Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The real problem with Methane Hydrates is Sliding under the Radar

There has certainly been a lot of discussion lately about methane hydrates. You may have missed it unless you, like most concerned about global peak oil and peak energy, specifically search and listen for it. Most of that discussion, quite understandably in our energy-addicted world, has centered on the potential of using these vast reserves of methane as a fuel source. Methane hydrates, after all, contain more carbon energy than all of the world's oil, natural gas and coal combined.

Those estimates, like hot air, are, in fact, expanding all the time. Some estimates suggest methane hydrates may contain 3-4 times the carbon energy of all global fossil fuels combined.

For those not familiar, methane hydrates are molecules of methane gas (the basic constituent of natural gas) locked in a cage of water ice.

They exist in two places throughout the world. Marine methane hydrates exist on most of the world's continental margins, particularly along the subduction zone of tectonic plates such as along the west coast of North America. Methane hydrates also occur in land-based and sub-sea frozen permafrost in Alaska, Northern Canada, Russian Siberia, far northern Europe, and in small deposits in Antarctica.

The sheer volume of methane hydrates and their occurrence on shore in permafrost and near offshore on continental margins do make them an attractive prospect as a future, accessible, post-oil energy source. There has been far more research into the potential exploitation of methane hydrates than was ever the case for oil, natural gas or coal. The requisite geology and, now, the location of these deposits are well known. All that stands in the way of exploiting this vast energy resource - from the point of view of energy executives, economists and politicians - is the extraction technology, the global distribution technology and network, the economic evaluation and the financing to build the massive infrastructure that would be needed to effectively and efficiently exploit it fully. No problem! It may, in fact, still be several decades - in a business as usual climate - before all of these factors can be dealt with and methane from hydrates can be exploited commercially.

There are, of course, other points of view. Paleoclimatologists are increasingly convinced that massive and surprisingly sudden releases of submarine methane hydrates have been responsible for periodic and disastrous rapid rises of global temperature, largely resulting in the quick - in geologic terms - end of past ice ages. The study of deep ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, the study of areas of ocean floor zones of extensive pock marks and growing evidence of current increasing methane releases from melting permafrost and the Arctic Ocean floor all strongly lend credence to this hypothesis.

All of that, of course, makes methane hydrates and their possible release as a gas into the atmosphere a serious concern, in this period of increasing concern about global warming, from an environmental point of view. Methane in the short term, you see, is 62 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Over ten to twenty years time as it oxidizes in the atmosphere it weakens to just 20 times the potency as a GHG compared to carbon dioxide. After about ten years atmospheric methane completely oxidizes. But that isn't the end. It oxidizes into carbon dioxide and remains a greenhouse for another century.

Another, and perhaps the least understood and certainly the least discussed, point of view about methane hydrates involves physics. The physical nature of methane hydrates and the quite distinct physical properties of water - specifically H2O - and of methane (CH4) independently function both as a barrier to exploitation and as a serious environmental risk in conjunction with global warming.

Submarine methane hydrates primarily occur in what has been called the Hydrate Stability Zone. This is a relatively narrow zone where the combination of water temperature and water pressure are suitable for the formation and, more important, the stability of methane hydrates. In general, at present, this is 300 to 500 meters below the ocean surface but varies and is very specific in different locations depending on water temperature. The geology of the area is also a very important factor; whether the bottom is sandstone, other stone, coarse silt or fine silt. All of these variables affect the ability to form methane hydrates and the way those hydrates will be distributed in that medium.

All methane hydrates, you may have guessed from the above, are not created equal. The water ice that forms the hydrate cage and the methane gas in that cage are both essentially consistent but the manner in which they combine to form the hydrate varies considerably. And so does the volatility and stability of those deposits.

I will not go into a great detailed discussion of those differences. I will limit it to a couple of key factors.

Water - more specifically H2O which is only water above 0C and becomes vapour at higher temperatures - reaches its maximum density of 999.9720 kilograms per cubic meter at a temperature of 3.98C. At the freezing temperature of 0C its density has reduced to 998.8395 kilograms per cubic meter, 988.1170 at -10C. The critical part of that range, with regard to methane hydrates, is that from 0C to 3.98C. That is where we will focus.

The lower density of H2O as ice (998.8395) at 0C (even lower if the ice is super cooled) is what allows ice to float on the surface of water. Average global ocean temperatures today (this has varied over geological time, especially during different eras of ice age and global warming) is 2C. At 2C H2O has a density 999.9400 between that of ice at 0C of 998.8395 and the maximum density at 3.98C of 999.9720. It still supports, therefore, the lighter ice even in the Arctic.

Anyone in a northern climate is familiar with spring thaw. As the water below ice warms in the spring it first expands, pushing up and cracking the ice, until it reaches its maximum density at 3.98C of 999.9720. Above that temperature the water begins to shrink (will reach a density of 999.7026 at 10C) as the temperature rises, leaving a gap of air between the ice and the water below. The ice can, as most young boys in northern rural areas can attest, be left high and dry and collapse under the weight of a person walking on it.

Because of the lower density (greater buoyancy) of ice relative to sea water, submarine methane hydrates are always under pressure, physically wanting to rise to the surface. The deposits only become "relatively" stable when anchored by sufficient sediment on the ocean bottom. When and if that "anchorage" breaks down or is swept away, for example, by a sub-surface landslide, the hydrates can suddenly be released into the water and rise toward the surface.

Now the other side of the problem. At 1 atmosphere, methane is a liquid below a temperature of -182.5C. There is no known naturally occurring liquid methane on earth. Above that temperature methane is a gas. Its density constantly diminishes as the temperature/pressure gradient rises. To my knowledge, which is incomplete, scientists have not really answered the question of why the methane trapped in hydrates is stable in that form. The density of the gaseous methane in hydrates is 162 times greater than methane gas in the atmosphere. At the temperature and pressure of the sea water around and above the hydrate deposits, the methane gas contained in the hydrates should have much lower density (occupy much more space) than it does. This physical anomaly means that the pressure on the methane gas to expand is constantly at odds with and pushing against the ice cage enclosing it. This is a key component of the essential instability of methane hydrates.

Gas density generally decreases far more rapidly for gases than liquids or solids as temperature rises or pressure decreases. That means two factors can affect the stability of methane hydrates currently in the hydrate stability zone. Changes in sea level can affect the water pressure in the zone: a drop in sea level can decrease the pressure. Changes in temperature of the water can have the same effect. Increase of the temperature above the current average 2C can also dramatically affect that stability.

Global warming, ironically, fortunately means we are in an era of rising sea levels, not lowering sea levels. The pressure that pushes down on and stabilizes methane hydrate deposits in the oceans is, therefore, increasing, not decreasing. Global warming, however, also means that water temperatures, as well as atmosphere temperatures, are on the rise.

Much of the debate around global warming centers on whether we are heading for a global temperature increase of 2C, 4C or higher. On the surface these seem like such small numbers to be the center of such passionate debate. But the critical temperature spread we are dealing with is between 2C (the current average global ocean temperature) and 3.98C (the temperature at which H2O reaches its maximum density (it will shrink, lowering sea level and decreasing oceanic water pressure between those two temperatures) and begins to decrease in density: begins to expand again). That is a temperature differential of just 1.98C.

As the ocean temperature rises it doesn't matter what the specific temperature in the local hydrate stability zone currently is because that zone is a product of both temperature and pressure. In the Barkley Canyon off the coast of Vancouver Island, for example, the hydrate stability zone is at a depth of 850 meters, much deeper than the normal hydrate stability zone of 300m to 500m depth in other locations. As the temperature in the hydrate stability zone rises at whatever depth it occurs, however, the stability of the hydrates will diminish.

The individual physical characters of the water ice that makes up the hydrate cage and the methane gas trapped inside accelerate this instability. As the temperature rises (generally from 2C to 3.98C) the ice forming the hydrate cage shrinks as it is influence by the temperature of the surrounding water and begins to soften as the physical bonds holding the ice in a stable structure weaken. This shrinking puts further pressure on the methane gas inside, increasing its density. But the methane gas inside that cage is already 162 times the density it is at 1 atmosphere and is under considerable pressure to expand. As the temperature rises in the hydrate stability zone and the ice cage weakens and the methane gas's pressure to expand increases, the stability of the hydrate diminishes rapidly. The upward pressure on the hydrate ice, which wants to float up to the surface (the methane gas trapped inside is also more buoyant than the ice or the surrounding water), also increases as the temperature rises.

To my knowledge no scientific studies have yet been conducted that pinpoint exactly where on the temperature/pressure gradient the water ice cage of the hydrate ruptures and releases the methane gas into the surrounding environment. There is mounting evidence that the number of subsea methane vents in the Arctic, which is generally warming faster than other oceans, is increasing, as is the volume of methane gas issuing from those vents. This suggests that, in the Arctic at least (which holds the highest concentrations of methane hydrates of all the oceans), the temperature rise is already compromising methane hydrate stability.

In areas of fine sea bottom sediment, which is the case in the majority of methane hydrate deposits, the methane hydrates form stratified seams. Proceeding downward, each seam acts as a "cementing" cap, holding hydrate seams and free methane below in place. The disassociation or breakdown of hydrates as the ocean temperature increases will proceed from the top of the hydrate deposit downward. In these seamed, soft-sediment deposits that means that the top seam, which functions as a cap on all the methane and hydrates below, will break down first. It's ability to function as a cap disappears and the risk of a rapid, potentially massive release of methane increases dramatically.

The same sort of results that can occur naturally through warming of the waters around the methane hydrate deposit can also occur if the submarine methane hydrate deposits are destabilized by human activity. Any attempts to drill into methane hydrate deposits, whether exploratory or commercially for energy production, can break down the stability of the hydrates, particularly in association with rising temperatures, either in the surrounding sea water or from the drilling itself (the favourite intended method of extraction is to inject hot water into the hydrate deposits).

The current discussion and debate surrounding the intended exploitation of methane hydrate deposits involves energy experts, various types of scientific experts, and anxious, eager governments. If that is where it stays I am not very confident that scientific reason and caution will win out. The general public, including you, must put methane hydrates on their radar and be prepared to hold accountable those pushing for methane hydrate exploitation. Public pressure must become a key element of making sure that we do not rush into over-exuberant and overly-optimistic exploitation of this resource, to the detriment of mankind, other living species and the planet itself.

Hundreds of articles, papers and web sites were researched as part of writing this article. I have not listed them here as the list would be far too long. If anyone is interested in those references and links, however, they can contact me by e-mail and I will gladly supply them. My e-mail address is;

Also see my other Methane Hydrate articles in this blog;

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Invest, invest, invest! Consume, consume, consume! No! No! No!

The first time it got really blatant for me was in September, 2001. That was when George Bush stood atop a demolished fire truck at ground zero and implored New Yorkers to go shopping and spend their money to restart the New York economy.

In our world maniacally driven by economics and money, the generally perceived solution to any problem has become spend, spend, spend. You can solve any problem by throwing money at it. The necessary assumption that is always demanded is that the future for which we are investing is limitless. Limitless growth. Limitless population. Limitless resources. Limitless oil.

If the economy softens it's because people aren't going to the mall and wasting their money on plastic trinkets from Shanghai. When they go to the supermarket they aren't picking up that cut of spring lamb flown in from New Zealand or those oranges flown in from South Africa. They aren't buying a new car every model year, for heaven's sake.

And when it comes to tightening in the oil market, we don't have a supply problem. We have an investment problem. The oil companies - especially those dastardly national oil companies that now control the bulk of the world's oil resources like Saudi Aramco, Pemex, Petrolios di Venezuela and Petrobras - are not investing enough in bringing new oil to market. The oil exploration companies are not invest enough in new exploration for increasingly illusive deposits of oil. Oil companies are not investing enough in new refineries. Not enough is being invested in new bulk oil carriers to move that oil from increasingly remote sources to increasingly thirsty markets.

Politicians dream of - and expect oil company execs to do the same - vast resources of untapped oil out there someplace if only the oil companies and exploration companies and shipping lines and pipeline builders would all get off their wallets and invest, invest, invest.

But those to whom those governments and politicians turn for the fuzzy statistics that support their limitless belief in limitless growth and limitless resources are increasingly injecting sanity, not money, into their efforts. Fatih Birol, chief economist to the International Energy Agency (IEA), is the latest to opt for rational sanity rather than unquestioning faith. Perhaps he is tiring of being mistakenly identified as Faith Birol.

In a stunning departure from the IEA norm he has conceded, in an interview with George Monbiot of the Guardian, that we are headed for global peak oil by 2020, just eleven years away. Personally, I believe that is still a little far out. But that happens to most people as they come to grips with peak oil. They cling to the most optimistic estimates, the ones furthest out in the future. Over time, as they re-examine the foundations of the limitless faith without the benefit of their rose-coloured glasses, they gradually accept that the peak will be - for geologic, geopolitical and economic reasons - much sooner rather than later. I have become comfortable with the appearance that we passed peak in the spring of 2005 and have been bumping along on the gradual down-trend of the peak oil plateau.

Geology is the ultimate constraint that defines peak oil. Eventually it becomes abundantly clear that we simply cannot find enough new oil to offset the escalating declines in existing oil fields. But peak availability will, and even now is, ultimately negatively impacted by other above ground factors.

Back to where we began, investment. As an industry matures the stewards of that industry increasingly and more obsessively look ahead. They are trying to determine at what point it is unwise to continue investing because the life expectancy of their enterprise has shortened to the point that further investment cannot be recouped. Quite simply, you get no return from your investment when growth stops. That is what the stewards are trying to identify as they look ahead, the point at which growth will stop and their enterprise will go into decline.

Banks are no longer willing to invest in sub-prime mortgages because they can no longer see increasing real estate prices in the future. They see a future in which housing prices - read equity - will decline faster than the "homeowner" can pay down their mortgage. No growth, no equity. Real estate ceases being an asset and becomes a liability.

Oil companies and exploration companies have for years been experiencing lower and lower returns on their investment. Exploration investment continued to increase for years while the discoveries of new oil deposits - the return on their investment - continued to decline. In fact global oil discoveries actually peaked in the sixties, over four decades ago.

That was acceptable for a long time, if you continued to have faith that the big discoveries were still out there and all you had to do was find them. But what happens when reality bites? When you lose the faith? When you realize that the big discoveries you keep throwing money into finding simply are not there to be found?

Oil companies, whether independent or nationalized, seem to have come to that point. Unused oil rigs are rusting in junk yards. Exploration rigs are abandoned if they are not being taken up for exploration for those middle east nations still willing to pour money into looking for new oil deposits. Reluctance grows to invest in pipelines to bring oil from increasingly remote and smaller fields to ocean oil terminals.

As long as credit is available people as individuals seem to be willing to spend money they do not have and may not have in the future. That willingness has built America as the world's greatest consumer nation. It has also made America the world's most indebted nation, and a nation increasingly unlikely to ever be able to discharge its massive global debt. Only now that credit is no longer available are they beginning to trim back. They are suddenly, one at a time, sitting at kitchen table looking at the pile of bills and asking themselves, "How the hell am I ever going to pay all of this?"

Corporations cannot afford themselves the freedom to wantonly spend themselves into unmanageable debt. That does not mean that their debt cannot become unmanageable. It can and definitely does as the economic environment in which they operate changes abruptly, outside of their control. That is the point at which corporations hail a cab, trundle on over to Pennsylvania Avenue and hang about on the steps of congress, cap in hand.

But the money that is magnanimously place in their proffered cap by congress is not going into new business development, not going to discharge debt. It is going into the coffers in a vain attempt to stay afloat, to survive. It is a lifeline.

As oil company executives pour over their charts and graphs detailing the company's projected future, they are increasingly willing to see the truth in those charts. The days of growth in oil deposits, in development, in profits, is rapidly coming to an end. The reality is that most of their growth in recent decades has been a result of merger and acquisition, in purchased reserves, not in newly discovered fields. It is the illusion of growth in a reality of decline.

Governments continue to chant: "Invest! Invest! Invest!" So far they have not heard, or have chosen to ignore the response: "No! No! No! There is nothing to invest in!" The oil companies are increasingly investing in buying back shares, artificially inflating dividends, as they prepare for their foreseeable demise. They are increasingly investing their money in wind, solar, geothermal and other alternatives as they prepare for the end of economically recoverable oil. They have been sucked into heavily investing in new exploration before, in the seventies and eighties after the peak in global discovery, only to see the price of crude fall through the floor.

Oil companies have access to far better data than we in the peak oil community have. We can see what is coming, and how quickly. That fuzzy view that we have is crystal clear to them. We can see the cloud of dust coming down the road. With their magnified clarity of vision they can see, in the midst of the dust, the four horsemen of the apocalypse confidently and arrogantly galloping toward them.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Methane Hydrates: What are they thinking?

The world's governments are beginning to come to grips with the reality that crude oil is a finite resource. That forces them to face another reality. The amount of that resource available for running global human society is about to go into terminal decline. We are at or soon to arrive at peak oil. Many analysts believe, based on the data, that we hit that peak in the spring of 2005. Other more optimistic analysts believe that peak may still be as much as thirty years in the future. Even that (I am not conceding that projection. I am in the spring 2005 camp.) is close enough that the majority of people alive today will have to begin to adjust to declining global oil production in their lifetime.

Optimists point to the fact that we have moved beyond various energy sources, on which the entire society depends, many times in the past. We have always found a new, better energy source to replace them. Even since the beginning of the industrial revolution we have moved through water power, steam power, coal, natural gas, electricity, oil and nuclear. Oil, however, has been the most important and workable energy source that we have ever discovered and exploited.

Where do we go from oil? What will be the next, better energy source that can power human society. There are many who see electricity playing an increasingly important role, including driving transportation. To many that electric future will be increasingly centered on a nuclear energy renaissance. On the fringes they see electricity generation from wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, hydro, wave and a variety of other options.

But oil is used for much more than powering the family car. I have trouble visualizing electric planes and electric ships. Hell, most electric cars have a battery range of under 100 kilometers. And I don't think you can make plastics from electricity. Last I noticed it required hydrocarbons.

In one form or another, in fact, hydrocarbons have been the world's primary energy source since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago. It answers one extremely important need; portability. Hydrocarbon fuels, especially oil and its derivatives, can be easily move from one place to another. They can also be used on board to generate the power used to move it.

What is the next energy source that will give us what oil, coal and natural gas give us today? You may be surprised to hear that it may be the other hydrocarbon fuel. A Great many scientists, industry leaders and governments throughout the developed world believe that will be methane. More specifically they believe it will be methane hydrates.

Methane hydrates (also called clathrates) are bubbles of methane gas trapped in a cage of ice crystals. Methane hydrate deposits occur in locations all over the world. The most concentrated deposits occur under the Arctic Ocean, under the ocean floor on most continental shelves, in locations like the Gulf of Mexico, the Bermuda Triangle, the Dragon's Triangle south of Japan, and in permafrost surrounding the Arctic ocean. It is reliably estimated that the amount of methane trapped as hydrates globally exceeds by many times the total combined oil, coal and natural gas reserves that have ever existed on earth.

A chunk of methane ice exposed to the air and ignited will burn until all of the methane in that ice has been consumed. Methane hydrates, however, require specific conditions of temperature and pressure to keep them contained within their ice cage. Reduce the pressure - for example, by reducing the sea level and the pressure of water above the deposit - or increased the temperature and the methane hydrate deposit becomes unstable and begins to release the trapped methane into the atmosphere.

That is a problem. Methane is a greenhouse gas. In fact, it is 21-23 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. When the methane trapped in the hydrate is released it expands by about 170 times.[1] Methane is lighter than CO2, lighter than air. As a result it rises rapidly through the atmosphere up to the lower-density stratosphere. On the positive side methane remains in the atmosphere for only about 10-20 years. CO2 remains in the atmosphere for over 100 years.

Scientists studying global warming have long been seriously concerned about the possibility of large scale methane hydrate destabilization and methane release into the atmosphere. The greatest concern is about the large volumes of methane hydrates under the Arctic sea floor and that trapped in the vast permafrost zone surrounding the Arctic Ocean. That concern has now been heightened by recent discoveries of hundreds of methane plumes on the floor of the Arctic Ocean north of Norway and Siberia. [2] There is also evidence in pock-marked sea floors of large releases of methane plumes in the geological past. [3]

Paleoclimatologists now believe that large scale, natural methane hydrate releases have been partly but significantly responsible for short-cycle global warming and global cooling cycles in the past. The recent discoveries in the Arctic, in fact, are thought to suggest that methane releases have contributed to the global warming that has occurred since the last ice age 15,000 years ago. [2]

The problem is that these methane releases have a strong positive feedback loop. As they increase the warming of the atmosphere that warming in turn increases methane release which in turn increases warming which in turn releases more...... You get the picture. Acceleration of global warming through this positive feedback loop, by increased methane concentration in the atmosphere, far more than CO2 concentrations, represents, to paleoclimatologists, a far greater risk of pushing us into the Venus effect, runaway global warming.

When it comes to satisfying the world's energy lust, however, caution may be thrown to the wind. Powering down human society is never an option put on the table when politicians and other leaders discuss energy policies and strategies. We have proven over and over again that business as usual is the only model that will be considered. How else can we explain the tar sands, oil shale development, deepwater oil extraction, coal mines extending out under the sea floor, and more?

There are various technologies under consideration for extracting methane from hydrate deposits. Most involve some form of heating the hydrate deposits - one, probably the dumbest and most dangerous, even goes so far as to suggest using nuclear explosions beneath the deposit to heat it, also suggested by some as a means of releasing oil from tar sands and oil shale - causing them to release the methane which is then collected and piped to a processing facility of holding tank. Proponents of methane hydrate exploitation, conscious of environmental concerns, are quick to offer reassurances like ".....tapping into the gas hydrates assessed in the study is not expected to affect global warming, said Brenda Pierce, coordinator for the USGS Energy Resources Program." [4] The louder and more frequent such reassurances are, of course, the more it suggests they are trying to cover up the probability that the result will be the opposite.

There are many projects underway, funded by governments throughout the world (Japan, India, China, South Korea, Russia, Norway, Canada, the U.S.), aimed at developing commercially viable technologies for exploiting the planet's vast methane hydrate deposits. The selection of sites for these projects are, themselves, a clear indication of one of the primary roadblocks to using methane hydrates as a societal-supporting energy source. They have sought out test sites with high methane hydrate concentrations.

Most hydrate deposits are too small or too dispersed to be commercially exploited. Also, unlike oil and natural gas, those deposits are generally not capped in such a way that the geology can be used to contain releases. Most of those deposits on the sea floor, in fact, exist in unconsolidated, sandy or silt sediment. The geology surrounding them is inherently unstable, difficult to contain. Once the deposit, or any large portion of it, is destabilized it is very difficult to prevent unintended, uncontrolled methane releases into the atmosphere.

Okay. I very begrudgingly accept that our leaders are not going to consider powering down as a potential tactic in the face of our impending energy crisis. Sooner or later the human race is going to have to accept that reality but clearly society is not prepared to accept it now. But methane hydrates are not like the other fossil fuels. And our approach to exploiting them is going to have to be very different. The risk to the climate and the environment is so much greater than has ever been the case with other fossil fuels. Most importantly, methane hydrates are globally affected by exactly the same constrains; temperature and pressure.

Global warming itself - it doesn't matter whether it is naturally occurring or caused by human combustion of fossil fuels - is the greatest threat of tipping methane releases into a runaway warming mechanism. Scientists do not know with any certainty yet how much of a global temperature rise is necessary to reach the tipping point where methane hydrate release into the atmosphere accelerates out of control. They do know that once that happens the acceleration will be self-sustaining and self-accelerating.

If our leaders take the same cavalier approach with scientific warnings about runaway methane release that they have taken with warnings about CO2 buildup in the atmosphere, and the long-term, safe storage of spent nuclear fuel, we are headed toward a much more serious atmospheric and climatic disaster than global warming experts have thus far suggested. Methane releases from the ocean floors and from Arctic permafrost have not been built into any of the current global warming models as a factor, including those models supporting the IPCC reports. Considering that methane hydrate deposits exceed the total of all other fossil fuels by magnitudes and that methane is more than 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2, that should be extremely worrying to anyone who accepts the validity of the global warming theory.

Other material;

1) Starting A Runaway Global Warming Process
2) Hundreds of methane 'plumes' discovered
3) A large methane plume east of Bear Island (Barents Sea): implications for the marine methane cycle
4) Study: Tap natural gas from Alaska's frozen areas

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Unintended Consequences of Critical Advocacy

Criticism or opposition increases the credibility of, and support for, that opposed.

That attack tells others that what you are opposing is important enough, enough of a threat, at least to you, to warrant attention. If it were not so you would simply ignore it. Then it would, perhaps, just sit there like a dead fish garnering nobody's attention. But that would, of course, simply give free reign to that opposition.

The fact that you criticize, attack or openly oppose something attracts people's attention to it. In so doing you may find that others agree with your criticism but you may also find that they disagree with you and decide that they must, perhaps because of your opposition, support that which you are criticizing. In other words, in your opposition you run a fifty-fifty risk, or higher, of garnering new supporters for that which you are attacking. This would, in turn, make it more threatening to you and make it more worthy of your opposition. It has the potential for a never-ending confrontation.

Most often that opposition elicits a response from the person(s) at the core of that which you are attacking. If it is important enough for you to criticize, after all, it is even more important to defend for those who have a part of themselves vested in it. If it's worth attacking it is worth defending. With the additional supporters to their cause that your opposition garners for them your continued attacks simply makes an ever-stronger, ever-more-threatening adversary.

When two opposing camps are in a position of constantly criticizing and attacking each other, the formula changes only slightly. The stronger of the two camps, generally, (or the one with the more appealing, people-friendly message) will generally maintain it's advantage for a considerable length of time, partly thanks to your opposition. When the weaker camp gains some momentum eventually, if maintained, that momentum may allow the growth in support to exceed the growth in support for the stronger side. Over time, as long as both sides are able to maintain their confrontation, that weaker camp may eventually gain the upper hand. But the battle to get to that point will, generally, be long and difficult.

This is the current reality for the peak oil movement. Our constant criticism of the business-as-usual oil industry mentality, our incessant demands that our politicians and leaders address the peak oil issue, are the modern day equivalent of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Our message about peak oil and the ensuing disintegration of life as we know it frightens people. It is not somewhere they want to go. It is not somewhere they can go, in their minds. What is there to support?

Our opponents in this, of course, offer a much more appealing vision of a future, however unrealistic it may be in our minds. And their job is simple. They, if you accept the gospel, offer a future of unlimited potential, wealth, growth, development, a lifestyle of your choosing. The peak oil movement offers despair, hard work, starvation, a struggle for clean water, elimination of travel, a world without cars, without electric can openers for God's sake.

Even today the majority of people in the world remain blissfully unaware of the peak oil issue and the crises facing us in the near future. Of every ten people that our constant campaigning makes aware of the issue more than half are going to reject our message and, instead, get religion and embrace the gospel according to Exxon. If they have to put their effort into something, after all - and for most their awareness and awakening all but compels them to action - then they are going to put that effort into something that promises them a benefit, a bright future, a continuation of the good life.

Our increasing membership in the peak oil movement is, for the moment, coming at a terrible price. It is growing our opposition at an even faster rate. They have the full power of the political machine, mass media, and gobs of money to use in the battle. We, on the other hand, are all too easily dismissed as crackpots, conspiracy theorists, doomsayers, as wanting the societal destruction and massive die-off that we warn about. There isn't a serious peak oil advocate who hasn't lost friends, built walls between themselves and members of their family over their advocacy. Most have simply eventually withdrawn into their own shell and, for the sake of harmony, ceased talking about peak oil among friends and family.

The more you can put your opponent in the role of criticizing you, or even defending themselves in such a way that it highlights your opposition, the more they in turn run the risk, however, of garnering additional support for you. This is often what happens at the turning point in the confrontation, at the point where the weaker opponent begins to get the upper hand.

This is a trend we are definitely starting to see in the peak oil movement. The cornucopians, the oil company executives, the paid shills, the pork-barrel politicians, the "I'll tell you whatever you want to hear" economists are increasingly in the position, while trying to defend their own stance, of having to criticize the peak oil movement, its statistics, its forecasts, its warnings of dire circumstances. In so doing, however, they are themselves increasing the visibility of the peak oil movement. They are, themselves, increasing the army of supporters for the peak oil theory/message. They are actively sowing the seeds of their own eventual defeat. And the harder they hit, the louder they yell, the more they are pushing people to the other side, into supporting the peak oil movement.

This change in conditions, however, imposes upon we in the peak oil movement a responsibility, if we are to capitalize on the changes taking place and reach enough people to form a critical mass sufficient to cause some move toward the development of a sustainable, post-peak future. It is time for us to take the high road. The cornucopians are feeling the heat. The reality of the situation is starting to bite them and everyone else in the ass. It is becoming an increasingly difficult reality to ignore or argue against. We don't need to yell anymore.

The more quietly we carry the message forward, and the louder the opposition rails against it, the more credibility it gives our message in the minds of those who have not yet joined one camp or the other. We will, with an air of quiet confidence and calmness, garner increasingly more support than the loud, critical, unrealistic opposition. It will become increasingly apparent to more and more people as the global economy implodes that the good life the other side is offering them is unachievable. With that recognition should also come the realization that preparation for a very different future is now needed. That is where the critical mass comes from.

In order to help people achieve a full understanding of the implications of peak oil, however, it is important that we continue connecting the dots, continue linking peak oil with the global oil wars, the collapsing world economy, the renewed push for nuclear energy, rising unemployment, the global freshwater crisis, the global hunger crisis, global topsoil loss, and, yes, global warming and climate change. They must be helped to see that the good life they have been pursuing and which has been promised to them has come at a price which threatens the survival of themselves and their children and grandchildren. They must finally be convinced that it is time to take the red pill.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Peak Oil and the Global Financial Crisis

I am not an economist, nor do I play one on television. Nor would I want to be one. How limiting and depressing it must be to constrain oneself to constantly viewing the beauty and wonders of this magnificent living planet through the lens of cold, hard, lifeless money, seeking nothing more from it than profit.

Economist preach the faith that money makes the world go round. And they have the charts and graphs to prove it. And therein lies the problem. We can not solve our problems, including the serious global financial crisis, by looking at the world through a dollar sign, through the same economic lens that has contributed so largely to creating that crisis.

The environment is not a part of the economy to be bought and sold for a profit. It does not conform neatly to human economic rules and laws. The economy, conversely, is just one subset of the environment. We need to look at economics through a worldview that is broad and all-encompassing, need to put it in a more realistic perspective in tune with the realities of the planet itself.

We have pushed this planet and its environment to the brink and must now place human economy in the service of protecting and preserving what is left while there is still something of it left to protect and preserve. Because sooner or later that chance will be lost. We will at some point pass the tipping point, all for the sake of profit. In fact, if we continue with the same economic mindset we will probably try to make even more profit out of the terminal scarcity that our pursuit of profit has created.

Climbing back out of any recession means increasing energy consumption. Period. Recession recovery means increasing manufacturing production, transportation, increasing mobility, increased credit, increased shipping and trade. All of this involves increases in the use of energy.

In the five years from 1930-35 U.S. energy consumption dropped by nearly 14%. In the next five years, with the onset of war manufacturing and increased trans-Atlantic trade with the western European nations who would soon be pitted against Germany in WWII, it rose by 23.3% and another 29.5% during the war years to 1945. In fact, as Michael T. Klare points out in his excellent video, Blood and Oil, "The U.S. consumed more than one third of its total oil reserves during WWII." Other periods of recovery following recessions have also been accompanied by similar measurable peaks in increased energy consumption.

But how do we know if/when we are in a recession/depression? As they unfold there is invariably a serious and increasing disconnect between the Rosy and optimistic pronouncements - as if trying to wish it away - of leading politicians and industry leaders measured against the increasingly painful realities seen and felt by people on the street, whether that be Main Street or the workers and stock-hawkers in the pits on Wall Street. This is not unlike John McCain's confident campaign-trail assertion that "The fundamentals of the economy are strong," just hours before Treasury Secretary Paulson started the ball rolling on the $700-billion financial system bailout package.

In November, 1930 Alfred P. Sloan Jr. of General Motors confidently proclaimed, "I see no reason why 1931 should not be an extremely good year." Compare that to similar "public" optimism of today's GM leaders as the company implodes and seeks merger with Chrysler, itself currently struggling and a phoenix recently arisen from the ashes of near bankruptcy. On June 9, 1931, eight years before the depression was finally ended by WWII, Dr. Julius Klein, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce, announced "The depression has ended."

We, of course, have a very different reality to deal with today than what existed in 1929. If lack of energy or the high cost of energy in any way contributes to a recession, as it very clearly has in the 2008 global recession (depression?), then climbing back out of the recession will now be very much constrained by the same factors that caused it. That energy scarcity or high energy cost will increase right along with the increase in activity in the attempted economic recovery.

In the few weeks following the first admission of a global financial crisis, spotlighted by the U.S. Treasury's request for its first $700-billion bailout package, oil prices on the world's commodity exchanges began to move uncharacteristically in lockstep with the wild swings on global stock markets. Over the previous couple of years the stock markets and oil prices had more often gone in opposite directions as investors moved their money back and forth between equities and commodities in search of the highest profits. This new tandem pattern was the clearest signal that investors were simply removing their money from the investment arena, both equities and commodities, as profit opportunities dwindled and moving it into cash or gold.

If it's not this recession it will be the next one. There isn't time (historically 10-20 years to fully recover from a deep recession) to climb back out of this recession before the next one hits (bull periods tend to be 8-15 years duration). Peak oil is either already upon us or about to hit within the next 5-10 years, depending on who you listen to.

Suddenly real people, and economists, will come to realize that it is a serious liability, not an asset, that we have a credit/debt driven economy. The proposed solutions to this crisis thus far have been to throw more credit/debt at it. Our current global economy is critically dependent on growth. That growth is critical to support the U.S. Federal Reserve's policy (now essentially practiced globally by all national reserve banks) of growing the money supply through Fractional Reserve Banking. Through fractional reserve banking each dollar on loan (debt) is treated as an asset which the bank uses as the asset base to issue up to ten more dollars of loans out of money that does not exist, and can never, in a shrinking economy, be paid back.

Growth is also critically dependent on never-ending expansion of the energy supply tp support the social activity to generate the money to repay the debts incurred under the fractional reserve banking system. If you can't increase the energy supply growth stops. If growth stops the credit/debt economy dies. A debt-based economic system ultimately incorporates the assumption of its own eventual bankruptcy.

This recession, as has become painfully clear, is global. The recovery, likewise, must be global. For one nation to try to pull itself out of the recession at the cost of other nations cannot work, or at least will not be tolerated by other nations. There is considerable fear, however, that that is exactly what will happen. There is even greater fear in the U.S. that not one but many nations will decide to take advantage of the situation and use it to destroy U.S. hegemony by taking the U.S. dollar down the toilet.

There are many side effects to the growing global financial crisis. One of the most dangerous for the industrial nations is that the JIT (Just In Time) theology is breaking down. There is no credit available to finance shipping costs, to finance an inventory buildup, especially the large retail build-up for the Christmas season. Shelves will become bare so much more quickly than in the Great Depression because nobody holds an inventory. The inventory is in the pipeline. If the pipeline is shutdown the only inventory to draw on is what is on the shelves, generally a few days or weeks of product. The financial system will not free up massive amounts of money to allow for the building up of inventory, something manufacturers and producers would clearly love. What better solution to the woes of the manufacturing sector than to suddenly have retailers abandon JIT and suddenly start stocking their shelves and backrooms with inventory.

Since oil and other energy forms are such a crucial and costly input to the exploitation of all energy sources those other forms of energy have risen in cost in tandem with the price of oil (and do not, as we constantly observe, do not drop as quickly as oil when it drops). This has, however, had an odd and now clearly unfortunate side effect.

The higher selling price of energy has encouraged the development of many higher cost alternatives necessitated by the declining availability of the preferred and less costly primary sources such as crude oil, natural gas and black coal. The Canadian tar sands, deepwater offshore oil extraction and oil extraction in landlocked countries like Azerbaijan are prime examples. If and when the price of oil declines due to demand destruction, and other forms of energy with it, financially over-extended energy projects like those mentioned, which were viable only because of the high selling price of the energy those projects produced, begin to fall on serious financial difficulties. The energy they produce no longer brings the selling price that their much higher production costs require to remain viable.

The global oil production and demand figures show very clearly that we hit a peak in global oil production in May, 2005. We may still have times over the next few years where that peak is surpassed as we bounce along on the peak oil plateau. The trend, however, shows that growth in global oil production has ceased though the terminal decline has not yet begun.

Growth in liquid fuels since that peak has come not from conventional crude but from alternatives such as tar sands, oil sands, oil shale, coal-to-liquid, natural gas to liquid, synthetics and biofuels, primarily from sugar cane, corn and wheat. This latter, in fact, is contributing to a serious rise in world food prices that is raising the specter of a new round of mass starvation such as we have not seen since the beginning of the green revolution.

If this recession is prolonged, which there is every indication it will be, it is unlikely, considering the global energy production statistics, that we will have the energy required to support the growth in industrial and economic activity it will take to bring it to an end. If it does end it will not be for long. We will quickly run up against the limits in the energy supply and slip yet again into a global recession, that one terminal.

Governments of the major economic nations, and their economists, are beginning to make noises about redesigning the global financial system. If that redesign does not properly take into the account the current energy limitations and future energy declines it will be very short-lived.

Friday, October 03, 2008

"The Shock Doctrine" and Political Peak Oil Denial

For several decades now, dating back to at least the Reagan-Thatcher era, the primary underpinning of U.S. foreign policy has been The Shock Doctrine. First used successfully by Augusto Pinochet in Chile and keenly observed by the U.S., this doctrine has been enthusiastically embraced by U.S. administrations ever since it was first introduced to them by Milton Friedman. The late Milton Friedman was a now well-known but generally-viewed-as-radical economist from Chicago whose teachings were responsible for turning out the soldiers at least partly responsible for Pinochet's victory and enduring success. Friedman's philosophy that became the Shock Doctrine is best and most succinctly summed up in his own words; "Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs [my words: whether by design or happenstance], the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around." Successive U.S. administrations have, with varying levels of success, put that doctrine into practice in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the world stage. Those decades of practice, and the lessons learned in foreign arenas, have served well to equip Washington for now unleashing The Shock Doctrine in the arena for which it was ultimately intended by them, at home against America's own citizens. Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, does an excellent job tracing the history of this doctrine and it's use both in the U.S. and other nations such as Russia, Chile, Argentina and elsewhere.

No previous U.S. administration has so successfully employed the Shock Doctrine, both abroad and at home, than that of president George W. Bush and his dangerous VP, Dick Cheney. It has been used, perhaps not yet successfully, in the attempts to turn Iraq into an oil-rich puppet state from which the U.S. hopes and plans to ultimately control the vast oil reserves of the middle east. It has been used with great effect at home following the events of September 11, 2001, following hurricane Katrina, and is now being used in an attempt to change the economic landscape with the so-called $700-billion bailout resulting from the collapse of the housing market and the resultant sub-prime mortgage fiasco.

The beauty and effectiveness of using the Shock Doctrine is that you do not have to initiate or even execute the crisis event that you use for the springboard to implement your plans. You just have to be ready with those plans to capitalize on any crisis event that fits your needs. It was pretty clear that with the speed with which the Patriot Act was brought forward and passed that it had been created and was sitting in the wings just waiting for an event like 9/11. Whether or not there was foreknowledge by the members of congress is uncertain and, frankly, irrelevant because they too, like the voters they represent, have been turned into victims of the Shock Doctrine. It does not mean - and I am not passing judgement either way - that the administration was in any way complicit in the events of 9/11, despite the suspicion of guilt rising because of the whitewash job that became the 9/11 Commission Report. It does mean that the Patriot Act was planned and was sitting in abeyance, waiting for an event like 9/11. The ratcheting up of the fear factor since 9/11, the constant warnings from the administration and the compliant media, have garnered the administration an endless series of successes in implementing new legislation increasingly eroding America's civil liberties and freedoms.

In autumn 2005 I wrote an article entitled Paying the Executioner which appeared in the Online Journal Blue-Green Earth in November 2005 ( This article explained how our current rendition of capitalism with the willing complicity of government was not only picking our pockets but destroying the overall prospect of survivability for our children and grandchildren. The new erosion of American freedoms initiated since 9/11 will exact their ultimate toll not from you but from your children and grandchildren. Government and industry, hand in hand, are feeling increasingly emboldened by their successes in the use of the Shock Doctrine, in particular over this past decade. The erosion of rights and freedoms will not stop at what they have so far accomplished. Indeed the $700-billion+ bailout bill currently passed by the senate and before the house for a probable vote today has dramatically increased the price that Americans, and indeed the world, are paying for the escalation of this Shock Doctrine.

I am sure you were waiting for it so here it comes. What does this have to do with peak oil? Well, let me tell you.

One of the most frightening events that could happen to Americans in general is to have their energy taken away from them, to lose the ability to use their cars, to have to -ugh - use public transit to do their shopping, to have to car pool, to have to submit to fuel rationing, to have to pay a toll to enter the city to go to work, to have to hop on the bus or train to see America or to go to Grandma's for Thanksgiving dinner. As George Bush so admitted, "America is addicted to oil." In fact, America and the hegemonic power it enjoys on the world stage was built on oil. And America likewise is critically dependent on oil and other forms of energy in every way. Not only does the country run on oil but much of its infrastructure is built on materials derived from oil, its industrial agriculture and food production/delivery system is totally dependent on oil and other fossil fuels, the medicines the increasingly-medically-dependent population relies on are largely derived from oil and dependent on oil for their manufacture, the homes in which Americans live and the "things" with which they fill their homes are derived from oil. There are over 300,000 products in everyday use that are made from oil and its derivatives. Most importantly, however, the suburb-centric lifestyle developed in America since WWII is a totally oil dependent lifestyle. The simple fact of earning a living is dependent on being able to get from that home in the suburbs to the job somewhere else.

Do the administration and the congress and state legislatures know about peak oil? This is a subject of endless speculation and discussion on the online peak oil groups in which I participate. Of course they are aware. Bush and Cheney are ex oil men. Roscoe Bartlett has made endless - though largely ignored - presentations in the house about peak oil. One of Dick Cheney's first acts as VP was to form an Energy Task Force to brainstorm future responses to peak oil. Cheney was, while he was still with Halliburton, talking up peak oil in speeches as early as 1999. There is a growing concensus that W's invasion of Iraq was undertaken because of a growing awareness of the approach of peak oil.

Why, then, is there still a pervasive atmosphere of political denial of peak oil? Why is the phrase "Peak Oil" the words that must not be spoken in public?

The Shock Doctrine!!! But the timing is not yet right.

Peak oil is not yet the crisis they need in order to use it as the catalytic event to turn it against the populace. You couldn't sell fuel rationing yet. You couldn't yet sell compulsory car pooling, street tolls and all of the other measures that the government will undoubtedly implement as a result of peak oil. There is, admittedly, a growing sense of discomfort and pain from rising fuel prices and the downstream impact on food and goods prices. But it is not yet a sense of crisis and not close enough to one for any attempt to portray it as one to be credible. Appearances are that we have bumping along on the peak oil plateau since May 2005 but the irreversible decline in global crude oil production that will start to put pressure on the global growth society has not yet begun. When will that be? No one knows for certain but I would put my money on sooner rather than later, more likely over the next few years than 2030+ as CERA continues to suggest.

There have been lineups at gas stations in the southeast over the past few weeks but this is not a result of peak oil. This is a result of the refineries shut down by hurricanes Gustav and Ike. This is a shortage of refined fuels, not of oil. But when those lineups become general and widespread, when your gas station has only a fifty-fifty chance of having any gasoline tomorrow morning when you need it, when the store shelves start to be increasingly bare because the store can't get delivery from an increasingly undependable transportation system, when you can't get fuel oil in the middle of a cold winter, when natural gas pipelines start collapsing because they are empty, then and only then does it start to become the generally-recognized-and-understood crisis that is needed to use it to push forward the increasingly restrictive legislation that will allow government (and industry) to the control the population on the way down the downslope.

It is a mistake to interpret the lack of public discourse on peak oil as a lack of awareness. That silence, especially in the face of growing signs that peak oil is indeed upon us, should be viewed with alarm. You should be afraid of what is to come when the silence is finally broken because that is the signal that government and industry believe things have reached crisis level and they have you by the throat, or whatever other part of your anatomy you most fear being in the hands of someone wanting to destroy it.

See the following excellent videos featuring Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine:
Naomi Klein: Disaster Capitalism
Naomi Klein "The Shock Doctrine" & "No Logo" interview
The Take - Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Space Colonies, Flying Cars and Clean Coal

Great Technological Myths for the 21st Century

All of the above are promised technological marvels that never have and probably never will materialize, feel-good mental distractions pumped out by myopic techno-centric minds. But this article is only about one; clean coal or, more accurately, CCS (carbon capture and sequestration).

Carbon capture, unlike space colonies and flying cars, is a pipe-dream born out of necessity. We are so adversely impacting the life-support system of this planet that we have now forced ourselves into a position of having to correct some of our more critical damage. The article, Carbon tax no cure for climate change, claims, "Ultimately, the answer to greenhouse gas emissions in this energy-hungry world is going to come from a breakthrough on the technology side, and it won't come cheap."[12] Whether or not one accepts that technology holds the solution, it is the driving force behind industry and government in most developed and developing nations and will, therefore, dictate the direction in the corridors of power over the coming decades.

In case it appears otherwise, let me be very clear. I am not against the concept of carbon capture and sequestration. Quite the contrary. Only a small clutch of pollyannas and cornucopians any longer believes that peak oil (and peak natural gas) are not fast approaching. Ethanol and biofuels, tar sands, oil shale, methane hydrates and any other alternatives do not negate that reality. The fact that we are forced to pursue these costly and difficult alternatives, in fact, are confirmation that the reality of peak oil is sinking into the consciousness of those in the energy industry. There is unfortunately little doubt, therefore, that we will pursue coal as a primary energy option as the reality of declining oil and natural gas reserves dictates. Increasing our reliance on dirty coal - the dirtiest of all fossil fuels - without pursuing every means of preventing further destruction of the earth's environment through elevated CO2 emissions would seriously hasten the demise of the life-support capability of this planet.

My issue with carbon capture and sequestration is complex but starts with a reasonable doubt that we can develop a technology to do it soon enough. I fear that we will continue to build dirty, coal-fired power plants on the basis of an assumption that such technology will materialize and can be retrofitted to those plants. It appears that the energy drain on those facilities for CCS (up to 40% or more) will dramatically increase our global energy consumption with no net increase in energy produced. It also appears that the full energy cost of CCS, from mining of the coal through eventual sequestration, could more than double the energy consumption with no net increase in energy produced and hasten our race toward an energy cliff. I fear that we will force ourselves into a near-term reliance on nuclear energy, complete with its radioactive waste disposal problem, by creating a new energy crisis by rapidly depleting the planet's coal resources. I also fear that we will soon pursue the very dangerous alternative of mining the world's methane hydrate deposits, running the very serious risk of pushing the earth into a runaway greenhouse effect (methane is 20 times more powerful as a GHG than CO2).

Breaking CCS down, carbon capture refers to isolating and collecting the carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels. This would usually be at the point of combustion, such as in coal-fired power plants, thus preventing it entering the atmosphere. Another possibility is extracting previously emitted carbon dioxide (from, for example, automobile and aircraft emissions, factory emissions and home heating fuel emissions) from the atmosphere itself. There is current gas separation technology that can accomplish this on a limited scale.

Carbon sequestration involves the long-term storing or sequestering of that CO2 in either gaseous or liquid form underground, usually in formations such as depleted oil or natural gas wells (there are some efforts to use injected CO2 to increase the well-head pressure and flow rate of operating oil wells[3]) or abandoned mines, or in liquid form at the bottom of the deeper parts of the ocean where it is hoped the massive pressure of water above the CO2 deposit would hold it in place. There is also research ongoing into chemically reacting the carbon dioxide with substances like sandstone or certain chemicals like carbon hydroxide and transforming it permanently into other substances like rock (see Carbon sequestration rocks! Literally[9]) or sodium bicarbonate, better known as baking soda (see Baking Soda: Removes stains, odors, and combats Global Warming[22]).

In between carbon capture and carbon sequestration will have to be some means of transport, such as tanker trucks, trains, ships or, most likely, pipelines, to get the carbon dioxide from point of extraction or capture to the site of sequestration. The CO2 transport aspect has, thus far, received very little attention or funding. In a presentation to the US senate of a proposed new bill, Senator Coleman pointed out (see Sen. Coleman testifies before Senate Committee about carbon dioxide capture and transport) "While considerable progress has been made on the first [capture] and third [sequestration] steps, [this] bill begins the process of determining how best to get the CO2 from the point of creation to the point of storage."[28]

Simple, right? Not!

It's definitely not as easy as the constant headlines announcing new projects (globally 20 in 2007) would have us believe. Despite those constant announcements nothing gets done, except a lot of your tax money going into the coffers of organizations mounting government-funded research programs. Coming up with a workable, scalable, cost effective CCS technology will not be simple and will not be fast. “People don’t understand the magnitude of the problem,” said Howard Herzog, principal research engineer for M.I.T.’s Carbon Capture and Sequestration Program. “How can we do hundreds of these plants by 2050 - and that’s what we’ll need - if we can’t even do one?”[32]

Everything about carbon capture and sequestration is future, theoretical, of unknown cost but of great promise. Wise supervisors vote unanimous support for power plant, a typical article announcing a new coal-fired power plant, says, "Robbins said the resolution makes note of support for the “best available, advanced and futuristic technology for carbon capture” Dominion is urged to incorporate as that technology becomes available. ..... Adkins said he believes Dominion’s Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center will become a “world model” for the development of carbon capture and sequestration technology in the future.[emphasis mine]"[15]

Carbon capture and sequestration, if it ever ultimately materializes which is by no means certain, will be very energetically expensive. There is much debate about both the technical parameters and potential future viability of carbon capture and sequestration. The article, New coal fired power station gets go ahead points out, "The notion of cleaned coal is an oxymoron, with environmentalists and scientists disagreeing over the viability of any capture / cleaning / sequestration technology. It will take years and seems a high gamble to rely on a technology in the future."[5] This sentiment is echoed in the article, Big Coal's Dirty Plans for Our Energy Future, which states, "But scientists and environmentalists say "clean coal" does not exist; it is a misnomer and an oxymoron. "[16]

As to the energy requirement, according to the article, Carbon capture faces cost challenge, "Carbon capture costs represent up to 80 per cent of the total costs of carbon capture and storage, between $66 to $110 a tonne, according to preliminary research by the CO2 network."[26] Estimates are, in fact, that carbon capture in coal-fired power plants could consume from 20-40% as much energy as is being generated, and that the total energy costs from capture to sequestration, including the energy for mining and transporting the coal, could require 60% as much energy or more as the energy being generated in the power plant. Quite simply this means that power generation incorporating carbon capture and sequestration will require up to 60% more fuel to generate the same amount of energy as that being produced without CCS. With peak oil, peak natural gas and peak coal all set to materialize over the next few decades that is a disheartening statistic. And that 60% more fuel will also generate and emit carbon dioxide which, in turn, has to be captured and sequestered.

In a global economy addicted to perpetual growth and massive profits no industry is going to voluntarily adopt, at their own expense, a new technology that is going to add 60 percent to their fuel bill, especially an industry like power generation where fuel cost is their largest single operating expense. The article Energy at the crossroads: Carbon sequestration is a GM solution; we need a Honda solution suggests, "There are simply too many unknowns to commit enormous investments to an undertaking whose results could be obtained in many more preferable ways."[3] The article suggests, for example, that, ".....we could cut our energy use by more than 60 percent without diminishing our lifestyle in any way -- and arguably it would be enhanced,". The article claims, ".....the U.S. requires 7 tons of oil equivalent (toe) per person per year to maintain our present lifestyle. But ..... a top-notch lifestyle [such as that in Europe] requires no more than 2.6 toe and arguably even a bit less."[3] Despite the highly political assurances of the current White House administration to the contrary, sooner or later the American way of life has to become negotiable, and the sooner the better.

In order to soften the economic blow the largest industrial CO2 polluters/emitters would face implementing CCS, various forms of cap-and-trade systems have been proposed by different industrial governments. Most of these programs are broken into multiple phases where phase 1 involves giving the first allocation of carbon certificates to the major CO2 emitters. Subsequent phases would require emitters to purchase additional certificates at auction. The intent of the phasing is to encourage CO2 emitters to, over time, reduce their emissions (and their costs) to acceptable levels, either through adoption of CCS technology or other means.

Many of these schemes, however, do not have the teeth, possibly by intent (".....industry officials continue to talk up the greatness of carbon capture and sequestration "potential" yet refuse to implement a carbon tax or some equivalent that, from a market perspective, is the only sure way of getting the ball rolling beyond mere discussion and promises."[27]), to generate the needed CO2 reductions. The article, The European emission trading scheme: lessons for Ontario, points out, "The more allocations granted[in the EU], the cheaper carbon permits became, and the less incentive coal-fired power companies had to deviate from business-as-usual and actually reduce emissions."[4] If the cap-and-trade system does not encourage/(force?) the needed CO2 reductions there is reason to question the societal value of the system. The article, Carbon Trading: The carbon offset market is set to take off. But could U.S. businesses end up buying a lot of hot air?, spells out the most prevalent criticism. ".....critics say buying carbon offsets does little to change how carbon-addicted companies operate. "It's like the medieval practice of buying papal indulgences," complains Frank O'Donnell, president of the not-for-profit Clean Air Watch. "If sinners throw a few bucks into the pot, they can go back to sinning.""[8]

But companies and industries do what they do. Whenever possible they will find a way to turn a profit, even in cleaning up their own mess. Carbon offsets are already being tackled as a good new profit-making venture. The above report indicates, "In 2006, trading volume of carbon offsets, such as Carbon Financial Instruments and Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), jumped 200 percent in the voluntary markets (primarily the United States). Observers believe that market is now worth at least $100 million. Privately, those same observers talk about a $4 billion carbon-trading market once federal caps are approved."[8]

If tackling carbon dioxide emissions and atmospheric CO2 levels is limited to the capture of CO2 at large, single-point generation facilities such as power plants which are responsible for less than half our CO2 emissions, it is unlikely that sufficient levels of atmospheric CO2 reductions will result to have the needed impact on mitigating global warming. As the report, Carbon Capture Strategy Could Lead To Emission-free Cars, points out, "Technologies to capture carbon dioxide emissions from large-scale sources such as power plants have recently gained some impressive scientific ground, but nearly two-thirds of global carbon emissions are created by much smaller polluters - automobiles, transportation vehicles and distributed industrial power generation applications (e.g., diesel power generators)."[36] But governments like to throw your tax money at the big, visible projects like power plants, especially at election time. Research into other methods is primarily being left to private, non-funded projects like this. ".....The Georgia Tech team outlines an economically feasible strategy for processing fossil or synthetic, carbon-containing liquid fuels that allows for the capture and recycling of carbon at the point of emission. .....onboard fuel processor designed to separate the hydrogen in the fuel from the carbon. Hydrogen is then used to power the vehicle, while the carbon is stored on board the vehicle in a liquid form until it is disposed [of] at a refueling station."[36]

Environmentalist largely argue that no new fossil-fuel-fired power plants should be built without functioning carbon capture built in. Industry and most western governments argue against that position. Banks are caught in the middle, uncertain about the wisdom of the financial risk of granting investment funds for construction of a plant dependent on a technology that might never materialize in a political climate that is daily giving birth to new legislation demanding ever-tighter environmental controls. In the article, Banks won't slow plans for coal plant, the dilemma is spelled out, "But waiting until sequestration technology is perfected before building a plant would leave the state and ..... customers without reliable and low-cost sources of electricity....."[35] Anne Woiwode, state director for the Michigan Sierra Club, disagrees. Woiwode says "it doesn't make sense for utilities to build coal plants knowing federal regulations are coming, and that someday they might have to retrofit existing plants with carbon sequestration technology. She is worried utilities will pass along those costs to rate payers."[35] If they do not, either directly in customer power rates or indirectly through government subsidies, free carbon certificates or exemptions, I am not sure who she expects will pick up that cost. Certainly not the utility.

But the question is a fair one. Shouldn't the corporations, governments and nations that have financially benefited from the burning of cheap fossil fuels be responsible for the cost of cleaning up the present and their future environmental damages inflicted by those practices? This argument is put in sharp relief in the article, Carbon capture Canada's best hope to meet Kyoto targets. "But an excellent case can be made that Alberta should pick up the lion's share of the tab to create this tidbit of technology. After all, Wild Rose Country is in danger of growing out of sync economically with other provinces, developing a fatcat reputation as it continues to be the prime beneficiary of Canada's oil industry as well as the largest contributor among provinces to the greenhouse gas emissions problem."[34] And the article, Carbon capture faces cost challenge, adds this. ""Just for pure sequestration, the value is derived from not having CO2 in the atmosphere," Charles Szmulo, with Enbridge Inc. says. "That doesn't pay revenue, it's more of an avoided societal cost. The question is who's going to pay for that societal cost."[26] The inference in that statement is that it certainly will not be the polluter. Some take their skepticism a little further, as suggested in Banks Get Smarter On Cleaner Coal. "And given that the technology to capture and store carbon from coal plants isn’t expected to be viable for at least a decade, anything built between now and then will likely only come with the promise of carbon capture technologies, not the real thing. If you’re a skeptic, like climate scientist James Hansen, then you doubt that utilities are planning on implementing carbon capture technology, even when it becomes available."[33]

Our present giddy enthusiasm for carbon capture as a means of mitigating greenhouse gas build-up in the atmosphere runs, unfortunately, the distinct risk of achieving quite the opposite. Carbon dioxide is not the only atmospheric toxin and greenhouse gas going up the smokestack of our factories and power plants. There is sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, lead, and a host of other toxins, as well as the particulate matter in the smoke itself. With the increased parasitic energy demand on emission sources equipped with carbon capture technology (and this without even allowing for the reduced energy intensity of the poorer grades of brown coal that will have to be used when the higher grade coals are gone in the next few years) we may reduce the CO2 being released into the earth's atmosphere but will significantly increase the emissions of these other toxins and greenhouse gases.

We may reduce CO2 levels but increase the incidence of particulate matter (e.g. smoke, dust and ash) in the atmosphere that is responsible for the global dimming that has arguably neutralized the global warming impact being brought on by the increased greenhouse gases. Rather than balance the earth's temperature by reducing our human-generated greenhouse gases we may end up causing a precipitous drop in the average global temperature with the serious potential of pushing us into another ice age.

We have an unfortunate tendency of developing tunnel-vision when we are looking for solutions to problems, even those of our own making. We like to put all our eggs in one basket, our faith in that one grand solution. This is based on an ardent belief that what "small" problems are generated by the solution can, in turn, be solved by the application of yet more technology. But what is the solution when the technology itself is the problem?
1) Climate change and the purpose of growth
2) Earlier start for clean coal power
3) Energy at the crossroads: Carbon sequestration is a GM solution; we need a Honda solution
4) The European emission trading scheme: lessons for Ontario
5) New coal fired power station gets go ahead
6) Earth2Tech Maps: Coal Power Plant Deathwatch
7) FAQ: Carbon Capture & Sequestration
8) Carbon Trading: The carbon offset market is set to take off. But could U.S. businesses end up buying a lot of hot air?
9) Carbon sequestration rocks! Literally. We try to capture the debate on putting carbon where it won't hurt anything
10) The wind, the sun-and the atom
11) Climate scientist criticizes coal-fired power plant plans
12) Carbon tax no cure for climate change
13) Where Do The Candidates Stand On Energy Sources?
14) Scientists Protest Geoengineering to Capture CO2
15) Wise supervisors vote unanimous support for power plant
16) Big Coal's Dirty Plans for Our Energy Future
17) There is a silver-bullet solution to global warming
18) Europe's CO2 Capture Conundrum
19) Discover The Future Of Carbon Capture And Storage
20) Climate fraud, carbon profits
21) Masdar and Hydrogen Energy plan clean energy plant in Abu Dhabi
22) Baking Soda: Removes stains, odors, and combats Global Warming
23) Aker to invest in pioneering carbon capture facility
24) Greenpeace condemns Alberta climate change plan
25) Brussels' CO2 permits expected to cost Drax its independence
26) Carbon capture faces cost challenge
27) Climate Neros fiddle while Rome burns
28) Sen. Coleman testifies before Senate Committee about carbon dioxide capture and transport
29) Will Canada Save Clean Coal?
30) Clean Coal?
31) Natural Systems Solutions to Global Warming
32) Clean coal: FutureGen goes on the rocks
33) Banks Get Smarter On Cleaner Coal
34) Carbon capture Canada's best hope to meet Kyoto targets
35) Banks won't slow plans for coal plant
36) Carbon Capture Strategy Could Lead To Emission-free Cars

Monday, August 25, 2008

CCS: Cure or CurSe?

Three factors are converging to put Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) at the forefront of the global energy picture and discussion.

* Pollution from our ongoing dependence on fossil fuels to power global industrial society has pushed the planet's environment beyond it's ability to absorb our abuses and maintain temperature equilibrium. Global warming/climate change is on the march as the build-up of GHGs (both carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane but also others such as sulfur dioxide) in the atmosphere continues.
* The two fossil fuels that largely powered the 20th century's industrial and technological growth, oil and natural gas, are both at or nearing their peak and other alternatives are already being leaned on to fill the gap. The only two possible alternatives that can possibly carry much of the burden of energy-hungry human population are coal and nuclear (though China, India, Japan and others are already investigating the possible foolhardy exploitation of methane hydrates (methane is a GHG twenty times more powerful than CO2), a carbohydrate fuel source potentially more abundant than all the other fossil fuels combined) and there is still a large mistrust of nuclear as the foundation of the global energy strategy.
* It is increasingly clear that industry-driven governments throughout the world are intent on pursuing business as usual until nature and geology absolutely refuse to cooperate and force us to face the reality of a planet in overall energy decline. To a large extent they have little choice. We have a global economy and global society built on debt and an ever-increasing money supply. That increasing money supply is based on a very shaky assumption of continued population, resource and GDP growth, all of which are threatened even in the short term by the approaching disasters.

With those three factors coming together, and despite strong and growing environmental opposition, we have left ourselves little alternative in the short term but to turn to coal. Other than the much dreaded and avoided nuclear it is the only fuel source that can be scaled up in the near term to the level to satisfy an appreciable portion of a business-as-usual energy demand. The total potential and technology-dependent wind, solar, tidal and geothermal energy could not make a serious attempt to replace the loss of energy coming with the decline of global oil and natural gas supplies. Even if technologically, environmentally and economically feasible, broad-based methane hydrate exploitation is still potentially decades away. It is unlikely, also, that the problem of disposal or long-term storage of radioactive nuclear waste will be solved satisfactorily. Without that the widespread discomfort with the nuclear option is unlikely to dissipate unless nuclear is the absolute last option open to us in which case that opposition will be ignored out of "necessity". Which may be the case soon enough at any rate as, according to some knowledgeable observers like Chris Skrebowski, tar sands may peak as early as 2015 and, according to the Energy Watch group in Germany, coal should peak as early as 2025 but before 2015 the predominant source of coal will be dirty, brown coal, not the "cleaner" black coals that have dominated to date.

An increased dependence on coal, especially as an increasingly dominant source of energy, means big-time problems on the global warming/climate change issue. The only possible way to lessen that impact would be with broad-based carbon capture and sequestration, not just of the emissions from coal-fired power plants but atmospheric CO2 from, for example, automobile and aircraft emissions and natural gas-fired power plants.

Will Carbon Capture and Sequestration be implemented early enough and on a sufficient scale to prevent the environmental disaster that looms before us as we pass peak oil? It will, by most estimates, take at least a decade to develop workable and scalable CCS technology and infrastructure. Most CCS plans and projects, however, involve the building of new coal-fired power plants with CCS built into the design. There is very little viable research ongoing for technology that can be retrofitted across a broad spectrum of existing power plants, not only coal fired but natural gas and oil fired as well.

Whether the technology is developed and implemented early enough to have any impact on the growing environmental crisis depends largely on how quickly we increase the burning of coal on a global scale without carbon capture built in. As oil and natural gas supplies decline, if CCS technology is not available or not efficient enough will we wait until it is available or proceed with opening new coal-fired power plants while hoping the technology will still be developed and can be retrofitted? If history is any measure we will proceed and hope for the best.

China and India (and other nations) continue opening new coal-fired power plants today on a massive scale (China's power demands are increasing by as much as 20% per year), all without CCS technology built in, most without design considerations for later retrofitting. China and India particularly (but also other 3rd world countries) have habitually disdained design safety and necessary routine maintenance in their attempt to produce "cheap" power, despite the fact that design technology exists to satisfy both, but at a cost. If CCS adds significant cost, either built in or retrofitted, it is likely that all manner of excuses will be found for not implementing it. Third world countries are not alone. The "cheap" energy demands of industry have always trumped public and even government environmental concerns. We must keep the wheels of industry rolling. If the need for energy is there but CCS is not ready or not economically acceptable to industry, it is likely those "cheap" energy needs will be met, whatever the cost or consequences.

If there is, alternatively, any "doubt" about the CCS technology that doubt will be used as a convenient excuse (can you spell "red herring"?) not to implement it. As we have seen repeatedly in western nations, particularly in the US, where there is no doubt industry lobbies will work very hard to manufacture doubt in order to create an excuse for not pursuing a policy contrary to their dominant profit motive. When it comes to something as serious as the potential destruction of the planet's environment doubt should be a cause for extreme caution, but industry does not see it that way, nor do the governments they have bought and paid for. Doubt is consistently used as the basis for not addressing environmental issues and similar "costly" measures. When it comes to doing the right thing and being good corporate citizens, it seems that an absolutely certainty of, of course, profitability is required.

Carbon capture and sequestration comes at a cost, not just economically but also in terms of energy consumption and collateral environmental damage. Carbon capture reduces fuel efficiency by 20-40% meaning 20-40% more coal (of lower grade) or other energy must be burned to get the same energy output, meaning 20-40% more CO2 must be captured and sequestered because of the carbon capture. But CO2 is not the only "toxin" and greenhouse gas produced in burning coal and other fossil fuels. Sulfur Dioxide, lead and other emissions are also part of the mix. 20-40% more of these emissions will also result from the implementation of CCS. The potential increase in damage from soil toxification and acidification of freshwater supplies may be greater than the environmental benefits from the reduction of CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere. The carbon capture aspect will also employ a large volume of various chemicals to scrub the CO2 from the smokestack emissions, more chemicals that the environment has to cope with.

The sequestration of the captured carbon is also not without problems. The two primary plans for carbon sequestration are 1) to inject it into deep mines and exhausted oil fields or 2) injection deep into the oceans for sequestration at the ocean bottom. The long-term feasibility of land based sequestration in old mines and exhausted oil fields is by no means certain. The geological structure required to "contain" the injected CO2 (probably liquid rather than gaseous) is reasonably understood. But the actual geological structure of the sites into which sequestration is planned is not. Geology changes over time and the serious potential risk of a catastrophic re-release of the sequestered CO2 in time is very high. Fractures and stresses in the "cap" that holds the CO2 in place can readily develop allowing long-term slow re-release of the sequestered CO2. There is also a serious potential that sequestered CO2 can seep into stressed groundwater aquifers contaminating and acidifying those increasingly critical sources of water.

Deep ocean CO2 sequestration is almost certain to increase, over time, the acidification of the seawater above the sequestered CO2. The more acidic water becomes the less capable it is of supporting life. Additionally, the more the water absorbs CO2 from that sequestered on the ocean bottom the less capable that water becomes of absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. The risk becomes very great that the planet's greatest CO2 sink, the oceans, would completely lose their ability to absorb atmospheric CO2, pushing the atmosphere into a runaway greenhouse effect.

There are far greater questions to consider in the carbon capture and sequestration debate than simply our ability to develop the technology to achieve it. The health and life-support capability of the planetary environment is at stake, as is the future survivability of life on earth, man included. We have an unfortunate tendency of creating more problems with our solutions than the problems the solutions answer. We are far too close to the edge to be creating more problems with our solutions. Maybe it is time for governments and industry to consider whether business-as-usual is a viable strategy any longer. Maybe it is time for them finally to consider that we have to drastically cut back our global energy consumption and seriously change the way in which our species interacts with the environment, while there is still a livable environment to interact with.

1) United Nations Climate Change Conference: Bali: An Initial Balance Sheet
2) The Climate Crisis is a political crisis
3) Big Coal's Dirty Plans for Our Energy Future
4) Ten things you need to know about carbon capture
5) Net carbon dioxide losses of northern ecosystems in response to autumn warming
6) The Chemistry of Carbon Capture and Storage
7) Spongelike Air-Capture Gadget Scrubs Away Carbon Emissions
8) Carbon, Capture and Storage: Technology, Capacity and Limitations
9) Carbon capture gets crystal powered
10) "All We Need is Water and Pollution."
11) Carbon credit generates nearly $500,000 for Nebraska's farmers
12) Experts say candidates miss the boat on energy crunch
13) Ethical Issues Raised by Waiting for Geological Carbon Storage
14) Carbon sequestration frustration