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.]