Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Biofuels: Recipe for Artificially-Induced Overshoot of Earth's Carrying Capacity

There has been much discussion among peak-oilers, most notably on the various Peak Oil Yahoo groups like Energy Resources, Running on Empty 2 and Energy Roundtable, and on sites such as ASPO, Energy Bulletin, Life After the Oil Crash and Wolf At The Door about the link between Peak Oil, global agriculture and the overshoot of earth's fossil-fuel-facilitated, artificial carrying capacity as we pass peak oil and start on the downslope of terminal decline. Much of this discussion is under the controversial and uncomfortable title of Die-Off, an extreme title that causes many observers and pundits to actively avoid consideration and discussion of carrying capacity when talking about post-peak societal changes and impacts. But it is time to push the discussion of peak oil and the carrying capacity relationship to the forefront.

Of late a new wild card has been inserted into the discussion, bio-fuels. There is lately so much mania and hype about bio-fuels. Every morning my e-mail in-basket contains at least one fully-packed Google Alert on "world hunger and bio-fuels". So many governments see them as the answer to both oil depletion and global warming. Much of this seems to be a means of avoiding upsetting or confronting the wealthy and strong (their own voters) in the increasingly traditional way by pushing the problem on the poor and weak of the under-developed world. The bi-product is that far too many people in responsible positions are failing to grasp the obvious.

The glaringly obvious point is, we can't feed the world's population today even with the artificial carrying capacity afforded by fossil fuels. The more energetically we pursue bio-fuels and take food-producing land out of the world food pool and shift it over to the world energy pool the more we reduce that artificial carrying capacity. As a result, the closer we move to the world's natural carrying capacity and the fewer people we can feed. In these early months of 2008 the world loses up to 40,000 people per day to starvation and other nutrition-related diseases. It is estimated that the amount of bio-fuel required to fill the tank of one SUV is enough to feed one person for one full year. How many more lives will it cost for every 1000 bio-fuel fill-ups? For every million gallons of bio-fuel production?

Over the past several years an ever-increasing proportion of new vehicle sales has been in the light truck category which is dominated by SUVs and vans, not to mention the loathsome Hummer. I am not a fan of SUVs and vans as personal vehicles and regularly flip the bird to Hummers as they rumble past like Bradley armored personnel carriers. These vehicles are not subject to the same fuel efficiency standards imposed on regular automobiles. They also require the consumption of far greater energy in their production. They are throw-backs to the big gas-guzzling eight-cylinder monster cars (the old behemoths with the massive tail-fins) of the fifties and sixties that, in my humble opinion, appeal to those that rely on their vehicle as a status symbol and a manifestation and extension of their assumed strength and prowess.

The almost global mania for bio-fuels pushes the envelope of carrying capacity in two ways. It takes land that should be producing food and diverts it to the production of crops to produce those bio-fuels, thereby reducing the amount of food that can be produced and badly reducing the amount of organic matter being returned to increasingly deficient soil. Billions of tons of top-soil deprived of organic matter are disappearing every year. The global emergency food grain reserves have now shrunk to the lowest level since those reserves were established as a buffer against poor harvests and crop loss. They are now less than a sixty days supply, far too low to accommodate any broad crop failures or losses in the primary northern hemisphere food grain producing nations. The food inventories of the worlds Aid agencies are shrinking while contributions and government support are inadequate to keep up with rising prices in these critical food grains. This is a particularly worrisome reality as the incidence of extreme weather events increases due to global warming and climate change.

But the push for bio-fuels also increases the cost of food in general pushing additional millions of people each year out of the breadline because they simply cannot afford the increasing cost of food. Even when the price of food was low, 850 million people went hungry every day because they could not afford to buy it. In other words, even the food that is being produced is not available for economic reasons, to either the poor and hungry needing the food the most or to the food aid agencies who supply emergency food support to the world's malnourished as a last resort.

The world's major developed nations, particularly those in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) have announced targets of satisfying from five to as much as fifteen percent of their liquid fuel needs through bio-fuels over this next one to two decades. This could represent global bio-fuel production of up to five hundred million gallons of bio-fuels per day just to satisfy today's consumption, not to mention the 4-5% increase in demand each year. This would divert food grains and other food crops like Casava and Palm Oil to the production of bio-fuels every day sufficient to feed as many as twenty to twenty-five million people for a year. If these targets are ever met or even approached, and I do not believe it is possible, the long-held economists' dream of a world full of people living an American standard of life will be met because everyone lower on the economic food chain will have died of starvation. As George Monbiot suggests in his Guardian article, The western appetite for bio-fuels is causing starvation in the poor world, it would be better and more humane to just refine those millions of people directly into fuel for our vehicles than let them starve to death by converting their food into fuel.

The decline of the artificial global carrying on the downslope is the most important issue in the peak oil debate. It is the truth that cannot be spoken. The harder we work to avoid discussing it coupled with this manic global push for bio-fuels the faster we push ourselves into an artificially-induced overshoot and die-off. It is time to stop avoiding this discussion of the uncomfortable and throw the idiocy of bio-fuels into sharp perspective. At the heart of the issue is the question that must be asked and answered. How many lives is our happy motoring worth? That little sticker on the fuel pump at the local gas station that shows the breakdown of each dollar spent on gasoline should be upgraded to show the cost in human lives.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Sorry State of Environmental Conscience of Tarsands Operators

It is not my normal practice in this blog to forwrd whole new stories. However, I have written several articles in the blog about the tar sands and I wanted to add this to that portfolio. I will add no comment, letting the article speak for itself.
Report compares environmental performance of oilsands companies; none good

Thu Jan 10, 12:12 AM
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

EDMONTON - A new report comparing the environmental performance of Alberta's oilsands producers against each other has found that even the winners have little to brag about.
And the groundbreaking study by the Pembina Institute and the World Wildlife Fund, released Thursday, suggests the provincial government's reliance on industry to voluntarily do the right thing for the land, water and air of northern Alberta has failed.
"These are the largest petrochemical companies in the world," said Rob Powell, one of the report's authors.
"It just seems that for some reason they're getting away with not stepping up to the plate, and the government has to answer for that."
The report compares 10 operating and proposed oilsands mines using data supplied by the companies and publicly available government sources. It asks 20 questions grouped around the topics of environmental management, land, air emissions, water and climate change.
Companies were asked if they had third-party verification of their environmental management (only Albian Sands and Imperial did), or if they had targets to reduce their water use or air emissions (none did). Other questions concerned land reclamation plans, tailings production and public reporting.
All data was adjusted to be comparable. Only mining operations were considered. The companies had chances to comment on the data last June and again in September.
The answers to each question were scored and the results expressed as a percentage of the possible maximum.
The best the Alberta industry could do was Albian's 56 per cent for its existing Muskeg mine. Syncrude and Syneco ranked last, with only 18 per cent.
The 10 companies examined in the report, in the order of their ranking, are Albian Sands Muskeg, Total E&P, Petro-Canada Oil Sands (TSX: PCA.TO), Shell Canada (TSX: SHC.TO), Imperial Oil (TSX: IMO.TO), Suncor (TSX: SU.TO), Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., (TSX: CNQ.TO), Albian Sands Muskeg expansion, Syncrude and Syneco.
The most dismal results were for water use and climate. No company scored better than 50 per cent on the five water-related questions, and only three scored any marks at all for plans to deal with greenhouse gas production - although Albian's existing Muskeg mine racked up 66 per cent.
The wide variation in scores and the fact different companies dominated different categories means they aren't sharing best practices and the government's not making them, said Powell.
"We're not getting the kind of regulatory oversight that's required to achieve a reasonable standard of environmental performance. Why are they not insisting that these companies perform to the best available current standard?"
Powell says it's particularly telling that Albian's proposed expansion to its Muskeg mine ranks far lower than its existing project, scoring only 26 per cent.
The report estimates what would happen if all companies performed to the highest level in each category.
Emissions of two contributors to acid rain, nitrous dioxide and sulphur dioxide, could be cut by 79 and 47 per cent. Tailings could be eliminated. Water sucked from the Athabasca River could be reduced by 59 per cent.
Emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, could fall by 66 per cent.
"This is not pie in the sky," Powell said. "These are all things that companies are either doing now or that some companies that have sought approval say they will be able to do."
The first of the report's short list of five recommendations is that government needs to enforce acceptable standards and continuously improve them.
"Our survey clearly shows that a reliance on voluntary implementation of best practices is not resulting in adequate environmental management," it says.
It also criticizes government reluctance to provide information on environmental performance.
"The government actually collects some of this information but they don't share it with the public," said Powell. "A great deal of digging was required (for this report)."
Recommendations for industry include implementation of best practices and making information available in a consistent format that makes comparison possible.
"All of the companies could do better and our hope is that companies will compare themselves," said Powell.

Monday, January 07, 2008

CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) and Peak Oil

One cannot realistically study the issue of peak oil without also dealing with the question of peaking of other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal. The peaking and/or depletion of one will seriously affect the others as they are leaned on as substitutes. But one also cannot deal with the issue of peak oil, peak energy and fossil fuel usage in general without also fully understanding and taking into account the other serious and highly related issue on the global horizon; global warming and climate change. It is, in fact, our past tendencies to focus on energy without consideration of environmental implications that have led us to this point in human history where both are simultaneously manifesting themselves as serious global problems.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2), the primary Greenhouse Gas (by volume) that causes global warming, is the chief bi-product from the burning of fossil fuels. But it is, by no means, the only source of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Nor is it, by itself, a pollutant. Global warming is caused not by the simple presence of CO2 in the atmosphere but by the level of concentration of CO2. The greater the volume of CO2 present the greater the impact on raising earth's temperature. In fact a certain level of CO2 in the atmosphere is required to maintain earth's temperature in a range suitable for the support of life. Without our atmosphere and the heat-trapping effects of atmospheric CO2 earth would be a cold, inhospitable planet incapable of supporting life, just as Mars appears to be today. So although the current upsurge in global warming is partly caused by man and his burning of fossil fuels, the aim in addressing and correcting this is not to eliminate CO2 from the atmosphere but to bring the levels of atmospheric CO2 back to where they naturally should be and maintain them in the range required by life on earth.

Our abuses of our planet and its environment and atmosphere have left us with little option but to maintain our assumed role of custodian. We can not endanger that environment and the lifeforms of this planet that depend on it, as we have already done, and stand back and expect the environment to correct itself. This planet's natural checks and balances have evolved, just like living organisms do, over long, slow geological time. Man is an aggressive, abusive, gregarious species that changes the environment not in slow geologic time but in the rapid-fire, staccato pace of our technological innovation and development. Nature simply has no way to keep up with the pace we have set. Like the tortoise, it will win in the end. But that end is a long way off and calamitous changes lie between now and that finish line.

The simple truth is we must stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere at the levels we have since the onset of the industrial revolution some two hundred and fifty years ago. Since the greatest volumes of those anthropogenic CO2 gases derive from our burning of fossil fuels it is in that area that we must make changes. But that presents us with a huge problem. Our human society is founded on the burning of fossil fuels. The global economy is driven by fossil fuels. Without them that global economy and global human society, as they are currently constituted, would simply fall apart. Despite the belief by purists, which I am often accused of being, that that is exactly what should happen, the simple reality is it will not. There is simply too much at stake for our leaders to allow the system to fail by pulling the plug.

What, then, are the alternatives? How do we carry on our society as it is and still reduce the amount of CO2 we are releasing into the atmosphere? Most of those in power and the cornucopian advisers, economists and technocrats to whom they listen, seem intent on putting their eggs in the CCS basket (Carbon Capture and Sequestration). For those unfamiliar with CCS, it "refers to the provision of long-term storage of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, underground, or the oceans so that the buildup of carbon dioxide (the principal greenhouse gas) concentration in the atmosphere will reduce or slow."[3] The most frequently discussed and proposed method is the injection of CO2 extracted from concentrated exhaust from things like power plants into old abandoned oil wells, gas wells, mines and similar structures. Other proposals, looking for an economic return from the sequestration, involve increasing the injection of CO2 into active oil wells, for example, to increase well head pressure and improve oil extraction.

Carbon sequestration, after all, is quite simple. Nature does it all the time. Plants breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen, "sequestering" the carbon by using it in building new plant matter. The oceans act as a natural carbon sink by absorbing huge volumes of CO2 into seawater. But why leave it to nature to do for free when we can develop and use expensive new technology to do it ourselves? After all, the more money we put into that technology the more it beefs up the GDP and benefits the economy. As long as human society is driven by money and economics that is the point of view that will prevail. But hugely expensive carbon capture programs get quietly cancelled, stalled or put on the back burner [1, 8, 9, 10, 17, 19] just as quickly as they get loudly announced and proclaimed [4, 7, 8, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18]. In some cases the cancellation of a program happens just a few short weeks after it was announced, most often without any carbon having been sequestered at all.

A far more serious and potent greenhouse gas than CO2 is Methane, which is about twenty times as powerful as a greenhouse gas. Methane, like CO2, naturally occurs in the biosphere and the levels at which it normally occurs are not a problem. In fact, like CO2, atmospheric Methane is an important part of maintaining earth's temperature in the range required by living organisms. But human activities have dramatically increased the concentration of Methane in the earth's atmosphere and threaten to seriously and dangerously increase that concentration. Vast amounts of Methane have been sequestered by nature in swamps, in Arctic permafrost and, most importantly, as Methane Hydrates trapped in sediment at the bottom of the oceans and seas and in Arctic permafrost.

Getting those who are responsible for national energy needs to think of both energy production and climate change at the same time, however, seems to have great potential for creating problems as big as it solves. Methane you see, unlike CO2, can be used as a fuel (technically it is natural gas) and, therefore, is being looked at extensively, particularly Methane Hydrates, as a possible alternative in the face of declining fossil fuel reserves. There is several times as much usable Methane in the world, most in the form of Methane Hydrates, than all of the fossil fuels combined. The world's two most populous countries with a combined population of nearly three billion, India and China, seem intent on not waiting that long to capitalize on this energy source. They are looking seriously at using vast reserves of Methane Hydrates off their coasts as an alternative now as a "solution" to their high volume of CO2 generation from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels[20]. This makes as much sense as heating your house by burning the lumber with which it was built. Methane Hydrates are very unstable constructs that are quickly dissipated into the atmosphere at normal air temperature and pressure (see my December 2006 article "Methane hydrates: the next great energy source?" in my blog at http://oilbeseeingyou.blogspot.com/2006/12/methane-hydrates-next-great-energy.html ). Accidentally releasing into the atmosphere during extraction an amount of Methane more than five percent the volume of the CO2 they are currently generating will, in fact, result in a greater impact on global warming than their current CO2 releases.

Governments the world over, including the U.S. federal government, are making serious research money available for research, testing and development of serious carbon sequestration projects. And as is always the case when a handful of government money is thrown into the trough, organizations are lining up to get at it. But it seems they are all doing so with the hope and assumption that they can make money out of it beyond taxpayer money to fund the research. The only viable CCS projects seem to be those involving high-volume sources lik3e power plants and geosequestration into old wells and mines. The hard reality is, and often the reason that projects so enthusiastically announced are so quietly and quickly cancelled, is that the high volume sources and the geological formations into which the CO2 can be sequestered often do not occur in the same location. To have to move the CO2, in either gaseous or liquid form, over long distances by pipeline in order to sequester it becomes prohibitively expensive.

Most serious projects that have not yet been cancelled are looking at projected dates at least one to two decades out before completion of a fully functional CCS infrastructure. By that time oil and other fossil fuels will be into serious decline and the generation of anthropogenic CO2 may well be in decline by that time simply because there is not enough fuel left to burn to keep it on the increase. That will not, of course, solve the global warming problem as the impact on global warming from the CO2 already in the atmosphere will still take decades to reach its maximum. CCS still has the potential, therefore, to be one of the biggest White Elephants our technological society has yet produced. Or is that White Elephant grey from industrial pollution?
Sources and further reading;
1) Oil giants abandon plans for ‘uneconomic’ green power plant
2) Geologic Sequestration Research
3) Carbon Sequestration
4) Scientists deepen confidence in technique to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
5) Carbon capture and storage
6) Carbon Capture and Storage
7) Piping carbon back into the ground
8) Norway sticks with CCS gas power plant plan -PM
9) What Future for Carbon Capture and Sequestration?
10) A cautionary tale of carbon capture
11) Carbon Capture Research
12) Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage
13) Carbon capture and sequestration project set for large-scale test
14) Carbon Capture Moves Ahead
15) Million Tons of CO2 Will Be Injected Under Illinois
16) Gov Blagojevich Invites President to Visit Mattoon, Site of FutureGen Project - December 21
17) Futuregen's Plan to Bring CCS to Illinois in Trouble?
18) Navajo Times: "Desert Rock a needed project for Navajo Nation" (Dec 22 2007)
19) Energy Northwest ditches project to bury emissions
20) China and India Exploit Icy Energy Reserves