Sunday, July 31, 2022

The nitrogen fertilizer monkey trap

More than a century ago two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, perfected a technique for taking nitrogen from air and combining it with hydrogen to make ammonia, now widely used to make nitrogen fertilizers. What came to be known as the Haber-Bosch process unleashed a revolution in crop yields which were no longer limited by natural inputs of nitrogen.

So important is this process to crop yields that it is estimated that without it half the people alive today would starve. If the worldwide application of nitrogen fertilizers had no adverse consequences, there would be no problem continuing business-as-usual. But the consequences have become worrisome:

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The "we'll-just-adapt-to-climate-change" team takes drubbing

Climate change deniers have had to adjust their story in recent years as the effects of climate change have become more and more apparent to people where they live all around the world. The first iteration was that climate change is good. It will make winters milder and it will help "fertilize" crops with additional carbon dioxide which all plants need to manufacture the food they live on.

While the "greening" effect of rising carbon dioxide concentrations is real, there is a limit to how much it will help plants. As for milder winters, they may be good for some and worse for others. Where they result in diminished snows in critical watersheds such as the Himalayas and the Alps, the effect can be diminished water supplies, particularly at crucial times in summer when mountain snowmelt can stabilize flows in key streams and rivers that might otherwise be very low so that they can provide irrigation water and water for human consumption.

So, now the deniers argue that we can just adapt. This is, of course, the path of least resistance since it requires no major changes in business-as-usual. Let's see how that's working out.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Energy consultancy keeps lowering worldwide recoverable oil resources

It's hard to say that three years makes a trend. But one of the world's major energy consulting firms has lowered its estimate of world oil reserves for three years in a row now.

Rystad Energy provides a publicly available analysis of world oil reserves each year. In 2020 Rystad wrote that "the world’s recoverable oil [dropped] by around 282 billion barrels." That represented a 12.9 percent decline in just one year.  In 2021 the firm stated its analysis showed that recoverable resources declined by another 178 billion barrels or about 9.4 percent. Rystad said the decline was due in part to new modelling based on resources "at well level rather than field level." The closer Rystad looked, the less oil there seemed to be.

In 2022 Rystad noted yet another decline of almost 9 percent in its press release headline. Recoverable oil resources dropped another 152 billion barrels. (For all estimates Rystad uses figures for crude oil and lease condensate which is the accepted definition of oil.)

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Acceleration forever? The increasing momentum of mineral extraction

Half of all the oil consumed since the dawn of the modern oil age in 1859 has been consumed from 1998 through 2021 inclusive based on data available from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Approximately 1.4 trillion barrels of oil is thought to have been consumed to date (though there are estimates as low as 1.1 trillion). That means that in just the last 24 years total historical oil consumption has doubled.

It is hard for most people to imagine the vast increases in the rate of consumption of practically everything that makes modern life possible. Resources appear without most of us ever thinking about how or whether the rising rates of consumption can be sustained.

For copper, one of the critical metals we depend on for electrical, mechanical and even monetary purposes, the story is similar. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that about 700 million metric tons of copper have been extracted to date. Based on mining statistics from the Copper Development Association, that means about half of all the copper ever mined has been mined from the year 2000 through 2018 inclusive.

Could we double total oil and copper consumption again in the next 24 and 19 years, respectively?

Sunday, July 03, 2022

Taking a holiday break - no post this week

I'm taking a break for the Independence Day holiday and expect to post again on Sunday, July 10.