Sunday, June 30, 2013

The one thing you need to know about the president's plan to address climate change

The one thing you need to know about President Obama's plan to address climate change is that the most it will accomplish is slowing very slightly the pace at which the world is currently hurtling toward catastrophic climate change. Having said this, his plan is nonetheless a brave and even historic move in a country whose political campaigns and public discourse have been utterly poisoned by the science-free propaganda of the fossil fuel industry.

I would be more enthusiastic about the president's baby steps if the devastating droughts and floods and swiftly melting ice in the polar regions and mountain glaciers weren't telling us that drastic action is necessary right now. Nature doesn't really care about the timetables of politicians or about what is politically feasible. Nature doesn't negotiate, and it doesn't compromise. The laws of physics and chemistry cannot be repealed or altered by the Obama administration, the United States Congress or any other body. And, these physical laws are deaf to complaints about the negative economic consequences of addressing climate change--consequences that will be far worse if we do nothing about climate change.

But let me return to the goal announced by the president and put his plan into perspective. Using existing executive powers--mostly through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which the Supreme Court affirmed in 2007 has the power to regulate greenhouse gases--the Obama Administration will endeavor to reduce the RATE of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States to 17 percent below the RATE in 2005 and do this by 2020. It's a relatively easy target because half the reduction has already taken place. In recent years electric utilities have been changing from coal to cheaper and cleaner-burning natural gas to fuel their plants, and drivers, stung by unemployment and high gasoline prices, have reduced their driving.

I've put the word "RATE" in all capitals above because this one word gets to the heart of the matter. The plan does NOT propose to reduce the absolute concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the major greenhouse gas which recently topped 400 parts per million (ppm). Instead, that concentration would continue to rise--even though it is increasingly evident that we must now reduce that concentration (some say to below 350 ppm) in order to avoid the worst.

The proposed decline in the rate of U.S. emissions would only reduce the overall rate of world emissions by just 1.6 percent based on 2011 emissions figures (using carbon dioxide as a proxy for all greenhouse gas emissions). Of course, other countries will have to do their part if we are to succeed as a species in addressing climate change. But it is worth noting that while the United States is home to just 4.5 percent of the world's population, it currently produces 16.8 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. (The 2011 emissions were 5.49 billion tons for the United States and 32.58 billion tons for the world.)

I often refer to climate change as a rate problem. By this I mean that the rate at which we are dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere exceeds the rate at which the planet can remove them. Because the rate of emissions has consistently exceeded the rate of absorption by the Earth since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the absolute concentration of greenhouse gases has steadily risen. (The oceans, the forests, and the weathering of rocks are responsible for almost all of the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. Were it not for these, the atmospheric concentration of carbon would be about twice what it is today, and we would long ago have have passed into a planetary emergency.)

Now, logic tells us that the only way we are ever going to get the absolute concentration down is to make it so that the rate of emissions falls below the rate of absorption by the Earth. And, that would require a drastic cut in the rate of emissions by more than 50 percent. But if we are to avert catastrophe, we must go much further so that the concentration can be brought down before a permanent new climate regime gets established. In other words, human survival depends on avoiding the tipping point in climate change that would render any human action ineffectual.

(Keep in mind that time is of the essence because climate change lags by 25 to 50 years the emissions that cause that change. We are only now experiencing climate change caused by greenhouse gases emissions between the early 1960s and the late 1980s. Even if all emissions ceased today, we would be in for another generation or two of warming.)

The oft-used phrase "tipping point" in this case refers to self-reinforcing loops in Earth processes that once started cannot be stopped by human action. Perhaps the most troubling example is the release of carbon dioxide and methane in the Arctic from the permafrost. The permafrost is now melting at an alarming rate and releasing greenhouse gases from the decay of dead plants formerly immune to such decay because they were frozen. The amount of carbon contained in the permafrost is nothing short of stupendous, twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere. The methane portion of any release is at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in warming the planet .

Once this vicious cycle gets going, it will be unstoppable as warming temperatures melt more permafrost which then releases more greenhouse gases which then increase the temperature which means further melting and so on until the globe reaches a new stable climate that is much, much hotter than our current one.

But this isn't the only self-reinforcing loop that imperils us. Another is the declining albedo or reflectivity of the Earth at the poles as snow and ice disappear more frequently from larger and larger land and water surfaces as a result of rising temperatures. Snow and ice have high reflectivity and return much of the Sun's light to outer space. But land and water absorb much more of the light and turn it into heat which then melts adjacent snow and ice which creates ever larger areas of heat-absorbing open ocean and exposed land surface.

It's no wonder then that many scientists are calling for an 80 to 90 percent reduction in the rate of emissions by 2050. It's not simply about slowing warming. It's about stopping and possibly reversing it so as to stay away from climate destabilizing tipping points.

I haven't even touched on a subject which seems almost taboo, even among policymakers who are eager to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from utilities, factories, homes and vehicles. Meat production is so energy intensive that it is estimated to contribute about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions each year. Telling people to reduce their meat intake, however, could prove to be even more unpopular than telling them to drive less or to lower their thermostats in winter.

And, deforestation--primarily in the world's rainforests--contributes nearly as much as meat production each year to climate change, about 15 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. Felled forests cease to absorb carbon dioxide and instead emit it as the waste wood and other dead biomass left behind decays.

The application of nitrogen fertilizers, essential to the so-called green revolution around the world, releases copious amounts of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. Today's large human population would not have been possible without nitrogen fertilizers which played a leading role in raising crop yields. It is thus going to be difficult to reduce nitrogen fertilizer use.

Then, there are several industrial gases. These compounds are extremely long-lived in the atmosphere--one lasting up to 50,000 years--and they are very potent, three of them exceeding the warming potential of carbon dioxide by more than 10,000 times. Some have been banned. Others are still in use. While their small concentrations in the atmosphere means that their contribution to climate change remains small, they are nevertheless worth addressing.

So, any credible climate change response must also address these other sources of emissions as well. The president's plan does touch on deforestation, but only briefly. The word "meat," however, does not appear anywhere in the report. In fairness, the president of the United States does not control world forests, nor can he change American farm policy--let alone American eating habits--single-handedly. While hydrofluorocarbons--used to replace now banned ozone-layer killing chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerants--are mentioned, nitrous oxide, a major greenhouse gas, is omitted. Yes, agricultural practices are mentioned, but the use of nitrogen fertilizers is THE major agricultural practice alongside meat production that generates climate warming gases.

The public needs to understand that the sources of greenhouse gas emissions are far more varied than most realize. And, the public also needs to understand that declines in the rate of emissions--unless very steep--are likely to be too little, too late. That's because it is the absolute concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that largely determines the climate. And, this concentration needs to start falling soon if we are to make certain that we avoid a climate catastrophe.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Will Israel's rush to export natural gas turn out to be a mistake?

As the United States contemplates exporting natural gas to the rest of the world, previously energy-poor Israel seems about to jump on the export bandwagon. The current government is seeking approval to export about 40 percent of the production from its newly discovered offshore natural gas fields.

In an era of high volatility in energy prices and supplies and in a country surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, one would think that Israel would want to keep this valuable energy prize all to itself. Current estimates suggest that the remaining 60 percent of production will allow Israel to supply all its needs for 25 years.

My question is: What will the country do after that? Presumably it will need natural gas after 25 years. And, what if estimated reserves turn out to be too optimistic and the supply doesn't last that long? No one really knows what's in a reservoir until it is actually produced.

What if the current steep rise in the rate of natural gas consumption continues for a number of years? Estimates stated in years of supply are usually based on the current rate of consumption. But if the rate of natural gas consumption continues to accelerate, the 25-year supply will shrink to a fraction of that number and the inevitable peak in production from these fields will occur even sooner. Moreover, additional supplies are unlikely to come--at least at favorable prices--from any of Israel's neighbors.

Wouldn't Israel benefit from maintaining a lower rate of natural gas production in line with its domestic needs so as to stretch out supplies as long as possible? Of course, it would. The country's energy security would be greatly enhanced if its natural gas supply could be assured for, say, 40 years instead of 25 (though the period is likely to be quite a bit less if consumption continues to rise).

So, who benefits from overproducing natural gas for export? The private companies involved in the drilling and extraction of the gas, of course. It is in their interest to produce as much as they can as soon as they can in order to reward their management and stockholders. As if to put an exclamation point on this interpretation, Bloomberg reported that one of the partners in the project, Delek Group Ltd., is swimming in debt and desperately needs the extra sales that exports represent to make its debt payments.

Though the Israeli Parliament is expected to act on the proposal to export natural gas, it could just as easily pass legislation that would restrict flow rates from these reservoirs. For a country as sensitive about its security as Israel, it is surprising that no apparent consideration has been given to this approach.

There are dissenting voices. But my guess is that the interests of the private companies involved in natural gas exploration and production will be given precedence over the long-term security needs of Israel. And, I expect this to happen very shortly.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Results may vary: Beware of kaleidoscopic vision in the oil and gas industry

If you've ever looked at the elements that create the images in a kaleidoscope, they are unremarkable: pebbles, beads and bits of colored glass, all mixed together. But when seen through the viewing end of the device, this mixture creates the illusion of pleasing, colorful and multiple identical designs where, in fact, there are none. It's done with mirrors; and the illusion is convincing to the eye as it looks through the narrow tube that connects it with the mirrors and the colored items on the other end.

Like children looking through a kaleidoscope who are unaware of its actual workings, the media and the public have been misled into believing that early production results in the shale natural gas and tight oil formations in the United States will be repeated again and again across the United States and the world. This has led to exuberant forecasts of energy independence for the United States, an end to the dominance of OPEC in world oil supplies, and fossil fuel abundance for decades to come.

Two important trends cast doubt on this naive view. First, in the United States, home of the hydraulic fracturing "miracle," domestic natural gas production has been flat since January 2012. The shale gas revolution may well be over in the United States as the current production level becomes increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of ferocious decline rates for shale gas wells--rates that range between 79 to 95 percent after just three years according to a comprehensive survey of 65,000 oil and gas wells in 31 U.S. shale plays. This means that at least 79 percent of all shale gas production must be replaced every three years just to keep shale gas production flat! With shale gas making up more than 34 percent of all U.S. production in 2011, merely keeping overall domestic production stable will be a formidable task and, given these decline rates, one with no historical precedent.

Further undermining the abundance narrative, U.S. crude oil production has gone almost flat since October 2012. This is not a long enough period to indicate anything definitive about the trajectory of domestic crude production. But, it comes at a time when reports from newer tight oil plays in Ohio and Colorado have proved hugely disappointing. Ohio pumped just 700,000 barrels of oil from its tight oil fields for all of 2012, an amount being pumped daily from the same kind of fields in North Dakota. In Colorado several years of development of tight oil have only been able to raise production statewide by about 100,000 barrels per day.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently fanned the flames of exuberance once again with a recent reassessment of the potential for shale gas and tight oil production worldwide. Inattentive readers, however, might miss that this report referred to "technically recoverable" resources, ones that are thought to be recoverable using current technology, but not necessarily profitable to recover at current prices. In addition, the EIA was careful to point out that its estimates are highly uncertain and subject to change once actual drillbits provide better information where little currently exists. Beyond this, it is important to remember that "resources" refer to sketchy estimates of what might be in the ground whereas "reserves" are what can be extracted profitably at today's prices from known fields using existing technology. "Reserves" are and always have been only a tiny fraction of "resources." Hapless journalists often fail to understand the difference as they did in this case.

A discreetly placed disclaimer reading "results may vary" often appears in television commercials showcasing people who've made millions following the investment advice being touted or who've lost scores of pounds using the exercise machine on offer. A more conspicuous "results may vary" warning ought to come with every new piece of information about the potential of this or that new shale gas or tight oil play.

If the U.S. experience is supposed to forecast the world, then the evidence so far suggests a boomlet followed by frantic efforts just to keep production level. But in some cases, such as Poland, the results have been far worse as heavily touted prospects have turned out to be duds.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Taking a break -- No post this week

I've been traveling all week and so am taking a break from my regular Sunday piece. I plan on posting again on Sunday, June 16.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

'Mad Men', energy and the culture of want

The name of the popular American television series "Mad Men" comes from the nickname given to those who worked in New York City's advertising agencies in the 1950s. The nickname came from the advertising profession itself whose members felt that one had to be a little mad to work on Madison Avenue, the center of the advertising business.

But, there is nothing particularly mad about the role of advertising in society, and it should really be looked upon as the logical conclusion of the long process of rationalizing modern economic life--a type of economic life which arose simultaneously with the widespread use of fossil fuels.

Through burning fossil fuels we are unlocking extremely dense forms of accumulated ancient sunlight. It may not seem like we have an almost completely "solar-powered" society today; but, we do if you count the ancient solar power stored in oil, natural gas and coal. These fuels come from microscopic sea life and plants which were pressurized, heated, and then transformed underground or under the seabed over tens of millions of years very long ago during what is now referred to as the Carboniferous Period. We are quickly drawing down the Earth's stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels at a rate that is thought to be anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million times their rate of natural formation. For this reason fossil fuels are on any human time scale finite.

Returning to the mad men of advertising, we find that they are only the culmination of a process which evolved to deal with something rarely seen in human history--persistent and rapidly growing surpluses of basic resources such as food, fiber and minerals and the manufactured goods they make possible. These surpluses were in turn made possible by persistent and growing surpluses of energy, energy derived primarily from fossil fuels. After all, nothing gets done without energy, and growing energy supplies allow more and more to get done.

Historically, the process of handling these surpluses began with the rationalization of production, the organization of working men and women into large coordinated work groups in vast industrial complexes. A steel mill is a good example. This form of organization was a radical change from the decentralized craft shops which had dominated handicraft production for centuries.

The new form of production came from the necessity of matching human intelligence with new energy-hungry machines that performed repetitive tasks without the need for rest. The resulting production was prolific and allowed mass production of identical items for households and businesses--items that were increasingly affordable to an ever larger number of people. This was the rationalization of production.

Next followed the rationalization of distribution. Mass production in central locations necessitated an elaborate new system of distribution which the railroad made available. Only by the middle of the 20th century did the newly-built interstate highway system in America and other similar systems elsewhere enable truck freight to eclipse rail freight for long-distance transport. Such systems would not have been possible without cheap supplies of fossil fuels.

The rationalization of distribution also took the form of department store chains that standardized offerings from city to city. In addition, there were catalog sales, most aptly illustrated by the introduction of the Sears catalog, an innovation that allowed rural residents to purchase and have delivered to their homes many of the same kinds of merchandise which America's city dwellers could buy at department stores. The Internet has simply put the catalog online.

Finally, the persistent surpluses of the fossil fuel age necessitated the rationalization of consumption. So much could be produced by the industrial infrastructure and delivered by the modern rationalized distribution network that customers needed to be prompted to buy not just necessities, but also what were formerly considered luxuries. Beyond this, many new gadgets were becoming available as well. How could all this be sold?

Enter the rationalization of consumption. In its simplest terms, it meant getting people to buy things which they didn't need or, at least, which they didn't yet know they needed. An entire profession emerged to engender want--engender it in a society in which fewer and fewer people were experiencing anything which could be characterized as genuine want. The solution was to invent wants and communicate them through the mass media to the consuming public in an effort to stimulate consumption. Most of these wants were linked to various forms of status seeking. The excess production made available through the rationalization of production and distribution could now be sold to an increasingly insatiable consuming public.

The traditional farm economy lives on a yearly solar energy budget. The wants of inhabitants of such an economy are bounded by that budget in the form of the crops its produces, the wood it makes available, and animals it feeds. But the industrial economy knows no such bounds. Its inhabitants do not think in terms of limits but of limitlessness. The modern industrial economy trades on dreams of ever more.

Long ago Aristotle noted a similar difference in attitudes about commerce between farmers and merchants. Today that difference has been obliterated as farmers have been brought into the industrial economy through something which, not surprisingly, we call industrial farming. In a way we have all become merchants, selling our skills and what we produce to someone else rather than consuming what we make.

The puzzling thing about this process is that the resulting plenty does not seem to have increased human happiness commensurate with the increase in consumption. In fact, major measures of human well-being level off at about 100 gigajoules of energy consumption per person per year. For context, each American consumes about 330 gigajoules per year.

It turns out that human happiness is more elusive than merely meeting basic wants and then meeting them over and over again at higher levels. How much food can one person eat without becoming sick? How many cars can one human drive? How many homes can one person actually live in? An individual can own a lot more than he or she could ever actually use and enjoy and may do so for status reasons. But, the rush of displaying of one's superior status only lasts so long and must be renewed by additional purchases as others obtain goods that confer status equal to one's own.

Which brings me back to "Mad Men" the television series. This is a story about people who have everything materially, and yet they are miserable. And, these very same people peddle a story of satisfaction through accumulation even as they themselves seem to achieve very little lasting satisfaction.

The television series is a tragedy not only about American life--which has advertising at its very core--but also a tragedy about capitalism, a system that has created so much wealth, while proportionately creating so little happiness to go with it.

The work of the "mad men" of advertising is utterly rational in its purpose: Get consumers to soak up the excess production that capitalism inevitably creates. But, the work of these men (and women) may be mad in the sense that it contributes in a highly visible way to a system that is neither ecologically sustainable in the long run nor delivers the human happiness it promises in the short run.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he writes columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at