Independent Commentary on Environmental and Natural Resource News
By Kurt Cobb
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Taking a short break - no post this week
Sunday, March 19, 2023
What the dramatic drop in European demand for natural gas showed us
When Russian natural gas supplies to Europe dropped dramatically in the wake of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, Europeans and their governments wondered how they could remain warm through the coming winter. After all, Russian natural gas constituted 40 percent of the European Union's total supply. The only near-term solutions were to cut natural gas consumption and import more liquefied natural gas (LNG). But with a limited ability to accept LNG, cuts in consumption seemed inevitable.
While some industrial facilities temporarily closed due to high gas prices and some companies said they were relocating gas-intensive production outside Europe, much of the reduction in natural gas consumption was due to the mild winter weather and the reduction in use by households. (Some of reduction was due to fuel switching as electric utilities substituted coal for natural gas though the numbers have yet to be compiled.) As a result, prices of natural gas in Europe (using Dutch TTF Gas Futures as a proxy) fell by 80 percent from the end of September until now. Europe avoided the worst.
Last year Europe as a whole decreased its natural gas consumption by 13 percent, a hefty decline. Its use over the recent winter declined by 19 percent from the 5-year average.
Sunday, March 12, 2023
Despoiling the final frontier: Satellite mega-constellations threaten ozone layer
Here we go again. Satellite companies that plan to put tens of thousands of satellites into orbit to create space-based internet and cellphone networks are about to reach the final frontier for human degradation of the environment, outer space. And, they are doing it in ways that threaten the radiation protection of the ozone layer.
The so-called low Earth orbit satellites the companies are launching are designed to last for around five years and then fall back to Earth, disintegrating in the atmosphere as they fall. What they leave behind are materials that are likely to lead to the destruction of the ozone layer. With thousands of satellites potentially falling to Earth each year, the extent of the damage could be major.
We've seen this movie before. Without the curiosity of a lone scientist and his assistant in the early 1970s who asked what happens to highly persistant chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) once they are released into the air from refrigerator coils and spray cans, we humans might have lived (and died) through the destruction of the ozone layer without having the knowledge to stop it. That layer high up in the stratosphere protects all living things from the Sun's ultraviolet radiation.
Sunday, March 05, 2023
Taking a short break - no post this week
Sunday, February 26, 2023
Is AI a job killer? What does history say?
With all the concern about artificial intelligence (AI) destroying a large number of jobs in the coming years, it might be worth it to see what history tells us. It's possible that things are different this time and we may all soon be reading news articles and watching entertainment created through AI and dealing with automated call centers and accountants. On the other hand, maybe not.
More often, new technologies have augmented what people are already doing. They help them focus on other more complex tasks. Despite the introduction of automated bank tellers (ATMs) in 1969, human bank tellers are still around. While ATMs have mastered dispensing cash and taking deposits, today's tellers tend to focus on more complex transactions. And, I am happy to report that they are still willing to take my deposits at the teller window with a smile. Even a second wave of technology in the form of online deposits and other transactions has yet to finish off the job of bank teller.
As ATMs grew in popularity, one New York City bank (I cannot remember which one) limited teller transactions to those involving a high dollar amount. (Again, I cannot remember the amount.) A local competitor rolled out an ad campaign with the theme, "Our tellers love people." The first bank rescinded its policy very soon after.
Sunday, February 19, 2023
Efficient and fragile: Low prices, modern railroading and the toxic Ohio derailment
Complex, tightly networked systems run very efficiently and can work with precision for long periods, until they don't.
Money saved on the front end can be lost in one catastrophic accident. There is no better recent example than the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying copious amounts of toxic vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals. By now nearly everyone knows the tale of toxic fires and fears of explosion which led officials to drain undamaged tank cars carrying the same toxic chemicals which escaped the initial fires and then burn those chemicals as a precaution. Toxic smoke and residue settled far and wide from the crash site near East Palestine, Ohio, a small town of about 4,700. (You can read a summary of the possible effects of these chemicals on living organisms here. But I think the writer might actually be underplaying the consequences both short- and long-term.)
Who will pay for all the damage to people and the environment is a tricky question. You can be certain that Norfolk Southern won't be embracing its responsibility for the accident financially, at least not in public. Companies that get into such trouble have tried to limit their liability by reorganizing their companies and/or going bankrupt and saying they are unable to pay much. The injured must wait in line with other creditors for their share.
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Taking a short break - no post this week
Sunday, February 05, 2023
Who knew? There are limits to growth in the American West
The most recent poster child for the failure to understand resource limits is the town of Rio Verde Foothills, an unincorporated part of Maricopa County in Arizona adjacent to Scottsdale. The town's residents were blindside recently, when the City of Scottsdale ceased allowing water trucks to fill up from the city's water system to service the hundreds of homes in Rio Verde which lack water wells and use water tanks.
The residents still have access to water, but at a price that now averages triple what they were paying, about $660 a month for a thousand gallons. Instead of filling up and riding 15 minutes to Rio Verde, water trucks must now spend up to two hours round trip—after finding a willing supplier.
Warnings about the inevitable water crisis in the American West are not new. The most comprehensive and prescient critique came from author Marc Reisner in 1986 in his classic tale of greed and corruption, Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water. In a previous piece about water and the West I wrote:
It turns out that there is no substitute for potable water—despite what economic theory may wish to assert. To get enough of it in many locales will be increasingly expensive as we turn to ever more exotic means to extract water while both population grows and climate-enhanced droughts diminish replenishment of existing sources.
Sunday, January 29, 2023
How the modern fantasy of an eternal civilization warps our view of technology
What historians call the Golden Age of Greece—which ran from about 500 to 300 BC—spawned the foundational Western philosophers Plato and Aristotle; mathematicians such as Euclid whose geometry is still taught in schools today; classical Greek dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose plays are performed even now; an architecture so grand that it has been imitated in our own time, especially in government buildings; and the practice of democracy, a form of governance that would go into eclipse for over 2,000 years until the American and French revolutions.
What most people don't know is that the ancient Greeks who lived through that era did not think of themselves as being in a golden age. Instead, they thought of their society as a much degraded version of the heroic age that preceded it, an age described in such works as Homer's Illiad and Odyssey and Hesiod's Works and Days. How utterly difficult it is for most people living today to imagine a society whose members believed that the future would only bring further degradation and decline perhaps until civilization itself disappeared. History was to them cyclical with dark and golden ages—golden ages that start out with great vigor and hope and then grind down to dark eras that destroy the progress of the past.
Today, most modern people think of time as linear and history as merely a story of the gradual and now rapid rise of technological, social, political and cultural progress. Since time is linear, the trajectory is always forward and expected to be up. We humans will never again fall prey to the civilization-ending mistakes of the past. Our technology has no equal. Humans have decoupled from the limits nature previously imposed on them. They may even soon live and thrive on other planets. And, when limits or difficulties seem insurmountable, human ingenuity creates new technologies to overcome those perceived limits or difficulties.