Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hypocritical modelers

Oil companies like to use models to estimate their reserves and the potential of unexplored fields. Exxon Mobil Corp., the world's largest oil company and a longtime supporter of the global warming denial lobby, tells us the following on page 8 of its 2007 annual report: "Using proprietary technologies and tools, including advanced reservoir prediction models and geological data visualization, we have significantly improved our ability to identify, model, and understand oil and gas reservoirs."

Exxon and its fossil fuel partners in the denial lobby seem to like models well enough when they use them for their own purposes; but through their hired mouthpieces they decry the use of models for climate change forecasting. (The Heritage Foundation to whose pages the previous link leads received consistent funding from Exxon throughout this decade.)

The companies support the dissemination of statements such as the following:
Scientific forecasting research has shown that experts aren’t able to provide accurate predictions in this kind of complex and uncertain situation. It doesn’t matter whether experts present their forecasts as certain outcomes, detailed scenarios, expectations, likelihoods or probabilities. Or that the forecasts are the product of hard thinking by many highly qualified experts, or even of mathematics or computer simulations. The expert forecasts are nonetheless worthless.

What could be more complex than the modeling suggested by this Exxon press release detailing projects around the world, some of them deep underwater, in which modeling was an important component? What could be more complex than modeling the oil and natural gas reserves of the world's largest oil company? Except perhaps modeling the entire world's oil and natural gas reserves. (See Exxon's claim about the extent of those reserves below.)

Exxon wants the public, their shareholders, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Minerals Management Service and the United States Geological Survey to accept their reported reserves and their estimates of potential new reserves all based on their models. The company's chief executive officer even wants us to believe that fossils fuels will still be the dominate fuels 100 years from now. Is that what the company's models are telling it? And, yet Exxon and its fellow travelers send forth messages into the world that implore us not to believe in models--that "expert forecasts are...worthless." That being the case, should these companies' forecasts of the fossil fuels they believe they can get out of the ground be considered worthless as well?

Clearly, it is not modeling which Exxon and others in the fossil fuel lobby want us to distrust. They merely dislike modeling which demonstrates a possible future that is disadvantageous to their executives and their shareholders. The truth is that corporations of all kinds, governments, nonprofits,and even individuals rely on forecasting models to give them some starting point for evaluating possible outcomes. And, while forecasts of many kinds often have wide margins of error, they can point out possible risks, which, if they indicate severe consequences, may cause us to act to head off those consequences or prepare to mitigate them.

Don't believe Exxon and its hired hands when they feign concern over climate change models. They, too, like to use models to substantiate their pronouncements. What the members of fossil fuel lobby are really telling us with their critique of models is that they are hypocrites of the first order. But, that's something that should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the activities of Exxon and the fossil fuel lobby in the public discussion of climate change.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Holiday Break

I am taking a holiday break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, May 31st. In the meantime, I hope you'll take a look at my latest column on Scitizen entitled "Energy: The Achilles Heel of the Resource Pyramid." Enjoy the weekend!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Energy: The Achilles heel of the resource pyramid

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "Energy: The Achilles Heel of the Resource Pyramid" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:
When economists say that we have far larger mineral resources today than ever before, they are usually referring to a model known as the resource pyramid. What they often fail to mention is that cheap, abundant energy is the key input into this model and that without it much of our presumed abundance would vanish....Read more

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The freedom lobby

There is nothing so intoxicating as freedom. That's partly because the word is so abstract that people can define it in any way that they want. And, naturally they define it in ways that they believe will give them the maximum purchase on wealth, power, pleasure and security.

So, it should come as no surprise that the word "freedom" is frequently deployed like a cluster bomb in order to discredit opponents in a public debate. Who, after all, wants to be classified among "the enemies of freedom"? That's why the climate change denial lobby now uses this word incessantly. It is one of the last arrows in its quiver as the world contemplates ever tighter restrictions on greenhouse gases.

Now, what do the climate change deniers mean by freedom? Do they mean freedom of speech, assembly, and religion, cherished rights guaranteed under the U. S. Constitution? Do they mean freedom of association? Do they mean free elections and representative government?

None of these seems to be on their minds. In its most elemental form the freedom they seek is the freedom for individuals to exploit all the resources they can get their hands on at whatever rate and in whatever manner they choose. Here is an example from a recent letter to the editor to a Florida newspaper:
Celebrate the fact that you live in the greatest economy in the world and that you can afford two cars. Celebrate that you can still afford to gas them up. Celebrate the freedom this gives you. And realize that the people who want you to curtail your enjoyment of the economy have no intention of curtailing their enjoyment.

A more sophisticated and ideologically grounded version comes from Vaclav Klaus, current president of the Czech Republic:

I see another big problem in environmentalism and in its currently most aggressive form - global warming alarmism. This ideology has gradually turned into the most efficient vehicle for advocating extensive government intervention into all fields of life and for suppressing human freedom and economic prosperity.

Again, the concern is with so-called economic freedom, primarily to grab whatever wealth one is able to grab. This is an appealing doctrine to those who have the skills and social position to do just that. And, there is an important second component to this freedom, property rights. Property rights become very important if you already have a lot of property (wealth) or the prospect of gaining a lot of property. So, it is again no surprise that the financial press--The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Post among them--see climate change as a canard to gyp them and their readers out of their rights to use their property--primarily property that emits a lot of greenhouse gas--as they see fit.

What these defenders of freedom don't tell us is what they are willing to do to defend the property rights of the inhabitants of coastal cities and countless seaside villages should their communities be swamped by rising sea level--one of the most widely expected effects of global warming. Nor do they tell us what they might be willing to do to protect the water supplies of billions dependent on Asian mountain rivers as the glacial meltwater that feeds them disappears. How might they answer the farmers whose formerly fertile fields become drought-stricken deserts as climate change proceeds? Who do all these people see about the violation of their property rights?

What is conspicuously absent from the freedom lobby's lexicon is the word "justice." They are all for freedom so long as it doesn't include the freedom to hold them accountable for their contributions to the demise of other people's homes and livelihoods. Here they simply ignore their own arguments about property and freely trample on the rights of others to have a livable climate. The private property zealots refuse to acknowledge that the atmosphere belongs to all of us and that that implies that no single person or group has the right to abuse it.

What the freedom lobby has conveniently forgotten is that society is a social contract. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, without that contract we would be free to do whatever we wish and the result would be a "war of all against all." The ruling ethos would be that of "might makes right."

The second historical memory lapse is that property is a social convention. The reason something qualifies as private property is because we all agree that it does. There are certain things which we explicitly say are not private property such as public parks, roadways, waterways and museums. They belong to the community. In general the world has said that water belongs to the community. It stands to reason that climate belongs to the community not just of human beings, but of all living things.

The point is that private property rights have always been subject to the agreement and needs of the community as a whole. There never has been and never will be a right to unfettered use of one's property inside society.

So, what is the freedom lobby really selling? Since they care little for the imperiled property rights, livelihoods, and lives of those who come after us, their agenda can properly be described as the defense of privilege. They are busy defending those who have already acquired considerable property and wealth that could be subject to restrictions or taxation designed to preserve the climate for future generations. Any diminution of those privileges is attacked as an assault on freedom.

The middle and lower classes are recruited into this attack by telling them that their energy-intensive way of life will become endangered: Large automobiles will no longer be available or will become beyond their reach; suburban commutes will become increasingly expensive; well-heated homes will become a thing of the past; hot showers will be a luxury item; air travel will become prohibitive; and above all, jobs will disappear and shift to scofflaw nations overseas who do not enact greenhouse gas restrictions. What the wealthy backers of the freedom lobby don't want the targets of their propaganda to know is that this moneyed elite won't suffer any of these things themselves. Nor do they want them to know how severe the effects of climate change could be including imperiling basic necessities such as food and water.

(Not discussed, of course, is that peak oil and natural gas production may bring an end to our energy-intensive way of life long before any restrictions on greenhouse gases do.)

The freedom lobby also likes to use other labels to brand their opponents. If you are for the regulation of greenhouse gases, you are a socialist or less often a communist, or occasionally a totalitarian. What the freedom lobby fails again to remember is that all of these 20th century systems depended heavily on burning vast quantities of fossil fuels. The problems associated with fossil fuels are not limited to one ideology. They affect all of humanity and need to be addressed under a variety of economic and social systems.

If, however, you want the freedom to be thirsty or to be hungry or to be hopelessly flooded out of your home near the ocean, you can join the freedom lobby and enjoy a few more years or perhaps even a decade or two of huffing and puffing at the imaginary enemies of freedom before the real basis of your freedom, an intact and functioning nation and community, starts to degrade inexorably. By then the wealthy backers of fossil fuel intensive industries will have decamped to their second homes in more habitable places away from the shoreline and nearer the world's remaining stores of food and drinkable water.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Let's party 'til the helium's gone

Helium is fun. When you fill balloons with it, they defy gravity. If you fill your lungs with it and then talk, you'll probably sound like one of The Chipmunks, a fictional all-animal singing group whose voices were sped up to give them a high-pitched, squeaky quality. Children, of course, love to have helium-filled balloons floating around their birthday parties; and adults like them, too, for weddings, anniversary parties and even for adult birthday parties.

The fun qualities of helium, however, stand in stark contrast to its deadly serious applications which are increasingly endangered. For although helium is the second most abundant element in the universe--hydrogen is the first--it is exceedingly rare on Earth; and, our cavalier attitude toward its use threatens tasks that are critical to maintaining our complex society.

Unlike, say, rubber which is a compound that can be synthesized using other substances, helium is an element. Therefore, it cannot be synthesized from other more abundant elements or molecules. A small amount of helium is produced in nuclear reactions, but the cost of extracting it is exceedingly high, and no commercialization has been attempted. Essentially, we're stuck with what we have--that is, until it runs out.

Perhaps the most important uses of helium are in its liquid form. Helium is the gold standard for low-temperature processes and research. In its liquid state it can reach temperatures as low as -459 degrees F or almost absolute zero, the temperature at which all molecular motion would cease. (No one has ever succeeded at reaching absolute zero, and theoretically, it is thought to be impossible to achieve.)

Liquid helium simply has no equal. Currently, it is critical in magnetic resonance imaging, a non-invasive diagnostic procedure that allows physicians to obtain images of many tissues and organs, notably the brain, that are superior to those provided by X-rays. This is an application for which superconductivity is critical, and very low temperatures are essential for optimum results. In addition, superconductivity is an area of intense ongoing scientific research for ways to reduce electricity losses in the electrical grid and increase the efficiency of power storage and electric motors.

Perhaps the most visible use for helium beyond filling balloons is that in filling airships or blimps. More exotic uses include rocketry where helium is used to flush out fuel tanks and then prepare liquid oxygen and hydrogen for those tanks. Helium is preferred for this work and for blimps because it is nonflammable and inert, that is, under ordinary circumstances it doesn't chemically combine with other elements.

These two properties also make it ideal as a shielding gas for certain types of critical welding. Preventing normal atmospheric gases from reaching a weld can enhance its strength and quality. The same properties make helium critical for producing silicon wafers, the basis of today's electronic world.

In addition, helium is used for heat transfer in gas-cooled nuclear reactors, and it is used to check for leaks in critical equipment because it flows more readily through such leaks. There are many more uses, both industrial and scientific, but you get the idea.

The vast majority of helium reserves and production are located in the United States. The only economical way to obtain helium is to separate it from natural gas. Helium is produced in the Earth's crust as a product of radioactive decay, primarily of uranium and thorium. In most cases the helium migrates to the surface, rises into the atmosphere and escapes into outer space. But some of the helium is trapped in natural gas reservoirs which are the richest source available. (Helium occurs in the atmosphere, but at far too low a concentration to be economically extracted.)

Unfortunately, the fate of helium supplies is inextricably linked with natural gas supplies. No one extracts natural gas for the helium content since the helium concentration is no more than 7 percent, and that's in the very richest fields. And, very few fields in the world have enough helium in them to make it worth extracting. At the rest of the world's natural gas fields helium is simply removed along with other impurities and vented into the atmosphere.

Since natural gas is a fossil fuel, its days are numbered. No one knows for certain when production will peak and then begin to decline though some estimates put it around 2030. Regional peaks may occur sooner. Helium is expensive enough to be shipped worldwide, and so its extraction may peak with that of natural gas worldwide, though the peaks of the helium-rich fields that produce it will be the crucial factor.

What should we do? One obvious strategy is to recycle helium. This is difficult and expensive to do, and so only sufficiently funded research laboratories that use a lot of helium bother to do it. Most of the world's helium once it is used is simply vented to the atmosphere where it eventually floats up into space. Certain uses such as in party balloons could be banned or heavily taxed. But as demand drops from such a restriction so would the price causing other users in all likelihood to use more.

Recycling could become mandatory. But this would rule out many current applications or make them so prohibitively expensive that the result would be the same. A very high across-the-board tax could make recycling more attractive, but would certainly bring resistance from heavy industrial users. And, such a tax would have to be applied worldwide to be effective.

Another strategy is to find substitutes. There are already substitutes for some uses such as the use of argon in welding. We could go back to using hydrogen in airships and balloons, but that could easily result in another Hindenburg. For processes that require temperatures below -429 degrees F there is simply no substitute.

The problem with helium is not an isolated one. The way we've used it and become dependent on it mirrors the way we've become dependent on other rare and finite resources. Instead of building sustainability into our systems by making sure the component processes and materials are sustainable, we seek the immediate benefits provided by finite resources without a thought about ultimate consequences. The response to this concern is almost always that we will find substitutes when it becomes necessary in the quantities we need at the prices we can afford. With 6.7 billion people on the planet and growing, and a rapidly increasing proportion of that number gaining access to the modern industrial way of life, can we be certain this is how things will turn out?

I had an exchange not too long ago with a professional in the computer industry. Disbelieving my assertion that in the next decade we could run short of indium and gallium, two key metals in electronics, he insisted that these metals simply can't be scarce because they have already been and continue to be put into billions of electronic devices. So far, the world's policymakers have adopted the same line of argument with helium, leaving all of us essentially to blow up a few more balloons and party 'til the helium's gone.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Geoengineering the climate: Bad for you and our energy future

My latest column on Scitizen entitled "Geoengineering the Climate: Bad for You and Our Energy Future" has now been posted. Here is the teaser:
Proposals to reduce global warming through giant engineering projects or so-called geoengineering abound. Almost all are in the idea stage. But even if they were ready to deploy today, they would be dangerous for the planet, counterproductive for our energy future and unfair to the public.......Read more

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Peak oil and mass communication

In lieu of my weekly posting, I'm linking to a guest post I wrote for The Oil Drum entitled "Peak Oil and Mass Communication" which was posted today. Here is the lede:
If you remember one thing about mass communication, remember this: Effective mass communication is sloganeering. Unfortunately, this truism makes mass communication a poor fit for a complex issue such as peak oil....Read more