Thursday, March 31, 2005

Investment bank predicts 'super spike' in oil prices

Investment bank Goldman Sachs released a report that predicts the next several years will be a period of exceptionally high oil prices with a possible spike to $105 a barrel. The report said that high prices are what is needed to encourage conservation and the development of new supply and that this will take several years.

The investment bank is not making the argument for a peak in world oil production as this quote from the report shows:
We believe oil markets may have entered the early stages of what we have referred to as a "super spike" period -- a multi-year trading band of oil prices high enough to meaningfully reduce energy consumption and recreate a spare capacity cushion only after which will lower energy prices return.
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They do what to the trees?

They spray the trees with nasty herbicides and pesticides just like crops. That's what people in Oregon are finding out to their dismay. Timber is a crop, just like any other. In order to make trees grow taller and prevent insects from harming them timber companies spray from planes as well as from the ground. Do the size of the so-called buffer zones they are supposed to observe around streams seem adequate to you? Does it seem sensible that they can spray right up to your property line no matter how close it is to your house or yard?

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Why natural gas may not be the "fuel of the future"

This is a piece from last year, but it does a good job of explaining why natural gas may not be able to provide the so-called bridge between oil and a renewable energy economy. There's not enough of it. For more details, click through.

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Learned scientists: We're screwed

I have spent a good deal of space on this blog worrying about peak oil and alternative energy issues. Let's say for the sake of argument that the world makes a successful transition to a new energy economy without a lot of trouble. What's next? Unfortunately, what's next is that we continue to destroy the soil, the water, the land, the sea, and the climate that all creatures including us humans depend on. We inevitably bump up against other limits of resource use beyond energy.

That's the verdict of 1,300 scientist from 95 countries examining the global ecosphere for a report due out today. Here's what the lead author had to say:
"The bottom line of this assessment is that we are spending earth's natural capital, putting such strain on the natural functions of earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted."
Can we reverse course and change the fate of our children and grandchildren? Yes, say the authors, but nobody is seriously thinking about implementing the major changes we need in order to make the planet a better instead of worse place for future generations.

To give you an example of the kind of largely hidden dependency we have on natural systems, take a look at this article on Wikipedia on the destruction of pollinators, that is, insects and animals that pollinate over 90 foods crops for us. Our food supply would be in big trouble without them.

(Via Flying Talking Donkey and Cryptogon.)

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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

States sue EPA over mercury regulations

It was inevitable that several states would sue the Environmental Protection Agency over recently released rules that allow power plants to trade mercury emission credits. Here's why:
"EPA's emissions trading plan will allow some power plants to actually increase mercury emissions, creating hot spots of mercury deposition and threatening communities," said Attorney General Peter Harvey of New Jersey, lead plaintiff in the case....

The program starts in 2010. Until then, utilities do not have to do anything specifically to control mercury....

The lawsuit challenges the deadline given to power plants for compliance, and assails the EPA for exempting power plants from having to install the strictest emissions control technology available. That technology would cut mercury pollution by 90 percent, according to the New Jersey attorney general's office.

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Forecasting the peak

With so many forecasts now put forward concerning the peak in world oil production, how does one sort through them and makes sense of them? It turns out that somebody has attempted the task. A summary is available here. While the result gives us no precision, it should give us no comfort. If the peak is close by, we are simply not prepared for it. Even if it is 20 or 30 years hence, we will need to focus every bit of our ingenuity, political courage, and common purpose to make a successful transition as this report from the U. S. Department of Energy suggests.

(It's worth noting that the oil optimists almost always make the argument that the peak is far away, and therefore, we have plenty of time to prepare for it. They never, in my experience, claim that if the peak is soon, the marketplace will solve everything. This is a tacit admission that the lassiez-faire marketplace solution will turn out to be disastrous under a scenario that includes an imminent peak.)

The authors of the report entitled "Forecasting the availability and diversity of global conventional oil supply" believe that despite the uncertainty inherent in the predictions which range from 2004 to 2053, given the scale and seriousness of the problem, we shouldn't wait to prepare:
The market can be powerful thing, but they [price increases] must be efficient enough to spur development of these alternatives and end-use technologies in time to offset falling conventional production. Given that the oil prices needed to spur this development at the necessary scale [aren't] likely until the time of peak, assuming that markets can ensure timely transitions seems unwise....

The prudence of the precautionary principle seems self-evident here - especially so because most of the oil necessary for the peak to occur in 2037 has not yet been discovered....
For an explanation of why market prices may not signal an impending peak until shortly before it occurs, see my previous post, Faith-based economics II: The case of oil's sudden scarcity.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Out of thin air?

An automobile that runs on air is being touted as "clean." At first when you read the Los Angeles Times article you get the impression that this car is some kind of perpetual motion machine. Then, the power source is revealed: compressed air shoved into high-pressure storage tanks using, what else, an electricity-driven compressor. The air-propelled car may have some advantages. But, using renewable fuel is not one of them. Unless the electricity used comes from a renewable source, owners of such cars will simply be generating pollution and global warming gases from the smokestacks of their local power plants instead from the tailpipes of their cars. The moral of the story? Always trace back "clean" energy devices to their energy source and ask, "Is the actual source of the energy clean and renewable?"

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Geo green fantasies

Peak Energy has a nice dissection of the so-called "Geo Green" agenda. It's a fantasy of energy independence based on nuclear power and ethanol (an energy loser which would cost us more in oil and natural gas energy than the energy we would get out of it). The danger is that this silly agenda which is completely unworkable will crowd out a genuinely workable plan for an energy transition that would include a combination of massive conservation, development of renewable energy sources, and a thorough rearrangement of the way we live consistent with a lower energy economy.

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Monday, March 28, 2005

Palast on why Iraq's oil fields weren't privatized

BBC reporter Greg Palast is reporting that the curious reversal of Bush administration policy regarding the privatization of the Iraqi national oil company was the result of pressure from international oil companies that are enjoying high oil prices. In my previous post, Global resource wars: The Rosetta Stone, I suggested that the administration's neoconservatives wanted to privatize Iraqi oil as a way of increasing world oil production and bringing down prices. Palast confirms that this was the original plan until Big Oil stepped in and said "no."

His reporting explains why a central aim of the neoconservative agenda has been abandoned. The story also points up the venality of the Bush administration. Far from being focused on achieving its objectives, the administration shows once again that it simply shifts course depending on the whims of its biggest contributors regardless of the consequences. Naturally, the neocons are now asking what the point of the war was if the main objective, increasing oil supplies and breaking OPEC, has been abandoned.

Of course, much of the American public still believes the fables the administration told them about Iraq's involvement with 911, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, even though all of these have been thoroughly debunked. What would they think if they understood that the real reason for the invasion was to lower oil prices through privatization and increased production? And, what would they think if they also knew that the real and main aim of the war has now been abandoned because one of the Republican party's biggest contributors, international oil companies, told the administration to abandon it?

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A disaster in waiting

The GMO Menace provides an excellent overview of the problems with GMO plants and animals. The authors discuss the instability of genetic alterations, the known and possible toxic results, antibiotic resistance, the awakening of dormant viruses (for which we may have little protection), genetic pollution of non-GMO crops, superweeds, destruction of biodiversity, the possible extinction of wild species overcome by GMO species, and increased pesticide consumption (contrary to biotech seed makers' promises). If some of these problems are unfamiliar to you, click through.

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An ecology of the gods?

George Monbiot brings us a speculation based on research that links the types of soil found in an area to the types of gods to whom temples were built. The ancient gods tended to reign over a cyclical universe. Eventually, the monotheistic religions of nomads came to dominate farming peoples. As surpluses were attained and cities built, the notion of a unidirectional world devoid of cyclicality prevailed giving rise to ideas of progress and ultimate perfection. Of course, that perfection is based on controlling nature, not adapting to it. Read the whole thing. You'll see the outlines of an argument that our ecological crisis that is just as much a spiritual one.

(Via Flying Talking Donkey.)

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Fuzzy math on ANWR

Mobjectivist does a nice dissection of an op-ed piece defending drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The piece's author manages to do calculations right before our eyes that don't add up. You'd think he'd check his math before committing it to writing. But, then, maybe he thought he could get away with obvious lies.

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No silver bullet

Some strangely sensible talk about energy alternatives made its way onto The New York Times op-ed page last week. The authors acknowledge that the sheer scale of a transition to nuclear power, for example, prevents us from making it our energy saviour. In the United States alone, to keep up with projected needs for electricity through 2050 the country would have to build 1,200 new nuclear power plants or one every two weeks between now and then. Similar scaling problems arise with solar, wind and hydrogen. (Unfortunately, they don't point out that hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source.)

While they have enthusiasm for coal gasification which can make burning coal a lot cleaner, their discussion of carbon sequestration is concerning. Preventing the huge amounts of carbon dioxide from coal burning from reaching the atmosphere would be costly and may even negate the energy from the coal, i.e., we'd use more energy to do it than we'd get from the coal.

But of most concern is this phrase: "We need a crash program of research to find out which geological formations best lock up the carbon dioxide for the longest time, followed by global geological surveys to locate these formations and determine their capacity." The danger will be that in a panic we rush to judgement about the efficacy of certain kinds of underground carbon storage without really understanding their limits. We could then find ourselves dealing with a massive, unexpected release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that hurtles us into fatal, runaway global warming.

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Don't know much about geology...

Those concerned about energy shortages, especially shortages of oil and gas, tend to focus on geological factors that will ultimately limit what we can extract from the ground. Perhaps just as relevant are infrastructure issues. Years of abysmally low energy prices resulted in low investment in our energy infrastructure. That problem is coming home to roost. Key systems important to energy are being operated on the brink of their maximum including oil tankers, pipelines, and refineries. Houston energy investment banker Matt Simmons warned about the infrastructure problem in late 2000 and mentioned drilling rigs as well. But, of course, nobody listened.

My point is that in the short run the immediate problems we'll likely have with oil and gas shortages will result from infrastructure deficits. This will, however, present a good opportunity to talk about longer term constraints that can't be fixed with infrastructure. Maybe that's a blessing in disguise.

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Friday, March 25, 2005

Global resource wars: The Rosetta Stone

A slab of black basalt which now sits in the British Museum contains a decree honoring the Egyptian king, Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The decree was written in three languages: Greek, hieroglyphics, and demotic (a simplified form of hieroglyphics). The black slab is known as the Rosetta Stone and became the key to understanding hieroglyphics because on this stone the ancient pictographs were seen for the first time side-by-side with other better understood languages.

Some 200 years later we find ourselves back in the part of the world where the Rosetta Stone was discovered, trying to figure out another conundrum. What is the nature of the connection between an ill-planned war in Iraq; the steadily increasing pressure on dissent in the United States; the ongoing estrangement between the United States and its traditional allies; the increasing strains with the country's Canadian neighbor; and the forbearance shown to China as opposed to the increasing distrust of Russia? Is there a compelling, overriding theme that connects them all? By lining them up side-by-side the theme becomes clear if you know on what basis to draw in the connections. The one common thread is a global scramble for the remaining energy resources in the world, especially oil and natural gas. Let's take a look at that thread.

By itself the invasion of Iraq seems reckless, even senseless. The avowed mission of the United States was to protect itself from weapons of mass destruction. (Even if Iraq did have them, so do many other countries and they resist using them against us for fear of obliteration.) When that turned out to be baseless, the second publicized mission was to liberate the Iraqis and give them a democracy. Something may come of this yet, but it will probably not be to our liking. The true mission is explained by the unsuccessful attempt of Paul Bremer (the former American administrator in Iraq) to privatize the national Iraqi oil company.

The Bush administration understood that as long as oil in the Middle East and elsewhere is controlled by state-owned companies, it will flow only as fast as they need it to in order to finance social and military spending. Private companies, on the other hand, would seek to exploit the remaining oil reserves as quickly as possible to enrich their shareholders. The result would be more oil flowing at lower prices. If the American military could convince other Middle Eastern oil powers to open their fields to private development (perhaps through the threat of invasion), it could achieve the same goal elsewhere without additional armed conflict.

This, I believe, was the strategy, even if the implementation has been largely disastrous and ineffective. The Iraq invasion was not designed merely to swipe the oil. This would only leave Iraq an impoverished, hostile satellite intent on stopping the flow of that oil. (We've seen some of that sentiment already.) In addition, even if the United States gained effective control of all Middle East oil, hoarding it would ultimately lead to the collapse of America's trading partners or to a war with them. That's why the notion that the U. S. would simply keep the oil for itself makes no sense. In reality, the free flow of cheap oil allows America to remain the dominant military power and the largest, most powerful economy. Hoarding would certainly jeopardize this.

Now why, if this is really the American objective, does the U. S. government need to stifle dissent at home? Don't Americans believe that they have a birthright to cheap energy? While a clear majority of Americans supported the invasion, the dissenters have a strong American ethic of anti-imperialism on their side, an ethic that tends to gain adherents as military engagements drag on. The administration said that we are in a generation-long battle with the forces of militant Islam and so, at the very least, it expected to stay on in Iraq for many years. With that in mind the administration told Americans that we would be out in six months in order to gain support knowing full well that it would have to quell dissent in order to stay on much longer.

Our disagreements with European governments about Iraq are often portrayed as differences over approach, soft versus hard. Or these disagreements are simply put down to French and German greed or corruption. In fact, the Europeans are now competing with us for ever-dwindling supplies of energy. Why didn't they sign on for the Iraq invasion then since they, too, would stand to benefit from larger supplies of cheap oil? The answer has already been given. This would insure continued American dominance. The Europeans are less and less inclined to accept that. They are also far less dependent on oil than America; Europeans use only half as much per unit of economic output. And, they have a ready supplier in Russia which not only has large reserves of oil, but also of natural gas, both of which are already being conveniently piped to its European neighbors. In short, the Europeans have relatively less grim energy prospects than the United States, they have a natural aversion to wars born of experience, and they now see the U. S. as a resource bully who must be resisted.

The frictions between the U. S. and Canada come at a time when natural gas supplies in North America are thought to be peaking. The U. S. imports half of all the natural gas that Canada produces. At some point, Canada will need to keep more for its own use even as America's appetite for methane grows. And so, Canada will also find out that the United States is a resource bully, and the Canadians may regret entering into NAFTA which obliges them to send so much of their precious energy south.

The American forbearance of China (whose rapid growth along with that of India is probably the biggest reason for tight global energy supplies) may seem puzzling to the untrained eye unless it is seen as only a temporary measure. America's current ruling ideologues need Chinese loans to finance the first leg of their global resource war. The Chinese need America's markets in order to modernize the Chinese economy and provide employment for ever-increasing numbers of people coming from the countryside. The contradiction in the Bush administration's tax-cutting, deficit-creating policy is that it leaves the country so vulnerable to blackmail and even economic collapse at the hands of the Chinese. They could simply choose to stop lending to us at any time. They don't do it because right now it would cause huge, perhaps revolutionary, social problems for them. A sudden breakdown in the recycling of dollars back to the United States would surely cause a severe worldwide recession and possibly even a depression. That would lead to dangerously high unemployment in China.

But, someday the Chinese will decide to wean themselves from the American market. That will mean that America would then have to find other lenders (unlikely, in my view) or raise taxes substantially to pay for America's global military presence. By that time, however, the country could be so weakened by the intervening years of war and debt buildup that collapse may be the only possible outcome.

Beyond this America's bases in several former Soviet republics rich in oil are no puzzle. Our threats against Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, who is signing agreements with the Chinese and openly criticizing U. S. influence in Latin America, are no surprise.

In Iran the concern over nuclear weapons is not really that they will be dropped on America. An Iranian nuclear attack on America would only result in the reduction of Iran to rubble, and the Iranians know this. What American military planners fear is that Iran will frustrate their plan to privatize Middle East oil as Iran acts as an effective counterweight to American power. The Iranians, however, will probably get nuclear weapons even if America bombs its facilities because those facilities are thought to be widely scattered and duplicated, even triplicated.

What makes this fateful global engagement so pitiful is that it has no chance of succeeding at its aim: Guaranteeing the continuance of the energy-intensive American way of life. There are no number of ships or tanks or planes, no size of troop deployments, no buildup of smart missiles or bunker-busting nuclear bombs that can solve this problem because none of these can produce one more drop of oil under the earth. The real problem is depletion and the approach of world peak oil production. In fact, all of America's military activity will only serve to deplete what oil is left even faster without providing us any of the alternatives that we desperately need: massive conservation, development of alternative energy sources, and a complete restructuring of the way we live consistent with a lower energy future.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The gas police

The International Energy Agency, the pan-European equivalent of the U. S. Department of Energy, briefed reporters on a report that it will shortly issue which suggests "rapid demand response" to oil supply disruptions or price shocks. This is a euphemism for rationing and driving restrictions coupled with reduced fares for public transport. While this response is premised on "emergency" conditions, it strikes me as an omen for what an energy-starved world may have to look forward to.

The agency admits that enforcement of some of the measures would require increasing the number of police officers on duty at any given time.

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Big profits flash red

Beneath the daily reports of record profits at major oil companies, there's a disturbing trend that is flashing red for those concerned about the possibility of an impending peak in world oil production. The trend, alluded to in earlier posts here and here, is expanded on nicely by Michael Klare in this piece on Common Dreams. The short version: Every year for the past 20 years new oil discoveries have not kept up with oil depletion. No big finds are on the horizon to bail out the oil market. Unless things change, the oil peak will be sooner rather than later.

(Via Flying Talking Donkey.)

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Butterflies, bees and secrets

As the British government released the largest study to date on the effects of genetically modified crops on insects and other wildlife, the U. S. government was keeping secrets about contamination of corn seed in the United States with an unapproved biotech variety over the last four years. The British study showed harmful effects that stemmed from the herbicides used with genetically modified rapeseed (canola). Both bee and butterfly populations were considerably reduced as their usual food supply withered under the herbicides.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture was forced to admit that it had kept information from the public about the seed contamination after the scientific journal Nature broke the story. The accidental contamination once again proves that there is really no effective way to segregate genetically modified crops from those that are not. It also shows that the promoters of GM foods are not interested in transparency. I wonder why, if their crops are so good for us, they don't want us to know anything about them?

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

If you don't like the facts, throw them out

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency threw out a Harvard study that it had funded on the benefits of reducing mercury emissions because the study showed that more stringent regulations would be justified by the health benefits. How much greater than the EPA estimates were the health benefits identified by the study? 100 times greater. No wonder the Bush administration didn't want any mention of it when the EPA released its watered down mercury emissions program for power plants.

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We've got our hand in the coconut (but we can get it out)

Robert Freeman outlines America's choice. We can meet our energy crisis through an ultimately futile global military campaign to seize and control oil or we can "reconfigure" Amerca for a new energy future. Two items to pick at in an otherwise well devised article. First, Freeman suggests that biotechnology can help us devise crops that require smaller quantities of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, all of which are heavily dependent on oil and natural gas for their feedstocks.

However, the companies that make the seeds are the same ones that sell the pesticidies, herbicides and fertilizers (after a frenzy of mergers in the 1990s). They design their seeds intentionally to make people dependent on their pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. They'll be absolutely no help in an energy transition. Second, the unending global war which Freeman talks about will go on for a time, but ultimately there will be no money to pay for it. Right now the Chinese and the Japanese are lending the U. S. government vast sums that enable it to carry on its global military operations. What incentive will they have to continue that lending when their own energy interests are being undermined?

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Monday, March 21, 2005

Is rock dust the answer to renewing barren soils?

Two former schoolteachers in Britain have been saying so for 20 years. They've been growing "cabbages the size of footballs, onions bigger than coconuts and gooseberries as big as plums" in soils that were formerly barren. The rock dust is a byproduct of quarrying and is said to mimic what glaciation does to fertilize the land with needed minerals.

(Via Peak Energy.)

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Down with mercury

The Bush administration's new rules on mercury emissions from power plants will soon get a court test as states and environmental groups line up to sue the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. They contend that the rules violate the Clean Air Act because they don't require the best available technology to be installed post haste. Instead, a system of trading mercury emissions credits will allow those emissions to continue for another decade and beyond.

The administration previously blocked any effective international agreement aimed at reducing mercury emissions during a late February meeting held in Nairobi, Kenya under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program.

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No Marquis of Queensbury rules

In 1867 an English gentleman, the Marquis of Queensbury, developed new rules for boxing intended to make it a "gentleman's sport." The main innovations were the requirement for boxing gloves and the prohibition against hitting a man when he's already down. Hence, when someone attacks another person ruthlessly verbally or physically with no sense of restraint we often say that "the gloves were off."

That unfortunately is increasingly the case for environmental activists around the world, but especially in developing countries. The activists face assault and even death for trying to stop environmental damage from illegal logging and other environmental crimes. Recently, an American nun was killed resisting illegal loggers in the Brazilian rainforest. This Los Angeles Times story details a movement which has formed around a militant Catholic priest in Honduras aimed at stopping indiscriminate logging.

What few people know is that forests are more than sources of wood, wild products or game. They are essential parts of the world's water cycle. Cutting them can spell drought for the country that does it. Rivers and water tables are often ruined as a result, leaving people without water to drink. That is starting to happen in Honduras and so the priest and his followers are now taking direct action to stop logging until the government agrees to new policies and better enforcement.

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Saturday, March 19, 2005

It'll make your blood boil

I was having a good night last night--enjoying a potluck of tasty organic food with others committed to organic agriculture and getting elected to the board of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance, a statewide organization that joins farmers, retailers and consumers together to promote the organic agenda.

Then, we got to the educational part of the evening, a screening of "The Future of Food," a documentary about genetically engineered crops and the corporations behind them. What I saw wasn't just troubling; it was horrifying. The best summary comes from one of those interviewed in the film: We are conducting the largest biological experiment on humans and the ecosphere ever performed, and there are virtually no controls. Those of you who have been following the issue will know many of the facts the film recites. What you won't be prepared for is the emotional impact. It's as if someone is telling you that the structure of life as we know it is being altered in ways that will wipe out life as we know it.

It's one thing to pollute the environment. It's another to alter its living building blocks in order to make us all prisoners of large corporations bent on controlling everything we grow and eat. The film does present alternatives toward the end; but frankly it's not enough to lift the pall that develops during the first part of the film. Still, I think it's essential viewing for those concerned about genetically modified foods. It will shake anyone with an open mind out of his or her complacency.

Now, for those who oppose the appropriation and pollution of the genetic commons, it's important to see that we can win. To that end I list here reasons I think genetically modified crops are doomed to fail. Those crops will do a lot of damage in the meantime, but we shouldn't at all feel that our efforts in opposing them will be in vain. The industry wants us to think this way so that we will be passive and give up. Here's my list:

1. The genetically modified seed companies have managed to enrage large numbers of consumers, farmers and activitists and many government officials worldwide. (The companies can purchase the necessary government officials the United States to do their bidding, but this is very much more difficult to do in places like Japan and the European Union.)

2. GMO crops are designed to provide profits and benefits ONLY to the companies that make them. The consumer gets nothing except the risks and the farmer gets nothing except slavery to the seed corporation. This is hardly the way to endear yourself to your customers. The revolt is in progress and growing.

3. Genetic research is enabling us to produce all the traits we want in crops through traditional breeding techniques. Much of the work being done is unpatentable. Patentable work done by foundations in this area will likely have an "open source" license attached that prevents anyone from ever appropriating the work for their own exclusive profit. Why get your seeds from Monsanto when you can get ones that will do everything you want and more, and you can save your seeds to boot?

4. GMO crops are designed to be heavily dependent on petrochemically-based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Monsanto's Roundup comes to mind. As oil and gas deplete, the cost of raising GMO crops will skyrocket. Ultimately, it will be cheaper to go organic.

5. Maybe we'll get lucky, and all of these developments will destroy the GMO seed industry before any truly gargantuan catastrophe occurs. I am not hopeful on this count. Testing in the United States is voluntary, and all of that testing is done under the auspices of the seed corporations. Every day people have allergic reactions, some of them severe, without knowing whether they might be linked to GMO foods. Some GMO foods such as Starlink corn have been linked to such allergies. For now the problems appear to be amorphous and dispersed. But it seems inevitable that a huge public health crisis which involves perhaps thousands of deaths directly traceable to GMO foods will occur before those crops are completely discredited and abandoned. These people will end up being the largest known group sacrificed on the GMO altar. But such an event would wake up the world once and for all to the dangers of transgenic crops. From there it will be all downhill for the GMO seed companies.

The fight against GMO crops is a fight we can win. There have already been many casualities, and it grieves me to say that there will probably be many more before these crops are vanquished. That's why we have to press all the harder starting now, confident that the factors I've mentioned will ultimately put the wind at our backs.

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What do beef exports to Japan and North Korean nukes have to do with each other?

Not much except that Secretary of State Condolezza Rice felt that Japanese reluctance to allow imports of U.S. beef in the wake of the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States was worth talking about on the same trip that deals with the nuclear threat from North Korea and human rights in China. The Japanese have a 100 percent testing policy for cattle, and it's no wonder they don't trust that the United States has safe beef when our tests cover only 1/10th of one percent of all U. S. cattle slaughtered each year. As I suggested in an earlier post the Japanese have merely been pretending to cooperate with the Americans and are dragging their feet on purpose in negotiations aimed at reopening Japan to U. S. beef imports. That's, of course, precisely what Rice is accusing them of and it's taken the administration five months to notice. Look for more stalling and more excuses from the Japanese. They really don't want this stuff in their supermarkets.

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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Who says environmental problems will derail China's economic growth?

China's environment minister, that's who. Pan Yue recently gave a startling interview to the German magazine Der Speigel. He says the Chinese economy uses materials so inefficiently and has created such huge environmental problems that eventually growth will be seriously curtailed. That has major implications for China, but it has even bigger implications for the rest of the world which has depended on China's growth to power the global economy.

(Via Past Peak.)

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Powerless hydra

The many-headed hydra called OPEC is sucking in dollars at an ever-increasing rate as oil prices reach new highs. But the hydra says publicly that it wants to increase production and lower prices. When OPEC announced yesterday that it will increase production, oil prices hit an all-time high. Now a day later, oil is hitting another new high.

Either oil traders don't believe OPEC will raise production or they don't believe they can. My money's on the latter. Can anyone say "peak world oil production?"

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Let's open the moon to drilling

Everyone knows that yesterday's narrow win in the Senate for Republicans on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling was a symbolic one. And, everyone knows that it will make virtually no difference in U.S. dependence on foreign oil, a drop in the tanker, if you will. But it was inevitable that we would be treated to nonsense such as that uttered by Alaska's king of federal pork, Sen. Ted Stevens, who said, "It's as important to me as the first step Armstrong took when he stepped off on the moon." What could top that? Perhaps Sen. Steven's next target will be to open the moon to drilling. It would make about as much difference.

Most of the major oil companies aren't even that interested in drilling in ANWR. I wrote two pieces earlier explaining why we will see a lot more of these kinds of actions: Commodities bull a bear for the environment and Commodities bull II: An oncoming train. Below I repost a portion of the second piece:
Because of the long lead times needed to develop new supply for many resources, nothing done today will have much effect on prices or supply for several years to come. Any proposed actions which are touted as providing quick results should be treated with skepticism. Actions such as opening public lands, sometimes protected lands, to private exploration will be done in the name of alleviating shortages; but this will often be done with an eye toward rewarding political contributors.

Sadly, such shortsighted moves will do nothing to address the profoundly serious resource issues we face in the areas of energy, water, soil and climate. When prices are low, few people worry about natural resources. When prices are high, all people want is to have more of what is scarce right away. To rely on the highs and the lows of the commodity cycle to guide us in making intelligent choices in the area of resources is the height of folly. We need a deeper and less financially driven context in which to consider critical natural resource issues.
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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Can corporate be organic?

As more and more large corporations move into the production and processing of organic food and fiber, the organic movement is losing its identity. Long a bastion of small-scale production for local and regional markets, the movement is now splitting, irrevocably it seems, in two. There are those who feel that encouraging organic production, even if it involves large multinational corporations, is good on its face. The more farmland that is put into organic production, the better, they say.

There are others who say that this trend will only corrupt organic standards and that, in fact, it already has.

The crux of the matter is two-fold:

1. Is it possible for organic food production, both farming and processing, to be done by large-scale farms and corporations while still enforcing strict organic standards?
2. Does this large scale violate the the values that are imbedded in the organic movement to such a degree that large-scale farming and processing no longer constitute true organic production?

These are the the questions that the organic movement is struggling with. The answers will determine whether the movement splits in two: one faithful to a philosophy and the other merely in compliance with the bare minimum requirements of organic regulations, regulations that are under constant threat because they effectively limit scale.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

It's official! (And worrisome)

The U.S. Department of Energy commissioned a report on mitigating the effects of world peak oil production which recently came to light. Consultants who wrote the report were blunt. Ignoring peak world oil production could mean deep economic problems for the United States and the world. Preparing for such an event would take a crash program over 20 years. The authors do not attempt to project a date for peak production, but they do mention the possibility that it may be happening now. Below are some of their conclusions:
•Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
• Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
• Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

The obvious conclusion from this analysis is that with adequate, timely mitigation, the costs of peaking can be minimized. If mitigation were to be too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to significant economic hardship.

It is possible that peaking may not occur for several decades, but it is also possible that peaking may occur in the near future. We are thus faced with a daunting risk management problem:

• On the one hand, mitigation initiated soon would be premature if peaking is still several decades away.
• On the other hand, if peaking is imminent, failure to initiate mitigation quickly will have significant economic and social costs to the U.S. and the world.

The two risks are asymmetric:

• Mitigation actions initiated prematurely will be costly and could result in a poor use of resources.
• Late initiation of mitigation may result in severe consequences. The world has never confronted a problem like this, and the failure to act on a timely basis could have debilitating impacts on the world economy. Risk minimization requires the implementation of mitigation measures well prior to peaking. Since it is uncertain when peaking will occur, the challenge is indeed significant....

...The world has never faced a problem like this. Without massive mitigation more than a decade before the fact, the problem will be pervasive and will not be temporary. Previous energy transitions (wood to coal and coal to oil) were gradual and evolutionary; oil peaking will be abrupt and revolutionary.

Oil peaking represents a liquid fuels problem, not an "energy crisis" in the sense that term has been used. Motor vehicles, aircraft, trains, and ships simply have no ready alternative to liquid fuels. Non-hydrocarbon-based energy sources, such as solar, wind, photovoltaics, nuclear power, geothermal, fusion, etc. produce electricity, not liquid fuels, so their widespread use in transportation is at best decades away. Accordingly, mitigation of declining world oil production must be narrowly focused.
The implications of this last paragraph are staggering. An early peak with no alternative, cheap liquid fuels will mean a collapse of global trade which is based on cheap transportation. If that collapse is prolonged, it will affect a complete reorganization of society, a relocalization of practically every important economic function. That is what James Howard Kunstler among many others believes we are in for.

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Peak oil sneaks onto the floor of the Congress

Yesterday, two Maryland congressmen gave an extended tutorial on peak oil to their colleagues. This is the first time I know of that the issue has been taken seriously by any federal legislators. It's worth noting that both congressmen, Wayne Gilchrest and Roscoe Bartlett, are Republicans. While they may seem to be playing against type, it does show that understanding the gravity of our energy dilemma as framed by the impending peak in world oil production makes party labels irrelevant. Once you understand the problem and its proximity in time, the solution coalesces: massive conservation to stretch out what fossil fuel resources we have, massive government investment in alternative energy that is environmentally benign, a complete reorientation of agriculture and an emphasis on gradual population reduction.

(Via Global Public Media.)

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A picture is worth a thousand words

Global warming brings a snowless Mt. Kilimanjaro for the first time in 11,000 years.

(Via Past Peak.)

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Majors' oil production peaking?

Oil production at seven of the world's largest oil companies is about to peak. So says a research report by independent energy research firm John S. Herold, Inc of Norwalk, Conn. Herold is known for having predicted Enron's fall months before anyone else caught on.

PowerSwitch intercepted this most recent report. It says that BP, ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips, Eni, Exxon Mobil, Royal Dutch/Shell, and Total are all expected to reach peak oil production between 2007 and 2009 and thereafter experience permanent production declines.

The case for an early oil peak grows.

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Monday, March 14, 2005

Oil humor

This one is making the rounds on the Internet:

A lot of folks can't understand how we came to have an oil shortage here in America. Well, there's a very simple answer. Nobody bothered to check the oil. We just didn't know we were getting low. The reason for that is purely geographical. Our oil is located in Alaska, California, Oklahoma, and Texas. But, our dipsticks are located in Washington, D.C.

Also, check out Mobjectivist on Oil Depletion Disclaimers.

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Sunday, March 13, 2005

More on "The End of Suburbia"

As I said in a previous post, I have just seen the video "The End of Suburbia." To those familiar with peak oil theory and its implications, the video will not break any new ground. But as a compact and compelling presentation of the peak oil problem and its effects, it is dynamite. I saw it with a group of college students who are members of a campus environmental group. These are well-informed and committed environmentalists. From their questions I could tell that while they were aware of that we face energy challenges, they had not perceived the energy problem as this great, nor had they imagined that the consequences could be this bad if we are not up to the challenge.

Emotionally, "The End of Suburbia" is a shocking movie. Whether it can shock the public and awaken them to our nascent energy crisis is an open question. Notably, the The New York Times covered a recent showing of the film on Long Island. Mostly it was those already committed to doing something about energy and sprawl issues who showed up. But, even some of these people seemed not quite to grasp the message as they spoke about "running out of oil."

This is, of course, not the issue at all. It's about running out of cheap oil. Somehow the public needs to come to understand that we don't have to run out of any of our energy sources to face deep and abiding problems. We have only to suffer mildly declining energy output to destabilize the entire economic and social system. The public has been so brainwashed into thinking that technology will save us and that we'll always figure something out in time that even some of these true believers couldn't quite make the leap.

Unless the peak is 25 to 30 years away, we won't have the luxury of reworking our entire energy infrastructure to sustain our current way of life. Each day new information points to a peak much sooner than this. Why wait to act when the stakes are so high?

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Who needs Rush Limbaugh...

...when you have Nicholas Kristof. That's the question that Grist's Dave Roberts asks when this ostensibly liberal New York Times columnist trashes the environmental movement. Our environmental problems are too deep and too critical to pretend that the message needs to be less urgent. It is as if a person (symbolizing the environmental movement) is travelling in a plane (the biosphere and the economy) that is headed for a crash landing. She informs the passengers and crew that she has calculated that the plane needs to change course right away to avoid a crash. She is ignored and then ridiculed because no crash occurs. She checks her calculations and then once again warns that a crash is imminent, apologizing for not getting the exact timing right. The pilot informs her that his sleek new plane and its advanced instruments indicate clear sailing ahead. Besides, his plane is now traveling at the highest speed at which it has ever traveled. "How can there be a problem if we're breaking new speed and performance records?" he asks.

(Via Sustainablog.)

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What if we have to start again?

"Bargain hunting for the best price is essentially the cause of the collapse."
In one sentence we have the essence of our predicament from writer David Fleming in an essay The Lean Economy: A Vision of Civility for a World in Trouble. His thesis is that we had our chance to prepare for the coming energy famine and we blew it. The warning came in the 1970s, and it was unheeded. Our focus on price and endless growth has been self-delusional and destructive to the very cultural traits we'll need to make the transition to a lower energy society.

Since, in his view, the crisis is upon us, our preparations should focus on how to downscale modern civilization drastically and humanely into one that uses 90 percent less energy. Some 60 percent will likely come from simply cutting way back on activities such as driving and commercial transport of goods, that is, essentially localizing our economy. The remaining 30 percent could come from efficiencies, essentially leaving us at the equivalent of one-third of today's energy benefits while having to generate only 10 percent of today's level of power. Not a complete bust, and, in fact, a rather enviable result given what we are facing.

His main concern is not technical, however; it is cultural. How do we rebuild a culture based on reciprocity and connection that does not flow from the impersonal marketplace? For this he has a formula, one that you might call anti-Adam Smith. "The Lean Economy will need both courage and independence," Fleming writes. He means independence from the chimeras of the market economy and perpetual growth. He means courage to embrace the kinds of cooperation and self-restraint that have become alien to us.

In a separate sidebar, he revisits the tale of the "Boy Who Cried Wolf" reminding us that the boy did ultimately prove correct and was eaten. So, it is with those who've been predicting the energy famine. They will be considered lunatics by most people right up until the moment when they finally prove right.

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Biomass is part of the problem

For those who believe that biomass has a major role to play in our energy future, I direct you to this story which explains that in the so-called brown cloud over South Asia, "[t]he burning of wood, agricultural waste and animal manure for cooking is the largest source of black carbon in the air in that region."

Yes, yes, I know that if we in the United States do it, we'll make sure we have the right pollution control devices. But will we really do that in an energy emergency? And what about all the carbon dioxide released into the air by biomass? Now, supposedly the carbon will be recycled into plants so that it ends up being a wash. But, we aren't replanting the forests in most parts of the world. Instead, we're engaging in huge deforestation. And, if you're concerned about global warming, you don't even have to probe this far to see the problem. According to the researchers, "[t]he effect of soot in the air over the Indian Ocean is some 10 times that of the so-called greenhouse gases."

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Saturday, March 12, 2005

"The End of Suburbia" Documentary

For those who viewed the documentary The End of Suburbia last night here in Kalamazoo I am posting some links related to the movie that may be useful in your study of our energy future:

James Howard Kunstler's website:
Association for the Study of Peak Oil (founded by Colin Campbell):
Hubbert Peak of Oil Production:
Richard Heinburg's website Museletter:
Matthew Simmons (presentations and speeches):
The Post Carbon Institute:
Julian Darley's website Global Public Media:

This should give you a good start if you want to know more about world peak oil production and the implications for suburbia and our current way of life.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005


Forests are the world's storehouses of genetic diversity, arable soil and carbon. But GMO researchers have turned their sights on those forests. While their aims for the present seem focused on creating fast-growing trees that can be profitably harvested for pulp and paper companies, their range of interests is bound to widen. One possible target is to grow forests as carbon sinks to reduce the effects of global warming by drawing carbon dioxide out of the air. Of course, it doesn't occur to the researchers that they might be exchanging one danger for an even worse one.

The technology behind genetically modified trees carries many of the same risks as the technology for GMO food crops. Though we don't eat trees (except perhaps in the form of tree fruit), GMO trees pose special risks to genetic diversity. The scientists who work on them already admit that they will pollute the genetic pool of close relatives. The researchers are imparting herbicide resistance to trees and engineering pesticide-producing trees that kill insects that eat their leaves. One result could be trees that become "superweeds," crowding out other varieties. Another could be the devastation of the forest ecosystem as links in the food chain are eliminated and other insects and animals that depend on those links decline.

Perhaps the most perplexing question is who will own trees contaminated by genes from GMO trees. So far the courts say that the company which created the gene owns them and can sue anyone who raises them even unknowingly. This is a key question because unlike food crops which rarely grow higher than 6 feet, trees grow much taller and spread their pollen over much broader areas.

The solution say some scientists is to create sterile trees. Sounds great until you begin to think about the entire chain of life that depends of the seeds and blossoms and nuts produced by trees. "Green deserts" is one term being preemptively applied to such a forest.

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of GMO trees is what is frightening about all current GMO research. Researchers don't really know exactly what they are doing. The methods of placing genetic material into a cell are inexact, and their results are not entirely known. One technique involves a gene gun--a genetic shotgun really--that shoots the desired gene at a group of cells hoping some will take up the gene. The process--a shrapnel-like approach to gene alteration--may damage the target plant's genome in unintended ways producing unknown genetic alterations, awakening dormant genes or producing traits that may not, in the case of trees, show up until many years later.

Other techniques involve using viruses and bacteria to carry genetic material inside the cell. This is another crapshoot that threatens to create novel plant and animal diseases for which there may be no natural resistance among any population.

A final danger is that the theory that one gene produces one and only one protein has been disapproved. That means that altering one gene cannot be said to predictably alter only one protein production process in a living organism. (These proteins run virtually everything in an organism.) Genetic modification can therefore alter the production of many proteins even when only one gene is altered. That could produce unknown toxins and unpredictable allergic reactions from foods.

But the disturbing truth is that we will only find out about this is after the fact. There are no testing requirements for GMO organisms, at least in the United States, since they are deemed to be equivalent to their natural relatives. This notion is patently false. But for those who hold the patents, it is a profitable fiction--at least until the landscape and the human and animal populations are devasted by a GMO experiment that finally produces a widespread crisis.

The Christian Science Monitor, The Southern Forests Network and The World Rainforest Movement explain in more detail the controversy.

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'Air Quality Destruction Act' sidelined

President Bush's so-called "Clear Skies" legislation, which really ought to be called the "Air Quality Destruction and Big Utilities Relief Act," was stalled yesterday in a Senate committee and is given little chance of passage in its current form. Some on the committee felt that the bill weakened certain provisions of the Clean Air Act and others wanted some regulation of carbon dioxide emissions to reduce the impact on global warming. It's no surprise that the chairman of the committee, Sen. James Inhofe (R.-Okla.) wouldn't allow any provision on carbon dioxide since he believes that global warming is a "hoax."

The bill as written would allow utilities to upgrade and expand existing plants without meeting stringent new air quality rules as required under current law. It would also block states from enforcing clean air provisions across state lines, a provision that is aimed at several northeastern states currently suing Midwestern utilities over air pollution violations and carbon dioxide emissions.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Is it warm in here, or is it just me?

For those so-called skeptics (read: paid propagandists) who believe that global warming isn't happening, yet another study, this time of Arctic lakes, has shown that temperatures have been rising since the beginning of the industrial revolution. One index used by the researchers was dead algae. The changes observed are compelling:

"We had thousands of years with no changes in the algae species. Now they've shown that changes occur in places where warming is going on and, more importantly, don't occur where there is no warming," one expert said.

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Sequoias for sale

If you've ever seen a fully grown Sequoia up close, you will understand why these two-millennia-old giants might seem like gods themselves. To the Bush administration, however, they are so many hundreds of thousands of board-feet of lumber. That's why California's attorney general is suing to stop the cutting of the smaller trees in preserves established by the Clinton administration south of the Sequoia National Park. The suit contends that the plan will generate 7.5 million board-feet of lumber a year.

The Bush administration is responding in its usual Orwellian way. The logging is being done to "save" the trees.

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Organically raised rat

The idea of organically raised rat will only be appetizing to those who appreciate the research behind it. Rats fed organically slept better, had better immune systems and were less obese than those fed conventionally grown food. In general, organic rats are healthier.

The organic community needs more such studies to make its case. In a previous post I pointed to studies that show that organic agriculture can provide yields comparable to those of conventionally raised crops.

(Via Sustainablog.)

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Defying gravity

Everybody who knew anything on Wall Street knew for certain that oil prices were coming down this year. Crude prices lept in 2004 for a number of one-off reasons: Iraq, an overheated China, terrorist attacks, OPEC cuts, a weaker dollar. But that's all in the past. Now we're back to normal. Inventories are building. OPEC is adding supply. Iraq has had its election. But wait, prices are still going up. The puzzlement is detailed by Reuters and CBS Marketwatch in the usual fit of cluelessness that passes for business reporting.

Every Economics 101 student knows that in a perfect market prices are determined by supply and demand. But oil is not and has never been a perfect market. I believe that current prices no longer merely reflect current supply and demand, but rather the view among some market participants that future supplies will not be so plentiful. Long-dated futures prices for crude have risen in concert with nearby prices. People are beginning to hoard. Once the cycle begins it's hard to know where it will stop.

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Do these people look happy?

I was struck by the photo accompanying this article in The New York Times. The piece announces the passage of a law in Brazil sanctioning the planting of GMO crops, something that has been done in the country on the sly for years. I'm trying to imagine how wide an angle the news photographer will need when the first large-scale public health crisis traced to GMO foods erupts. Why am I so sure it will happen? Because no agency requires any testing of any kind for GMO foods. We are the testers.

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Wal-Mart as cargo cult

When European explorers first arrived in the islands of the South Pacific, they must have seemed like gods to the natives. Their never-before-seen sailing ships, their firebreathing weapons, their miraculous metal tools all made such an impression that after they left, the islanders built effigies of the ships hoping again to attract the god-like creatures to their shores in order to obtain more of their wonder-making wares.

These island peoples had no knowledge of how the strange boats and tools were made or where they came from. To James Howard Kunstler in a piece for Orion Online this seems very much like the relationship between Wal-Mart and its customers who similarly have little notion about where the things they buy come from or how they get to America. The magic is not so much the technology as the price. Privileges heretofore reserved for the wealthier set are now available for $7.99 and falling.

The trouble is that the encounter between Wal-Mart and its shoppers has been every bit as devastating to America's small towns and cities as the encounter between the Pacific islanders and their European conquerors eventually proved to be.

Something for nothing is America's motto now. And where you can't get that, then something for next to nothing is the next best thing--even if it destroys the very place you live.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

The 'soft collapse': Will organic farmers become the most important people on earth?

Several pieces has been appearing on the Internet which eschew the apocalyptic visions of some peak oil bloggers and commentators and propose that a failure to find adequate new energy sources is more likely to lead to a slow decline in industrial civilization, a decline that might even be temporarily arrested and reversed by technological developments. This piece appearing on Energy Bulletin is the most thoughtful and complete I've seen. My main interest is a comment at the end, something which you also see in the writings of James Howard Kunstler.

Without cheap fossil fuels to produce the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides which drive industrial agriculture, we will be in grave need of the knowledge of how to farm the land without these. Organic farmers are the storehouse and guardians of this knowledge, and it is to them that we will likely increasingly turn to feed the world. Such farmers will be in double demand. First, they will be called upon to produce vastly much more food than they do today. Second, they will be called upon to teach organic techniques to the many more people we'll need to work the land both in the countryside and in urban gardens in order to adequately feed everyone.

Something like this has already happened in Cuba where an end to cheap oil shipments from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s forced a complete reorganization and vast expansion of agriculture in the country. Will we have enough organic farmers to do the job should the time come for the rest of us?

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Has lack of regulation hurt American business?

That's the provocative question asked by this piece in The Christian Science Monitor. America used to be a leader in renewable energy. Now, it is a laggard. The unwillingness of the United States to join the Kyoto Protocol and the government's continuing resistance to and even rollbacks of environmental regulations are in danger of making it a technological backwater for what will perhaps be the most important technological field in the next several decades: alternative energy.

The United States is the undeniable world leader in the pharmaceutical industry because of its heavy regulation of prescription drugs, recent scandals at the FDA notwithstanding. Why can't we learn from that example?

(via Renewable Energy Law Blog)

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Tillamook bans bovine growth hormone

Tillamook, an Oregon dairy cooperative famous for its cheese nationwide, has decided to ban Monsanto's bovine growth hormone for all milk used in its cheese products. The hormone increases milk production but is linked to health problems in herds and is creating widespread apprehension among consumers about possible human health effects. The Campaign to Label Genetically Modified Foods and the Business Journal of Portland have items on the drama.

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From 'Road Warrior' to renewable energy

In the 1981 post-apocalyptic adventure film, Road Warrior, Mel Gibson plays Max, savior to a peaceful clan of Australians protecting an oil refinery besieged by petroleum-hungry hoodlums. The hoodlums--desert pirates--need the petrol to run their decrepit assortment of stripped-down and jerry-built vehicles that allow them to launch raids over a wide area.

The story has a happy ending. The peaceful clan manages to escape to a faraway place using a tanker convoy that carries much of refinery supplies with them, a stratagem that leaves the desert pirates without the means to pursue the clan. Is it a tale of a post peak oil production world or merely an allegory for the flight to the suburbs? Whichever it is, the interpretations are related and for now it's difficult to tell whether either will have a happy ending.

That is the concern of a new U. S. Department of Energy (DOE) report that has yet to be released, but has been summarized by one of the authors. The report focuses on "viable technologies to mitigate oil shortages associated with the upcoming peaking of world oil production." The author believes there are currently no substitutes for oil in transportation that wouldn't require at least 15 years of lead time to bring up to the scale needed to prevent shortages. And, he believes that a crash program would be required to achieve the necessary scale of production. The upshot: "Because conventional oil production decline will start at the time of peaking, crash program mitigation inherently cannot avert massive shortages unless it is initiated well in advance of peaking." He adds, "If peaking is imminent, failure to act aggressively will be extremely damaging worldwide."

Fortunately, two groups are offering blueprints for crash programs of the very type the DOE report calls for. The Apollo Alliance has outlined a $300 billion 10-year comprehensive federal crash program designed to wean the United States off fossil fuels by adding hugely to our renewable energy sources. Perhaps the plan's greatest virtue is that it has political considerations firmly in mind. It aims to get passed. It includes energy assistance to low income households, an emphasis on high-wage union jobs, a focus on manufacturing and retrofitting, firm support for environmental protection, an appeal based on energy security and a plausible promise to pay back all the government subsidies and grants through increased economic activity and the taxes it will generate. The authors of the plan are currently gathering a broad coalition to make the plan a reality.

The so-called SHINE Project, short for Solar High-Impact National Energy Project, has a smaller price tag--$5 billion over 10 years--but promises exceptional results. For example, under the SHINE program the equivalent of 48 million households could be served by solar power by 2025. The authors (one of whom is Joel Makower, consultant and fellow blogger) believe that only 2.8 million homes would reach this status without the program. In addition, some 580,000 new jobs would be created if the manufacturing is done in the United States.

Neither program claims to be an endall. But, they represent the bold entrepreneurial thinking that has made the United States a powerhouse of technical progress. The programs will be criticized by those who think the marketplace will take care of everything and by those who think government has no place in solving such problems. That thinking will have to be overcome. Will oil at $100 or $150 a barrel be enough to do the trick? Let's hope we don't have to wait until that happens.

Which leads us back to this question: We will blunder blindly into a future filled with "road warrior" cults engaging in combat over the last table scraps of industrial civilization? Or will we choose the soft path of cooperation and renewal? The clock is ticking says the man from the DOE. It's not only of question of whether we will make the right decision, it's whether we will make it in time.

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Republican mad hatters

Back in the good old days hatmakers used to treat cheap fur (often, rabbit fur) with mercury compounds to roughen the fur and to make it mat more easily. This made it usable for felt hats. The treated fur was boiled in acid to thicken and harden it. During another part of the process the hat was steamed and ironed to get it into shape. All of these processes released mercury compounds into the air breathed by workers. The result: Mad hatters syndrome. The symptoms included trembling, loosening of teeth, loss of coordination, and slurred speech. Other effects were more subtle: irritability, loss of memory, depression, anxiety, and personality changes.

At the time no one knew that mercury was the cause. That was then; this is now. Except now two Republican congressmen have issued a report that might lead you to believe that mercury isn't anything to worry about. After years of warnings about mercury in fish, the better-informed congressmen tell us: "There has been no credible evidence of harm to pregnant women or their unborn children from regular consumption of fish."

The report reads as if the fishing and coal industries got together to write it. That's because the real aim of the report is to shoot down regulation of emissions of coal-fired power plants. Coal is possibly the last major industrial source of mercury in the environment. When coal is burned, mercury, a contaminant in the coal, is released into the air whereupon is floats over land and sea before coming down. That's when the problems begin. The mercury gets into the food chain, particularly of fish, accumulates, and then gets into humans when we eat the fish.

The occasion of the report is the impending release of rules to bring mercury emissions under control from coal-fired plants. The Republican congressmen, Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), don't want the strict regulation proposed by the Clinton administration as a settlement of a lawsuit. Rather, they want a so-called "cap and trade" system that allows plants to trade emission credits. The problem is that such a system won't do much of anything to bring total emissions down for a decade. The stricter technology-mandating rules would begin to bite within three years or so.

The assumptions and sleight-of-hand used by the report's authors is a catalog of the tactics used by the anti-environmental lobby. First, say there is no problem. Then, say that even if there is a problem it's not being caused by humans (i.e. the humans that run big utilities which give generously to the Republican Party and its candidates). The congressmen regale us with all the natural sources of mercury in the environment. They pretend that if it's naturally in the environment it can't be bad. Well, the environment also has arsenic and lead in it, neither of which is good for you. But, of course, humans are particularly good at concentrating these harmful elements using industrial processes and that is the crux of the whole problem.

The congressmen also tell us that the yearly emissions of mercury have fallen substantially over the last 30 years. What they ignore are the cumulative effects. If we reduce what we add each year to the mountain of mercury already released, this does nothing to lower the toxicity of the mercury already out there. We need to stop adding to what is already in the environment.

Chris Mooney, an independent science writer, does a good job of dissecting the sources of Pombo's and Gibbons' disinformation. Much of it comes from industry-sponsored studies and think tanks (read: propaganda mills). The remaining stuff comes from many government sources which are twisted beyond recognition.

The whole episode makes one believe that the congressmen themselves have been making too many felt hats in an old hat factory. When someone tells you mercury is not all that bad for you, remember the mad hatters.

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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

It's the infrastructure, stupid!

Energy investment banker Matt Simmons, long concerned with a possible peak in world oil production, lays out a nuanced case here for why oil reserves aren't the only reason for concern. Inadequate energy infrastructure is likely to play a major role in rising energy prices and may become part of the reason for a peak.

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Apples and oranges

Those who are saying that Great Britain should abandon its expansion of wind power and focus on energy efficiency are missing the point. Great Britain (and everyone else) should do both. We should also recognize that the question of which should be a priority is a false one as they are not directly comparable. One, energy efficiency, reduces carbon emissions and makes carbon-based fuels last longer. This is a worthy goal, but by itself it only delays the day of reckoning. The other, building clean renewable energy sources, is the only path with a future. Without it the day of reckoning will come and go without a solution.

By presenting the question as an "either/or" proposition, the authors of the report cited and the supporters of this approach would like you to believe that we cannot afford both and so we must choose based on the dollar cost of each alternative. But, in the end, it is the energy cost that matters in the future. Financial assessments are useful when money means something. In a world bereft of renewable energy, money will have far less meaning and value.

The real answer to the wind power critics is that we must pay for both energy efficiency and wind power. The task before us is to create the political will to do so instead of presenting fake "either/or" choices that only serve narrow constituencies and narrow minds.

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