Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Plant stomachs and animal stomachs: The differences and similarities

The greatest single issue in the whole gamut of peak oil issues is and will continue to be food security, global human society's ability to feed itself. This is inextricably linked to two other issues; 1) global human population and 2) soil fertility. Once we have passed peak oil and the users of that oil must compete for an ever-decreasing supply there are no guarantees, other than price and the market, as to who will get the supplies they need and who will be priced or simply pushed out of the market. If human population continues to grow at the same time and we continue to "invent" new ways of expanding our oil and other energy usage, the gap between that rising demand and that declining supply will continue to grow at a pace faster than the pace of oil decline.

In my opinion, the greatest single critical issue at that point will be food security and soil fertility. Since Doctor Norman Borlaug kicked off the euphemistically-titled Green Revolution a half century ago as a solution to the global malnutrition crisis, the human population has been living on an artificial soil fertility. This was created with and continues to be critically dependent on the use of artificial fertilizers derived from natural gas, petrochemical pesticides and herbicides, hybridized and genetically modified food crops, aquifer-depleting mechanical irrigation, and an energy-intensive and oil-dependent global food distribution system. When the fossil fuels on which this artificial soil fertility are dependent go into decline we are going to have to again rely on natural soil fertility to feed the 7-billion+ population that will then exist. We have, during this prolonged Green Revolution, been systematically destroying this planet's natural soil fertility. For more on this see the articles Plants With Stomachs: Peak Oil Implications (October 23), Presentation at October 11 Peak Oil forum in London ON (October 13), and Peak Oil is not about the oil (July 18) in this blog.

Let me try to put soil fertility in a context that most people will understand. How do living organisms on planet earth get the nutrients they require for building and maintaining body tissues and for the energy to drive muscles, nerves and other operational tissue? Put simply, how do plants and animals eat and digest food? They have stomachs, of course. The enzymes and bacteria and other micro-organisms in the stomach break down that whole food into the basic elements of nutrition [proteins (more specifically amino acids), vitamins, minerals, fats, starches, sugars]. They also perform the very important task of being the primary intercept for toxins so that they do not enter the internal operational systems of the organism. For this reason, and contrary to popular belief, the process of digestion takes place outside of those internal operational systems. The stomach (your stomach) where the digestion takes place is linked to but is not part of the internal metabolic and operational systems of the organism. Once the digestive enzymes and organisms have broken down the food in your stomach to basic nutritional elements, these elements are released to the intestine (still not part of your internal systems). Further, more specific digestion takes place in the intestines. Once that work is complete the wholly digested and primarily purified nutritional elements are released to the liver via the Hepatic Portal Vein. The final process of purification takes place in the liver and from there the purified basic nutritional elements are released and travel via the circulatory system (we are now in the internal systems) to those parts of the organism where they will be put to use. All of this movement of nutrients throughout the body is accomplished through the agency of tens of thousands of different enzymes.

Strange as it may seem, the same processes that take place in our stomachs (and the same protections to keep toxins from entering the internal systems) are also essential to all plants. But plants, of course, do not have stomachs. Or do they? Yes they do. For a plant its stomach is the top-soil in which it grows. The enzymes and bacteria and other micro-organisms that break down the whole foods in the soil and make it available to the plant as basic nutritional elements all exist in the soil, external to the internal operational and metabolic systems of the plant. A large proportion of these organisms cluster in the small zone of soil immediately around the plant's roots (the root zone). Many of these organisms (specifically enzymes) are generated by the plant itself and released into this root zone. Here they interact with other soil organisms and supply "digested" and purified nutrients to the roots of the plants. But the soil organisms are not contained only within the plant's root zone. They exist throughout the top soil.

Those soil organism responsible for breaking down soil nutrients into a bio-available form that plants can absorb, unlike the digestive organisms in the somewhat protected environment of your stomach, are exposed and vulnerable to the environment in, above and around the soil in which they function. Here they are vulnerable to all of the injustices that man inflicts on the soil. They are exposed and destroyed when we cultivate the soil. Most importantly, however, they are destroyed (overstimulated and burned out) by the artificial fertilizers we put on the soil to improve our artificial soil fertility and, critically, destroyed in large numbers by the petrochemical pesticides we use to destroy insects attacking our crops. Most of our long-use commercial agricultural soil is, for all practical purposes, dead. The crops grown on them primarily are critically dependent on those artificial fertilizers for their nutrition and survival. Take away those artificial nutrients and those soils will, until natural fertility is restored which will take decades, probably only produce 10% of the crops we currently produce on them.

This is where peak oil and peak fossil fuels becomes so critical. Once supplies of those fossil fuels (most specifically oil and natural gas) begin to decline and the feedstock go into decline for those artificial fertilizers derived from natural gas, and those pesticides, herbicides and other agrochemicals derived from oil, we will have at least a temporary (for several decades) global soil fertility crisis. Our global ability to produce the food necessary to support our massive human population (which has nearly tripled in the years since the beginning of the Green Revolution) will decline rapidly and critically.

Even if, as the latest cornucopian CERA report claims (with which I vehemently disagree), peak oil is thirty years away, we need to have already begun the long-term process of restoring natural global soil fertility and transitioning from artificial soil fertility back to natural soil fertility. We cannot feed the current global human population today. The global emergency grain reserves have declined over this past decade from a marginal 119 day supply to a sub-critical 57 day supply and continue to decline as the world population continues to consume more food than is being produced. As much as one quarter of the global population today is malnourished or undernourished. The FAO estimates that 40,000 people globally are dying every day from starvation and nutrition-related diseases.

We need to stop quibbling over the details of how much fossil fuel reserves we have left and when the date of peak oil will be and accept the reality that some time in the near term future we will pass peak and start on the downhill slope. To mitigate the impact of that event we need to have already begun preparing for the transition that will then have to take place. To wait until we can verify that we have passed peak oil condemns the global human population to have to deal with the worst implications of that event.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Oil is oil, right? Wrong! All oil is NOT created equal.

There is considerable latitude for the average person to misunderstand the urgency in the peak oil message. Much of that centers on the obfuscation, misinformation, and disinformation by the different parties in the debate through disguising the statistics by lumping together apples and oranges (not to mention bananas, pears, pomegranates and kumquats) and not defining how many apples of each there are.

All oil, like all fruit, is not the same. There are, in fact, hundreds of different grades of oil ranging from the highest quality "light sweet" crudes to the poor quality heavy, high-sulfur crudes. And each grade of crude requires unique refining parameters and has its own individual price. Some cornucopean "energy analysts" lump into their definition of oil; tar sands, oil sands, oil shale, gas to liquid, coal to liquid and even bio-fuels.

The grades of crude you see reported in the news are known as 'marker' crudes. They are West Texas Intermediate (WTI) from the United States, Brent Blend from the UK North Sea and Dubai, or Fateh, crude from the United Arab Emirates. These are all intermediate to light-sweet crudes which are the most sought after grades. The problem is, however, that in recent years, the production levels of all marker crudes have fallen. Dubai, in fact, has fallen drastically. The proportion of heavier and sourer (higher sulfur) crudes changing hands in the oil spot and futures markets has grown relative to light sweet production. More than half the world's produced oil today is heavy and sour in quality and this proportion is expected to increase as new discoveries of light sweet crude continue to diminish and older wells get sucked dry of light sweet and are left with only the heavy sour crude on their production downslope.

The problem is that the world can't just switch from one to the other. "Heavy, sour" crude is more complex and costly to convert into useful products such as gasoline and heating oil. Tar sands, oil sands and oil shale are not oil at all but rather a bitumen precursor that is "mined" rather than pumped. And much of the world's refining capacity, particularly in Asia, simply can't process these poorer grades and precursors. "There's no shortage of crude oil today," says Thomas D. O'Malley, chairman of Premcor Inc., a refiner based in Old Greenwich, Conn. "There is a shortage of light sweet."

We do not yet have a crisis of oil supply. We have a crisis of quality. We have a growing crisis of refining capacity appropriate for the grade of crude increasingly available. Not all refineries are capable of handling heavy sour crude and very few can handle bitumen precursors. The shortage of refining capacity for current grades of crude is most acute in Asia, the very market where crude oil consumption is growing fastest. And throughout the world very little new refining capacity, relative to demand, is being built which will be able to handle the heavy sour crudes and bitumen that will soon effectively be all that is available. A clear bottleneck is emerging.

As the world is increasingly faced with having to make do with poorer grades of crude and product from tar sands and oil shale, the problem of satisfying world oil demand will no longer be the size of the remaining reserves. The extraction and processing problems, cost and time will become the bottleneck. Particularly when it comes to oil and tar sands and oil shale, you can't simply dig more wells in a field to increase production. As these are mining operations, the foot print for a single production site is measured in square miles, not square feet like with an oil well.

As you read various news items and reports, all I can suggest is you look very, very carefully at what is being defined as oil. What you think is Florida oranges may well be total global fruit production. Not very helpful if you want to produce orange juice.

Internet references

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Is there any alternative to Powerdown? And the sooner the better?

How can there any longer be any question that peak oil will occur in the relatively near future? Even one of the most persistent and officially-appreciated cornucopeans (Cambridge Energy Research Associates or CERA, and its founder and leader, Daniel Yergin), despite the fact that their latest ridiculously expensive report (at $1000 a pop) claims to debunk peak oil, concedes that oil will peak within the next 25 years and go into decline within 50 years. Even for CERA, therefore, it no longer seems to be a question of if but rather when.

The big difference between CERA, in this latest report, and ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil) centers on the amount of unextracted oil remaining in the world. ASPO's estimates for the global production peak are based on an original endowment of 1.92 trillion barrels of oil. The CERA projections are based on an endowment of 2.93 trillion barrels of conventional oil and a total of 3.61 trillion barrels including unconventional oil like tar sands, and oil shale.

Does it really matter who is right? I totally discount CERA's numbers but does it matter, in the end, whether they are right or wrong? The simple reality is that both the optimists and the so-called doom-n-gloomers believe the global oil production will peak some time in this next quarter century.

Our current societal infrastructure has evolved for hundreds of years. More importantly it has been transformed into its present structure over these past two centuries thanks to our profligate use of fossil fuels and mineral resources. Tokyo, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Berlin, London, Dresden and many more cities have been risen from the ashes and rebuilt since the end of WWII. But that was over sixty years ago.

The physical and social infrastructure that are going to be needed as we proceed down the decline slope of global oil production are going to be as different to that of today as our current society is from that before the industrial revolution.

It took, based on ASPO's global oil estimates, the first have of our oil endowment and 200 years to transform society from pre-industrial to the present. It will take the last half of our oil endowment to retransform society from that which presently exists to a post-industrial, post-fossil fuel structure. Even an optimist of the first order cannot possibly believe that that process will be sufficiently under way by the time we reach peak oil that we can complete the job before the remaining fossil fuels are, for all practical purposes, depleted. And yet that is exactly what must be done.

If we are to avoid social chaos, or at least a worsening of the social chaos that now exists, and if we are to avoid a massive human die-off (it is estimated that the maximum human carrying capacity without fossil fuel inputs is 2-billion people) on the post-peak downslope, we will have to put in place before that time the foundations of the infrastructure that will have to sustain us when the fossil fuels eventually run out.

I personally see no alternative before us other than now beginning a voluntary powerdown with a massive reduction in our global fossil fuel usage and, most particularly, our fossil fuel dependence. Anyone who underestimates the amount of work it will take to transform our society to one that can survive and be sustainable without fossil fuels is living in a dream world.

It's time to stop the arguing and name calling. It is time to stop the oil and resource companies from spreading the lie, directly and indirectly through organizations like CERA, that there is no problem ahead, that technology will save the day, that there are untold resources yet to be discovered and exploited. That is, as Energy Bulletin has defined it, peak-oil prozac and they are doing no one good by continuing to supply it.

Face reality.

Refuse the prozac.

Move on.