Friday, December 23, 2005

Coal And The Question No One Is Asking About Carbon Sequestration

The new watchword in the coal mining industry is carbon sequestration. Those who mine coal and those who burn it (primarily electric utilities) are less likely than their counterparts in the oil and gas business to discount the dangers of oil and gas depletion. And, they have an entirely predictable solution: Mine more coal. The natural followup question is: What about global warming? From coal advocates we get another entirely predicable answer: carbon sequestration (i.e., storing the carbon dioxide created by the combustion of coal someplace other than the atmosphere).

These advocates are eager to turn coal into liquid fuel, into slurries for pipeline transport, and into cleaner burning synthetic gas for fuel and chemical feedstocks. In fact, they envision a return to a coal economy as the oil and gas economy declines. They do have one very important fact in their favor: The world still has gigantic reserves of coal, one quadrillion short tons according to the U. S. Energy Information Administration.

Of course, there are questions about the energy content of that remaining coal. Will we reach a point (sooner than we expect) at which the net energy from coal begins to decline precipitously and even turns negative making it an energy sink instead of an energy source? Will we find that as we increase our use of coal, a worldwide peak in production will come much earlier than we thought? And, wouldn't we then face the same challenge all over again of having to move quickly to renewable sources of energy?

But, let us set all these concerns aside for the moment and focus on the question of carbon sequestration. Not too long ago I spoke about oil depletion before a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored gathering. I suggested that we as a world society might decide to return to a coal economy. While that might prove practical in the short run, I explained, it would probably be disastrous in the long run because of the damage it would do to the climate.

Afterwards an engineer who works for a large utility approached me. He explained that his company was already successfully sequestering carbon dioxide underground in a pilot program at a generating plant in Virginia. I asked him how long the company was planning to test its program before expanding it. Would it be five years? 10 years? How long will the company wait to be sure that the carbon dioxide doesn't leak out at a later date, possibly by some process as yet unknown? What if any failure of the company's sequestration method doesn't show up until the 11th year?

He responded, "Well, maybe any leakage will be slow."

Are we really willing to bet the future of human civilization on coal based on that response?

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Peak Oil's Richard Pryor Problem

Comedian Richard Pryor, who passed away last week, was famous for saying, "Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?" In a way, those who believe that a peak in world oil production is not far away (or possibly already here) are asking the American public the same question.

A somnolent and self-satisfied American citizenry awakens each day to a world with no gas lines, warm homes in winter (or cool homes in summer), an economy which appears to be gaining speed and a gasoline price which has dropped below where it had been before it spiked to record levels.

It is as if we in America were all on a great luxury liner, one brimming from bow to stern with food and entertainment 24 hours day. Our ship is cruising through calm tropical seas under clear blue skies. As part of the afternoon entertainment someone gets up on the stage and starts talking about a huge storm not far ahead. He says the storm is in an area where some ships have simply disappeared and others have been so damaged that they had to be abandoned. At first the crowd squirms uncomfortably at the thought. But after looking out the window they are relieved; the sea is calm and the sky is blue to horizon. They begin murmuring among themselves that this guy is truly crazy.

Is our hypothetical speaker not asking the audience to deny the evidence of their senses? Is he not asking them to believe him rather than their lying eyes?

So, we are left with indirect approaches and appeals to statistics--over which there is admittedly much disagreement. We have no photos of the ancient Maya as their society collapsed. And, even if we had them, it took more than a century for Mayan civilization to disappear under mounting ecological pressures. Could that have been captured in a Kodak moment? In Pompeii we can actually see tortured faces preserved by the hot spewing ash; those faces speak eloquently of a people unprepared for a sudden disaster. And, yet Pompeii was really an isolated event, not a worldwide cataclysm. Even if we somehow had a time machine and could bring back pictures from the future, would anyone know how to interpret them? Even if we could interpret them, would anyone believe them?

We are only now beginning to see the outline of a visual presentation that will be crucial to explaining the risks of peak oil to a television-addicted society. Robert Hirsch's fast declining depletion curves can at least be fitted with the emotions of the market crashes of 1929 or 1987. But, the lesson in both instances is that eventually recovery comes.

America has always been a sucker for the apocalytic story. But, those stories have almost always had religious overtones. Even technological tales of the end times are often filled with moralizing about our unwillingness to control technology. It simply isn't within the American narrative to say, "We ran out of everything and people died."

There are signs of the peak, of course, for those who can interpret them: The global contest for the Earth's remaining energy sources. The inability of Saudi Arabia to increase its oil output as promised, not just over a few months, but over a couple of years. The unexpected rise in oil prices and their resilience in the face of energy analysts' calls for $20 or $30 oil. The sudden and suspicious growth of oil reserves in the Middle East in the 1980s with no new major discoveries, reserves upon which predictions of a peak far into the future are predicated.

But all this assumes a coherent narrative on which to hang these facts. And, that is the thing which hasn't yet emerged in the public mind. Perhaps peak oil is just too contrarian for the ingrained cornucopian expectations of a sated American public. Perhaps its ramifications are just too complex to get across. More important than either of these, peak oil does not yet come with compelling pictures that can be beamed into every home on FOX and CNN.

In our society, talk is good, pictures are better, and narrative is critical. But, in the end, the play's the thing. Can we find a peak oil narrative with pictures and players compelling enough to awaken the public before it's too late?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Energy: Fairy Dust for Techno-optimists

Peter Pan knew that anyone could fly after receiving a light sprinkling of fairy dust. And, so he sprinkled three young acquaintances and lured their levitating bodies out a bedroom window for a flight to Neverland.

Today, the world's techno-optimists regale us with tales of a future technological Neverland filled with such miracles as climate engineering (to save us from global warming); vertical farming--something along the lines of farming in a high-rise office building; photographic communications portals between cities--a virtual reality picture phone of sorts; personal fabricators--think the replicator on the Star Trek television series; roving self-powered fish ranches (to make up for the overfishing we've already done); and even Martian terraforming to give us an extra "Earth" when we're ready to throw out the one we live on.

Such stories can truly make us feel as if we could fly without any outside propulsion. But, whatever their merit, these ideas almost never include an explanation of where the energy to accomplish them will come from. The techno-optimists just assume that the necessary energy will show up somehow. It is as if energy were fairy dust to be sprinkled on any energy-devouring scheme we can think of.

Of course, there are techno-optimist schemes for getting all the energy we'd like, too: great solar panels in space, nuclear breeder reactors, clean-coal technology, methane hydrates, biodiesel from soy, to name a few. Some of them might work. The operative word is might.

Often these energy schemes fail to include an adequate explanation of 1) how we will get more energy out of the proposed technologies than we put in, 2) how we will scale them up to meet all our projected needs, 3) how we will deal with the enormous expansion of problems associated with them such as strip mining, nuclear waste or global warming or 4) how long such schemes are likely to sustain us. Perhaps we shouldn't make such a fuss. Peter Pan will find some special fairy dust to solve these problems as well. It's called technological innovation, and like fairy dust, it will arrive at precisely the moment we need it.

The one thing that does not figure into the techno-optimists' future is the possibility that we may have to live simpler, less technological lives. But then, that would require hard choices, clear thinking and careful planning and cooperation. How much easier to fantasize that some technological Peter Pan will arrive and take us to a technological Neverland where the inhabitants never run short of fairy dust--or energy.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Money and Energy: The Map Is Not The Territory

The map is not the territory. To any thinking person this statement is axiomatic. But, an important corollary is more difficult to discern, namely: Money is nothing more than the right to command energy to do what you want it to do.

To understand how the two statements above go together you need first to understand that money and credit make up what's called the symbolic economy. The symbolic economy merely represents what is happening in the real economy of goods and services including energy goods. Second, it is useful to know that only a fraction of one percent of all energy which goes into the products and services of an industrial economy comes from physical human labor. All the rest comes from a mix of fossil fuels (86%), nuclear power (7%), hydro power (6%) and alternative sources (1%). Since nothing gets mined, grown, harvested, processed, manufactured or delivered without energy, it follows that energy is the true currency of modern civilization. And, without energy sources that go beyond human and animal labor, we would revert to a pre-industrial lifestyle.

But some very smart people who should know better insist that money has a life of its own dancing through the hands of merchants, miners and manufacturers and able to conjure goods and even energy resources out of thin air. Such people treat energy as just another item in the marketplace. A recent commentary took that line of thinking as outlined in the linked article above to its logical conclusion by proposing that we run our entire economy on AAA batteries.

Yet, even the most noted cornucopian of our times, Julian Simon, recognized that energy is the "master resource." If energy is in short supply, that is, if it is costly, then our standard of living cannot be high. If it is plentiful and cheap, we can theoretically use it to transform everything else on earth into what we need and want. In his book, "The Ultimate Resource," Simon essentially admits that without cheap energy modern industrial civilization wouldn't be possible. His main argument on energy is that in the long run human ingenuity will always allow us to find whatever amounts and types of energy we need.

That is the real point of contention between energy pessimists and cornucopians. Intellectually honest cornucopians will recognize that no amount of money will elicit movement from a tractor, flight from an airplane, or the flow of electricity from generator, if there is no energy to make it happen. The quest for profit may motivate people to find and extract new energy resources, but no prospector in his right mind would build oil derricks on top of maps.

What we truly need is to start spending much greater sums of public money--that is, energy allocated for public purposes--to jumpstart the creation of a sustainable, renewable energy society. We don't have much time to prepare.

[Thanks to James Howard Kunstler in his November 28 commentary for pointing out the pieces cited above.]

Sunday, November 27, 2005

"Risk" and "Probability": MIA in the Peak Oil Debate

People desperately want to know the one thing which they cannot know: The future. All sides in the peak oil debate are only too happy to oblige with confident predictions about the future which flatly contradict one another. Strangely, it is not only the charlatans who offer such cocksure pronouncements, but also many thoughtful, accomplished people who are competent in every other way, yet who feel compelled to share their opinions as if they were channelling Nostradamus.

The result can be a game of journalistic ping-pong in which unequivocal pronouncements from various sides of the peak oil debate leave the public confused. Many in the public simply dismiss this debate; after all, if the experts can't agree, let them sort things out before they bother me.

While it is true that the public is looking for definitive answers about the complex issue of oil depletion, it is also true that there are none. We are all groping forward in a twilight of partial and often uncertain knowledge. What the public desperately needs to know are the risks we run as fossil fuels deplete. In short, they need a brief course in probability and risk that can prepare them to think clearly about the path we should all take individually and collectively.

When I speak before groups I often ask who has fire insurance on their homes or apartments. Usually, nearly every hand is raised. Then, I ask how many have ever actually collected on a claim for a fire. Only very rarely does even one person raise his or her hand. "Why do you have the insurance then?" I ask rhetorically. The answer, of course, is that even though house fires are quite rare, their consequences can be quite severe. "And so," I continue, "we routinely insure against events which are rare because they have severe consequences." We do this with life insurance. We do it implicitly with many health insurance plans which have coverage into the millions of dollars--even unlimited coverage--that in all likelihood we will never need.

Another useful illustration I use is the stock market. "If I could prove to you that you could be certain the stock market will go up nine years out of the the next 10," I begin, "you would be at ease with your investments in stocks and you might even increase your investment in them." Everyone seems comfortable with that thought.

"Now, let me add one more piece of information to this scenario," I continue. "In one of those years the stock market is almost certain to go down 80 percent." This completely changes the calculus because the element of probability is combined with the element of severity.

We must combine these things in our discussion of peak oil. No one knows when oil will peak for certain. The range of opinion is such that one could feel justified in remaining entirely unconcerned about oil for another 30 even 40 years by which time, we are told, a new energy infrastructure will be in place. But should we really speak in terms of whether a prediction for the peak of 2008 versus 2037 versus 2050 is correct? No one will know which is correct until after the fact. While the actual date of the peak has huge implications for what we should do now, it is the severity of the consequences of a peak which should be our focus. Are we adequately prepared for a peak even if we believe there is a low probability that it will occur in the next few years?

We should talk in terms of probability rather than absolutes. For example, can we rule out a peak entirely in the next few years? Can we reasonably say that the consequences of a peak are something we don't really need to worry about? In the world of probability, it matters whether you are worrying about a minor risk such as getting a hangnail or a major risk such as getting your arm chopped off. When it comes to the consequences of peak oil, "getting your arm chopped off" is a closer analogy.

Even the oil optimists agree that predicting a precise date or even year for peak oil is problematic. That is part of the reason for their skepticism concerning predictions of a nearby peak. But, oil optimists such as Daniel Yergin and Michael Lynch should be challenged in public to say whether they believe there is a zero chance of an oil peak before 2010. Do they also believe there is a zero chance before 2015 or 2020 or 2030? On what do they base their 100 percent confidence? Can they show us that they have perfect knowledge of the world's oil resources and the path of consumption and technological innovation through these dates?

Of course, both these optimists and their followers are merely assigning a high probability to a later peak. They cannot rule out an earlier one, but can only say that they regard it as unlikely. This means they must agree that with each year the possibility of a peak grows. Since oil is a finite resource, we know that we are depleting it once and for all with every fill-up. And, that means that even in the face of uncertain knowledge we know we are drawing ever closer to the peak as each day passes.

A nearby peak--and by this I mean within the next 10 to 15 years--would be, at the very least, highly disruptive and, at worst, civilization-destroying. Doesn't the possibility of such severe consequences demand our attention even if we believe that the probability of a nearby peak is small? This is the question we must pose to move the argument away from mere point-counterpoint where the validity of precise predictions on both sides is always questionable.

Most of us are not so foolish as to leave all our worldly goods exposed to the risk of a house fire without insurance. Unlike house fires, however, the risk of a peak in world oil production grows every day. Isn't it time to take out some insurance against that day based on the risks we already know about?

[For my suggestions on what form that insurance might take, see my previous post, Peak Oil 'To Do' List: Why We Should Do These Things Anyway.]

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Out of Control: Do senators really hate oil price manipulation?

The U. S. senators who recently held hearings to vilify oil company presidents about high oil prices don't so much oppose price manipulation as have a preference for its direction, namely down. But those same senators may soon be wishing that their favorite villains actually had the power to control prices. Such power would imply that considerable extra production capacity still exists.

It should come as no surprise that there is a basis for the senators' suspicion. From the early 1930s onward the Texas Railroad Commission limited supplies from Texas oilfields to keep prices high. Huge discoveries in East Texas during the Great Depression had caused oil prices to plummet below the cost of production--down to 10 cents a barrel at one point. The commission successfully obtained the power to allocate (read: restrict) production among all of Texas' wells, a process called proration. Federal intervention was eventually required to prevent so-called "hot oil," oil illegally pumped from the Texas fields, from moving across state lines. It was a system that had been initially resisted by Texas oilmen, but which they soon realized worked to their advantage. Thus, began the first formal government-run quota system for oil production.

That system allowed regulators to manage world oil prices because Texas alone had the world's largest excess production capacity. From the mid-1930s until 1970 regulators could flood the world market to bring down prices when they got too high or restrict production to keep prices from falling below the level necessary to encourage new drilling and investment.

In 1970 U. S. and world demand outstripped the ability of Texas to play the role of swing producer. The state's wells were allowed to run at 100 percent from that year to this. At the same time a new swing producer emerged, Saudi Arabia. Until recently the Saudi government, through its now government-owned oil company, Saudi Aramco, had been the price maker in the world oil markets. Its close relationship with the United States had resulted in favor after favor for the U. S. government and its allies. In both Gulf Wars, for example, the Saudis pumped extra crude to stabilize prices.

But something seems to have gone awry. Even as it appears there might have been some manipulation of gasoline prices made possible by strained refinery capacity in the United States, the price of crude oil remains stubbornly resistant to gravity. The Saudis have been saying for almost two years now that any day they will be swamping the world market with extra oil to moderate the price. The results so far: nothing.

Investment banker Matthew Simmons--now famous in peak oil circles--contends in his new book, "Twilight in the Desert," that Saudi Arabia recently reached the point that Texas reached some 35 years ago. The country has run out of excess production capacity. In other words, if everyone in the world is pumping at 100 percent, there is no extra oil left to be produced to increase supplies and bring down prices.

But, Simmons contends that the problem goes beyond infrastructure. He believes that Saudi and therefore world oil production are at or near their all-time peaks. Only time will tell.

Of course, none of the august senators who specialize in sniping at oil executives either seems to know about the idea of a peak or seems to care enough to ask about it. And none seems to understand that oil prices have been managed for decades by government as much as industry. (Beyond this, a peak in world oil production would, of course, get the oil companies off the hook since there would be nothing the companies could do about it. But that would ruin the senators' fun by forcing the Senate to address the real problem: oil depletion.)

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa seemed to sum up the ignorance of the Senate well when he told National Public Radio this in a recent interview:
You know, what makes our economy grow is energy. And, Americans are used to going to the gas tank and when they put that hose in their tank and when I do it, I wanna get gas out of it. And when I turn the light switch on, I want the lights to go on. And, I don't want somebody to tell me I've gotta change my way of living to satisfy them. Because this is America, and this is something we've worked our way into, and the American people are entitled to it. And, if we're going to improve our standard of living, you have to consume more energy.

Petroleum, however, is completely immune to the bad tempers of senators or the presumed entitlements of Americans. Petroleum sits indifferent and silent under the earth. As we scour the globe for the last remnants of it, it resists us more and more in its discovery and extraction. And, when we do find it, it comes to the surface not at rates determined by wishful thinking, but at those ordained by the laws of physics alone.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Oil Famine:
Surviving a Post-Oil Future/Class Outline

I'll be teaching a two-session class on world peak oil production this fall. Below I am posting information on the course.

Course Description

Cheap oil is coming to an end. Within the next decade or two world oil production is likely to reach a peak and then begin an irreversible decline. The end of cheap oil threatens to stall and even reverse economic growth worldwide. It could lead to profound disruptions in our way of life, especially in the areas of transportation and food production.

This course examines the inevitable collision between our growing thirst for oil and the certain decline in its availability in the years to come. What might the consequences for the world economy be? Can we find alternatives to oil before its production begins to decline? What can an individual do to help us make a successful transition to a post-oil economy? Alternative energy, lifestyle changes, conservation and efficiency measures will be discussed.

The course will emphasize discussion and interaction among all the participants.

Meeting Times:  Oct. 25, Nov. 1
                        6 p.m.- 9 p.m.

Location:           Regional Manufacturing Technology Center
                        Kellogg Community College
                        405 Hill Brady Road
                        Battle Creek, Michigan 49015

Instructor:         Kurt Cobb

Cost:               $49

Registration:     Click here to register
                        or call (269) 965-4134.


The purpose of the course is to familiarize participants with the concept of world peak oil production, an event that almost all reputable geologists agree will happen within the next 30 years. Predictions range from 2005 (Deffeyes) to 2037 (U. S. Energy Information Administration). Because so much of our way of life is dependent on oil and oil-based products, this event has profound implications for how we will have to change our society.

The closer the peak is, the more urgent the need for action. A recent U. S. Department of Energy report evaluating the possible effects of world peak oil production recommended a 20-year head start on a crash program to develop other liquid fuels to replace oil.

Key Concepts

Fossil Fuels - Also known as mineral fuels, are hydrocarbon-containing natural resources such as coal, petroleum and natural gas.

World peak oil production, often "peak oil" for short - The time after which the rate of world oil production will begin an irreversible decline.

Net energy - The amount of energy yielded by a resource minus the amount of energy it takes to find, extract, refine, transport and utilize that resource, i.e., it takes energy to get energy. If the net energy is positive, the resource is an energy source. If the net energy is negative the resource is an energy sink. (Also referred to as Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) and Energy Profit Ratio.)

Renewable Energy Source - includes all sources of energy that are captured from on-going natural processes, such as solar power, wind power, water flow in streams (hydropower), biomass, biodiesel and geothermal heat flows. Most renewable forms of energy, other than geothermal and tidal power, come from the Sun.

Plan of Course

Session 1 - Peak Oil and the Oil Predicament

In-class video: The End of Suburbia

Session 2 - Consequences & Responses

Please read the following articles and listen to the interview before coming to class. The reading totals only 30 pages:

1. Do high oil prices foreshadow a deeper crisis?
Kurt Cobb, October 25, 2004

2. Oil: It's Everywhere, Attached

3. Energy Evaluation Criteria, Handout from The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg.

4. The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler, Remarks in Hudson, NY
listen to Kunstler's 2003 Interview with Julian Darley. Scroll down to where you can see the choices that include "Complete Interview", "mp3" and "Transcript." The mp3 is a large file but can be easily downloaded if you have high-speed Internet access.

5. Peak Oil 'To Do' List: Why We Should Do These Things Anyway, Kurt Cobb, April 9, 2005

6. Alternative Energy Sources, Walter Youngquist


Some perspective from two optimists. See if you can spot the flaws and strengths in their thinking:

7. The Art of Energy - The future will not be painted in oil. By Peter Huber and Mark Mills Slate, Feb. 1, 2005

Sunday, August 21, 2005

All the oil news that's fit to print

The New York Times Magazine has a long piece on oil supplies which mentions peak oil. Two keys things which have been noted here and in many other places in the peak oil community are worth mentioning.

First, the piece mentions that Saudi Arabia is considered the key to raising oil production to meet world demand. It then outlines energy investment banker Matthew Simmons' contention that Saudia Arabia is near or at peak production and will not fulfill its expected role. Simmons provided a detailed analysis of the problem in his recently released book, "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy." Saudi oil officials, of course, dismiss Simmons' claims. In the Times piece Simmons makes a sensible response, one that he has reiterated several times in the last few months:
"If they want to satisfy people, they should issue field-by-field production reports and reserve data and have it audited,'' he told [the reporter]. ''It would then take anybody less than a week to say, 'Gosh, Matt is totally wrong,' or 'Matt actually might be too optimistic.'''

So, what is the response of the Saudi national oil company? "Either you believe us or you don't." The Saudis have the power to resolve all doubts within a few weeks, but they refuse any field-by-field accounting of their oil and they refuse any external, independent audit. Is this how people who are telling the truth behave?

The second critical issue concerning supply projections is somewhat buried in the article. Again and again, people have pointed out that supply projections provided by the U. S. Energy Information Administration are based not on reasonable, well-documented evidence of future supply, but rather on demand projections. You read that right! The EIA figures out what it believes future demand will be and then simply assumes that the supply will be there to meet it. Recently, even Saudi Arabia warned that it will not be able to live up to the EIA projections for increased supply.

Nearly all of the ground covered in the Times piece is not new. What's new is that the Times is covering it. Is anyone in America's circles of power capable of listening?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Congress's Rapid Energy Depletion Bill

While the pundits analyze the fossil fuel subsidies and nuclear industry giveaways in the energy bill only just signed by President Bush, they miss the overall. From the standpoint of ecology, the primary strategy behind the bill is a simple one: Increase the rate of drawdown in order to shore up a world economic and social system that is suffering gravely from the effects of a global environmental meltdown.

Drawdown, you may recall, is one of two strategies that animals use to obtain food and other resources they need. Drawdown is a strategy of drawing down finite resources in a way that temporarily increases the carrying capacity of a given area. (The other strategy is takover, as in taking over land, forest and other renewable resources for one's own use.)

In his brilliant 1980 book, Overshoot William Catton describes The Great Depression as an ecological crisis. Occupational niches were wiped out willy nilly within a couple of years as a worldwide economic system devolved into a more national and local one with all the attendant disruptions. The solution: In Hitler's Germany it was to create vast new occupational niches in the armaments industry and put others to work by increasing the size of the military. All of this was accomplished, of course, by increasing the drawdown of finite fossil fuels, especially coal and oil.

In World War II, the United States followed suit, creating a vast new military-industrial complex that remains with us today as an indispensible source of employment. That complex is all based, of course, on drawdown. As is the case with any drawdown situation, the faster you draw down resources, the richer and better you feel. Everything goes along swimmingly until the rate at which you can draw down the crucial resources starts to decline--oil comes to mind.

America's new energy policy isn't so much about the future as it is about the past. Drawing down precious finite resources of coal, oil and natural gas worked in the past to "solve" our problems, so we are going to try doing even more of it now. Of course, the irony of this is that all the money spent on better technology to draw down finite resources at faster rates only brings the inevitable crisis that much closer while making it that much worse when it does arrive.

Those who think that technology will save us fail to recognize that technology is what got us here. Technology is what has enabled us to draw down finite energy and other resources at faster and faster rates with all sorts of deleterious environmental side effects--global warming comes to mind.

Perhaps the answer to our energy woes is something Congress can't even contemplate. Perhaps the answer is less technology. After all, technology is what consumes such great amounts of energy while promising to provide the means to get more of it faster. Thus, technology creates an ever accelerating circle of activity from which there is no escape.

Is it possible so slow that circle down or even step outside of it? Would we be better off if we did?

Don't expect anyone in Congress* to discuss such an approach or to campaign on it in the coming election. Preaching restraint is a certain loser and every politician knows it. That may seem odd since self-restraint used to be a virtue. Now it is considered an economic impediment. Unfortunately, restraint is also the only path to long-term sustainability.

How much longer will we be able to afford to ignore the warning signals of resource exhaustion and environmental pollution before the day of reckoning arrives? No one really knows. But one thing is certain. The Congress's rapid energy depletion bill is certain to move that day ever closer.


*There is one brave exception. One must give Rep. Roscoe Barlett of Maryland a great deal of credit for trying to bring the issue of peak oil to the attention of his colleagues. So far he's not making much progress.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Oil Supplies and the "Infallible" Goddess of the Marketplace

It is unfortunate that the debate over when and whether world oil production will peak has taken on the character of a grudge match. Underlying the debate is a grudge against those who believe the marketplace cannot solve all of our problems, especially problems which stem from resource depletion.

On one side are a group of retired petroleum geologists and academics including Colin Campbell, Jean LaHerrere and Kenneth Deffeyes who have provided extensive research on world peak oil production and its timing. On the other side are prominent energy consultants such as Michael Lynch and Daniel Yergin (Cambridge Energy Research Associates) who claim that energy supplies are ample and that any energy transition is far away and will be smooth.

Campbell, LaHerrere and Deffeyes have little to gain from their prognostications. Their concern about oil depletion has been a decades long one, and they are all retired now. Lynch and Yergin are active consultants who make their livelihood projecting energy supply and prices. To be fair, some who are sounding the alarm about peak oil are consultants and investment bankers and managers. The most prominent among them is Matthew Simmons who insists that it would actually be better for his business if he didn't ruffle so many feathers with his outspoken warnings. Both sides then have every incentive to get their forecasts right.

Is it really just a case of bulls and bears espousing their opinions about the direction of the petroleum markets? Or does the disagreement stem from something more basic? I think the answer can be found, in part, in Yergin's paean to free-market ideology, "Commanding Heights." The book traces the transition away from government control of the world's economies to the laissez-faire ideology of today. There is no doubt where Yergin stands. Peak oil critics such as Yergin and Lynch believe the marketplace can solve all the world's ills. What they do not explain is why, with their preferred free-market ideology now ascendant practically everywhere, the marketplace is only making global warming, soil erosion, deforestation, and water depletion worse. They glide around all questions of ecological damage and focus on economic growth alone. They are cornucopians who cannot fathom the possibility of limits to growth.

When such cornucopians are asked how the marketplace would handle a hypothetical peak in world oil production in the next five years, they respond that there will be no peak. Do they have perfect knowledge of the future? Lynch's crystal ball has been off recently. In April 2004, he predicted $25 a barrel oil by the summer of 2004. In 2001 Yergin's organization predicted growing supplies of natural gas for the United States through 2005. The reality has been very different as Yergin admitted to Congress last year.

So why do these cornucopians behave as if they have been the recipients of infallible whisperings from the goddess of marketplace? Because they have no answer to an imminent oil peak, save perhaps that the marketplace would be "self-correcting" by "destroying demand." That's a polite way of saying a lot of people would have to do without, and for many that could mean doing without the very necessities of life: food, water, and heat. In short, Lynch and Yergin seem to be saying that because the marketplace would not produce a salutary outcome, such an outcome must be impossible.

A pragmatic person might admit that no one has perfect knowledge of oil supplies or of the future. He or she might try to construct scenarios from very favorable to very unfavorable to discern the risks. And, then such a person might suggest ways to mitigate those risks. Such a person (actually three people) has done just that for the U. S. Department of Energy.

The Department of Energy study is the result of an open, pragmatic mind, and its message is not all that sanguine: Even if the peak is 20 years away, we would have to start a crash program now to make up for the loss of liquid fuels after the peak. Given what's at stake, is it really wise to rely on whispers from the goddess of the marketplace into the ears of the chosen ones?

UPDATE: An anonymous commenter brings our attention to Richard Heinberg's explanation of an oil depletion protocol designed to reduce oil consumption and encourage energy savings. Such a protocol would use both non-market and market mechanisms in a pragmatic approach to heading off the substantial disruptions that are sure to follow an oil peak.

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Enron of OPEC

Recently, I watched a screening of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," a documentary about the Enron scandal and collapse. But, having just completed Matthew Simmons' "Twilight in the Desert," I couldn't help thinking about the world's largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia. In the case of Enron Wall Street analysts were almost unanimously too polite to ask the company to show them one crucial thing: how the company made its money. The analysts admitted that Enron was a "black box" and that they just had to take company revenues and earnings on faith. As long as the stock was rising, few people questioned what was going on at Enron.

Like their Wall Street counterparts, energy analysts seem to regard Saudi Aramco as a "black box" whose claims must be taken on faith. The company frequently says it can reach 15 million barrels per day in oil production and maintain that level for 50 years. The proof they offer: "Trust us!" In fact, there has been virtually no independent information about oil in Saudi Arabia since the early 1980s with one important exception: technical papers on file with the Society of Petroleum Engineers. These papers form the basis of Simmons' book, and they cast considerable doubt on claims by the Saudis that they will be able to sustain continuing high production levels for decades.

In the case of Enron the obfuscation and deception appeared on the surface to be part of a conscious strategy to increase the stock price. That meant 10s of millions of dollars for the top managers who sold out before the company collapsed. What motive could Aramco officials have for deceiving the world about its ability to produce oil? Aramco is not a publicly traded company, and so, greedy managers looking to cash in their stock options is not an explanation. However, Saudi Arabia would surely forfeit its premiere position among the world's oil producers if oil experts suspected that Saudi supplies were about to go into decline.

But, all this assumes a conscious strategy of deception. There may be something more troubling at work. As the Enron documentary illustrated, there were many employees--even in top management--who for a long time believed that the company would succeed. That is, they believed their own hype. Could it be that Saudi Aramco officials believe their own hype? After all, the company has been the world's leading producer of oil and has a reputation for cutting edge technology and talented management. And, it has a chorus of cheerleaders from the outside. Among them is perhaps the world's most well-informed oil supply expert, Thomas Ahlbrandt, the head of the U. S. Geological Survey's World Petroleum Assessment, the most thorough study of worldwide oil supplies ever undertaken. I had a conversation with Ahlbrandt last year. He said he worked in Saudi Arabia extensively as a petroleum geologist before joining the USGS and knew the Saudis well. He believes they have the oil they say they do.

With an endorsement like that why should any of the world's energy analysts doubt Saudi Aramco? And, yet the same phenomenon occurred with Wall Street analysts who almost unanimously agreed that Enron was the next big thing. If so many influential analysts knew that Enron was a sound investment, then there appeared to be no need for the kind of scrutiny that other lesser known companies might require.

Perhaps the most disquieting possibility this analogy points to is the rapid decline of Saudi oil supplies. Saudi Aramco has been using the most advanced recovery techniques in the industry for years. While these techniques have been able to maintain high rates of production, those rates may have come with a cost. In "Twilight in the Desert" Simmons says that the history of other giant oilfields subjected to the latest oil recovery technology--he cites the case of the North Sea oilfields--shows that once decline sets in it can be rapid. North Sea production in the British sector is down more than 30 percent since the peak in 1999.

And, so it was with Enron. When the decline came, it was sudden, catching most of the investment community by surprise. Enron had a huge public following and the confidence of virtually everyone on Wall Street practically right up to the end. It was conventional wisdom that Enron could only get bigger and better.

With Saudi Aramco, is it a case of self-deception or conscious bluff? In fact, it may be a little of both. The company has pulled off heroic feats of production in the past. Perhaps these past successes make Aramco officials and the company's outside cheerleaders believe Aramco can recreate the Saudi oil miracle all over again. But, there must be some conscious bluffing in the company's approach as well. Once Aramco learned that Simmons was writing a book critical of its cornucopian claims, it began a public relations campaign to reassure the world that Aramco can supply a large part of our future petroleum needs. (A recent sample of that campaign can be found here. It has the quality of a political campaign based more on endless repetition than actual information.) But, Aramco has released very little new information in the process of this campaign. The company is essentially reiterating its "trust us" message, albeit dressed up a little more formally. (Large downward reserve revisions by Shell last year have now made "trust us" a less credible message.)

All the Saudis would have to do to refute Simmons and other critics is to release detailed oilfield data and allow independent audits. So far, they have refused, and no one expects them to change their minds.

Draw your own conclusions.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Looking Back to the Peak: A Letter from the Future

The following is a letter written in 2024 to a writer seeking information on the unfolding energy crisis from a newly appointed U. S. member of the hastily formed International Committee on the Energy Emergency.

Dear Robert,

Your question about how the world reached such a crisis in energy is both easy and difficult to answer. The easy answer is that we have been in an energy emergency for more than a decade without even realizing it. We simply mislabeled it as solely an economic problem. The more difficult answer must trace the events of the last 20 years in order to provide the background you will need to understand our current predicament. To that end I decided to put my thoughts into writing since the explanation is a fairly lengthy one.

You will recall that at the beginning of this century a small, but well-informed group of petroleum geologists began to garner increasing public attention with their warnings about world peak oil production. They were aided by oil prices that rose from only $10 a barrel in 1999 to almost $75 at the beginning of 2006. Everyone wanted to know, "What's causing these high prices?"

The usual suspects were trotted out--OPEC, demand from China and India, the oil companies, the government, oil speculators, and a temporary shortage caused by low investment in oil exploration. In this environment the idea that the world was approaching its all-time peak in oil production began to gain some currency. Yet, even after hearing of peak oil, the public remained confused about its significance and unsure which of the many explanations concerning high oil prices they should accept. And, they were further confused by contradictory reports that the world, in fact, had huge and growing reserves of oil, and that therefore, prices would soon decline. While even government and international agencies acknowledged that oil would peak someday, they believed such a peak would not come until the mid 2030s. How mistaken they were!

As prices continued their upward trend, the notion that a genuine energy crisis existed began to take hold. By 2008 world economic growth began to slow as oil prices reached $95 a barrel. This price was a little above oil's all-time inflation-adjusted high. Many commentators were quick to point out that this mattered less than before because the world economy was on average using far less oil per unit of output than in used to. Their explanation, of course, obscured the fact that in absolute terms the world was using oil at its greatest rate ever.

Although the optimists were wrong about the price of oil, they were right about new supplies rising to meet demand--or rather almost meeting it. For even as production rose, demand kept rising faster which, of course, expressed itself in higher prices. But, economists insisted that it was only a matter of time before high prices would be their own undoing as the inevitable new supplies flooded the market.

You'll recall that at the beginning of 2009 a long-simmering concern about Iran's nuclear capability came to a boil. The new American president, who seemed intent on establishing his military bona fides, ordered a surprise air attack on suspected Iranian nuclear installations within days of assuming office. I use the word "surprise," but it many ways it could hardly have been a surprise except for the exact timing. The United States had been making veiled threats about an attack for four years. Perhaps after so many threats without any subsequent action people stopped believing the Americans would actually attack. The Iranians, of course, vehemently denounced the American attacks, but strangely said nothing about how they planned to respond.

Then, oil tankers in the Persian Gulf started to disappear. It was soon clear that the Iranians were sinking them, but the Iranian government said nothing. The Americans responded with more air attacks. By this time, however, all tanker traffic in the gulf had ceased. Oil futures catapulted upward and now traded at about $165 a barrel. The Iranians remained silent even as the Americans vilified them nightly in the press. Across the Arab world, street demonstrations denounced America and its new president while providing the usual scenes of flag burning.

You can imagine what a shock this was to the world economy. At first, there were gas lines everywhere, but then they quickly faded away. People found that they didn't really need to sit in line for gasoline which they could not afford anyway. Prices of everything jumped overnight. All those protestations by learned economists that we were now much less dependent on oil made little difference to actual consumers. They were suddenly hit with a huge reduction in their standard of living. They had to spend a lot more money for energy and that meant they had less money for everything else.

The Americans declared that all shipping in the Persian Gulf would now be protected by the U. S. Navy. The navy arranged to have all oil tankers and other merchant vessels reflagged with the American flag as the United States had done once before during the Iran-Iraq war. Tankers began to move back into the Gulf and prices fell sharply reaching $80 a barrel at one point as traders sold and sold. No sooner had the oil started to move out of the Gulf than a few tankers were again sunk, this time by small boats manned by suicide bombers who had eluded the large navy warships. That shut down tanker traffic for good. Insurance companies refused to cover Persian Gulf-bound tankers, American flag or no.

Oil shot back up to $202 a barrel at one point and then settled at about $180. And, there it stayed week after week. European navies came to help, and the U. S. Navy sent reinforcements to try to stabilize the situation. All of this took several weeks of frantic negotiation and positioning. Perhaps the most important players were the insurance companies which had to be absolutely convinced that no suicide bombers would make it through. Real progress came when the EU and the U. S. agreed to bear the total cost of any bomb-related sinkings. Sailors could only be lured into manning Persian Gulf-bound tankers with quadruple the normal wages and large life insurance packages to protect their families. These wages and insurance packages were heavily subsidized by both governments.

By this time the world economy was careening into a recession. World stock and bond markets were sinking. Efforts by the major central banks to reverse the downtrend only seemed to make it worse as traders worried that all the easy money and credit would only stoke inflation further. If the problem had only been oil prices, perhaps the economic damage could have been limited. But, the U. S. dollar had been in a precarious position for years. Huge dollar holdings by Asian central banks had been the only thing keeping the dollar's value from declining too precipitously. Now, the banks were powerless against traders who simply didn't want to own anything denominated in dollars. Eventually, some smaller Asian central banks in Korea, Singapore and Taiwan began to see that the situation was hopeless. They unloaded their dollar holdings and this spawned a second round of dollar selling. The dollar fell by 35 percent within three weeks. There it stabilized for a few weeks before falling another 20 percent in a second frenzy of selling related to the ongoing debacle in the world markets.

The combination of a slowing world economy, a dollar meltdown and a sudden megaspike in oil prices was simply too much. What had looked to be a bad recession quickly turned into a depression, a highly inflationary one as it turned out. Prices rose 20 and 30 percent on just about everything across the board except for oil products themselves which in many cases doubled. The general price hikes were exacerbated in the United States by the falling dollar. U. S. consumers were seeing prices rise 50 to 60 percent almost overnight.

The worldwide financial crash and the high inflation that accompanied it destroyed the savings of much of the world's middle class. Many rich people also lost considerable wealth. Those rich people, however, did not face the problem that so many others were facing now, namely, how to pay for life's necessities: food, shelter, transportation, heat, and clothing. Only a very narrow group of investors saved their skins with prudent investments in gold bullion and oil-related stocks and trusts. Hedge funds practically disappeared overnight. Even many of those which had bet on the right things were wiped out because they used derivatives--paper promises, really--to do so. After the crash most of the banks and brokerages on the other side of those derivative trades were unable to make good on their losses.

To everyone's surprise within a few months the world economy began to revive somewhat. Oil prices came down all the way to $100 a barrel. (With the dollar halved in value, the real price would have been comparable to about $50.) But, the mild recovery stalled and the oversupply of everything--copper, pulp, steel, autos, new homes, coal, computer chips, manufactured goods of practically every kind--began to weigh on markets. The central banks kept trying to pump up the money supply and make loans easily available, but it was to no effect. Businesses and individuals simply did not have enough confidence to borrow and spend. And, their remaining purchasing power had been badly eroded.

Within a year unemployment in Europe moved to 18 percent. In the United States, official unemployment reached 11 percent, though most believed it was actually double that. China and India were reeling without a plan for the millions of urban industrial workers who had no jobs. The slump resulted in riots in some Chinese and Indian cities, riots that ended with the deaths of many at the hands of both rioters and police.

The 9/11 terror attacks had prompted increasing military action by the United States and Great Britain including the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the face of a ruined world economy it looked at first as if these military operations might intensify. But, as a confrontation between the United States and North Korea loomed, China occupied North Korea on the pretense of protecting it from an American invasion. In reality, North Korea had become too dangerous even for China. Soon, the North Korean government was replaced by one more to China's liking. The North Korean army was reduced in size and its nuclear weapons dismantled under the watchful eyes of international inspectors. This move seems to have been the one that halted major foreign military operations by the United States and Britain from that time until the present.

On the economic front, protectionist measures were imposed everywhere and helped to cripple the occasional mild recoveries. This was the world in which government economists declared that there was now an oversupply of almost everything including oil. In a very narrow technical sense, they were correct. The marketplace was simply not demanding as much oil as it used to. In addition, the high oil prices of the latter part of the previous decade had led to many energy-saving advances and a move to more efficient hybrid cars and trucks. Some uses, such as heating oil for homes disappeared in many parts of the world. Few people wanted to be held hostage to oil for heat. Much like the early 1980s, oil consumption actually declined even as new supply appeared to be ready to come onto the market.

In the aftermath, one would have thought that investment in alternative energy sources would have been increased. But, those of us who said that this economic downturn was only a temporary reprieve from an oil peak were ignored. Instead, many cash-strapped governments ceased all subsidies for wind, solar, and energy conservation. Several, however, retained their by then sacred subsidies for biofuels, essentially another farm subsidy. Some incentives for nuclear power were rescinded around the world, but existing giveaways to the coal and oil industries in the United States continued.

The oil glut was on.

For almost 10 years the on-again, off-again economic recovery bedeviled countries and their governments. The usual tools of fiscal and monetary management no longer worked as expected. But, even so, economic activity was actually ratcheting up very slowly. In 2019 life seemed to be returning to what people used to call normal. Unemployment had been dropping for two years now in most countries, and there was a whiff of prosperity in some major cities around the world. The following year the world economy began to take off growing by four percent. That growth rate has been exceeded in each of the years leading up to today.

Three years ago oil was only $54 a barrel (barely $18 if adjusted for 2009 dollars). But yesterday it stood at $378 a barrel and, of course, everyone is afraid that we may slide into another long, deep depression as a result.

Now here is the key point. Oil consumption in 2009 reached a little over 95 million barrels per day. It declined to 85 million barrels per day by 2014 where it stalled until 2019. Since then oil consumption has been growing slowly at about 2 percent per year until now when we've reached 94 million barrels per day.

I believe that we will never see 95 million barrels per day. That means the peak in world oil production was in 2009. The events of that year masked this fact and prevented the world from facing up to it squarely. Few preparations have been made for this moment. Yes, we are even more efficient with oil than before, and we've made some strides in deploying alternative energy, especially in Europe. But, in the overall, the world is faced with the same problems we would have faced in 2010 had we not had an economic downturn.

The American and worldwide transportation systems remain woefully dependent on oil-based fuels. Agriculture continues to be drenched in oil derivatives for fuel, pesticides and herbicides. Manufacturing industries need oil to make fibers, petrochemicals, plastics and a myriad of products that we are still all heavily reliant on.

I'm afraid the prosperity that everyone was hoping for is about to be derailed.

With my appointment to the commission I think the president is acknowledging that voices like mine were wrongly ignored. Even in the face of the previous decade and a half of economic hardship, the United States and the world should have been working diligently on alternative fuels and on building new transportation and agricultural systems. Those efforts could have provided employment for many, stimulated the world economy, and helped us to avert today's crisis all at the same time. But the political will was not there. And, it wasn't there because the understanding wasn't there.

Now, we face a gargantuan task. I believe the world is up to it. It will challenge every assumption we have about the way we live--about energy, about work, about government, about war versus cooperation and sharing, about consumption as the primary value.

Robert, your work as a writer will be more important than ever in bringing understanding to all those who must help make the needed changes.

Thanks for your interest in the Committee and especially, for trying to understand how we as a human community came to this point. I hope you also will spend some time exploring how we can make the needed energy transition.

Best wishes and good luck with your article!


William T. Harwood, Ph.D.
Member, International Committee on the Energy Emergency

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Sunday, July 10, 2005

It's the rate of extraction, stupid!

Even if the world suddenly had 10 trillion more barrels of oil in the ground, it might not matter much in the short term. If the maximum possible rate of extraction ended up being something under what we currently consume or what we'd like to consume, we would still be in deep trouble. So, when reports appear that new technologies are going to double the amount of oil we can extract from old wells, the crucial question to ask is not, "How much?" but rather, "How fast?"

True, oil supplies will last longer if these technologies succeed at doing what they promise to do. (Don't let anybody kid you into thinking that we know they will. These technologies have yet to be widely deployed or tested.) But, even if we increase the amount of oil that is ultimately recoverable, we may not solve the real problem. We have a world economy entirely dependent for its growth on ever-increasing rates of oil production. This is the crux of the peak oil problem. It's not that there won't be any more oil; it's that at some point we will not be able to get it out of the ground at the rate we would like. And, of course, worse yet that rate will start to decline even though huge amounts of oil remain. To date we've been extracting the easy, fast-flowing oil. Increasingly, we are going after the hard, slower-flowing oil.

New recovery methods may deliver more oil from wells which had been left for dead. But the rate of flow in the vast majority of cases will be much slower than these wells produced in their prime. Still, if enough old wells are tapped, the overall rate of oil production worldwide may be able to move up for a time based on this alone. But, undergirding this approach there seems to be a hidden assumption that in the long run much of the world's yet-to-be discovered oil will be the fast-flowing kind. This then would allow worldwide production to keep pace with continuously rising demand. But, can we be so sanguine about the fast-flowing characteristics of this as yet unseen petroleum?

There is, of course, a second problem rarely discussed in conjunction with these new recovery methods. They use lots of energy. That means, in essence, that the oil they produce won't come cheap. Higher prices are going to be necessary to justify deploying these methods. And, those higher prices will come only with tight supplies.

If the new recovery methods are wildly successful, they might actually bring down the price of oil for a time. Ironically, this could make those very recovery methods uneconomical and lead to their abandonment. If, on the other hand, they are only moderately successful, they may result in a lengthy plateau in oil production. But, even if the rate of oil production merely plateaus in the medium term, that will mean an end to world economic growth until we find a suitable substitute for oil and deploy it on a broad scale. Such a plateau would certainly be disruptive, but it could also buy us some time to make an energy transition.

As we search for the best way to make that transition, we should be careful not to confuse a palliative (such as new oil recovery methods) with a cure. The only cure for a nonrenewable energy system is a renewable one. The sooner we take our medicine, the better.

(Via Energy Bulletin .)

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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Be Careful What You Wish For

With the announcement of Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement from the U. S. Supreme Court, right-wing evangelicals have begun to salivate at the prospect of a new, solidly antiabortion justice to replace her. But, they should be careful what they wish for. If the Bush administration ultimately manages to get enough new justices confirmed so that the court will overturn Roe v. Wade, what would be the result?

Evangelicals think that the result would be tough new antiabortion laws in the states and possibly at the federal level. But, in truth, those evangelicals would be playing with fire. Once the principle that the state can control a woman's reproduction is re-established, that control could just as easily be used to limit family size or even prohibit women from having children at all. "Impossible!" you say. "It'll never happen!"

Trouble is, it's already happened--and not just in China where the one-child policy has been China's major tool for stemming population growth. In the United States in the early part of the 20th century many state laws allowed the forced sterilization of the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the deaf, the blind and others deemed unfit to have children. This was part of the unfortunate eugenics movement which sought to "improve" human populations by preventing so-called "defective" persons from procreating. "Certainly, no one is thinking about this today," you may respond. Probably not.

But, future policy on controlling reproduction may look more like China's than that of the eugenics or the antiabortion movements. Why? We are headed into what some consider a resource challenged future. Energy, water and good soil for growing crops may be in shorter and shorter supply as the world population continues to grow over the next several decades. In fact, the scramble for energy resources, especially oil, is unfolding right now before our eyes. The fight over water and good arable land won't be far behind.

It's not inconceivable that many governments will come to the conclusion that there are too many mouths to feed and that the job of governance would be made easier by slowing down and even reversing population growth. With Roe v. Wade gone, it will be much easier for the U. S. government to limit family size and to enforce such a limit either directly (i.e., through forced abortion and sterilization) or through sizeable financial penalties.

Those who support reproductive rights have always emphasized voluntary measures to control family size for a reason. They know only too well what happens when the state starts making decisions about reproduction. Here's where the law of unintended consequences will most assuredly be felt. Besides abortion, some right-wing evangelicals also oppose the wide dissemination of birth control methods. They regard birth control as an invitation to promiscuity and, in the opinion of a few, a sin against a God who wants us to "be fruitful and multiply." How ironic it would be if the same antiabortion justices favored by many evangelicals ended up paving the way for mandatory population control--possibly including obligatory use of birth control and forced abortion and sterilization. After all, if the government has a right to compel a woman to have a child, it must also have the right to prevent her from having one as well.

Perhaps today such an outcome seems improbable. But, it's impossible to say what future generations will find acceptable when faced with extreme resource and population pressures. Do we really want to find out?

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Can Democracy Survive Without Fossil Fuels?

Is it an accident that the great modern revolutions, both American and French, occurred shortly after James Watt vastly increased the efficiency of the steam engine? Recall that the steam engine's primary purpose at the time was to pump water out of coal mines. Its perfection ignited an industrial revolution built on fossil fuels. Those fuels also indirectly ignited huge social and political changes that included modern demands for greater equality and democracy. Can those values thrive without fossil fuels?

Ancient Athens was democratic long before fossil fuels were discovered. In reality, democracy depends on some energy source that makes it possible for citizens to have the time to govern themselves. The citizenry must also enjoy a rough equality that doesn't put some citizens so far above others as to threaten their solidarity. So, what was that energy source? Slaves.

This explains, in part, why some founders of the American republic were able to embrace slavery. It had existed alongside democracy before. But, even as they embraced it, industrial development on the American continent began to erode its necessity. The plenitude of energy from fossil fuels would ultimately render slavery uneconomic. A free man in charge of a machine run on fossil fuels could do far more work than any human in bondage could ever hope to do manually. And, thus owning machines and their fuel supplies became more important than owning the labor to run them. The machine age required labor to become more mobile--in essence, to go where the machine rather than the master dictated. Is it yet another accident of fate that the first successful American oil well was drilled in 1859 and that the Civil War, the war that ended slavery, followed only two years later?

The power of fossil fuels was already erasing the biological differences in physical strength between men and women. The women's suffrage movement which had begun many years before the Civil War was intent on erasing their political differences as well. But fossil fuels also sent women and children into the factories where their size and strength mattered less than their docility.

As more and more energy was extracted from the ground in the form of oil and coal, modern industrial nations found they no longer required the labor of children. Nor was it necessary to maintain poor working conditions and living standards among the working classes in order to allow the rich to live well. Fossil fuels began to create enough wealth to go around. Rising prosperity muted competitive spirits.

In the middle of the cheap oil boom in America, many middle-class mothers could stay at home with their children. Only fathers worked. The subsidy of fossil fuels had essentially reached its apex. By this time those middle-class mothers could vote, slavery (though not discrimination) was a distant memory and child labor had long been outlawed. Social and political progress had coincided with the parabolic trajectory of America's fossil fuel supplies.

Politically this was the period of strong labor unions, high taxes and huge public projects--schools, hospitals, highways, and public power. Is it another coincidence that this period of fast growth and narrowing inequality came to a halt shortly after the production of oil in the United States peaked in 1970?

As fossil fuels deplete, especially oil and natural gas, will we be able to maintain the solidarity and consent that make modern democracies so stable? Or will we each fall back on our competitive natures as we struggle for our share of dwindling resources. It depends on whether alternative energy sources can provide sufficient energy at affordable prices.

It may also depend on how we organize ourselves. A lower energy future may cause political power to flow back to local communities as central governments lose their influence for lack of energy resources. If we can relearn our cultural instincts for local governance, perhaps we can retain much of the political and social progress that has been, in part, a gift of the fossil fuel age. If we can't reawaken those instincts, we may sadly find out that the only thing between us and despotism is a barrel of oil, one that may soon be taken away.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Politics of Survival

It is a sign of the times that a former energy analyst turned radical advocate for depaving the world would be quoted on the floor of the U. S. House of Representatives by a self-described "very conservative Republican" congressman while the congressman lectured the country about the dangers of world peak oil production. Just so you don't think this was a fluke, I give you exhibit number two: An investment banker who specializes in energy--a Bush supporter and former campaign advisor on energy--recently wrote a piece about the impending Saudi oil shock for Counterpunch, a left-wing, muckraking newsletter that is proud of its "radical attitude" and its freedom from corporate influence.

What we are witnessing is the collapse of the politics of left and right and the replacement of those politics with what I call the politics of survival. Those who come to understand the gravity of our energy situation quickly abandon their previous political views and instead focus pragmatically on how we can make a successful energy transition. They do so because they know the cost of failure is too high a price to pay for ideology. In the politics of survival ideology counts for almost nothing. Pragmatic plans count for everything.

I was recently contacted by a local elected official who asked me to set up a customized version of my "Oil Famine" short-course for a group of government officials from my county. I knew going in that the two of us were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. As I spoke to him, I realized that all he wanted to ascertain was whether I could effectively bring the message of peak oil and its possible consequences to the officeholders he had in mind. My political leanings didn't matter.

Such is the power of understanding an obvious and basic, but infrequently discerned truth, namely, that there are limits to resources and that those limits are approaching. This understanding can create instant focus and solidarity in a way I have never before seen. It is what allows me to remain hopeful. If enough people understand what we are really facing--not only in the area of energy, but also in the areas of global warming and water and soil depletion--we have a chance of embracing the politics of survival in enough places in the world to make a difference. I admit that this kind of change remains a long shot. But, so far as I can tell, it's the only shot we've got.

(Comments are open to all. See the list of environmental blogs on my sidebar.)

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Peak Oil Mind: Juggling Two Realities

I nowadays feel as if I'm a passenger on the Titanic who knows about the fatal iceberg dead ahead, but who is too polite to bring up the dreadful subject at dinner. The usual questions arise each time a new venue for disseminating the word about peak oil presents itself: Who will believe it? Will I be considered a kook? If I get beyond the disbelief, what will I offer as solutions--for people will surely want ready-made solutions? How can I steer a course between creating hopelessness and soft-pedaling the problem in a way that fails to arouse concern? Worst of all, will I be considered a killjoy who has ruined a perfectly good evening out with friends?

Over the weekend I attended a surprise 50th anniversary party for relatives. The final leg of the drive there was deep into a rural landscape which is quickly being transformed into subdivision after subdivision. I couldn't help thinking about whether 10 or 20 years from now the grand new brick, mansion-like homes would be abandoned because they are only accessible by automobile--a mode of transport without a future in the post-peak-oil age. All I could see was the tremendous amount energy needed to maintain this sprawled out way of life--the gasoline for the cars (usually two or three of them in each driveway), the air-conditioning and heat for the capacious homes, the electricity for pumping the water and running the automatic sprinklers, the energy needed for the endless gadgets inside each house, and the fuel for the mail trucks, the service vehicles, and especially, for the heavy machinery that is needed to clear and maintain the roads leading up to these subdivisions. I said nothing at all about this at the party. It would have ruined the mood, and it's just one man's view anyway.

A couple days later I felt quite comfortable in my downtown neighborhood as I met with neighbors to discuss possible zoning restrictions for our historic district. Perhaps this city life is not sustainable in the very long run, but it seems more likely to survive the coming oil crunch. To defend my neighborhood and improve it does not pull me into two halves.

There are times when I feel myself floating above the absurdities of our oil drenched civilization--the Hummers, the pounding car stereos, the endless traffic, the hypercaffeinated, 24-hour, ad-filled world that seems to say that this consumer paradise can only get bigger and better. I am secretly comforted by my not-so-certain belief that it will all be swept away. The day-to-day blather of politicians and pundits bothers me almost not at all; it seems largely irrelevant. I judge the public's unease to be genuine. If only they knew what they really ought to be uneasy about.

Then, out comes a forecast from the world's foremost oil forecasting firm assuring us we have nothing to worry about. The marketplace will take care of oil supplies and bring us substitutes just when we need them like an attentive waiter in an expensive restaurant.

Am I crazy? Am I missing something? Everyone around me seems to be living in a different reality. I'm the one who's out of step with the world's smartest oil experts. But, wait a minute! Should we really play at this prediction game as if it were only a contest about who's right?

No, I say. There is too much at stake. There are many things we can and should do that are good ideas no matter what our energy future holds. The two realities I've been juggling meld into one again, and I return to my work.

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Monday, June 20, 2005

The Verdict of Science

It's no surprise that human beings want all the benefits of science without accepting its verdict. The benefits come from understanding how to manipulate biological, chemical and physical processes to create a consumer paradise that is increasingly going global. The verdict comes from understanding how that manipulation is leading to oil depletion, global warming, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and a host of other effects that could eventually lead to the end of industrial civilization as we know it.

We think of science as objective, nonpartisan, and neutral. Yet, both those who believe in endless technical fixes and those who forecast ecological collapse cite science. How can this be? In fact, science has an ideology. Sir Francis Bacon noted that "knowledge is power." In effect, that means science has been the handmaiden of what the ecologist calls "takeover" and "drawdown." Takeover is merely the ecologist's name for the taking of resources by one species away from another. Farming is a good example. Takeover increases carrying capacity* for one species while lowering it for another (or possibly many others). Drawdown refers to the extraction of a resource faster than it is being replaced. The quintessential examples of drawdown by humans are fossil fuels and metals. But many more resources are now being added to the list including water and soil.

Because observation and inquiry form the basis of science, it was inevitable that the same science used to conquer the environment would discover its destruction. These discoveries are byproducts, and fortunate ones. They give us a chance to change course.

In a classic book on human population and resource use, Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, human ecologist William Catton asks whether we humans are the same as all other animals. Are we destined for the terrible collapse that has always been the fate of other species that overshoot the underlying carrying capacity of their environment, or are we different enough to plan ahead and manage a population decline? His book and the question it asks are as relevant now as they were in 1980 when the book first appeared. Will we at long last accept the verdict of science?


*The maximum population of a given species which a particular habitat can support indefinitely (under specified technology and organization, in the case of human species.) [Definition taken from Overshoot by William Catton.]

[Excerpts of Overshoot are available on the web and include the following chapters: The Tragic Story of Human Success, Dependence on Phantom Carrying Capacity, and Industrialization: Prelude to Collapse.]

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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Europe's GMO Trap

Neither Europe's people nor its bureaucrats have ever liked the idea of introducing genetically modified crops into their agricultural and food system. Food in Europe is almost a religion. Anything that threatens to disrupt the continent's time-honored traditions of cuisine is looked upon with skepticism.

That's why the moratorium on approving new genetically modified crops (often called GMOs or genetically modified organisms) which began in 1998 looked like it might drag on indefinitely until the United States challenged the moratorium at the World Trade Organization (WTO). The U. S. contended that the moratorium was merely a ruse, a so-called non-tariff barrier to trade. The WTO has shown itself particularly adept at throwing national safety and health regulations overboard when they interfere with the desire of some international corporation to sell something.

In 2001 the European Union adopted strict rules governing the labeling and traceability of biotech foods. The EU knew that a U. S. challenge in the WTO was inevitable and so began to set a trap for the companies seeking to peddle their biotech seeds. Individual EU countries have also passed laws such as an Italian law which allows individual provinces to ban the planting of GMO seeds and which includes strict regulations to prevent contamination of non-GMO crops. A new German law makes farmers using genetically modified seeds liable for contamination of non-GMO crops. The two laws could lead to a flurry of expensive lawsuits that make it unprofitable to sell GMO seeds in those countries.

The EU-wide labeling rules have kept food companies from including GMO ingredients in their foods because they know that European consumers won't buy GMO foods. Adding to the negatives for GMO seed makers are overreactions against those who openly protest genetically modified foods. Such moves only infuriate Europeans all the more as in the case of a Danish prosecutor who has charged Greenpeace under the country's antiterrorism laws for hanging an anti-GMO banner on the headquarters of a Danish agricultural organization.

With regulations in place and a public dead set against genetically modified foods, Europe began a gradual re-opening of its borders to GMO crops last year. Earlier this year a biotech seed purveyor was the first to walk into Europe's GMO trap. The company revealed it had sold unapproved GMO corn seed which ended up in the human food chain. On top of this the U. S. government had been informed of the mistake as early as December 2004, but didn't say anything to European regulators who found out about it from a magazine article in March. That led to a ban on GMO corn gluten products until matters could be clarified.

Now, the world's largest maker of genetically engineered crops, Monsanto, is faced with scrutiny over a feeding study it performed using its own GMO corn. The study showed kidney and immune system abnormalities in guinea pigs fed on the grain. Apparently, the company did not release the entire results of the study when seeking approval for the new corn strain. Of course, Monsanto claimed that it didn't provide the entire report because it contains confidential business information, and it dismissed the problems revealed by the study as "not biologically meaningful." Recently, it was revealed that the German government commissioned a review of the Monsanto study by researcher known for his independence. The company has tried to suppress release of that review until now though the report has yet to be made available to the public.

Intentionally or not, the EU and its member countries have woven a web of GMO regulation that is likely to entangle the biotech seed makers again and again in the months and years ahead. The EU is already known for proposing the toughest rules concerning the safety of chemicals, insisting on review of all chemicals not previously tested to prove their safety over the next several years. Without proof, chemicals will be presumed unsafe and banned. There is every reason to believe the EU will move in this direction with genetically modified foods if it can justify doing so in a way that does not subject it to enforcement actions by the WTO.

The appearance that Monsanto withheld vital safety data may be just the beginning of a campaign that will demonstrate that the so-called precautionary principle must be applied to GMO crops, that is, they must be proven safe before they can be planted and marketed. That would all but kill the industry in Europe. If safety studies are forced on the industry and those studies show health and environmental risks for GMO crops, the results would surely be disseminated worldwide. That means Europe may find itself playing the role of the grim reaper for the entire biotech farming industry.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Oil reserve growth stalls

In line with expectations of oil pessimists the annual authoritative industry survey produced by BP showed that growth in oil reserves worldwide all but halted in 2004. When this data is combined with the oil megaprojects survey released earlier this year by Petroleum Review, the case for an early world oil production peak is strengthened. The odd thing, of course, is that reserve growth is stalling even as prices are rising, something which normally spurs new discovery and the reclassification of formerly uneconomic reserves.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

The new nullification

Recently, 132 mayors across America announced they were going ahead with policies to fight global warming despite the Bush administration's rejection of such measures. In doing so, they were adding to a series of acts by states and localities that when taken together add up to a new and growing nullification movement. Nullification is a long debated theory that says that states have the right to defy federal law or "nullify" it if they feel a particular law is unconstitutional. While the mayors were not exactly defying a federal law, they were openly snubbing an official federal policy of inaction on greenhouse gas emissions. Their action and many similar ones are beginning to call into question the ability of the federal government to impose its will on the individual states and localities.

Take the lawsuit by eight states and New York City against utilities designed to force the utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The suit was filed because the EPA refused to take action to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, a move that prompted an earlier lawsuit against the agency. Both suits are direct confrontations with a federal government which currently wants to do nothing about greenhouse gas emissions.

In the area of genetically engineered crops, the Food and Drug Administration has long held that such crops are virtually identical to non-biotech crops and therefore require no testing or extraordinary regulation. But, two counties in California have already banned their planting, and a third has a ban on the ballot this year. (Monsanto, the world's largest producer of genetically engineered crops, is fighting back by trying to pass state laws that pre-empt local control of biotech crops.)

But, the nullification now sweeping the country doesn't just include environmental policy. Connecticut recently passed a civil union law giving gay and lesbian couples rights substantially similar (though not identical) to those afforded heterosexual couples. While federal law does not recognize such unions, and no other state is obliged to honor them, the law is a clear defiance of federal policy. (The move does not, however, seem to be motivated entirely by ideological considerations. No doubt Connecticut hopes to attract gay and lesbian refugees, especially well-off and highly educated ones, from other states that are hostile to them.)

In the area of education, the Bush administration's vaunted No Child Left Behind legislation--which requires much of the states, but gives them little in the way of money to do it--is being resisted even in Republican strongholds such as Virginia and Utah. A few states are saying they will "opt out" of the law, something that would be a real nullification in the traditional sense of the word.

In health care the people of the state of California last fall repudiated the Bush administration's policy on stem cell research by passing their own $3 billion bond measure for such research over the next decade. Again, the differences are not strictly ideological. Californians believe this research investment will put their state in the forefront of a cutting edge industry.

But, perhaps the best-known acts of nullification are resolutions by states, cities and counties across the nation that call for refusing cooperation with federal authorities trying to enforce the so-called USA Patriot Act. To date some 386 resolutions have been passed. The list of cities includes Albuquerque, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Dallas, Des Moines, Detroit, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Portland (ME), Portland (OR), Providence, Richmond (VA), St. Louis, St. Paul, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D. C. itself! States include Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, and Vermont.

Given today's climate, it is instructive that the first acts of nullification took place in 1798 and 1799 when Virginia and Kentucky declared the Alien and Sedition Acts passed by the Adams administration to be unconstitutional. The acts put additional restrictions on immigration, allowed deportation of those deemed "dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States" and gave the president the power to imprison aliens during wartime by presidential order alone. The Sedition Act outlawed assembly if there was "intent to oppose any measure of the government" and made it a crime to criticize the government of the United States. When Thomas Jefferson--who had been partly responsible for the nullification in Virginia--won the White House, he stopped enforcement of the laws.

There are two converging trends which are likely responsible for bringing nullification back to the center of American life. The first is ideological. For years Republican-appointed judges on the U. S. Supreme Court have been rolling back federal power and pursuing a states' rights agenda. This has encouraged states and localities to test the limits of federal power not only more frequently in the courts, but also in the form of outright defiance. The second trend is social and ecological. The complexities of modern society make it more difficult for a central authority to create solutions to problems for an entire country. Since federal solutions are either not forthcoming or considered wrongheaded, states and localities are taking things into their own hands.

This second trend may be cause for both hope and despair. It means more power is devolving to the local level and that local politics are becoming more and more important. Fortunately, individuals and small groups can have far more effect on local governmental action than on federal actions. Perhaps unfortunately, the country is splitting into enclaves with deeply differing social and political views. This splitting may be inevitable, and it means the prospects for members of various communities across the nation will differ even more markedly in the future than they do now.

However, for those concerned about environmental and social justice issues, the new nullification may provide an opening to effective action in ways that have not been previously available. Will the progressive and environmentally concerned elements of American society take hold of this opportunity, or will they squander it by continuing to focus on an increasingly feckless federal government?

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