Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The best method of carbon sequestration

Now that the Bush administration has admitted something every thinking person already knows--that the world is warming--and now that the administration is fully behind the search for alternative fuels, we can expect more talk about the benefits of carbon sequestration.

For some people carbon sequestration offers the best of all possible futures. Presumably, we could continue to burn plentiful coal supplies long after oil and natural gas production declines. With the proper technology we could then capture the resulting carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas) before is it released into the atmosphere. This would supposedly give us the necessary breathing room to make a gradual transition to a renewable energy economy with a minimum of disruption.

The initial schemes for sequestering carbon such as placing it in caverns underground sound easy enough. But several concerns arise. Can leaks be avoided, not just immediately, but over a period that might last many thousands of years? Will the carbon dioxide react with the surfaces of the cavern opening up pathways to the air above? Such reactions have been noted, but whether they would ultimately result in substantial leaks remains unknown. Can all the existing drill holes into such a cavern be found, adequately sealed and monitored for an indefinite period of time? In other words, who will be babysitting these sites 100, 200, even 500 years from now?

One sequestration scheme already in use stores carbon dioxide in an aging oil field. The injected CO2 is used to force out the remaining hard-to-get oil. As clever as this seems, it's worth asking whether any net reduction in greenhouse gasses occurs since the recovered oil is ultimately burned.

Yet another land-based method involves injecting carbon dioxide into underground saline aquifers which will presumably never be used for human consumption. The supposed advantage of this method is that saline aquifers are widespread whereas suitable caverns and old oil fields are not nearly as widely or conveniently located. No one really knows whether this would result in permanent storage or whether the drill holes used to reach the aquifers or other holes intentionally or inadvertently drilled in the past or the future can be adequately monitored. Even the extent of an aquifer and its communication with other aquifers and with the surface are difficult to ascertain.

Another often touted method is to use the mineral serpentinite which will combine with CO2 from power plant flues to form a stable magnesium compound. Energy costs and storage problems could be substantial. And, while serpentinite is relatively abundant, it's not clear whether there would be enough of it with sufficient concentrations of magnesium to handle the projected need.

The open sea apparently offers even greater possibilities including pumping carbon dioxide to the bottom of the ocean. At great depths the pressure and low temperature would maintain the CO2 in liquid form which is heavier than water. Presumably the liquid carbon dioxide would simply hang out for millennia. The financial and energy costs of gathering and transporting the CO2, perhaps in liquid form using an elaborate pipeline system, seems to be the major hurdle. In addition, what we know about the bottom of the oceans is probably less than what we know about the nearest star. Can we really be sure that the CO2 will stay where we put it?

As I said above, all of this effort is focused on allowing us to use coal for the foreseeable future. The coal infrastructure is already in place, and it works to produce more than half the electricity in the United States. What is not considered is the use of coal to make liquid fuels which would replace those now provided by oil. Coal-to-liquids, as it is called, is a very carbon intensive process. Even if the carbon emitted from the coal-to-liquids refineries were captured and sequestered, there is currently no practical way to capture and sequester carbon from a moving vehicle. This is no small matter. In the United States vehicles create 27 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the uncertainties, the costs and the alternatives available to us--conservation, efficiency, wind and solar--does it make sense to build a hugely expensive sequestration infrastructure that will essentially be a giant subsidy for the coal industry? Can we even be sure that exponentially increasing rates of coal production could be sustained? In other words, would we not be bringing forward a peak in coal production, perhaps by the middle of this century and then face all the same questions about a transition to a non-fossil fuel economy? Finally, given that we cannot guarantee the successful long-term sequestration of CO2, would it be moral to commit future generations to such a risky path?

When you think all this through, there is one method of carbon sequestration that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Leave the carbon in the ground to the greatest extent possible and get on with the project of creating a genuinely sustainable society.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The unknown unknowns

As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.

                         --Donald Rumsfeld
                           Former U. S. Secretary of Defense

It ain't what you don't know that gets you in trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

                         --Mark Twain

We are frequently assailed with the notion that knowledge is doubling every n-years and that the interval between doublings is shrinking with each doubling. We are even told that knowledge will someday be increasing at a rate that is so fast it will represent a distinct break in human history. After this turning point, often referred to as the singularity, machines will be smarter than humans and launch human society into an unprecedented orgy of invention and progress.

An antidote to this kind of thinking is David Orr's, Ecological Literacy, a compilation of essays that remain as fresh and profound today as they were when they were published in 1992. While Orr would not deny the proliferation of knowledge, he posits an equal and opposite reaction. With each doubling of knowledge, we get a doubling of ignorance.

What does he mean? The example he cites is the discovery of CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in the 1930s. These substances turned out to be marvelous as refrigerants and spray-can propellants. They are nontoxic, noncorrosive, nonflammable and odorless. As we learned more about them, we found new uses in manufacturing and as cleaning solvents. Our knowledge was increasing. Also increasing was our ignorance of the consequences of using CFCs. Only in the early 1970s did researchers discover that CFCs, once discharged into the air, make their way into the upper atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer. In fact, a large hole opened in the ozone layer in the mid-1980s giving dramatic testimony to the effects of CFCs.

But the discovery of the mechanism behind the ozone hole might very well have come too late had it not been for a lone scientist who wondered what happened to CFCs after they entered the atmosphere. It is a only matter of great good fortune that F. Sherwood Rowland obtained a grant in 1973 to find the answer. There was, in fact, no systematic search underway into the side effects of CFCs, and those side effects could have easily eluded our notice. Our growing ignorance came very close to imperilling all plant and animal life on the planet.

Similarly, our ignorance about the dangers and intractable problems of nuclear waste grew up in tandem with our expanding knowledge and application of nuclear power. The problem of what to do with the waste remains unsolved.

Our understanding of species loss comes in at a trickle as species are annihilated by the thousands every year. In a conversation the other day with a friend who counts birds at our local nature center, he made a moral argument for biodiversity. Don't the other organisms on the Earth have a right to exist as much as we do?

Forget the moral argument, I responded. All you need to do is ask yourself (and others) whether it is wise to wipe out species at the current colossal rate when we haven't even discovered some of the species we are wiping out and when we don't know the effect of such a bloodbath on the future viability of the human race? What if, without knowing it, we are wiping out species that are essential to our very survival? Is it worth the risk to continue as we have?

Also discussed in Ecological Literacy is a rather revolting scheme proposed by researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture that would ostensibly increase the carrying capacity and sustainability of farmland through the use of perennials. Orr describes the plan as follows:

Farms would no longer grow wheat, tomatoes, or corn, but rather cellulose from perennials having the attributes of 'tulip poplar, kenaf and a nitrogen fixing symbiont.' Cellulose would then be converted into syrups and transported by tank car or slurry line to food factories near population centers where they would be reconstituted into steaks, french fries, and zucchini with 'aesthetically necessary secondary metabolites, e.g., flavor compounds and pigments' added. Yum.

Orr doubts that such a system could actually be sustainable. And if it did fail for technological, political or ecological reasons, who would be left who knows how to grow actual food? Our knowledge about food and farming would be declining as our knowledge about how to grow cellulosic substitutes expanded, all without any assurance that the new system could be maintained indefinitely.

For most of us it is an article of faith that knowledge is expanding very rapidly. And many of us know for sure that this is always and in every way a good thing. David Orr has his doubts:

The belief that we are currently undergoing an explosion of knowledge is a piece of highly misleading and self-serving hype. The fact is that some kinds of knowledge are growing while others are in decline. Among the losses are vast amounts of genetic information from the wanton destruction of biological diversity, due in no small part to knowledge put to destructive purposes. We are losing, as David Ehrenfeld has observed, whole sections of the university curriculum in areas such as taxonomy, systematics, and natural history. We are also losing the intimate and productive knowledge of our landscape....On balance, I think, we are becoming more ignorant because we are losing knowledge about how to inhabit our places on the planet sustainably....

Wisdom, Orr writes, is in part knowing the limits of our knowledge. Wisdom implies a level of humility which the human race has thus far failed to demonstrate. Wisdom means accepting that there will always be unknown unknowns and acting accordingly.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


It's hard to imagine a week more filled with delusion about Iraq than the one just concluded. But, Iraq never ceases to surprise, so one must hold out the possibility that the delusion could grow even grander.

First, there was the notion that a soon-to-be-adopted Iraqi law designed to open the country's oilfields to foreign companies will somehow lead to a flood of foreign investment. A more measured evaluation of the prospects for such investment was published in The Independent. In fact, it's hard to see how anyone could currently operate an oil exploration program inside Iraq safely.

Even after the Iraq civil war ends--and it will end someday though that day is probably many years away--the government which controls Iraq may not be the one now in charge or may, in fact, turn out to be three governments controlling a partitioned Iraq. Even if a unified Iraq survives, what would prevent it from changing the laws governing oil production, revoking existing contracts or simply renationalizing the oil industry? An Iraq at peace may find itself capable of doing any of these with the broad support of its people. Certainly, some will say that a continued U. S. military presence in Iraq would cow the country into honoring any agreements made under the law. But who now believes, given emerging political and ongoing fiscal realities in the United States, that the U. S. military will remain in Iraq to the conclusion of the civil war and for many years after that?

To top it off there is the specious claim that Iraq has 115 billion barrels of oil waiting to be drained from the ground. Only a few people have bothered to look beneath the surface of this claim to find the reality. In the 1980s OPEC, of which Iraq was a member, was contemplating linking production quotas to reserves. Some OPEC members reported miraculous reserve increases without any equally miraculous exploration efforts. Between 1987 and 1988 Iraq's reserves jumped from 47 billion barrels to 100 billion barrels. Such reserves are now euphemistically referred to as "political reserves."

The second delusion of the week was that President Bush's plan to add 20,000 U. S. soldiers to forces already in Iraq would somehow bring stability to the country. Not many people were buying this delusion including many U. S. senators of both parties. When then army chief Gen. Eric Shinseki predicted before the war that several hundred thousand soldiers would be needed to pacify Iraq, he was pilloried by the Bush Administration. But, that number is probably closer to what it would take to do the job. Even if the American public and the Congress had the stomach for such a huge new deployment, as a practical matter it is impossible. The U. S. military is having trouble maintaining the force levels it has already deployed.

The third delusion of the week comes in the form of an article in the January 15 edition of The New Yorker about Democratic presidential candidates and their foreign policy positions. The word "oil" appears exactly once and that's inside a quote from the mouth of former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards talking about our addiction to oil.

The varied views of Democratic frontrunners--Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama--on America's national security are detailed in the piece with discussion of Iraq and Iran featured prominently. But, the author, Jeffrey Goldberg, who seems to be an intelligent and well-connected reporter, never once mentions oil while analyzing the U. S. relationship with either country. Perhaps none of the people he interviewed except Edwards mentioned the issue. But, one would think that Goldberg would have asked about oil, especially if the candidates appeared to be avoiding the issue and especially since Iraq and Iran are such large oil exporters.

Understanding the delusions under which America's leaders and media suffer allows us to see why the most obvious solution to America's predicament in Iraq goes unmentioned, namely, a vast crash program to free America from fossil fuels, especially oil, in favor of renewable, low-carbon sources of energy. This should be combined with an emergency effort in energy conservation and efficiency.

As long as Americans and their leaders believe that there is plenty of oil to be had; that getting access to it is really only a matter of applying military force and market principles; and that national security isn't inextricably bound up with the way we think about and use energy, the country will fall further and further behind in making an energy transition that is being forced upon us by the limits of fossil fuels themselves.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Yes, but...

Perhaps the most widely heard response to the peak oil argument is that the world has lots of oil left. To those who understand the peak oil problem, this is a non sequitur. The typical counterargument begins with "Yes, but..." followed by a lengthy disquisition on the difference between stocks and flows of a resource, the geology of oil wells, and the various types of oil.

Often what the listener thinks he or she hears is that the cornucopian thinkers are right. But, less often does the listener understand enough to take the problem seriously.

Herein lies a critical communications problem. Perhaps the most crucial argument to the peak oil debate--that there is a huge difference between how much of a resource is theoretically available on planet Earth and how rapidly we can extract it--is too difficult to explain the way we have been explaining it. Perhaps we need some new approaches for explaining this and other aspects of peak oil.

To start let's look at the obstacles we face. First, the public wants to believe that men (and it is mostly men) in nice suits with PhDs and expertise in the oil business know what they are talking about. And, it wants to believe that the government's experts wouldn't overlook something as important as oil supplies; and sure enough, those private and government experts predict that all will be well for at least three decades.

Second, most of the public believes that even if something is increasingly difficult to do--for instance, pull oil out of the Earth's crust--technology will find a way to overcome the difficulty.

Third, the public has been largely conditioned to believe that technology will find substitutes for oil, introduce them over time, and provide a more or less seamless transition to a new energy economy.

Fourth, most people want to believe all is well because that belief is the most convenient one for the lives they now lead. Most people do not regard change, especially radical change, as good.

Fifth, most people find that the vast majority of those around them seem unconcerned about peak oil. This is an extremely powerful influence. People will ask themselves, "If this is such a critical problem, why do so few people seem alarmed?" (What's missing in their thinking, of course, is that this lack of concern could be the result of so few people knowing anything about peak oil.)

Trying to make progress against these assumptions and the mindset that goes with them seems insuperable. But, those who grasp the peak oil problem usually feel that they must at least try.

Let's take each obstacle in turn. First, it's tempting to trash such "men in suits" as Daniel Yergin. I've done it myself. But turning what is arguably one the most critical issues we now face into a discussion of personalities and questionable motives may only confuse any newcomer to the issue. Peak oil and its ramifications are a highly complex story. It is difficult for most people to come to an informed opinion about that story quickly.

And, rather than attempt a comprehensive explanation of, say, stocks and flows as mentioned above, the aim I think at first should be to plant doubts about the "official story." Discuss a few key problems such as phantom, unverified reserves in the Middle East; rapid unforeseen declines in North Sea oil production; and falling new discoveries. This opens up avenues of inquiry for listeners. What those listeners subsequently discover on their own has much more impact than anything they are force-fed. Pressing the peak oil issue too hard will inevitably create resistance.

Second, it's hard to refute the notion that technology will solve our energy problems. Those who lived through the previous oil crises learned that oil crises pass and oil prices fall. New efficiencies supposedly solved those crises, and they will solve the next one. That bit of learning will someday turn out to be a poor guide. But most people tend to extrapolate the recent past into the future. Trying to make complex arguments about energy technologies that have failed to advance as predicted--fusion energy comes to mind--will probably only confuse a newcomer.

Third, the notion that the marketplace will allow substitutes for oil to emerge and provide a seamless transition to a new energy economy seems to be already validating itself in the form of ethanol and biodiesel production. Talk of hydrogen and liquid fuel from coal is everywhere in the news. I can find no shortcut to respond to the misleading media coverage surrounding these developments. Responding implies the enormous task of creating energy literacy among the public. Such concepts as net energy are as critical to public understanding as they are alien to the public mind. Explaining the implications of exponential growth is a must. Perhaps to start we can reduce these ideas to a couple of sentences: 1) It takes energy to get energy and 2) the economy cannot grow larger than the Earth. But we are still obliged to elaborate. When it comes to energy literacy, slogans, in my view, simply won't get it.

Fourth, the fact that people want to believe things that will allow them to continue living as they now live is perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome. This behavior is not based on evidence and can run completely contrary to the evidence. Besides this, catastrophic, world-changing discontinuities don't come along very often, at least not for everyone at once. My first suggestion is to be careful about definitive and exacting predictions. No one knows the future. To say this is to say also that the so-called experts, the "men in suits," don't know it either.

Here the opportunity is to talk about risks. We routinely insure against risks of all kinds, even ones that are very rare such as house fires. We do this because of the severity rather than the frequency of such events. Peak oil falls into this category because its consequences could be very severe. We don't know how severe and we don't know exactly when it will come. But, wouldn't it be a good idea to take out some insurance, just to be safe? This is a line of argument that can help people relate to something they already know and can help them see a response in the context of how they address risk in their everyday lives.

Fifth, the fact that few people are concerned about something doesn't mean it's not important. Critical issues are not the same as fashionable issues. Big problems almost always start out small or at least start out poorly understood. AIDS, when it first appeared in the United States, seemed like a problem largely confined to a small segment of the gay population. Before Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the issue of toxic substances in the environment was almost completely absent from public discussion.

Obviously, as the peak oil issue makes more headway in the mainstream media, the feeling that it can't really be important will start to fade. But, for now you might invite people into awareness of peak oil by admitting that very few people understand it. I'm sorry to say that people like to believe they are joining an exclusive club, and right now, those who understand the implications of peak oil constitute a club that remains far too exclusive.

None of this is meant to be the final word on what to say after you say, "Yes, but..." Rather, it is merely an attempt to suggest some possible approaches and to elicit comments on how to spread the word about peak oil effectively.

I eagerly await your feedback.