Sunday, July 14, 2019

Why ocean acidification could make some geoengineering schemes irrelevant

The idea of runaway ocean acidification has now joined the idea of runaway global warming as a threat so large that it stands almost co-equal in its danger.

Part of the problem with ocean acidification is that geoengineering schemes for lowering Earth's temperature by reducing the sunlight that reaches the Earth's surface won't affect ocean acidification. And recent research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that there is a tipping point in acidification beyond which the process becomes self-reinforcing and could lead to a mass extinction.

The idea of runaway global warming has been around for a while. In its original form it was speculation about whether the Earth could enter an unstoppable process that appears to have occurred on Venus billions of years ago and boiled its oceans away—leaving a planet so hot that surface temperatures today are high enough to melt lead.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

Connectivity becomes too dangerous: Putting manual security back into the grid

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last week that would form a government-industry working group to "examine ways to replace automated systems with low-tech redundancies, like manual procedures controlled by human operators." The news release linked above specifically references an attack on the Ukrainian grid that succeeded only partially because of such manual technology:

This legislation was inspired in part by Ukraine’s experience in 2015, when a sophisticated cyber-attack on that country’s power grid led to more than 225,000 people being left in the dark. The attack could have been worse if not for the fact that Ukraine relies on manual technology to operate its grid. The Senator’s bill seeks to build on this concept by studying ways to strategically use "retro" technology to isolate the grid’s most important control systems.

The enthusiasm for all things automated and digital has run into a snag. The purveyors of so-called "smart" systems would like us to think that there are always digital solutions to digital problems. But, in truth, digital security problems merely reflect an ongoing arms race between security technologies and procedures and the hackers who work constantly to circumvent them.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Shale oil and gas: Destroying capital one well at a time

Recently, the former CEO of the largest shale gas producer in the United States told a roomful of conference goers what any competent financial analysis would have revealed many years ago: the shale oil and gas industry as a whole has been destroying capital since its inception.

"The fact is that every time they put the drill bit to the ground, they erode the value of the billions of dollars of previous investments they have made," said Steve Schlotterbeck, former head of natural gas behemoth EQT, at a petrochemical industry conference. "It's frankly no wonder that their equity valuations continue to fall dramatically."

But, the real news here is not that the shale oil and gas industry has from its beginning been destroying capital one well at a time. It's that a major industry insider freed from the constraints of his former job has admitted it.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

When software rules the world

I was a young boy when elevator operators still closed those see-through, metal accordion interior elevator doors by hand and then moved the elevator up or down by rotating a knob on a wheel embedded in the elevator wall.

Within a few years all those operators were gone, replaced by numbered buttons on the elevator wall. Today, so many activities that used to be mediated by human judgement are now governed by algorithms inside automated systems.

Apart from the implications for elevator operators and others displaced by such technology, there is the question of transparency. It's easy to determine visually whether an elevator door is open and the elevator is level with the floor you're on so that you can safely exit.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, June 23.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Alarm bell on decline of nuclear power way too late

Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that neglect of the world's nuclear electric generating plants would lead to a precipitous decline in climate-friendly nuclear energy production around the world.

The agency, a consortium of 30 countries which monitors energy developments worldwide, said 25 percent of nuclear capacity could be lost by 2025 and two-thirds by 2040. The cause is clear. Little new capacity is being built and much of the current fleet of reactors is nearing the end of its lifespan.

The IEA's warning comes about a decade too late. That's because the timeline for planning and building nuclear power plants can be that long.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Is there a way to counter the Chinese stranglehold on rare earth metals?

Those of us living in the United States are once again getting an education about the importance of rare earth elements for the production of consumer electronics, electric vehicles, wind turbines, and military equipment such as night-vision goggles. The reason for this education is a Chinese threat to retaliate in the ongoing trade war with the Trump administration by restricting exports of rare earths.

Clockwise from Top Center: Praseodymium, Cerium,
Lanthanum, Neodymium, Samarium, and Gadolinium.

It's not an empty threat. The last time the Chinese restricted exports in 2010 prices skyrocketed on the world market. Back then the Chinese produced more than 90 percent of the world's supply. Ostensibly, the Chinese were reserving these critical metals to bolster domestic manufacturers by forcing production of devices requiring the metals to occur in China. The Chinese eventually relented in the face of an adverse ruling from the World Trade Organization.

To understand this threat in context, first, it is important to know that rare earths are not rare in the earth's crust. Some of the most important are as plentiful as zinc and chromium. However, rare earth elements do not occur in concentrated deposits nearly so often as zinc, chromium and other plentiful metals. That means that rare earths are expensive to mine.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

CO2 emissions: The trend is not your friend

When the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in late March that energy consumption in 2018 rose at the fastest rate in a decade, it confirmed something that most of those who truly understand the climate crisis already know: Collectively, humanity is making almost no progress in doing anything significant about climate change. So, it's not surprising that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has hit yet another record high.

While the dominate public narrative has been that we are making great leaps toward a low-carbon economy through the rapid deployment of renewable energy, the IEA report showed a civilization moving inexorably toward climate catastrophe.

Of the growth in energy demand—the extra energy needed to power the world economy in 2018 versus 2017—70 percent was supplied by fossil fuels. When we hear, as the IEA tells us, that solar energy generation increased by 31 percent last year without appropriate context, we fail to understand that this is off a very small base relative to fossil fuel energy.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Helium is a finite resource—who knew?

Almost precisely 10 years ago I wrote about the likelihood of a shortage of helium in the not-to-distant future in a piece entitled "Let's party 'til the helium's gone." Last week worries about a helium shortage appeared in my news feed. It seems that we are indeed going to party 'til the helium's gone as no steps that I know of have been taken to avert the inevitable shortage.

That the shortage comes as a surprise results from a certain scientific illiteracy about the makeup of the universe and the geology of the planet. More on that later.

It also results from a peculiar type of economic thinking that is pervasive today that states that when shortages occur of any commodity, prices will rise to incentivize exploitation of previously uneconomical resources and automatically solve the problem. This intellectually lazy pronouncement does not consider whether the new supplies will be affordable. (As I pointed out in another piece about helium in 2013, "Things do not have to run out to become unavailable.")

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Does Chevron know exactly what shale oil and gas are worth?

Welcome to the bidding war that didn't happen. The decision last week by international oil giant Chevron Corp. to leave its takeover bid for shale oil and gas-heavy Anadarko Petroleum Corp. unaltered in the wake of a higher offer from rival bidder Occidental Petroleum Corp. surprised some who had expected a back and forth escalation between the two competitors.

Chevron's CEO told Bloomberg, "Winning in any environment doesn’t mean winning at any cost." Chevron's hesitancy to pay up for Anadarko's assets suggests a measured assessment about what Anadarko might deliver, one tempered by emerging political developments and perhaps a less sanguine view about the durability of the shale boom.

Anadarko, after all, has considerable operations in Colorado which recently enacted a bill increasing the ability of municipalities to curtail oil and gas development, authorizing more stringent air quality monitoring and rules, and turning the commission which was tasked with "fostering" oil and gas development into one which actually regulates it. That spells less oil and gas development in a state that has been critical to Anadarko and to the shale boom.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Risk 'misunderestimated': War, sleeping pills, and the Extinction Rebellion

One day before the presidential election in 2000, president-to-be George W. Bush told an audience in Bentonville, Arkansas that his vanquished primary opponent, Sen. John McCain, had "misunderestimated me."

That malapropism became one of the most famous of his many linguistic missteps. But, it was Bush, or rather his vice president and Ph.D. advisors, who "misunderestimated" the risk involved in going to war with Iraq. The predicted "cakewalk" into Iraq turned into a bloody nightmare occupation lasting more than a decade. The unforeseen consequences of war are very often "misunderestimated."

I began thinking about "misunderestimated" risks this week when I read an article about the U.S. Food and Drug Adminstration slapping a more visible warning on popular sleeping pills. I went through a serious bout of insomnia many years ago. For months I only slept every third night. I understand how desperate people get under such circumstances. But is it wise to take a sleeping pill, the known side effects of which can be driving while asleep and even suicide?

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, May 5.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Is matter conscious? If so, does it matter?

I'm messing with you a little bit to get your attention. This is because I believe the question posed in my title is at the heart of many conflicts we see around the world. This appears to be an astounding claim for so esoteric a question, one seemingly suited to some obscure corner of physics and philosophy.

We are, however, nevertheless joined in a giant struggle in practically every aspect of society over the value of subjective experience versus objective experience, a struggle that features the nascent realization on the part of some people that subjective and objective worlds—which most have long believed were separate—are, in fact, two aspects of the same reality. And, they are not obliquely connected. They are, in fact, part of a unified reality.

To understand the argument for the consciousness of matter, you can read this piece which does a fairly good job of answering the objections from opponents of this idea. I won't recite those arguments here. You can read them yourself. I want to show how the emerging attempt to return to a state of being that values both the subjective and the objective is creating conflict.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Life imitates art: Norway rejects oil prospecting in sensitive Arctic islands

In what seemed like an episode of the Norwegian television drama Occupied, Norway's largest political party joined smaller ones in the nation's parliament to prevent oil exploration in the scenic Lofoten archipelago. The Labor Party's environmental wing made climate change and scenic beauty big issues.

Unlike another contentious oil resource, Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, these islands get around 1 million visitors each year. That implies that many Norwegians have actually seen the islands.

In the history of oil-rich nations, Norwegians have followed an unorthodox path. While most such nations have chosen to subsidize domestic prices of petroleum products or at least keep them cheap by policy, Norway has taxed consumption of oil and oil products as if the country were an importer trying to economize on petroleum use.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, April 14.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Carbon emissions reach record: How can we build solidarity to fight climate change?

When carbon emissions appeared to level off from 2014 through 2016, some people were hopeful that industrial civilization just might be able to decouple carbon emissions from economic growth. After all, the world economy had been growing and yet carbon emissions had not grown with it.

Fast forward to today. It turns out that humans are still burning lots of carbon to support economic growth as carbon emissions in 2018 reached a new record. The temporary halt from 2014 through 2016 was primarily due to the rapid replacement of coal-fired power plants with natural gas and renewable energy sources, a trend that by itself cannot solve the climate crisis.

So, once again, policymakers are asking how they can possibly achieve the rapid decline in emissions which the world's scientists say is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. The answer is actually simple and extremely painful. They must stop focusing on growth and make an all-out effort to reduce emissions.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Russians are coming (and they're bringing oil)

As America's Russia hysteria is stirred once again by the arrival of the long-awaited report of the U.S. Department of Justice on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, a surge in Russian oil imports has arrived on America's shores.

The surge was little noticed by what passes for the U.S. foreign policy apparatus these days which has now become obsessed with toppling the current regime in Venezuela—a regime unloved by American oil interests who saw their property expropriated by the Venezuelan government.

By effectively preventing the national Venezuelan oil company from getting paid for its cargoes to the United States, the U.S. government has forced Venezuela, previously a major source of imported oil, to seek other customers for its mostly heavy crude.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Deep adaptation, post-sustainability and the possibility of societal collapse

I write this piece primarily to get you to read an academic paper that has attracted relatively widespread attention. It is entitled "Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy."

It is remarkable in a number of aspects. First, it was written by a professor of sustainability leadership who has been heavily involved for a long time in helping organizations including governments, nonprofits and corporations to become more sustainable. Second, the author, Jem Bendell, has now concluded the following after an exhaustive review of the most up-to-date findings about climate change: "inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction." Third, his paper was rejected for publication not because it contained any errors of fact, but largely because it was too negative and thought to breed hopelessness.

It is important to understand what Bendell means by "collapse" in this context. He does not necessarily mean an event taking place in a relatively short period of time all over the world all at once. Rather, he means severe disruptions of our lives and societies to a degree than renders our current institutional arrangements largely irrelevant. He believes we won't be able to respond to the scope of suffering and change by doing things the way we are doing them now with only a few reformist tweaks.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Uber, Lyft and oil frackers: Tech mirages, not real businesses

Ultimately, businesses must make money for their investors or those businesses are shut down. It's true that some businesses "make" money by laundering it for people engaged in criminal enterprises.

There is another category of businesses that don't make money but are not an extension of criminal activity. I'm calling them tech mirages. Tech mirages appear to be exciting, new viable businesses that are revolutionizing the way we do things. That's the mirage part!

In fact, they are doing old things to which they add some not particularly new technology and in the process attract and then consume vast amounts of capital. Investors are dazzled by the mirage while seemingly incapable of understanding what the financial numbers are telling them.

Ride hailing giants Uber and Lyft are two examples of tech mirages. The part of the oil industry engaged in extracting oil from deep shale deposits using a special form of hydraulic fracturing or fracking is another tech mirage.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

The unfinished American project: Democratizing work

At the dawn of the American republic, most people worked on farms. Census data for 1790 didn't include occupation. But it is estimated that 90 percent of those living in the United States were farmers. America was known in Europe for having a large middle class made up primarily of "yeoman" farmers, that is, small farmers owning their own land.

A form of political democracy had come to the newly independent country. It didn't include women, slaves, Native Americans or the propertyless. But the right to vote has by fits and starts expanded as property requirements were dropped, slaves were freed and given the vote (only to have it wrested away later), women were enfranchised, and finally voting rights legislation brought down barriers to ballot access for African-Americans. (New challenges to those rights have arisen with the striking down of portions of the Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Still, universal suffrage seems closer than ever (even if voter turnout in presidential years has been in the 50 to 60 percent range since 1918).

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, March 3.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

"Which species are we sure we can survive without?" Revisited

Two years ago I asked the question in the title of this piece. Now comes a wide-ranging study that suggests we are about to test that question in a major way.

The study predicts that at the current rate of loss of insect species, 40 percent could be gone "in the next few decades." What is particularly alarming is that this "could trigger wide-ranging cascading effects within several of the world's ecosystems." That means that many other life-forms including other animals and plants could find themselves without what they need to survive in this dangerous game of musical chairs orchestrated by humans. Might we be one of those species?

Insects do much of the crop pollination necessary for food production. A list of crops pollinated by bees is quite long. Humans could survive without these foods, but the nutrition and variety in our diets would be severely limited. And yet there is a greater problem. Outside of agriculture 80 to 95 percent of plant species require animal pollination. Since those plants are the base of every food chain, catastrophic declines in insect populations could lead to a collapse of existing ecosystems. The exact scope and effects of such a collapse cannot be fully anticipated. But it is doubtful humans would be unharmed.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Is a key ingredient humans need to live about to run short?

Phosphorus is essential for all living organisms. So, it's not surprising that humans get their phosphorus from other living organisms, mostly plants, that have absorbed phosphorus from the soil.

The introduction of phosphate fertilizers made it possible to ensure that enough phosphorus for healthy plant growth is available in practically any farmland soils. At first, farmers had access to phosphate fertilizers from bone ash and later from phosphate deposits accumulated from bird and bat guano on certain tropical islands (some of which deposits were 30 feet deep before they were mined and completely exhausted). More recently, phosphates have come from mining rocks rich in phosphorus.

All seemed well for the long term as supplies of the rock phosphates were thought to be hundreds of years at current rates of consumption. But a group of researchers upended the consensus in 2009 forecasting that phosphate production could peak as early as 2030. A peak wouldn't be the end of phosphate production. But it would mark the beginning of an ongoing decline in phosphorus available from mines. This would come as a shock to a world food system accustomed to consistently rising phosphorus supplies needed to feed a growing population.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Will anything slow down the U.S. LNG juggernaut?

It is the legally mandated purpose of a for-profit corporation to make money for its owners and to prioritize that goal above all else. So, it is no surprise that U.S. natural gas producers have been seeking relief from domestic prices that have generally hovered between $2 and $4 per thousand cubic feet for most of this decade.

Qatar Petroleum and Exxon Mobil Corp announced last week that they would be adding to investment in Texas in liquefied natural gas capacity for export from the United States, a move that was described as a response the immense volumes of gas coming from American shale deposits. With so many LNG projects being built and on the drawing board, will anything slow down the U.S. LNG juggernaut?

The fight over U.S. exports of natural gas is long since over. U.S. producers now have the right—like almost all other U.S. producers of commodities or manufactured products—to sell their products to the highest bidder wherever that bidder may be in the world.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Has U.S. shale oil entered a death spiral?

The bad news coming out of the shale oil fields of America could all be put down to slumping oil prices. That is certainly a big factor. But as investment professionals like to say, when the tide goes out, we all find out who's been skinny-dipping.

The pattern of negative news from shale country is not just related to price, however. Oil production, it seems, is being overstated industry-wide by 10 percent and 50 percent in the case of some companies, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The CEO of one of the largest players in the industry, Continental Resources, predicted that growth in shale oil production could fall by 50 percent this year compared to last year. In reality, we should expect worse as the industry for obvious reasons tends to exaggerate its prospects.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The greatest good for the greatest number: A doctrine of acceptable losses

In 1776 philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a phrase that continues to be central to our modern way of thinking: "[I]t is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."

That phrase has morphed into the familiar one cited in the title of this piece. Happiness, however, has been reinterpreted first as "good" meaning something which gives pleasure, a move toward a kind of hedonism. "Good" has, however, become associated with "goods," that is, objects which consumers and businesses buy to further their personal and occupational goals.

This drift from the original meaning of what Bentham called his "fundamental axiom" is, in part, why we are addicted to economic growth and the consumerism that derives from it. We believe that "goods" are good for us and so more "goods" will always bring more good in their wake.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 20.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Democracy, truth, fallibilism, and the tech overlords

In a recent conversation a friend of mine offered the following: "There would be no need to vote on anything if we knew the truth." That statement has such profound implications that I will only scratch the surface of it here.

First, democracy presupposes that none of us knows the truth. We have our experience, our analyses, our logic and our intuitions, but we don't have the truth with a capital "T." We may reliably report our names to bank tellers. This is a social and legal designation, a definition backed by a birth certificate, driver's license, and other official documents. Even here we are obliged to provide evidence of the truth of our identity to the teller.

But whether it is wise to subsidize electric cars, legalize gambling, or go to war are issues that are far beyond simple social and legal designations. Our information on such topics is always incomplete, conflicting and quite possibly unreliable. We have difficulty verifying through personal observation much of what we are told. And, we are prone to errors of logic and to misinterpretations.