practice advancing anti-renewables misinformation). This includes using energy return on energy invested (EROEI) figures that are outdated or simply false.

eroi_500x220

(In the EROEI battle, renewables win the electricity production race hands down. From top to bottom: light green = hydroelectric, teal = wind, purple = coal, light blue = nat gas, dark green = photovoltaic solar, and dark blue = nuclear. It’s worth noting that solar pv energy return on energy invested continues to rise and is now estimated at 7 according to newer figures. It is also worth noting that the best energy return on investment for individual vehicle transportation comes from an electric vehicle plugged into a renewables fed grid. Image source: Scientific American.)

Second, declare an extreme supply-side ideology in which only fossil fuels have any practical means to fulfill supply needs. In this view, all farming relies on fossil fuels and cannot trade inputs or flexibly change how food is produced to help ensure resiliency (meat to veg, polyculture agriculture, edible landscaping, individually grown gardens, etc). So if fossil fuels peak, access to food is seen to peak as well.

Third, over-emphasize the value of fossil fuels to all levels of civilization with the implied need for fossil fuel related industry to support civilization.

This mind-set is in direct contradiction to the appeal first advanced by Limits to Growth authors for a transition to a sustainable civilization that did not rely on environment-polluting and resource-destroying energy sources as the basis for its prosperity. In fact, it directly obscures the need for such solutions by placing the notion that civilization is only sustainable so long as fossil fuels are available and that civilization inevitably dies without them.

From LTG:

If society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between rich and poor, and optimize for short-term gain.

And it is reliance on fossil-fuel based technology that directly reinforces the vicious cycle that Meadows so eloquently describes above.

The final element of the fear peak oil and cling to fossil fuels mind-set is to, at last, deny climate change and, more specifically, to deny that enough fossil fuels remain in the ground to set off climate change that is a threat to human civilization. And it is in this assertion, that they have excessively over-reached and are baldly incorrect (as many who keep tabs here are well aware).

massive carbon reserve

(More and more of a globally estimated 13-20 trillion tons worth of fossil-fuel based carbon are unlocked through advancing extraction technology each year. Is it really a sensible approach to simply wait for such technologies to fail? Image source: IPCC.)

Negative Impacts of Climate Change Now Ongoing, More than Enough Fossil Fuels to Wreck the Climate Many Times Over

So with oil and fossil fuels demand now in trouble due to a broad political and grass-roots response, due to spreading measures that reduce fossil fuel consumption, and due to rapidly expanding ease of access to various renewable energy based technologies, a new Matthew Simmons – type view has emerged.

The view is that Bakken and Eagle Ford are about to peak and with it, North American fossil fuel production will plateau or start falling and that a global peak is in the offing sometime around 2030. As with the Ghawar field focus, the view is likely correct in micro. The fields will probably peak by 2016-2020 and global oil production during the same period will (thankfully) suffer due to a combination of reluctance to invest on the part of oil companies, political constraints that hamper oil flows in Asia and the Middle East, and due to broader conservation measures and alternative energy adoption that begins to put the crimp on world oil demand.

And how we respond to this potential crisis in world oil supply will have far-reaching impacts for both energy and climate going forward. If we see the peak as something we must avoid at all costs, what we will witness is the rapid expansion of fracking in foreign countries to include the exploitation of massive tight fuel resources in Russia and China. We will see the expansion of US oil production through enhanced extraction in the West Texas formation. We will see the barriers to tar sands extraction fall and Canadian tar sands oil rocket to 5 million barrels per day. We’ll see the China syngas operation horrifically expand to an environmental catastrophe to rival that of Canada’s tar sands. And we’ll see the first forays into gas hydrate extraction. We’ll see more coal plants converted to burn brown coal – a massive resource already exploited in conventional coal-poor regions. And we’ll see oil extraction extend into the climatologically violent Arctic.

This expansion will not come without its severe costs. Fossil fuel prices will rise, poverty in many regions will expand. But without some major catastrophic event, net consumption, driven by an ever-expanding fossil fuel and related industry, will continue to increase over at least the next two decades and may well extend beyond 2030 as the massive unconventional resources continue to be tapped. For the political will for reducing such consumption will have been subsumed by fear of peak oil and the alternatives will, again, have been tamped down.

Or, instead, we can embrace peak oil and stop trying to fight off what will inevitably occur over the course of decades or centuries. We can actively decide to change how much and what we consume and we can push hard for renewable energy and broad sustainability measures in agriculture. And through that action we might prevent a portion of the climate catastrophe we have already partly locked in. We can learn not to fear peak oil, but to pursue it, along with the will-full and socially chosen peaking of all fossil fuel sources. We can say goodbye to the age of burning and open a new age where we attempt to deal with the consequences of fossil fuel based industrialism before it’s too late. Before we no longer have the opportunity to.

That’s our choice. But going into it, don’t be comforted with false notions that we don’t have enough carbon sources to wreck the climate. And don’t, for goodness sake, embrace the notion that peak oil is the worst problem we face. Instead, it is a necessary problem. Part of the active and, admittedly, difficult act of changing how we live and of attempting to make human civilization both a more resilient and less harmful beast.

Links:

Bakken Shale Oil Boom

Eagle Ford Crosses 1.5 Million Barrels Per Day in September

US Energy Information Agency’s Short Term Energy Outlook

The Case For a Moratorium on Tar Sands Development

Alberta Energy

West Texas Shale Could Dwarf Eagle Ford

Permian Basin Oil Production

How Many Barrels are in the Bakken?

The Bazhenov Formation

Behind the Numbers on Energy Return on Investment

The Ghawar Oil Field

Limits to Growth

Twilight in the Desert

Hat tip to Pintada (in answer to some of your questions)

 

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Growth Shock Launch: “I Have a Confession to Make … We are in Trouble”

Some of you may have noted my absence. I’ve been nose-deep in completing the launch of a book that has been about 10 years in the making: Growth Shock. It developed both from my experience as an emerging threats expert for Jane’s Information Group and related consulting efforts, later from my connection to thousands of wonderful young people, many of them disadvantaged, through a 6 six year schools campaign, and finally through participation in the direct actions that were Occupy Wall Street and the 2012 Stop the Pipeline demonstration sponsored by 350.org in Washington, DC.

At some point, in the support of these direct actions for positive change, I developed the notion of channeling my energies and talents into works as actions. Growth Shock is the first of these. (Learn more in Growth Shock, Going on Offense and Setting an Example for Kindness Economics.)

Growth Shock Cover Art

(Growth Shock now available)

In support of these efforts, at least 60% of the book’s proceeds will go to 350.org (40%) and to direct funding for freedom from fossil fuels (FEFF) for individuals, localities and communities (20%). But I’m not stopping with these actions. An upcoming third speculative fiction novel in the Luthiel’s Song series will be re-named The Death of Winter and I will be organizing a campaign to raise energy transition funds for public schools around the sales campaign for this book (more on this later). Another publication effort examining the loss of glacial and sea ice and its consequences will direct funds to scientific research through the Dark Snow Project and to help support  James Hansen’s continued work at Columbia University. A fourth and still unnamed publication will also be directed toward reinvigorating policy efforts to rationally and benevolently restrain human population with an ultimate goal to bringing it, along with consumption, back into balance with Earth Systems and to back out of our current and dangerous overshoot. These efforts will likely take years to complete. But they are now on the table.

The Death of Winter

Luthiel’s Song Book III to be re-named: The Death of Winter

This is not at all to denigrate the need for direct action, campaigning, and demonstration. When possible, I will continue to participate in these efforts. But my goal will be to organize my life and my means of life support to also support systems that re-invigorate, restore, renew, and enlighten. This is the basis for the kindness economics proposed in Growth Shock — that our life works re-weave humankind back into the web of life, that we stop breaking it, and that we develop human technologies and thought systems that support life, rather than harm it.

But we’re a long, long way from any of that. And, at this very late hour, some of us are only just beginning to respond as others still languish or remain trapped, captives to systems of harmful consumption and harmful action. Meanwhile, climate change, overpopulation, resource depletion and the institutionalized and greed re-inforced systems that lock the technologies, policies, cultures and thought-systems that cause such harm in place are now in a critical phase of crisis, a phase where harm from these four forces is ramping ever higher, causing great fractures through the structures of modern civilization. Like the metaphorical lemmings, we still run headlong toward the precipice. Sooner or later, we will go over.

Unless we stop. Unless we back away.

We haven’t done this yet. We haven’t even slowed down. And, for this reason, we are in deep, deep trouble.

What follows is an opener to the book Growth Shock. But for you, I’ll provide a bit of qualification. The situation is a shade or two worse than even what I describe in the intro. Though I still believe it is possible for us to stop, to turn around and to make the needed changes, the effort required will be so great that the difference between the death-fed and destruction-creating human world of now and the vital, healthy, sustainable, and reinvigorating the heartbeat of nature human world of our best future is a vast chasm. A great rift that may well be impossible to cross for individuals, communities, and nations. This does not diminish our need to try, to at least make a grand attempt before being overwhelmed by the darkness. To level all our intellect, creativity and tool making abilities toward effecting a positive change, toward reversing the terrible disaster we’ve now set in motion that has already been, for many of the innocent creatures of our world, a horrible apocalypse…

***

Excerpted from Growth Shock:

I have a confession to make. One that is not easy to vocalize. One that is equally difficult to listen to. My confession is not one of a personal nature. I am not revealing my own, petty, individual sins. Instead, I’m making a confession for us all. A revelation of the ongoing and maturing tragedy of our race. One we will each need to be made aware of soon if we are to effectively act. For the age of excess is rapidly coming to a close and we are now entering a difficult and hard to manage age of consequences.

My confession is simply this: we are in trouble. A kind of trouble that is both typical to all living creatures and beyond the scope of anything we humans have yet witnessed. A kind of trouble that is both born of the natural world and directly caused by us.

Our trouble is that over the course of the next century we will run head-long into a number of very difficult to manage shocks that are the result of our unsustainable growth. How we confront these shocks will determine whether or not human civilization survives to reach the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th centuries or whether we, at the very least, encounter a coming age of darkness and decline.

That we will encounter some trouble is now unavoidable. At this point, all we can do is seek to reduce the scale of that trouble and lessen the harm that is its inevitable result. A decade or two ago, if we had acted sooner and with due urgency, we might have prevented harm. But harm is already upon us, growing worse with each passing year. And though our trouble has already become apparent to many, we still languish, squandering the time and effort needed to manage the emerging shocks even as they grow more deadly and dangerous.

If we decide to confront these troubles, what lies before us are many decades or more of sustained effort to reduce the damage we have inflicted upon ourselves efforts from which may arise a new golden age should we overcome these troubles. For pushing beyond our current limits through renewable energy systems, providing direct supports to heal the living world we depend on, establishing more kind and inclusive economic systems, and undergoing the general transition to sustainability necessary to deal with our current crisis results in an ever-expanding justice and prosperity. The potential for a true world without end.

If we do not act, a massive and rapid decline of human civilizations, a mass extinction in the oceans and on land, and a radical re-shaping of the Earth’s environment to a state far more hostile to humankind are all in the offing.

This is my confession. For it is the truth or our age. It is our dire tragedy, and our great hope. For we are living in the age of Growth Shock.

US Energy Experiences Natural Gas to Coal Whiplash; Natural Gas ‘Bridge to Sustainability’ Collapses Yet Again

Ugly Coal

(A Coal Plant Dumping its Toxic Brew into the Atmosphere. Image source: Climate Crocks)

Natural gas was supposed to act as a bridge to sustainability. Fracking and increased drilling were supposed to reduce US reliance on high-carbon coal. But in 2013, coal consumption is again rising. So what the hell happened?

In short, history repeated itself and energy markets have experienced yet another natural gas to coal whiplash….

Natural gas is an inherently volatile energy source. As prices rise, new sources are sought out, new technologies applied to its extraction and, if depletion barriers are overcome, a surge of new supplies are brought to market. Then, as the wave of new supplies comes to dominate, prices crash. Rushing in to take advantage of the falling prices, the utility companies engage in a generational shift to natural gas electricity production. This increasing consumption of natural gas has two effects. It puts a bottom on natural gas prices and it reduces coal-fired power generation by becoming more competitive on the basis of price. A result of these changes is that US CO2 emissions fall. But, due to the market whip-lash effect of natural gas, these reductions are only temporary.

On the supply side, as natural gas prices fall, less and less producers are able to make a profit. The rate of drilling that drove both the boom and the glut slows to a trickle. This happens even as utilities and other natural gas users demand more of the low cost substance. As a result, prices begin to rise. But since drilling rigs are now allocated elsewhere and natural gas producers are cautious to return to aggressive drilling, supply doesn’t keep pace with demand. Eventually prices rise to the point where natural gas is again, less competitive with coal. Utilities, to preserve their balance sheets, shift back to black rock fuel and carbon emissions again rise.

The 2013 Whiplash

In 2013, US energy markets and related CO2 emissions are now experiencing just this kind of whiplash. After falling to a low price of around $2.60 per million btu, natural gas has been trading in a range between $3.60 and $4.25 since May of this year. And the effect on energy markets has been profound. The result, as Joe Romm implied in his allegorical article ‘Bridge Out’ is that the entirely ephemeral natural gas bridge to sustainability has again disappeared. According to Romm’s excellent article:

Coal’s share of total domestic power generation in the first four months of 2013 averaged 39.5%, compared with 35.4% during the same period last year, according to the Energy Information Administration [EIA]…. By contrast, natural gas generation averaged about 25.8% this year, compared with 29.5% a year earlier.

In the words of another brand of popular fiction: what the frack?

The long touted bridge to sustainability has, yet again, failed. And we find ourselves increasing consumption, yet again, of the worst emitting fuel source — coal. As a result, US carbon emissions are, after about four years of decline, expected to rise in 2013. The US Energy Information Agency projects that the US will emit 2.4% more CO2 than it did last year. But, should the coal surge continue through end of year, this carbon emissions backslide could be even worse than predicted.

Natural Gas: Unreliable Bridge, Bad Help

Sadly, even the reduced CO2 emissions that came, in part, as a result of a temporary shift to natural gas generation also brought with it a terrible cost. Fracked wells drove the most recent boom and bust whip-lash cycle. They were a rapidly depleting, temporary measure to increase production, and these costly wells emit far more methane than their contemporary counter parts. Some studies have even noted that methane leaks via the fracking process make natural gas a more harmful than coal when net carbon emissions are taken into account.

Perhaps worse, the fracked wells also threaten underground and surface water sources from both cracks in the casing pipes and toxic effluent at the numerous and proliferating drill sites. Further, water use in fracking is voracious and, in many cases, adds another burden to fresh water supplies.

Water stress is rising across the United States with fossil water in the Ogallala rapidly depleting even as the US West suffers year after year from a widening climate-change induced drought. With fracking threatening the purity and safety of dwindling supplies, numerous cities and one New Mexico county have banned the enhanced extraction process in an effort to protect municipal water.

In the end, high cost natural gas fracking efforts have managed a temporary reduction in US CO2 emissions at the cost of rising methane emission and harm to water supplies. The flood of new gas also likely delayed or replaced some efforts to transition to the more effective pollution reducing sources of wind and solar. Finally, the price whip lash inherent to natural gas production has returned markets, yet again, to rising coal use.

The term for this is bad help. Very bad help. In short, no fossil fuels represent a solution to climate change or enhance sustainability. They are all dirty, dangerous, and depleting.

To this point, I’ll leave you with the trailer to the must-seem Gasland II:

Growth Shock and Our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation and Adaptation, or Harm

Climate change, a topic that once was the purview of scientists and academics, has now become a central issue in today’s political and social discussion. The primary reason for this shift is the emergence of increasingly abnormal, damaging, and severe weather events that have come with greater and greater frequency to plague the world’s cities, states and nations. Tornadoes have devoured entire towns, hurricanes have become more numerous and powerful, freak hybrid superstorms are now a serious risk, 100 year flood events have become commonplace, wildfires are now endemic, causing damage in the billions of dollars annually, and immense country-spanning droughts now range the globe.

A secondary reason for our growing awareness is that it is becoming obvious that the world’s ice sheets are in rapid retreat even as sea levels are on the rise. Nine out of ten glaciers are in decline. The great ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland lose hundreds of cubic miles of ice annually. The resultant sea level rise driven by this melt and by thermal expansion of the oceans puts entire cities, states and nations into existential crisis. By the end of this century, practically all of south Florida may be little more than a shrinking archipelago. Some Pacific island nations are planning their inevitable evacuation to places like Australia, New Zealand, or the continents. Almost all coastal cities will be forced to expend significant monies and resources over the next century if they are to have any hope of warding off the rising seas and more powerful storms. An effort that, in the end, may well prove in vain.

It is a slow motion disaster movie script that plays before our eyes now, almost weekly, on the evening news. And there are many, many events that the mainstream media does not cover, likely due to the fact that it has become saturated with stories of this kind.

Growth Shock and Climate Change

Unfortunately this rising climate change emergency is just one aspect of a larger crisis of civilization-wide Growth Shock. Growth Shock is a dangerous condition brought on by a combination of our inexorably expanding global population, our over consumption of renewable and non-renewable resources, and the damage to our environment via carbon pollution that results in climate change. These three forces are all enabled by a great human limiter — Greed — which has been institutionalized in so many of the world’s corporations and is deeply imbedded both explicitly and implicitly in the world’s political systems and ideologies. So to solve climate change, we will also have to do much better at solving the problems of overpopulation, dangerous and violent methods of resource consumption, and the underlying disease of human greed.

To this point it is worth considering a statement from the ground-breaking sustainability work The Limits to Growth:

“If a society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then that society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and optimize for short term gains. In short, that society develops technologies and markets that hasten a collapse instead of preventing it.”

I have also just completed my own work on the issue entitled Growth Shock: Tragedy and Hope at the Limits of a Finite World which will see electronic publication within the next two weeks.

Here is the cover image, brilliantly rendered by Matthew Friedman, in which the Vitruvian Man (representing the unsustainable and exploitative structures of humankind) seems to have grown too big for his own good and struggles unhappily against the globe’s confines:

Growth Shock Cover Art

The roll-out for this work will proceed over the next two weeks and it will be managed in such a way as to responsibly redistribute proceeds to charitable causes that, in my view, have been most effective in working to reduce the harm caused by Growth Shock and the related climate emergency (more on this later).

In any case, as climate change is one of the four forces enabling Growth Shock, we have come to a time where we are compelled to make choices and act in ways that prevent further harm through mitigation, to attempt to adapt to the growing nightmare that is now upon us, or to make the choice to fail to act and therefore increase the degree and velocity of harm coming down the pipe.

Mitigation

The obvious and worsening climate emergency that we are now just starting to experience has galvanized a growing cadre of grass roots organizations and individuals dedicated to the cause of preventing as much of the coming damage as possible. These advocates of mitigation believe that strong action now has the greatest chance of reducing future harm. And their efforts and advocacy are based in the sciences. With extreme weather and damaging events ramping up at 400 ppm CO2, the situation is bound to be far worse at 450, 550, 700, or the 900 ppm CO2 predicted under business as usual by the end of this century. Mitigation advocates are clear in the understanding that the less CO2 and other greenhouse gasses we emit, the less dangerous the ultimate crisis will become.

Mitigation and preventing future harm, therefore, must rely on a combination of efforts. Rapidly increasing renewable energy development will be needed to replace a large enough portion of fossil fuel use to sustain life support systems for the planet’s 7 billion human beings. This will involve a politically difficult replacement of fossil energy sources with clean sources like wind and solar as well as the regulation and eventual elimination of carbon emissions altogether. A more efficient use of space and, over all, more efficient life styles will also do much to prevent damage through both reducing energy and materials consumption. Such a transition will be difficult under current economies that are designed to endlessly increase the consumption of materials, labor, and resources all while funneling wealth to the top of social systems. These social and economic structures dangerously enhance the level of damage we cause and so must be challenged and called into question if we are to make much head-way.

To this point, a large shift away from the massive agribusiness of meat farming may well be needed. Today, more than 65 billion livestock are estimated to be held in states of captivity far more brutal and intolerable than even the worst-treated of human criminals. The lifespans of most of these creatures is doomed to a tortuously short 1-4 years and the unspeakable suffering many experience during their times as livestock animals is a black scar of atrocity born by our race.

An estimated 40% of the world’s grain crop goes to supporting this terrible and inhumane manifestation of food industry. Further, the lion’s share of the 30% of human greenhouse gas emissions attributed to human agriculture is based in the meat industry. As such, our industry enhanced dependence on harming animals for food and materials is likely to have to be greatly abated as part of a comprehensive climate change mitigation action. In any case, the amoral practices required by industry to produce such high volumes of meat render it ethically as well as physically unsustainable.

A true comprehensive mitigation will also have to redefine current paradigms of growth and wealth generation. Economic systems will have to become less focused on short term gains and concentrating wealth at the top and more focused on long-term prosperity and survivability through a more equal sharing of and access to more limited resources. The exploitative paradigm of pure capitalism has failed and failed again. This is largely due to the fact that pure capitalism tends to demand all responsibility be placed on the less fortunate and successful masses as the more fortunate are enabled to behave as little more than privileged anarchists. To mitigate the social shocks that are inevitable during a climate crisis and to reign in the massive, excessive and abusive over-use of resources by the wealthy, more responsibility must be demanded from the most privileged members of societies. Wealth compression, therefore, is an effective tool in reducing the harm caused by an over-consumption of resources at the upper rungs of civilization where some members consume more than 100,000 times the resources of a subsistence farmer and about 3,000 times the resources of a person living in today’s middle class.

Since the levels of exploitation and consumption that have enabled climate change to run rampant are encouraged and required by today’s neo-liberal and globalized brand of capitalism, this manifestation of capitalism must be reigned in, caged and defanged if we are to have much hope of mitigating the larger crisis of climate change.

Adaptation

Since we missed our chance to mitigate much of the damage from climate change by about 30 years (we’d have been much better off if we began rapid CO2 reductions, sustainability and wealth compression efforts in the 70s and 80s), a massive effort to adapt to the changes now set in motion will probably be necessary. It is likely that we’ve already locked in many decades of increasingly severe weather, and, likely, centuries of rising seas. Ultimate sea level rise based on the current level of CO2 in the atmosphere will probably terminate at between 15 and 75 feet higher than the current day (rising at between 5 and 15 feet per century). These changes are probably locked in now even if we halt all CO2 emissions today. But, more likely, our best realistic hope is probably to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels at around 450 parts per million, which would result in higher-end damages being locked in for centuries.

As a result, if we are to continue to have powerful, resilient civilizations at the global and continental levels, then we must do serious work to make those civilizations more resilient. Entire cities may have to be moved or surrounded by increasingly tall flood barriers. New port systems will have to be devised to cope with changing sea levels. Architects and engineers will have to alter building and structure design to deal with more vicious storms and weather conditions. Farming will have to become more adaptive. The world’s agricultural systems will have to do more with less. Most likely, humans will have to rely more on grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts (which are more efficient ways to transfer energy and nutrients to the human body) and far less on meat (also a mitigation as described above). We may need to expend resources to ensure that our fellow living creatures, which provide essential life support services, do not become extinct. In short, what damage we cannot prevent via mitigation, we will have to learn to adapt to. As such, human civilization will probably need to take more responsibility in both defending itself and the natural world from the harm that is now coming.

Harm

With carbon pollution already reaching dangerous and excessive levels, any choices that do not mitigate (prevent) or help adapt to future climate change result in an increasing degree and velocity of harm. These choices include climate change denial — which not only insanely disputes the basic physical science behind the effect of greenhouse gasses on Earth’s climate but also ignorantly attributes current increasingly severe weather, temperature and sea level rise to a scientific ‘natural variability’ that denial proponents, purposefully or through blatant stupidity, misrepresent and misunderstand. This is not to confuse those who are understandably scared by the force that is climate change and have succumbed to the natural, though in this case irrational, human response to withdraw from and avoid danger. Political climate change denial seeks to exploit this natural human response for short term political and economic gain and, as such, must be viewed as anathema. Human denial and avoidance of harm, however, is a basic instinct-driven response that must be rationally addressed. In the case of harm caused by climate change, the only rational way to avoid it is through mitigation and adaptation. Denial of the physical forces of the universe unleashed by human over-consumption and institutionalized greed, on the other hand, is little more than a withdrawal into the realm of wishful thinking. Denial, in both cases, causes inaction and paralysis, enables the continuation of business as usual, and, therefore, increases harm.

To this point, any efforts to slow down or reduce mitigation efforts also increases the velocity and force of the harm now rushing toward us. Pressures to slowly mitigate and gradually adapt may seem rational at first, but result in a less tenable future long term. Responses need to be measured, organized and swift — like the emergency procession to lifeboats aboard a sinking ship. Irrationally clinging to damaging systems for as long as possible amounts to playing fiddle on the deck as the critical time to find a place aboard a lifeboat trickles away.

Depression is another natural human response to challenges that far exceed the scope of an individual to overcome. In this case, social depression over climate change has manifest in a form of doomerism that clings to the notion that any action in the face of a growing crisis is futile. To the doomers, I would like to say this:

If there is even a small chance that mitigation and adaptation will bring us through the crisis, then shouldn’t we pursue all efforts and make that likelihood as great as possible? What if the British and the French had simply given up in the face of what, to them, must have seemed an invincible German military juggernaut during the early days of World War II (in fact, their early denial that a problem existed at all set up the conditions for this terrible war in the first place)? To the doomers I would say that the more we fail to respond, the worse the crisis becomes. And a crisis always seems most insurmountable at its start and just before creative response is initiated. Though it is true that many civilizations have failed in the past when confronted with problems that are similar to ours and that climate change, especially, tends to crush civilizations by creating problems that are outside of its ability to evolve and adapt, failure to respond almost always ensures collapse. We may argue now that response is too little too late, but we really won’t know unless we’ve expended all efforts. And so all efforts are, therefore, entirely moral and appropriate.

Lastly, a number of entrenched special interests are heavily invested in harm. These include the world’s fossil fuel companies, the industrial meat industries, a number of investment banking firms that support and profit from such activities via financing, and a large supply chain of industries that produce products based on these activities. Since the resources and profits of these industries are, in part, shared with broader society via the stock market and through the production of cheap, easy to access, goods and services, many states, cities and individuals are also, wittingly or unwittingly invested in harm. As such, a turning away from harm will require conscious choices on the part of individuals, cities, states and industries to not only divest in stock portfolios that profit from harm but also to actively change behavior, methods of consumption and materials use. As we begin this process, entrenched industries and individuals that profit from harmful and exploitative activities are likely to dig in and fight every step of the way. They will attempt to deny us product choices via legislation and market dominance even as they attempt to pretend that harm coming from their practices is both natural and inevitable (directly or indirectly enhancing denialism and doomerism). This institutionalized, irrational and entrenched manifestation of human greed represents the center of gravity of harm coming from human systems and, if we can address it, it is likely that both denial and doomerism will fade.

Considering Moral Responses

In the end, any action that delays or prevents a swift, encompassing, and organized response to climate change increases the level of harm that we are in for. Such a choice, whether conscious or not, is essentially amoral in that it reduces civilization’s chance to survive an emerging existential crisis. A choice that eventually results in an escalating level of damage and loss of lives and livelihoods.

So we’ve come to a tough pass and these, whether we realize it or not, are our choices:

1. To prevent and mitigate harm.

2. To do our best to adapt to the harm that is coming.

3. Or to increase the degree and velocity of harm by failing to act.

My best hopes are for your courage to make the just choices for the sake of you, your family, and for all of us. This is our responsibility to ourselves and each other. And the time to act is now, now, NOW.

Drill Baby, Drill and Climate Change Game Over: US Oil Production Hit Record Growth In 2012

Fracking in Pinedale

(A Fracking Operation in Pinedale, Wyoming. Image source: here)

According to this report in the Wall Street Journal, US ‘oil’ production surged by 14 percent in 2012 to nearly 9 million barrels per day (this figure includes natural gas liquids, hence the quotations, actual crude oil production was about 7 million barrels per day).

This surge in production was fueled, primarily, by a broad application of hydrolic fracturing technology to enhance the rate at which oil and related fuels are squeezed from the ground. Little in the way of new discoveries have resulted in this enhanced flow of climate fire-juice. Instead, new technologies have been aimed at the old, tired, or difficult to reach sources in order to squeeze more from the ground.

It’s a tough gamble for oil and gas companies. The reason is that a massive investment in new drilling rigs and an ever increasing number of fracked wells is required to sustain this large pulse of new oil. By end of 2012, more than 43,500 wells had been drilled, and, perhaps more importantly, a record 19,000 wells were fracked over the same period. All this drilling and fracking activity costs a lot of money. So a price of oil above 95 dollars is required to sustain most marginal operators.

Tellingly, with a slight fall in world oil prices over the past spring, the rate of new wells drilled had dropped and is projected to fall below 2012 numbers by about 1,500 to around 42,000 by end of 2013. US natural gas production has already leveled off due to lower prices and a large portion of this rig count drop includes the lag due to lower natural gas prices. But traditional oil well drilling is also sliding off. So the new focus is primarily on tight oil and oil shale fracking.

Fracking is an energy and water intensive process that costs much more than a traditional oil well. It also results in increased risks of ground-water contamination. So communities across the US have been forced to choose between oil and gas extraction, and keeping their water supplies safe. There is also a longer-term choice on global climate, which we’ll discuss more in detail below.

As noted above, marginal prices need to remain above 95 dollars per barrel for the highest cost operators to make a profit. Embedded in this high marginal price for shale oil is the fact that most fracked wells have a high depletion rate. The result is that flows from these wells drop off dramatically over time. So more and more wells need to be fracked each year to keep overall flow rates high. The end result is that fracked well production creates a net cliff in fracking dependent oil in a 10-15 year time-frame. New basins of fractured oil will, therefore, need to be accessed to keep flow rates high.

Nonetheless, the US is likely to continue to see higher rates of oil production over the coming 5-10 years due to this fracking boom. But at the cost of much more expensive oil and ever-increasing damage to the world’s climate.

Fracking Climate Change Game Over

Oil fracking is a form of enhanced oil extraction. As such, it enables a more rapid extraction of existing oil reserves and, to  a degree, opens reserves that were previously uneconomic to extract. Since less than 1/3 of current fossil fuel reserves can be burned while still maintaining a vague hope of keeping warming below the dangerous 2 degrees Celsius threshold by the end of this century, the race to drill and frack more wells and increase oil production is a race toward climate change game over.

Fracking also results in large methane seeps from fractured wells. These seeps are not included in fossil fuel reserves, yet they still end up in the atmosphere. And since methane is, over 20 years, 105 times more potent than CO2 as a warming agent, this extra emission is a very bad additive to an already warming climate.

The net result is we’ve tapped a more carbon intensive technology to burn more oil faster. In metaphor, we’ve decided not to jog, but to sprint headlong toward the climate cliff.

At current emissions rates and emissions growth rates, the world says farewell to any possibility of preventing a 2 degrees Celsius warming by century’s end sometime around 2025.

Links:

EIA

Record-breaking 19,000 New Wells to be Fracked in 2012

Slower Pace of Drilling Likely For US and Canada During 2013

The World Oil Industry’s Mad Gamble For Profits: Gaming Peak Oil, Denying Climate Change, Wrecking the Alternatives

For the world’s international oil companies, what does a combination of energy scarcity, political dominance, and captive consumers mean? Enormous profits.

And, for the rest of us, what does it mean? Increasing transportation costs, increasing risk of future economic shocks, and increasing damage due to human-caused climate change.

Since the mid 2000s, year after year, top oil companies have raked in over one hundred billion dollars in net earnings. This influx of cash to corporations sitting on dirty, dangerous and depleting resources, came as a result of a world transportation system dependent on liquid fuels of which oil composed more than 70% and on a resource, itself, that, since the mid 2000s, became far more difficult to extract. This combination of a peak in lease condensate supplies and a monopolization of that supply sent both oil company profits (along with power and influence) to heights previously unattainable.

It also has resulted in an industry entirely incentivized to ‘dance with the devil’ in order to extend and maintain that profitability. This devil’s dance includes begging the risk of increased economic shocks due to oil depletion, the active undermining of any viable alternative to oil as a transportation fuel, and a related and ongoing campaign to halt and/or delay action on human caused climate change. In such cases never before has an industry been so incentivized to profit from wanton destruction.

Playing Games With Peak Oil

Any time an oil supply crunch arises, the oil industry makes immense profits. These profits occur on many fronts. First, as world oil production peaks or struggles along a plateau, prices rise as captive consumers compete for the scarce commodity. The result is that all oil assets held by these companies suddenly become far more valuable. Profits soar, providing monies for additional investments into marginal, dirty, and destructive supplies like tar sands, fractured oil, deep water oil or polar oil. This massive additional investment extends the life of all oil supplies by pushing the plateau peak out for years or even decades.

So while oil companies make a profit on the economic shocks oil dependency causes to the system, the lifespan of these companies are extended through the use of more costly and polluting marginal supplies. This new access provides oil companies with a ‘smoke screen’ behind which they can publicly claim that peak oil and, more importantly, oil depletion does not exist. It provides fodder for their arguments and it sets up the world’s consumers for another fleecing as prices ramp higher or, even worse, when the next oil shock emerges.

This gamesmanship has been publicly visible over the past few years as industry supporting think-tanks, ‘experts,’ and media sources have published numerous articles declaring the end of peak oil and predicting world liquids supplies will exceed 120 million barrels per day by 2020. These claims, of course, are completely false. Lease condensate supplies have been on a plateau of around 75 million barrels per day since 2005. Total liquids production, which includes biofuels and natural gas liquids (which are less fungible as a transportation fuel), have only grown from 84 million barrels per day to 89 million barrels per day over the past 8 years. This anemic rate of growth would have to increase by nearly an order of magnitude to reach the amazing 120 million barrels per year predicted by 2020.

But, as with much information published by oil industry cheerleaders, the ‘data’ is less designed to be factual than to create the impression of abundance. Under such a smoke-screen, the oil industry can go about its work of manipulating public policy to suppress alternatives and efficiency increases so as to set consumers/the public up for more fleecing via a combination of over-consumption, scarcity and, in due course, during another oil shock.

Sooner or later, the next shock will come. Sooner if the oil industry is mostly successful in its dominance campaigns, and only more slowly if all they are able to achieve is a stale-mate. But, rest assured, the shock will come unless a wholesale pursuit of alternative fuels and transportation technologies emerge to shake the foundation of the world’s current energy supply structure. The depletion rates for most new oil sources are too high, the costs too great, and the resource intensity too high for more shocks not to emerge.

In the boardrooms, the above set of circumstances is probably what oil company execs are banking on. So we can take the false predictions of abundance, for what they are: industry fluff.

As an example, we can take into account a claim by oil industry cheerleader Daniel Yergin, in 2005, that world oil production would reach 101 million barrels per day by 2010-2012. Peak oilers, by contrast, thought world oil production would stall at around 84 million barrels per day. For my part, I made a prediction of around 90 million barrels per day by this time (link here).

Between the peak oilers and industry cheerleaders, who was more correct? In the end, Yergin’s prediction was off by a stunning 12 million barrels per day. Peak oilers, by contrast, were off by 5 million barrels per day. And, when it comes to lease condensate production, the peak oilers are still 100% correct.

Yet, because of its influence over media, the oil industry has managed to create the impression that peak oil theory is debunked. And, in doing so, it has also managed to reduce urgency to provide transitional technologies thereby making another oil crisis all but certain.

Climate Nightmares

There is, of course, an alternative scenario between the oil industry cheerleaders and the peak oilers. It lies along a middle ground of continuously struggling world oil supply based on increasingly expensive fuels. This middle ground jumps from oil and gasoline price increase to oil and gasoline price increase as new supplies are slowly, arduously tortured from the ground.

In truth, despite all the mad media frenzy about oil depletion and scarcity being a myth, this particular scenario represents the oil industry’s best, most realistic hope. Prices remain high enough for excessive profits, oil maintains its death-grip monopoly over transportation fuels, and slowly, ever-so-painfully, new unconventional sources allow for slowly increasing overall supplies.

The glaring problem with this scenario is it consigns the world to an ever-increasing contribution to world greenhouse gas emissions. All the new, unconventional sources pollute more than traditional oil. Fractured shale leaks methane into the atmosphere as part of its production process. Large volumes of the natural gas produced as part of the oil fracturing process is flared off into the atmosphere, greatly contributing to world CO2 emissions. And tar sands, cynically trotted out as a means for North America to achieve oil independence, is as polluting as coal even as its production requires a greater and greater burning of Canada’s natural gas supplies (currently 8% of Canada’s natural gas production is simply wasted in the production of dirty tar sands).

With unconventional fuels like the ones mentioned above composing an ever-greater portion of total world oil production, oil’s contribution to climate change increases even if net oil production remains level or even declines slightly. Even worse, unconventional fuels may allow for a slow increase in world oil production, while, possibly, more than doubling oil’s contribution to climate change.

For this reason, the world’s oil companies are heavily invested in climate change denial. They fund stealth campaigns via agencies like ALEC and the Heartland Institute to block any effect to establish solutions to climate change via feed in tariffs, renewable energy standards (that require an increasing portion of energy to come from renewables), vehicle efficiency standards, a carbon tax, or any other effective policy driving toward speeding or even facilitating a transition from fossil fuels to renewables. And in order to have any semblance of moral justification to pursue such an insane and harmful set of policies, these agencies must actively deny the likely, very harmful, effects of  human caused climate change.

The result is that an immensely powerful, wealthy, and politically connected industry is hell-bent on increasing the likelihood that Earth becomes hellish.

 

Blindness, Cynicism, and Greed

That the world’s oil companies, which in the 19th century brought light, mobility, and greater economic prospects to an ever-expanding number of people, have come to this pass is just one more example of the human tragedy the Greeks playwrights were so adept at portraying. Like many past tragic villains, the world’s oil companies have chosen blindness, cynical pride, and greed in their most recent groping for wealth and power. This tragedy, if it is allowed to play itself out, will result in the terrible downfall of many of the world’s most powerful energy companies. But, sadly, even as this happens, the economic and environmental shocks created will challenge the adaptive capacity of all human civilizations, perhaps even resulting in their end.

The reason for this is that despite oil company assurances, more economic shocks from oil depletion are on the way. At the same time, only a small window to start reducing world-wide fossil fuel consumption in order to prevent the worst shocks of climate change exists. Among scientists, the pessimists believe CO2 emissions must peak by 2015 to preserve a livable climate. The optimistic scientists believe this date is closer to 2028. Any average of these cases doesn’t give us much time and any continued burning of fossil fuels and increasing carbon emissions into the atmosphere comes at serious and terrible risk. In light of these two contexts, political and media sand bagging by the world’s oil (and related gas and coal) companies is very, very, very destructive.

A Call to Make A Stand On Keystone XL

It is for the above reasons that forcing the cancellation of Keystone XL is so important. Its cancellation will result in a slowed development of tar sands and, possibly, in reduced flows of tar sands to market. Such a cancellation will also require serious and rapid energy policy on the part of the United States to transition to much higher efficiency vehicles and vehicles based on alternate fuels — like electric vehicles and plug-in electric hybrids. It will also establish a strong precedent for beginning to reduce net carbon emissions — not just in the US, but worldwide. The reason is that by demonstrating the ability to turn away from tar sands, the US will have displayed leadership on a key issue of our time.

Keystone XL won’t be the only fossil fuel megaproject the US must turn its back on. But it would be the first. And setting a precedent now will make future contentious choices more easy to make.

It may seem a hard choice now. But, if we look at it rationally, it really is the only choice that includes a prosperous future.

Links:

Please be one of the one million public comments against the Keystone XL Pipeline

 

 

US Senate Makes Shameful, Symbolic Decision to Support Keystone XL

“Big Oil may have bought themselves this meaningless vote, but the decision on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline remains where it’s been all along — with Secretary Kerry and President Obama.” LCV President Gene Karpinski

In a cowardly decision today, 62 US Senators decided to side with big oil and support a pipeline that has practically no benefit to offer the American people. On the other hand, a massive corporation stands to make billions exporting the dirtiest oil on the planet to China all while exploding an immense carbon bomb in our atmosphere.

Keystone creates all of 35 permanent jobs of which 10 percent would be local. Since much of the oil will be sold on the international market, it will likely push North American oil prices up. And, since oil from Keystone is slated to be exported, it does little, if anything to increase US energy security.

On the other hand, it severely erodes world climate security by “sticking a fuse into the largest carbon bomb on the planet.” All the while, Canada strip mines and poisons one of the largest arboreal forests on the planet to get at the expensive, sticky stuff and uses up more than 8% of their natural gas supplies to refine it.

It’s boondoggle to make even the most cynical politician blush. And 62 were certainly blushing today.

Fortunately, big oil’s demonstrated dominance of the US Senate (of by and for the oil companies) and its lobbyist forced symbolic vote isn’t the last word on Keystone. True authority still rests with the President and John Kerry’s State Department. Clearly the corporate pressure is on. So we’ll see if the President has the integrity to stand up to the special interests and strike a victory for our children’s future.

Come on Mr. President, step away from that carbon bomb.

Links:

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/03/22/1765651/senate-gone-wild-vote-to-approve-keystone-passes-decision-still-lies-with-white-house/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/22/keystone-xl-pipeline-john-hoeven_n_2935921.html?utm_hp_ref=green

Worth Reading: March 22, 2013

In the news today, the GOP has renewed broad-reaching efforts to limit alternative energy development and expand carbon pollution. NOAA forecasts a warm spring with half the country likely to see flooding while the other half experiences drought. Renewable energy production gets a boost from Apple as wind energy begins to bounce back after a legislative assault by Republicans. And China shows slowing increases in oil consumption (likely due to high prices) even as it remains on track to increase coal consumption 10% by 2015.

Warnings from the OECD on emissions ramped up as it sought carbon taxes from big polluters like China and the US. And 4th graders show the world that, yes, a transition to renewable energy is possible with just a little crowd-sourcing gumption.

Joe Romm exposes Theda Skocpol for double speak, misanalysis and blaming the victim in the legislative failure of Cap-and-Trade: Theda Skocpol Doubles Down With Self-Contradictory, Blame-The-Victim Misanalysis of Cap-And-Trade Failure.

Ryan Koronowski exposes the GOP’s ongoing and deliberate anti-reality climate change denial efforts in a piece that makes the movie Space Balls seem more factually plausible than the current republican narrative on human-caused global warming: When Reality is Biased, Get New Facts.

Dr. Snow produces an excellent analysis of sea ice conditions past, present and future: Arctic Sea Ice Melt: Looking Forward, Looking Back.

NOAA’s spring outlook is for a mix of drought, floods and above average temperatures: Drought and Floods in NOAA’s ‘Mixed Bag’ Spring Outlook.

Blogger Fish out of Water produces this excellent analysis of The Winter the Polar Vortex Collapsed.

Nice, sarcastic, article on why we ‘should’ approve the Keystone XL Pipeline: Let Us Count The Ways Keystone Approval Helps Us: Memo From Houston.

Republicans want to turn the budget plan from Senate Democrats into a “legislative sledgehammer” against President Obama’s green agenda, Organizing for Action warned Thursday: Pro-Obama group signals more emphasis on climate, green policies.

Members of GOP House that voted for big money giveaways for oil companies received over $38 million dollars from these big carbon polluters: GOP Voting For House Budget’s Big Oil Giveaway Receive $38 Million In Oil Cash.

GOP Senator Roy Blunt seeks to use Carbon Tax vote as a vehicle for attacking those concerned about climate change. But will this move blow up in his face? GOP Lawmaker wants Senate on record about carbon taxes.

Chinese lust for growth no match for high oil prices: For oil markets, China isn’t what it used to be.

China on track to increase dirty coal consumption another 10% by 2015. Not good news for climate change. Not at all. The Beijing Syndrome.

Canadian and US citizen efforts to block pipelines linking to Alberta’s Tar Sands expand: Canadian and U.S. natives vow to block oil pipelines.

Wind Energy installations picking up in US: Renewed Tax Credit Buoys Wind-Power Projects.

Fourth Grade class raises 5,800 dollars to fund solar energy projects: Fourth Grade Class Uses Kickstarter to Finance a Solar Array Multiple Times Over.

GOP seeks to exclude exports from efforts aimed at limiting carbon emissions: Senate budget measure would forbid considering emissions from exports.

Zero carbon economy not possible? Tell that to Apple, which now runs 75% on renewables: Apple makes renewable energy push with solar, fuel cells.

OECD urges big polluters to put a price on carbon. Push includes China, US: China is urged to use carbon tax to tackle pollution.

Is Coal Just One Enormous Malinvestment?

This world hosts 50,000 coal plants. China alone boasts more than 650 gigawatts worth of coal electricity capacity. And, if recent reports bear out, countries around the globe still plan to construct 1,700 more.

Coal is the world’s dirtiest form of energy. It is also the world’s greatest contributor to global warming, water pollution, lead and mercury poisoning. So what happens when, as climate scientists now predict, the weather and environmental impacts of human caused climate change rapidly ramp up over the next few decades? What happens to all the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in coal energy sources and in the new projects now planned?

For all practical purposes, coal doesn’t have much life left to it. Civilizations can’t continue to use coal as a viable energy source for much longer. All over the world, massive political and environmental movements stand against coal, pushing for the closure of plants, the leaving of dirty coal in the ground. And the movement can only grow. Soon, entire nations will be displaced by global warming. Soon, Greenland will begin a dangerous death spiral of increasingly rapid melt.

Once the impacts of climate change grow to harm ever greater numbers of people, the political impetus to stop using coal will rise in a vast backlash against an energy source that caused so much harm, that would cause worse harm if its use continues.

And so, what does this make coal to the people who currently own it? One enormous liability. A dead albatross hung around the necks of the world’s energy investors. That the pain to these investors will be great is a given. But how much worse will it be if massive investments in coal continue? How much more good money will be spent chasing this bad end, further shifting these investors and their capital out onto an already unsteady branch?

When I talk about investors, to a certain degree I’m talking about all of us. World bank loans funded through the international banking system still go to support new coal plants. Tax monies in various countries go to a wide range of projects that either artificially cheapen the cost of coal or directly fund new power plants. Civilizations have engaged in a massive long-term commitment to coal. But with climate change rapidly rising into an ongoing crisis and with new, alternative forms of energy becoming ever more competitive, the old policies that encouraged coal exploitation are now untenable.

They are nothing short of a massive malinvestment. A combined climate and energy bubble that will, over the coming years, burst in a way that will be quite painful to the world’s markets. Sunk costs in these systems will not be recuperated and ongoing profits from such sources will be cut short.

We can reduce the pain of coal’s imminent collapse now. We can stop investing in a dead man walking energy source now. And we can shift to the alternatives that represent a real energy future for our civilizations. Or, as with the financial crisis, we can continue to unwisely spend our money. To take risks on investments that we know are almost certain to fail in a mad pursuit of very ephemeral gains.

For my part, I know where my money would be. It would be on the energy sources of the future — wind, solar, and vehicle to grid. Not dirty, dangerous, and depleting coal.

Japan’s Quest For Methane Hydrates and Climate Change Game Over

Methane Hydrate

(Methane hydrate deposits around the world. Image Source: US Geological Survey)

What’s more dangerous than a Fukushima reactor meltdown? The Japanese quest to exploit methane hydrates.

Ever since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant dangerously and spectacularly melted down in 2011, Japan has been on a quest to find reliable energy sources that safely replace nuclear power. One of these prospective sources is methane hydrates. Yet, in attempting to transition from nuclear energy to methane hydrate, Japan is simply trading one dangerous and unpredictable energy resource for another.

Methane hydrates are a form of methane mixed with frozen water that rest in vast deposits on the sea bed. It is thought that these deposits are double the current estimate for all other forms of fossil fuels. And since scientists estimate two thirds of currently available fossil fuels need to stay in the ground to keep global warming below dangerous levels (levels that Hurricane Sandy victims would argue are dangerous now), the addition of methane hydrates to that mix would almost certainly worsen an already dark global warming picture.

Yet, just this week, Japan announced that it had successfully extracted methane hydrates from the sea floor for the first time and that it intends to begin commercial extraction of this carbon intensive energy source within 5 years.

A High Cost, Unstable Fuel For Desperate Times

The costs of methane hydrate extraction are still very high. So high, in fact, that serious doubts remain that the supply can be extracted commercially.

Yet Japanese government seems hell bent to exploit the resource, ignoring both costs and risks. Japan’s options were limited after Fukyshima and it appears desperate to access any new resource, no matter how costly or volatile.

According to reports from the Financial Times, Ryo Minami, director of the oil and gas division of Japan’s Agency for Natural Resources, compared the effort to exploit methane hydrate to America’s fracking of shale gas. “Ten years ago, everybody knew there was shale gas in the ground, but to extract it was too costly. Yet now it’s commercialised,” he said.

It is true that the US exploited shale gas at serious cost and risk to water supplies and increased methane leaks. It is also true that a number of countries which consider shale gas too dangerous a resource have banned it. France, for example, which relies heavily on nuclear power won’t touch shale gas. The reason includes a serious risk of climate change that makes the disaster resulting from Fukushima seem minor by comparison.

Climate Change Game Over

methane_hydrates_large

(Sea-bed hydrate turning into gas. Image source: Motherboard)

One wonders why Japan isn’t instead pushing for greater adoption of renewable energy supplies instead of seeking to exploit ever more dangerous and expensive reserves of fossil fuel. Tapping yet another unconventional fossil fuel resource that would make dealing with human caused global warming all the more difficult.

So far, 880 gigatons of carbon have been released into the atmosphere. Together, methane hydrates and all the remaining fossil fuels represent a potential to dump 15,000 gigatons more carbon into an already stressed environment. Such an exploitation would likely take more than a century to complete. However, once finished, the extraction and burning of all that fossil fuel would result in world CO2 levels soaring to over 2000 ppm. Such levels would almost certainly set off runaway global warming.

Even worse, methane hydrates are very volatile, subject to explosive destabilization. So mining the resource from the sea-bed would likely result in a substantial portion being released as methane as part of the extraction process. Such methane releases could strip oxygen from the local marine environment. In large releases, methane would bubble up into the atmosphere adding yet another greenhouse gas to the global warming problem.

Exploitation of Methane Hydrates Unsustainable

Considering greenhouse gas emissions need to begin declining now to preserve a livable climate for human civilizations, Japan’s plans to exploit methane hydrates are unwise even in the best of cases. Japan’s significant economy would be better off investing in alternatives such as wind and solar energy as well as building on current battery-based vehicle fleets to push PHEVs and EVs for the Japanese market.

Methane hydrates represent an expensive climate dead end for Japan and the global economy. Hopefully, Japan will reconsider before the world is shackled to yet another costly and dangerous unconventional fossil fuel resource.

Links:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/12/japan-extract-frozen-gas-seabed

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/03/12/japan-tries-to-unlock-the-worlds-biggest-source-of-carbon-based-fuel/

The Morality of Keystone XL Protests in Context: Why Dangerous, Expensive Oil is Best Left In the Ground

NOKXL

(Image source: 350.org)

NASA scientist and climate activist James Hansen has called the tar sands ‘climate game over.’ And it is easy to understand why. Alberta’s tar sands and other deposits like it around the world are the worst polluting form of oil on the planet. The bitumen burns very dirty and is the most carbon intensive fuel on Earth to extract. Currently, Canada uses about 8% of its entire natural gas supply just to push out 1.6 million barrels per day of the toxic stuff. And if greater and greater volumes of tar sands are produced, more and more of this gas supply will be used — before the oil refined from tar sands is even burned in a vehicle.

Some estimates even show that tar sands is as dirty as some forms of coal. So with an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of ultimately recoverable tar sands sitting under Alberta’s pristine arboreal forests, it is no wonder why James Hansen has called the exploitation of this dirty and expensive resource ‘climate game over.’

 

Oil Companies Push For Exploitation

AlbertaTarSands3_1

(source: Vancouver Observer)

All that said, there remains an economic argument, no matter how morally flimsy, to be made for the exploitation of tar sands and its ongoing ecocide. And what it boils down to is simply this: oil company profits.

The supply of tar sands is very large. And, oil companies reason, if they can get tar sands oil to the international market, where prices have ranged between 100 and 120 dollars per barrel of crude oil, they can make a pretty decent return on their massive investments in exploiting Canada’s tar sands.

The centerpiece of such a push for exploitation is the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Without such a pipeline in place, oil companies would be forced to ship tar sands via rail or truck in order to reach international markets. And such shipping would increase costs as much as 20 dollars per barrel, wiping out much of the profit potential for tar sands.

The reason is that the oil is very expensive to extract. All the mining, baking and crushing necessary to remove and process bitumen results in marginal costs for tar sands oil that are now higher, in some cases, than 95 dollars per barrel. In the North American market, where bidding for tar sands oil is about 60 dollars per barrel, a decent portion of the tar sands resource is too expensive to extract. So oil companies are desperate for a low cost means of transport — the Keystone XL pipeline– to bring their tar-oil the Gulf Coast where it can easily access international markets.

Now, should the pipeline go through, oil companies have a rational means to continue expanding dirty, dangerous, and expensive tar sands production indefinitely. If prices remain high — 100 to 120 dollars per barrel or more — tar sands production from Alberta could  rapidly increase over the coming decades. But, without the pipeline, many projects become uneconomical and would be put on hold or shut down indefinitely. And this would mean that a substantial portion of tar sands ends up remaining in the ground — where it can’t make any money for oil companies, and where it also can’t do further harm to the world’s climate.

Now oil companies are very attached to their profits, no matter how much harm such profits may ultimately cause. And the prospect of much of their potential future profits languishing in the ground beneath Alberta is not an appealing prospect for those already invested in tar sands. The result has been a major lobbying effort by oil companies for the US government to allow Keystone to go through. And, now, it appears that much of US government has been swayed to the oil industry’s way of thinking. In fact, without a broad and popular public protest against the pipeline, the project would, likely, have already been completed and the world shackled to yet another climatologically damaging energy resource.

In the final industry and government push to complete the pipeline, the Department of State has produced an inaccurate study in support of approving the pipeline, making the false claim that failure to approve the pipeline would have no impact on tar sands production. Even to the superficial observer, such claims should seem ludicrous, as the industry, itself, has stated in various reports that Keystone is necessary for increasing flows of tar sands oil. In fact, such a pipeline, as the oil companies intend, would pave the way for the production of ever-increasing volumes of the dirty and expensive Alberta oil. Instead, the misleading report seems to attempt to remove a rationale for public opposition to a pipeline that will, indeed, dramatically increase the delivery to market of dirty and climatologically harmful tar.

A Conflict for Our Age

We have entered an age of expensive, difficult to extract, highly polluting, and less useful oil. We have also entered an age of increasingly dangerous impacts from human caused climate change. Oil companies, whose goal it is to convince us to use every drop of crude they can extract will do everything in their power to increase the economic reach of expensive and dirty fuels, extending as far into the future as possible the lifespan of those fuels.

But for us to have much hope for a stable climate and a prosperous future, we must do all we can to ensure such dirty, expensive and climatologically harmful fuels remain in the ground. And so the effort to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline is a moral one. One in which we make the choice for responsibly working for greater access to sustainable energy sources and against fuels that will ultimately wreck our civilization’s future.

For even as the oil, gas and coal companies are struggling to access ever more expensive and harmful energy sources, they also seek to suppress the alternatives. Wind, solar, biofuels, rapidly increasing efficiency, and vehicle to grid technology all represent alternative choices to dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. And it is a replacement of fossil fuels with these new energy systems which must happen if we are to have a hope of economic prosperity without a combination of ever-worsening climate impacts and ever-increasing and more volatile energy prices.

So the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is a fight over which future we chose. On the one hand we have a new energy era reliant on the expansion of a fuel source that will do serious, ongoing harm to the climate. On the other a new beginning. One that turns away from the dirty fuel sources and seeks the energies of a new generation. Energy sources that will begin to enable the healing of our climate and the building of a truly sustainable and prosperous society. Not one shackled to the uncertainties of limited and climatologically harmful fuel supplies. But a future based on a solid foundation of predictable outcomes.

That’s what’s at stake here. Rational hope for dealing with the double challenges of climate change and resource depletion. Or a continuation down the path toward ruin. And anyone saying anything different is simply spreading misinformation.

Articles worth reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/11/opinion/when-to-say-no-to-the-keystone-xl.html?_r=0

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/03/11/1697831/march-11-news-nyt-editorial-makes-the-climate-case-against-keystone/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anthony-swift/rail-is-not-an-alternativ_b_2838058.html

Gas Prices Rising Again? Why Drill Baby, Drill Hasn’t Helped

Every year we hear the same thing. More US drilling will result in more oil production, driving down prices. And, every year, massive ongoing drilling efforts fail to deliver these promises. Instead, though US oil production increases at significant costs to US land, environments, and increasing damage via CO2 pollution, prices have remained at historically high levels.

Why?

Unfortunately, the answer to this particular question is a complex one. But the gist of the problem can be summed up in one simple phrase. The oil, and its related fossil fuels, are depleting, dirty and harmful to the environment, and they are geo-politically dangerous.

Depleting…

In the early 2000s, when oil prices were around 20-30 dollars per barrel, about 5,000 wells were drilled in the US each year. US daily oil production was around 6.5 million barrels per day and the cost of producing a marginal barrel of oil was around $15 per barrel.

Today, more than 20,000 wells are drilled each year. The amount of oil produced per well is much, much lower. And many of these new, rapidly drying, wells must be repeatedly fracked to get at hard to reach and diffuse underground deposits. The cost of producing a marginal barrel is around $75 to $80 dollars and the price of oil itself ranges from 80-120 dollars per barrel on the world market.

The US, for all its massive drilling and investment efforts, now produces a little more than 7.2 million barrels of crude oil each day. To just keep that number flat, it will have to increase the number of wells drilled each year even beyond the current 20,000. To increase oil supplies, US drilling efforts will likely more than double. More and more drilling for harder and harder to reach pockets of oil means continued upward pressure on prices. In all likelihood, the cost of a marginal barrel will continue to rise or, at least, remain at a level high as new technology fights an ongoing battle against depletion.

Depletion has also delivered a high volume of low-grade oil that is difficult to refine into gasoline. The issue is that every bit of oil that can be found is being sucked from the ground, regardless of quality. As a result, easy to refine oils are now scarce. So depletion creates a second price pressure as refiners scramble to acquire the means to turn low-quality oil into high-grade gasoline.

In the face of depletion, demand is still rising. China, India, and the Middle East consume more and more oil each year. Though the US and Europe continue to increase efficiency, demand growth from emerging economies more than makes up for any efficiency gain. Currently, more than 80 million new gasoline-powered vehicles are produced each year. This production creates an un-meetable demand for a depleting commodity.

During October and November of 2012, world oil demand reached an all-time high around 90.1 million barrels per day. But world oil supply lagged about 800,000 barrels per day behind this number. This kind of situation, which has become common-place since the mid-2000s, shows that boasts by the world oil industry of being able to meet demand via fracking and other new avenues are mostly hollow. Fracking, instead, is an irrational scramble to supply markets by any means necessary.

In addition, though oil production in the US comes at a very high cost, production in other countries is even costlier. Russia and Saudi Arabia both boast marginal production costs above $90 dollars per barrel. And drilling in both countries has been a frantic effort to slightly increase production. The risk for these countries is that large drilling efforts eventually fail and major oil fields go into rapid decline. Such events would wipe out many of the supply gains achieved via fracking. And, as time goes by, the risk of another super-giant field collapse increases.

Dirty and harmful to the environment…

With climate change producing increasingly severe weather and resulting in very rapid sea ice melt in the Arctic, oil producers face a growing number of strengthening protest movements. 350.org, a movement dedicated to returning world CO2 levels to a ‘safe range’ under 350 ppm, spear headed pipeline protests that have stranded oil supply within the US.This stranded supply pushed US oil and gasoline prices lower even as it resulted in higher world oil prices. In addition, protest movements are pushing divestment from fossil fuel companies.

Broad protest action against fossil fuel companies is the direct result of a failure to transition to more sustainable energy: wind, solar, and vehicle to grid technology. Now, the oil companies face disruption via political and non-violent action that will also likely have a deleterious effect on their efforts to expand production. The result is that increasing damage and disruption due to climate change and related protest movements are also likely to keep oil and related gasoline prices high.

Geo-politically dangerous…

Much of the world’s oil production occurs in geo-politically unstable regions. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iraq and Iran account for more than 20% of world oil supply. Mexico and Russia account for 15%. Political turmoil and supply chain disruptions consistently impact these regions.

Geo-climate also now impacts major oil producing regions. The Gulf of Mexico falls under the gun from intensifying hurricanes, the US northeastern refineries have also been consistently impacted by major storms such as Irene and Sandy. The Bakken fields of North Dakota and Canada are under the gun for powerful direct wind-line storms should ice melt from Greenland continue to intensify. Arctic drilling efforts are also likely to be hampered by powerful storms and erratic weather in those regions.

The time for transition is now…

In fact it was yesterday. But since we didn’t transition away from oil yesterday, today will have to suffice. As mentioned above, oil is dirty, dangerous and depleting. It is a substance that involves severe and increasing risks for price shocks and even worse risks to the climate. Assurances that prices will substantially fall or that climate change risks will not emerge are imprudent at best and madly irresponsible at worst.

Therefore, oil should be considered something we must wean ourselves off of as rapidly as possible. Everything else is just pandering to a false hope.

In the end, massive efforts to exploit depleting and increasingly diffuse and hard to reach oil supplies are unlikely to succeed in long-term reductions in gasoline prices. In fact, such production faces a growing list of political risks and challenges. Further, such production is likely to fall under increasing threat from a less stable climate, both through the impact of storms on production and refining infrastructure and through a growing response by protest actions.

Are Renewable Energy Sources Set to Outcompete Fossil Fuels?

A flurry of news reports heralding a new oil and gas age for the US glosses over a dark and difficult to deal with fact. The cost to extract both of these non-renewable resources is increasing. Tight oil and gas fracturing, claimed to be an energy savior for the US despite a plethora of problems including well casing leaks, contaminated water supplies, methane leaks, surging investment costs, and high costs to bring the fuels to market, are expected, by many sources, to be the ‘new future.’

In short, the ‘new future’ looks a lot like the old past, but much more expensive and coming on the heels of a long string of global warming impacts. For gas, the cost of the tight sources is over twice that of traditional wells, costing around $5 to extract a unit of tight shale gas. For oil, tight shale supplies require as much as $90 dollars per barrel to produce. These high costs are nearly twice as much as the often derided and vilified ethanol, which requires $50 dollars per barrel to produce without subsidy.

But the massive oil and gas marketing campaign to put out renewable energy’s electric fire continues apace. This week showed a flurry of glittery and optimistic oil and gas reports coupled with the typical volley of hit pieces aimed at everything that replaces oil from the Chevy Volt to your friendly neighborhood wind farm. The usual suspects all repeated their shrill and desperate chant of ‘the Volt is dead’ a month after Volt sales reached new records and costs to produce each vehicle were dropping fast as sales numbers increased.

Misinformation painting the Volt as uneconomic was belied by these numbers and a recent report showing that the Volt only costs consumers 3 cents per mile to drive. A regular ICE vehicle at $4 per gallon gasoline and 30 miles per gallon fuel efficiency costs 13 cents a mile to drive, more than four times as much. How does the Volt achieve such a feat? Get rid of as much oil input as possible and move to a, far more efficient, battery and electric motor configuration.

Perhaps these lower costs are the reason owners rank the Volt highest in customer satisfaction.

The Volt is dead! Long live the Volt!

But despite all the positive attributes of this powerful, new American technology, a large section of the media is now bent on killing the vehicle. At every success a new negative spin is generated. For example, as the Volt broke sales records last month, hundreds of blogs and articles parroted the fact that GM was offering discounts on the car as a sign of weakness. The same papers and blogs, many months before, criticized the Volt for being too expensive. So which is it? Similar negative information has been spewed about wind, solar, and biofuels. The only solution heralded by these ‘news’ sources appears to be fossil fuels, whose rather large and long string of negatives these news sources wholly ignore. Which ultimately begs the question, who pays the check?

Attempts at fossil fuel dominance and public opinion shaping ranged long and far throughout traditional media and in politics. Overall, it was a typical, banner week for the increasingly rickety fossil fuel based economy. But despite all this misinformation which one blogger recently to compared to the reign of ‘the Dark Lord,’ there were a number of glimmers of hope peaking out through all this misinformation.

As mentioned above, Chevy recently discounted its revolutionary Volt by as much as 10,000 dollars or offered leases for $299 (not $159 as claimed in the misinformation media), spurring new sales and raising the possibility that total Volt sales would reach 30,000 by end of September. Overall, this is far better than the earlier launch of the, equally derided and vilified at the time, Toyota Prius during its first two years. In addition, even as prices for the Volt are going down, quality is going up. The EPA estimated battery range for the vehicle has climbed from 35 miles to 38 miles resulting in a combined average mileage of 98 mpg. This gives most Volt users about 1000 miles of travel between fill-ups which means savings on top of savings for owners.

In addition, US alternative energy coming from solar, wind, and geothermal, as a percentage of electric power, has grown from 3% to 6% within the last four years. Total alternative energy from electric power adding in hydro-electric and geothermal is now over 15%, more than nuclear energy as a proportion of electricity generation. And since the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is electricity generation (coming from coal and natural gas generation and extraction), this leap in alternative energy capacity is a help in dealing with the problem of climate change.

Perhaps most important is level costs and falling prices. Wind and solar energy are very stable energy sources, making it easy for investors to predict outcomes. Not so with natural gas, which is one of the most volatile energy sources available, making it a baby for those who love to game the market. And as time has gone forward, costs for wind and solar continue to drop. Wind is now less expensive than everything but the least expensive natural gas plants. And solar is now less expensive than new nuclear energy and combined cycle gas and coal plants that could be retrofitted for carbon capture at even greater prices. In fact, over the past 18 months, the cost of solar panels has dropped by 65%, leading to a boom in panel sales around the world and in the US even as modest subsidy support for the new energy sources may be withdrawn.

The same can certainly not be said for fossil fuels. Natural gas is driving some companies to the edge of bankruptcy due to the rising cost of extraction and a glut on the market, caused, in part, by rising alternative energy usage. In addition, oil just saw its most expensive year on record. And people are beginning to awaken to the vast external costs and harm of coal use, with opposition to new plants rising in the US and around the world.

Across the globe, countries are taking notice of the alternative energy sea change. During a period this spring, Germany produced 50% of its energy from solar panels. That number is expected to rise to as high as 70% by next year. And as one of the only bright lights in Portugal’s ailing economy, it has managed to install enough renewable energy to make up 45% of its entire electricity grid. Going forward, this energy capital will help to stabilize and improve an otherwise troubled economy by reducing its dependence on imported fuels. Similar stories are being told across Europe and in places in the US. North Dakota produces 20% of its electricity through wind. California and Texas are following suit.

A view of the total installed capacity for US wind energy can be seen below (As of August 2012, the number broke 50 gigawatts installed, a 3.1 GW addition in just 8 months!).

The EU has installed 100 gigawatts of wind capacity and China boasts over 60 gigawatts of installed wind energy capacity. In total, nearly 50 gigawatts of new wind energy capacity will be installed during 2012. Solar energy is now surging to catch up, with total solar energy installations to reach 30 gigawatts in Germany alone this year. The US now boasts 6 gigawatts of solar energy and growing and the world is now adding nearly 30 gigawatts of solar energy capacity each year. This combined installation of 80 gigawatts wind and solar each year is a significant leap forward for alternative energy and is starting to prove its ability to outpace fossil fuels as a primary energy provider.

A sad fact is that, without the harmful media and political campaign being waged by US oil, gas, and coal special interests, the US could be even further along in developing domestic energy sources independent of foreign influence or climate damaging pollutants. Recent opposition to the production tax credit by oil money soaked republicans in Congress now threatens thousands of US alternative energy jobs and will likely further slow development of wind and solar energy production capacity within the US. This removes a key feed-in to US manufacturing and cedes more leadership to competitors overseas — primarily Europe and China. But the republicans, who run on the false mantra that they believe all ‘government subsidies are bad,’ never saw a fossil fuel subsidy they didn’t like and are fighting tooth and nail to keep the oil and gas industry’s incentives of 40 billion dollars intact even as they campaign on expanding subsidy support to this already subsidy bloated industry. But the republicans have been unable to stop what is a growing US and world-wide trend, only delay it, much to the harm of their native country.

(Romney and the republican strawman, Solyndra, on campaign trail together)

The renewable energy boom in the US has also led to a benevolent side effect — an increase in US manufacturing, installation, and alternative energy service jobs. Overall, green energy supports three times the number of jobs when compared to fossil fuels. As a result, more than 8.5 million people work in an alternative energy or energy efficiency related profession, according to Business Week. Look at the map below to find the nearest wind energy component manufacturing facility. Most likely, it is in a city or state near you:

All these facts combine to make the alternative energy sector a growing challenge to the established fossil fuel special interests. And, for this reason alone, we are likely to continue to see a stream of misinformation and demonization of the alternatives coming from fossil-fuel associated sources. But the next time you hear someone say the words Solyndra in a political context, bash wind or solar, or demonize the Volt, it’s important to know where that message originated — those casting their lot with the dirty, dangerous, and depleting fossil fuels.

Links:

US Drought, Extreme Weather, High Food and Fuel Prices — How Fossil Fuel Dependence is Wrecking the US Economy

According to reports from the Wonkblog, the ongoing US drought knocked .2 percentage points off of US GDP growth during the second quarter. This figure is probably very conservative when you consider the massive impacts and total costs of this ongoing and expanding drought.

The historic drought has, so far, cost America more than 77 billion dollars, or about .5 percent of annual GDP. And with NASA, the WMO, and many other climate organizations now establishing a link between this year’s extreme drought and severe weather, the intransigent and carbon emitting fossil fuel companies, who continue to seek dominance for their dirty, dangerous, and depleting products, not mother nature, are primarily to blame.

If all this lost money were spent on job creation measures, it would support about three quarters of a million well-paying jobs. Such an investment would result in a big bump for US employment and overall prosperity. But that possibility is now gone as the money has been absorbed by damages.

Yet drought isn’t the only avenue through which fossil fuel related damage has come to the American economy. Other severe weather events have combined with the current drought to create the most extreme year for natural disasters ever in the US. This record year follows a series of increasingly damaging years since the 1980s. The damage just keeps happening year over year, even as it is increasing overall.

This year, total damage to the US economy due to weather disasters is currently well in excess of 100 billion dollars and the damage is still ongoing.

Moving on from extreme weather, we can shift to other harmful fossil fuel related impacts to the US economy. The first is the ever-growing cost of liquid fuels caused by a combination of growing demand and the depleting nature of a fossil resource. Overall, fuel costs have averaged higher than $90 dollars per barrel for 2012, the cost necessary to make fracked ‘tight oils,’ like those produced by the Bakken, profitable. At 18 million barrels per day for the US, the daily cost of this consumption is nearly 1 billion dollars or around $350 billion dollars per year, more than four times the cost of oil in the early 2000s.

Food also suffers from high energy prices and the stresses of drought. And with food prices rising due to increased energy costs, the public takes another hit of about an extra 50 billion dollars. The extra food costs due to drought were already counted in the 77 billion dollar figure, but they are worth mentioning again.

Even leaving out other costs from externalities such as the cost of deaths and adverse health effects coming from coal, the costs of foreign wars as a result of the necessity for a stable liquid fuel supply chain, and the costs of damage to US water supplies due to fracking, the total cost of harm caused by fossil fuels currently amounts to about 400 billion dollars for this year alone or about 2.5 % of GDP.

A very heavy blow. It represents the difference between the struggling economic growth we are seeing now and the much more rapid rates of growth during the 1990s when the weather was less severe and when fuel costs were much lower.

We can no longer provide a rationale for a continued economic growth when the basis for that growth is assumed to be the damaging and depleting fossil fuels. The very fuels which will make the droughts continue to be more frequent and more severe, which will continue to make the weather more damaging, and which, sooner than we expected, will drive the seas to rise and threaten many of our major cities. The very fuels whose cost, averaged over time, will keep going up as they become more difficult to locate and extract.

These fossil fuels, which are the source of so much harm, have now come to the point where they are no longer economical.

Links:

Earth Alone

Climate Change, Resource Depletion Making Oil Dependence Economically Unsustainable

Over the past few months, we’ve been focusing primarily on climate change’s amplifying impacts and increasing damage to human societies. But with this month’s Department of Energy Short Term Energy Outlook (STEO) report, it is important to take a step back and examine again the powerful economic headwind that is resource depletion.

In context, oil, gas, and coal companies have, over the past few years, been fighting an epic political and public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. We can hardly avoid the commercials. The endless repetitions of ‘we agree’ glossing over oil companies agendas on television again, and again, and again. We can hardly avoid the slanted news reports. The hit pieces that are put out on the Chevy Volt with almost weekly recurrence, the most recent one coming from Reuters. And we can certainly not avoid the massive political influence the fossil fuel companies have exerted on the political process this year in the Presidential, National, and State elections.

The energy future of the United States and our climate and economic health will, in many ways, depend on whether or not the fossil fuel companies, led by the oil companies, again gain dominance over both our energy and our political systems. In short, oil, gas, and coal have no future. And tieing our futures to those dirty, dangerous and depleting fuels is like grabbing hold of a 200 lb iron weight while struggling to tread water in a stormy ocean.

Why? Well, for starters, the oil companies aren’t any where near close to telling us the truth about the economic viability of their fuels.

The first set of misinformation is well established. The fossil fuel companies, much like the tobacco companies of a by-gone day, much like the south which depended on slave labor for their economic prosperity, aren’t telling us the whole story. In the case of climate change, they’ve actively waged numerous vicious public relations campaigns not only aimed at misinforming the public on the urgency of the climate crisis. They’ve also funded numerous attack campaigns leveled directly against the climate scientists themselves. Such a wide-spread war on science hasn’t been seen since the Renaissance. It has resulted in many scientists receiving death threats. But the broader damage is to society which is now facing the worst climate crisis ever in human history. The trouble fossil fuel emissions have brewed up in our atmosphere could easily be called Biblical. And whether or not we respond to this threat in a timely fashion is a matter of life and death for human civilization and for the human beings who depend upon it for survival.

Though the issue of climate change is pretty broadly understood, the second issue making oil non-viable as an economic resource is less well understood. And, though probably less harmful overall than climate change, its revelation gives lie to the assertion by oil companies that its fuels are a resource necessary for economic growth. To the contrary, the fuel is economically destructive. Why? Because it has depleted to the point that it is no longer economically viable to remove an increasing portion from the ground.

Just last week, reports from fracturing companies found that as oil prices dropped in June, July and early August a number of wells in the tight oil fields of North Dakota and Texas were idled. Why? Simply because these companies could not make a profit on oil costing less than $90 per barrel. This very high marginal cost of oil is bumping up against the level at which world economies suffer from recession. A range that the current economic malaise is proving is between $100-$150 dollars per barrel. The oil is just getting too darn expensive for a world economy to run on.

Then this month’s STEO report rolled in showing preliminary data that doesn’t bode well for the future of world oil production.

But before we go into this month’s STEO report, we should talk for a moment about the ridiculous papers being put out by the world’s oil establishment. Just last month, a former oil executive published a paper entitled “Oil the Next Revolution.” Just looking at the title brings up a little of a chuckle. Wasn’t oil last century’s revolution? Making such an extraordinary claim would require extraordinary evidence. But Leonardo Maugeri completely fails to deliver. First, he makes a highly spurious claim that world oil production will reach 110 million barrels per day by 2020. He does this by tinkering with the decline rates — he assumes a less than 2% decline rate for the world’s existing and future oil fields, the real rate is somewhere between 4 and 7 percent. Next, he makes extremely optimistic predictions about the world’s ability to economically produce tight oil like that in the Bakken. Finally, he conflates natural gas liquids with oil production. Unfortunately, natural gas liquids aren’t so easily fungible with oil, requiring highly specialized refineries to turn into diesel fuel. Maugeri claims a total of 49 million barrels per day of new oil conflated with natural gas liquids gets us to this 110 million barrels per day by 2020 in an environment of very low decline rates and very fungible natural gas liquids.

Maugeri is vastly wrong. He is wrong when it comes to the decline rate. He is wrong when it comes to the fungibility of natural gas liquids. And he is wrong on the ability of the world to economically add 49 million barrels per day of new supply. And this is where I return to the marginal price of fractured oil. $90 today. That’s what’s required to lift the new oil up out of the ground. What does Maugeri assume for his price of oil in 2020? Maugeri assumes oil will remain above $70 per barrel.

Maugeri already got the price wrong. We can’t maintain 89 million barrels per day at less than $90 per barrel.

Enter this month’s most recent STEO report. Now the first number we want to look at is consumption. Consumption is the best measure for world demand. Despite misinformation to the contrary, world demand has been very high since 2004. The only time in which the world experienced a reduction in demand was during the Great Recession in 2008 and the downturn that followed in 2009. At all other times during this period, demand was going up. Today, according to the STEO report, world oil consumption/demand is sitting at around 90.17 million barrels per day. Now just keep that number in your mind.

Now let’s look at the next number. World supply. That number is 88.41 million barrels per day. Immediately, we can do a little math and figure out that supply is less than demand by about 1.76 million barrels per day. This situation would tend to support a high price of oil. Well higher, in fact, than the marginal cost of producing a barrel of oil. And what was the average price? About $94 per barrel over the month of August just $4 per barrel above the supposed marginal cost of production. But let’s hold here on prices and talk a little bit more about supply.

In August, total world oil supply fell by 160,000 barrels per day from July. This isn’t too big of a deal at first blush. But it does follow a fall in oil supply of about 140,000 barrels per day from June, another fall of 130,000 barrels per day from May, and another fall of 120,000 barrels per day from April. This total of 550,000 barrels per day loss in production over the course of four months is not what one would expect to see if the world were on the verge of roaring to 110 million barrels per day within 8 years. In fact, we should see, on average, an 800,000 barrel per day increase over the same time period if that were the case.

But the overlying data isn’t what’s most disturbing. It’s where the losses come from. From July to August of 2012, US oil production fell by 300,000 barrels per day. Part of this loss is due to the fact that marginal, high cost, fields were idled due to the falling price of oil. In other words, these fields could not produce oil economically and were temporarily shut during a period when oil prices averaged at about $94 per barrel! Other losses likely came from ethanol production due to the fact that corn took a huge hit in this year’s climate-change induced drought (it is worth noting that, these days, ethanol counts as oil).

What brought down US oil production in the month of August can best be described as a combination of oil depletion and climate change.

But before we depart from the oil supply picture, let’s take a look at one other country — Russia. In the STEO report, Russia is listed as the Former Soviet Union. It includes all the oil producing states formerly part of the Soviet Union (FSU). Notably, August saw FSU production fall by 261,000 barrels per day to its lowest levels since August of 2009. This drop is an ominous sign for the prospects of world oil production. Russia relies on a number of very large depleting oil fields for the bulk of its production. Major efforts have been made to enhance production. But, according to the most recent reports, these efforts appear to be falling short.

Back to the larger picture, it appears that world oil production has stalled and fallen back into a slow decline. And there are troubling signs coming from both Russia and the United States.

Now, with these less than happy thoughts in mind, let’s go back to demand, supply, and price. Normally, in a natural environment, the price of oil would be allowed to rise so that new supply could come to market to meet demand. We have supply shortfall. We have marginal production waiting on the sidelines. So why isn’t price rising? What’s holding back price?

One need only look at the current world economic situation to see what’s keeping price in its gate. The world is, essentially, lurching about at the brink of another recession. Any bump in oil prices may kick the world back over the edge. So, in this event, high marginal prices of oil are bumping directly up against the world’s economic ability to sustain demand. And given the current leeching away of world oil supply, that ability is again placed in serious doubt.

Given these factors, it is increasingly clear that the world’s oil companies aren’t telling us the truth. Despite every economic contortion possible, oil is simply no longer a viable means to sustain and grow the world’s economies long-term. It is too expensive to extract. Its marginal prices are too high to bear. And the damage it inflicts on world economies through the ongoing and amplifying force of climate change creates an external insult that further reduces the abilities of economies to rationally function. Simply put, the oil is unsustainable and the faster we are able to both increase efficiencies, alternatives like the Volt, and the proportion of our renewable energy allotment, the better off we will be.

As for the oil companies endless re-assertions. We decidedly do not agree.

Links:

http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/steo/tables/?tableNumber=6#endcode=201312&periodtype=m&startcode=200901

http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/Oil-%20The%20Next%20Revolution.pdf

Romney Gunning to Kill US Wind, Solar Industries, Enforce Monopoly of Dirty, Dangerous, and Depleting Fuels

Today Mitt Romney held a speech on the border of Texas and New Mexico where he laid out his plans for the US’s energy future. And if two words come to mind from his proposals they are these: Robbery and Ruin.

Just yesterday, Romney received more than $10 million dollars in campaign contributions from the coal and oil industry. Money he is trying to hand back many times over in special perks, subsidies, and give-aways to his big polluting backers.

First, Romney proposes to take public lands from the people of the US and hand it over to states who would then be encouraged to give these land rights, free of charge, to oil, gas, and coal companies. He would take a resource in the public trust, one of America’s great treasures, and hand it over to what amounts to a group of corporate looters. The ghost of Teddy Roosevelt must be turning over in his grave as Romney offers up this sacrifice to his corporate masters. For it would result in public lands being transformed from something like this:

Into something like this:

 

Romney’s second big giveaway is to cut taxes for the highly profitable oil companies again. I say again because it was the same thing Bush did when he was elected back in 2000. And it is also ironic to see a massive influx of Bush energy advisers finding places of prominence on Romney’s energy team.

This year, oil companies already received more than 2.3 billion dollars in subsidies and tax assistance. This public support after having recorded over $137 billion dollars in profits. But Romney seems to think that greed is its own virtue and has decided to give another 2.4 billion away in additional tax breaks. This 5 billion dollars in tax-payer support each year would come on top of record profits from the highest oil prices ever and the great American land giveaway described above.

But Romney’s plan goes still further. Romney would cut regulations that keep coal companies from dumping massive volumes of mercury into the air and water. Coal companies have often complained that the public health protection measure is too expensive. But what Romney and his coal backers don’t reveal is that the added pollution kills more than 30,000 people each year. For Romney and big coal, profits are far more important than lives. So the protections for Americans must go.

In general, all these policies draw support from a vast and ongoing denial over the damage caused to the United States by an intensifying climate crisis. Just this year alone, over $100 billion in damages will likely be inflicted on the US economy by a number of climate-related disasters. Romney’s push to double down on big oil and big coal will only worsen the damage that is still to come.

Romney’s plan is first a dire insult to American interests in the form of a giveaway to a destructive industry. Romney’s plan is second a harm that results in added toxins spewed into the atmosphere and an ever-decreasing likelihood of dealing with the ongoing climate crisis.

But the crowning black jewel to the whole dark and devastating Romney energy policy is this: attack the wind and solar industry.

Romney plans to bring down all competitors to oil and coal through direct policy measures. He is gunning to devastate the wind and solar industry by removing the production tax credit even as he pushes to further subsidize the heavily polluting oil and coal industries. His plan would gut US innovation and progress in wind and solar energy. It would cede leadership in a 2 trillion dollar alternative energy market to China and Germany. And it would result in the loss of tens of thousands of US jobs. Worse, it would remove the prospect for creating hundreds of thousands more jobs in the future and shackle us to an energy source that is bound to abandon us during our hour of greatest need.

Republicans and Romney often deride industries that require subsidy support. However, the oil and coal industry still receive subsidies after more than 150 years of operations. The level of subsidies they receive is far higher than those of the burgeoning alternative energy industry. Typically, for a new industry to effectively get off the ground it needs a higher level of support than a traditional, established industry. And considering that the oil industry has become so profitable through its effective cornering, total dominance and monopolization of all transportation markets, giving it any subsidy at all simply amounts to paying tribute to a tyrant. It is unnecessary, wasteful, and encourages the worst behavior.

Yet this is exactly what Romney and Ryan are pushing to double down on. And they would lay the slain carcass of the alternative energy industry at the feet of their fossil fuel masters.

Given the intensifying climate crisis. Given the depleting and increasingly expensive fossil fuels. Given the need for America to create sustainable jobs in a sustainable industry. And given the fact that if we fail to lead in the alternative energy revolution, others will in our stead, it is absolutely necessary that the American public reject Romney. Reject Ryan. Reject robbing from the American people for the profit of special interests and reject policies that will ruin our future. And, last of all, reject the vicious and anti-American agenda of the oil and coal company barons who stand behind them.

The Price of Climate Change Denial: Drought to Cost $50 Billion, Increasingly Extreme Weather in Our Future.

The drought currently affecting the heartland is having a wide range of economic impacts. It is constraining river traffic, slowing trade and increasing shipping costs even on America’s largest waterways. Impacts to crops continue, with US production likely to significantly fall even after a growing season that included the greatest land area ever planted. Wells have run dry in many counties across the central US, forcing many to pay for water to be shipped in.

But in the end, those who will pay most are the American people. Food prices will continue to increase and fuel prices will likely be pushed higher due to constraints on US ethanol production.

In all, some sources are estimating that this drought could cost the US as much as $50 billion dollars. And if we are making a tally for climate change we can add in the cost of fires and extreme weather like the Derecho earlier this year. We can also add in the cost of invasive species, like the pine and ash bore beetles. In total, we will likely see impacts this year alone, without any other unforeseen impacts, around the $100 billion mark. This is a hefty price to pay for an already expensive fossil fuel addiction.

In context, this is the second severe drought in as many years. Last year’s drought impacted Texas and Oklahoma, killing 500 million trees and 100,000 cattle. And in the middle of the last decade, the southeast experienced a historic drought that lead to a water war between Georgia and Florida. In 2006, the US experienced a deadly heatwave only to be struck again by a much more intense heatwave this year. Internationally, Russia experienced a terrible drought and heatwave in 2010 that killed 56,000 people and resulted in epic fires raging across that country. Australia suffered from a years-long drought that finally broke at the end of the last decade. In 2003, Europe experienced a heatwave that killed over 70,000 people.

According to NASA scientists, these are the kinds of extreme events that we can expect as a result of global warming. In fact, James Hansen has noted that the events we are experiencing now would not have happened with such frequency and intensity without the added forcing provided by global warming.

“But I have a confession to make: I was too optimistic,” Hansen stated in a recent editorial to the Washington Post. “My projections about increasing global temperature have been proved true. But I failed to fully explore how quickly that average rise would drive an increase in extreme weather.”

Hansen is often derided by global warming deniers as being the most alarming of the global warming alarmists. But if Hansen, by his own admission, was being too optimistic, then we are likely in for much more drastic, powerful, and damaging changes than current climate models seem to indicate.

Though scientists have been rightly conservative and cautious when making these predictions, in an attempt to provide a solid basis for a rational response, climate change deniers and the agencies that support them have been the very definition of irresponsibility, imprudence, callousness, blindness, bull-headedness, rank stupidity, ignorance, greed, and ill-conceived risk-taking. Their arguments consistently have been proven false and yet they still speak as if they hold a monopoly on both righteous authority and truth.

Yet their failure is visited upon us with increasing pain, harm, loss of life and damage with each passing year. So one wonders why there are even still a sad few who listen to their nonsensical, mangled, and twisted claims. If they are to hold the wheel of our ship and continue to force its turn toward climate change disaster, then they should bear the blame for our misguidance and loss.

But stepping away from those who would have us continue to allow our situation to deteriorate, it is worth noting what the climate models, what the prudent, conservative, often overly-optimistic scientists predict. In short, it is nothing less than a horrendous drying out of the American heartland within the next 50-100 years. The drought models show worsening droughts occurring with greater and greater frequency. The coming decade will be worse than the last. The decade after that worse than the one before. By the end of this sad story, US agriculture would be a mere ghost of its past greatness, existing only on the fringes of a once-fertile land.

This is, likely, the ‘optimistic’ forecast. Events could happen much faster than scientists predicted. And single, catastrophic events, worthy of the term ‘natural disaster’ are certainly possible.

This summer’s drought was the worst since 1956. It happened in a land that has been made more resilient against drought by some of the best farming, resource conservation, soil use, and land management practices in the modern industrial world. We learned the terrible lessons of the dust bowl and, as a result, turned America into a fortress against future drought. Our vegetation growth and land use encourage rain and help to prevent moisture loss. But even these revolutionary practices have not prevented the current drought. Climate change has besieged America’s drought fortress and some of the gates have been breached. And far in the distance we can see the forces of climate change massing for another, more powerful, assault.

With each passing year, we add to the growing climate change horde. With each passing year, we add more to that monster force through our burning of fossil fuels. And if we do not decide to reduce that burning, it will be we who will be over-run, who will suffer the most terrible consequences. The consequences our optimistic, faithful, diligent, accurate, and cautious scientists are trying to warn us away from.

As for the climate change deniers. Their opinions are worth nothing more than a bowl full of dust.

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Natural Gas: Better Than Coal, But No Solution to Global Warming

The good news? CO2 emissions for the US have fallen to levels not seen since 1992.

This is amazing progress and is due to a number of positive steps taken by the US since 2007 when CO2 emissions peaked at 6 billion metric tons per year. Since that time the US has enacted efficiency policies and provided incentives to increase electricity production from wind and solar energy sources. We have added 500,000 barrels per day of biofuels production and we have cut coal use by 20%.

Wind and solar energy installations have multiplied to such an extent that states like Colorado, at times, have seen as much as 50% of electricity production coming from alternative energy sources.

Now for the bad news: the cuts to coal burning in the US, a major factor in lessening US CO2 emissions, have come in large part due to an increase in supply of low-cost natural gas.

It is worth noting that natural gas is far less toxic an energy source than coal. Coal pumps masses of poisons, including mercury into the air and water supply. It also emits two times the level of CO2 when compared to natural gas. Sadly, the result for US coal has been that, though plants have idled here, much of our coal is being shipped overseas to places like China who burn it instead. So what would seem to be a net decrease in carbon emissions is merely a shifting of carbon emissions to another place on the globe.

Natural gas is also still a significant carbon emitter. And the process by which the gas is extracted, increasingly, relies on a fracking technology that pumps extra methane into the atmosphere. Methane is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a global warming source and many studies have shown that volumes coming from fracked wells are significant.

But perhaps most importantly, increasing use of natural gas risks continuing fossil fuel dependence at a time when it is absolutely necessary to begin reducing carbon-based energy use overall.

The International Energy Agency, the world’s premier energy watch-dog, noted:

“Natural gas is not the answer to this problem. Gas-fired plants may emit only half as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour generated than coal-fired plants, but by 2025 the amount emitted will be higher than the average for the entire electric system.”

Natural gas dumped on the US market may have the net effect of crowding out renewable energy sources at the exact moment when it is necessary to rapidly build them. Gas has been labeled the ‘crack cocaine’ of the utility sector. Prices tend to be volatile. During boom times, like now, utilities tend to gobble up all the low cost gas they can find, going on a binge of overbuilding gas generators and neglecting other, more stable, energy sources. Over time, demand increases, drawing up the boom’s slack. Eventually, demand pushes up against supply and prices skyrocket. The result is that utilities are left with a glut of natural gas infrastructure and idle plants as they scramble for other energy sources. And the most readily available substitute for gas happens to be coal, completing the crash phase of a vicious and destructive energy cycle.

This crack-cocaine, high-low effect can have some pretty terrible economic consequences for utilities, especially if they fail to predict the booms and busts.

Some have said that the shale gas boom is different. But, already, new gas supply has leveled off and prices have stabilized. With demand for natural gas still rising, it seems likely that costs will rise over the next few years. The potential exception is that enough renewable energy infrastructure could displace the need for natural gas, continuing to push prices down.

And this brings us to a serious problem. If we are to adequately address the issue of climate change we must have mechanisms in place that prevent low-cost fossil fuels from flooding the market and increasing CO2 emissions. To this point, despite the fact that US CO2 emissions have fallen, world CO2 emissions keep rising every year. A shift to natural gas in the US will only serve to increase the overall world production of CO2. So policy measures that increase the cost of carbon, to reflect its damage to the climate, will need to be put in place lest we rapidly find ourselves in a situation we can’t back out of.

Boom and bust natural gas, for this very reason, is a false path to reducing CO2 long-term. It results in net increases in emissions and continued dependence on the very fossil fuels we need to ween ourselves from.  And it threatens to undermine the more stable and economically viable long-term energy sources like wind and solar.

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Who is to Blame for High Gas Prices?

As the presidential election’s silly season continues, as the most outrageously pandering promises are made to all people across the political spectrum, a single issue seems to have outdistanced the rest — who is to blame for high gas prices?

Republicans, for their part, seem to enjoy blaming Obama who, supposedly, is keeping millions of magical drilling rigs hostage. If only freed from their bondage, republicans claim these rigs all alone, all by themselves, could, in a puff of faerie dust, reduce the price of gasoline to $2.50 per gallon.

But do the republicans have a rational leg to stand on in their endless drill, baby, drill diatribe? To find out, we’ll have to examine some facts.

Obama brings massive increase in drilling

Since Obama entered office, there has been a massive increase in US drilling. And the sad truth, despite republican rhetoric, is that the US would be engaged in increased drilling regardless of who held the office of president. The US is so addicted to oil that it can’t afford, at this time, not to exploit every economic source. As a result, drilling has increased by over 350% under Obama.

Huge drilling efforts result in only moderate supply increases

Considering tripling US extraction efforts, one would think that US oil production would rise dramatically. In truth, production has risen, but by only a small amount. The net result of a massive 350% increase in drilling has only been a moderate bump in oil production of 14%. US crude oil production increased from a 2008 level of about 5 million barrels per day to today’s level of 5.7 million barrels per day.

Moderate increase in supply does not result in oil price drops

So all out drilling under Obama has resulted in some increase in supply. And you would think, all things being equal, that the price of oil would also fall. But all things are not equal. Oil is traded on the world market and there are an expanding number of factors keeping the price of oil high.

First, Saudi Arabia has claimed that $100 per barrel is a ‘fair’ price for oil. Saudi Arabia produces more than 10 million barrels each day and is the world’s second largest oil exporter. They are the only country in the world left with substantial spare capacity. This means that Saudi Arabia is the only oil producer with much influence on supply or price. But Saudi is saying it will defend $100 oil. And the means Saudi has to defend this price is through cutting supply. So should oil prices decrease, Saudi will cut production. In fact, it did this during 2009-2010. And since Saudi cut production at that time, prices have risen from $40 per barrel to over $105 per barrel now. As the world economy recovered in 2010-2011, Saudi Arabia brought production back. But demand was so high that the new oil didn’t result in substantially reduced prices.

Second, the reason Saudi Arabia is the only producer with spare capacity is the fact that all other oil producers are pumping oil flat out. And despite this all-out production, the world’s supply of crude oil has remained flat at around 74-75 million barrels per day (blue line on graph) since 2004. This means that despite the highest average price for oil ever, for eight years running, world crude oil production has structurally leveled off. The reason for this plateau is that new production of crude oil is only enough to keep pace with the rate of production decline from existing wells. In short, when it comes to crude oil production, the world is running to stand still.

Third, high cost unconventional oil fills in the gap. Today, the world produces 18 million barrels per day of unconventional oil along with other substances such as wet gas and condensate (condensate is usually included in the crude oil figure, but it’s a different substance altogether). This includes supplies of tar sands from Canada, deep water oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels. Much of this oil costs $50 dollars per barrel or more to produce. And the fact that the world is reliant on this ‘oil’ means prices will never fall below the high cost of a marginal barrel.

Most unconventional oil isn’t really oil at all. For example, Canada uses 8% of its entire natural gas supply to hydrogenate tar and ship it to us as ‘oil.’ The fact that we are calling hydrogenated tar ‘oil’ is a certain sign of how desperate we’ve become. And biofuels certainly aren’t oil. They’re fuels interchangeable with oil derived from crops. And it is through the production of these very expensive and difficult to produce fuels that the world has been able to increase production at all.

Fourth, the nominal demand for oil is about 98 million barrels per day, this is ten million barrels per day higher than the combined total production of crude oil plus unconventional oil. What this means is if prices go down, demand will keep going up until we hit a level of consumption of around 98 million barrels per day. The reason for this very high nominal demand is the fact that so many machines using so much oil are operating around the world. Oil-consuming automobiles alone are being produced at a rate of 80 million each year with more than one billion of these machines in existence around the world. With so many hungry machines, any new oil produced will be rapidly snatched up.

These combined issues mean that the US would have to produce more than ten million barrels per day of additional low-cost oil in order to create a situation where long-term gas prices of $2.50 cents per gallon or less were possible. But, in truth, achieving this feat is a bald impossibility.

All new oil is expensive oil

The reason why drilling cannot dramatically bring down the price of gasoline is that the cost of producing all the new oil is dramatically high. ‘Conventional’ oil from fracked wells costs $50 per barrel just to produce. Prices for biofuels, deep water drilling, polar drilling and Canada’s hydrogenated tar are about the same. But even the most wildly optimistic projections from all these sources show only slow increases in production requiring massive expense and effort.

Options for drastically increasing production do exist, however, if you’re willing to pay much more for gas. Oil shale contains 1.5 trillion barrels of potentially recoverable goop called kerogen. The US kerogen, however, is even less energy-dense than Canada’s tar. So the cost of producing this ‘oil’ is around $100 per barrel. And this cost hides the fact that a huge amount of natural gas would be needed to hydrogenate the kerogen. Furthermore, the oil shale is in a water poor region. Massive volumes of water would be needed to produce this goop. But the water doesn’t exist in the high volumes needed, so it would have to be piped in.

The result is that a immense and terrifying industrial effort would be needed to rip an enormous hole in America’s heartland to produce this ‘oil.’ And the irony is that, if we are forced to produce the oil shale, it will only result in even higher prices than today.

New drilling can’t dramatically lower prices, even though that’s what oil companies want you to believe

So, in short, the republicans are either misinformed, or they’re not telling the truth. This is hardly surprising considering that oil companies paid 18.5 million dollars into republican campaigns this year alone. Money to democrats from oil companies was substantially lower — only 2 million dollars. And what this oil company money is going to is keeping us all dependent on increasingly expensive oil.

Oil companies don’t want us to realize that even more drilling can’t radically reduce prices. But they do want to continue their dominance in the energy markets. They do want to continue their position as the dominant provider of transportation fuels. And in order to do this, they must convince us that the best solution to high gas prices is more drilling, even if it is not.

Real solutions — increased efficiency, alternatives

The only real solution to the oil depletion problem is switching away from fossil fuels and dramatically increasing efficiency. And even though republicans aren’t very good at proposing sustainable solutions, they are very good at demonizing policies and technologies that actually help.

This was recently demonstrated by republican efforts to demonize the Chevy Volt. Number 1 in customer satisfaction in 2011, the Volt dramatically reduces dependence on oil by making commutes all-electric. Since 80% of all gasoline consumption occurs in commutes, a transition to electric vehicles like the Volt would drop US oil consumption by 7 million barrels per day. If these vehicles became common-place around the world, oil consumption could fall by as much as 35 million barrels per day. And that would dramatically lower oil prices as well as eliminate the need for new oil production. This powerful new technology represents a potential future oil companies and republicans most definitely do not want. A future, however, that would be dramatically more prosperous for the rest of us.

But republican attacks aren’t limited to demonizing revolutionary American technologies like the Volt. Republicans have also worked to de-fund all government incentives to produce solar energy, wind energy, and to increase vehicle efficiency. Solar and wind energy reduce dependence on fossil fuels and since gas and coal are increasingly interchangeable with oil, they indirectly reduce oil prices. Finally, republicans attacks on energy efficiency directly increase the price of oil by increasing demand.

Republican policies push high prices higher

Only a dummy or someone bought and paid for would make the argument that civilization should remain dependent on an increasingly expensive and scarce resource like oil. And that’s just what republicans are doing. Though republicans aren’t to blame for the fact that oil itself is more expensive because it is depleting, they are to blame for pushing policies that enforce dependence on oil, for fighting at every turn to reduce efficiencies, and for doing their best to demonize and destroy any alternatives to oil.

Foremost, the republican push for drilling as the only solution is doomed to failure. At best, new drilling is a temporary stop-gap. Long term, without alternatives, it dooms the world economy to spiraling increases in energy prices. This policy is one born out of the myopic special interests of oil companies and their continued drive for dominance and outrageous profits. A true allegory to this failed policy was the conservative/republican push for deregulating the banks and the housing market in the 1990s. The result was a world financial collapse in 2008. We don’t want to see the same thing happen in energy. But blinded by profits and donations, republicans are,once more, trying to force us down a dangerous path.

 

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How Republican Oil Only Strategy Increases Gas Prices

Currently, a massive and ongoing political attack on Barack Obama continues unabated, blaming him for high gas prices. In short, not only is this blame misplaced and misinformed, the republican-proposed solutions to high gas prices are doomed to failure.

Oil Only Not Enough

Currently, republicans are only proposing to expand access and increase drilling as a solution to high gas prices. This proposal blatantly ignores the fact that since Bush ended his presidency oil and gas drilling has increased by 350%. Furthermore, oil and gas companies are failing to use drilling leases they currently have access to on public lands. The best areas have already been leased, so opening new areas would only increase oil supplies at the margins. The best-case scenario for new drilling would result in only marginal gains in supply. This marginal increase would do little if anything to reduce prices on a world market that is now demanding more than 90 million barrels per day at $106 dollars a barrel.

Chasing the Difficult, Depleting Oil Is Expensive

Currently, the cost to produce a marginal barrel of oil is as high as $70. What this means is that gasoline prices won’t drop below $2.90-3.20 per gallon unless demand for those marginal barrels is destroyed. And that means less oil demand. Instead of 90 million barrels per day of oil demand, we’d need about 88 million barrels per day. But there’s no way to do that without alternatives, reduced consumption or increased efficiency.

The reason this marginal oil is more expensive is due to the energy, expense and materials required to break it out of the ground. Marginal oil is locked in rocks that need to be fracked, baked, or crushed. It lies in pools more than two miles beneath the ocean floor, more than two miles beneath the surface of the water. Accessing this oil is a very difficult and costly endeavor. And the oil companies are now wed to this high price in order to keep accessing this oil.

Oil Market Dominance Allows for No Competition

The market dominance facilitated by oil companies results in political pressure that stifles alternative energy development. You can see this directly in republican attacks on all forms of US alternative energy spending, attacks on electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt, attacks on alternative fuels like ethanol and other biofuels, and attacks on energy efficiency. Meanwhile, republicans fight tooth and nail to protect oil company subsidies and prevent oil companies from paying any restitution that results from accidents, spills, and deaths due to oil industry operation. Republicans have long been apologists for the oil industry and this trend seems highly unlikely to change.

World Crude Oil Production Peaked in 2005

The underlying reason behind high oil prices, though, is the fact that world crude oil production peaked in 2005. From that point forward, new oil was forever after bound to be more dirty, dangerous and expensive. In fact, this oil will continue to grow more expensive as time goes forward no matter how much we drill and no matter how many new sources we exploit. The reason behind this increased cost and difficulty is due to the fact that the new fuels called ‘oil’ aren’t really oil at all, just increasingly diffuse and hard to use mineral resources that are mildly interchangeable with oil.

In the end, the combination of these factors means that unless viable alternatives like electric vehicles, more efficient vehicles, and biofuels continue to gain market share, there will be no hope for a long-term solution to high oil prices. For this reason, irresponsible republican policies relying only on oil are doomed to failure in much the same way their irresponsible policies of economic deregulation were doomed to failure. For the American public to continue believing the misinformation both they and the oil companies are spreading will result in America going down a very dark and difficult path. It is a path that is entirely avoidable should we make the right decisions now.

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