Thursday, December 10, 2009
Major transitions in society consume a tremendous amount of energy and resources. Countries rebuilding after the devastation of war, transitioning through a new industrial, technical or cultural revolution, recovering from a spate of devastating natural disasters, all consume resources at a tremendous pace. Though quite different in the detail, a society transitioning from an industrial base to an agrarian focus, from a high tech base to a low tech base, also require extensive resources to build out the infrastructure suited to the new societal structure. We can continue to use up the dwindling resources and energy supporting our current, unsustainable lifestyle and society and then just accept whatever comes when the resources are gone. Or we can - please pardon me for such a blasphemous suggestion - plan ahead and use what resources we have left during the powerdown building the society as it is going to have to be in a low/no-energy world. That need to marshall our remaining resources to prepare for the future should not be that difficult to understand.
It is interesting to watch children of any age in a class discussing resource usage and the environment. They get it. Why don't their parents? They know that they are discussing their own futures. They seem to instinctively understand that everything they can do now makes their own future better and more sustainable, that they are going to need to have left some of what we now have if they are going to have any sort of quality of life in their future. When and how do we educate that understanding out of them? When and how do we force them into the tunnel vision of consumerism, quarterly reports and economic forecasts?
We have, in fact, reached the point where our profligate resource consumption and wastage is no longer just a concern for future generations. It has become a critical issue for ourselves, for all those generations alive today. Demand for most important and critical resources is now growing faster than the availability of those resources. Availability of many of those resources is, in fact, in decline while demand continues to increase.
We are early enough in the decline of most of those critical resources that the impact is, unfortunately, largely unnoticed by most people. It manifests itself in other ways, such as higher prices, reduction of services, reduced product quality and durability. As long as demand continues to grow while resource availability declines, however, we move closer to perpetual shortages, rapidly escalating prices, conflicts and wars over those remaining resources and more.
How do we break the cycle of resource over-consumption and environmental degradation in the pursuit of Madison Avenue concocted wishes and dreams? All life, all living species, use from their environment what they need to survive. That, of course, is a lie. Were that true we would not be facing the global crises we have before us. But only one species, out of hundreds of thousands, does not adhere to that principal. Man. And only one species has the ability and potential to undo the damage already done and plan and prepare for a future that will be forever characterized by resource shortages. Man.
All species can and do damage and even destroy their environment. All life, after all, is parasitic, living off the avails of the environment around it. Any species can and will, especially under the pressure of overpopulation, destroy the ability of the local environment to support their numbers. Humans did it, on Easter Island.
There are two very important differences between human society today and that of any other species, or indeed our own species, at any time in earth's history. Our impact is global, not local. As is our overpopulation. We are over-consuming the resources of the entire planet and degrading the environment of the entire planet. Secondly, we are the only species which transforms. We change materials, dig up ores and turned them into a vast array of metals, dig up oil and other fossil fuels and transform it not only into fuels but into a vast array of chemicals and toxins against which the natural environment has no defense and for which the natural environment is not equipped to recycle. We have, quite literally, overwhelmed the environment which, with increasing difficulty, supports us.
We can no longer afford the luxury of running human society in a manner planned around the over-consumption and destruction of dwindling resources. We can no longer tolerate the idiocy of planned obsolescence, designing and manufacturing products meant to fail after a pre-determined period of time. We can no longer justify the unnecessary wastage of resources that will be critical to survival of future generations in production of goods that we do not need. We can no longer unthinkingly continue to support consumerism, consuming and wasting critical resources for momentary financial profit. To continue to do so dooms us globally to the same result as Easter Island.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
The willingness of the IEA to bow to political pressure to sugar coat global oil statistics has ultimately set the IEA up as the fall guy to take the hit when honesty finally permeates the halls of government. They are, after all, the statistics published by the IEA, not those produced by government agencies such as the US EIA. Governments can, and probably will, simply claim that the IEA misinterpreted their wishes and that they were unaware that the IEA were systematically overstating the numbers. And the media will probably be willing partners - based, of course, on information supplied to them by trusted inside government sources - in laying the blame at the IEA's feet.
It is possible, of course, that the same government pressure that has caused the IEA to pump up oil statistics over recent years has now been brought to bear on the IEA to now let it leak that they have been fudging the numbers and to prepare to take the fall on behalf of those governments. The leaks may now start to be echoed by official IEA spokespersons who will likely accompany those admissions with copious Mea Culpas as they claim that they were not aware that their underlings were fudging the numbers. That will, of course, be coupled with strong promises and commitments to weed out the bad apples responsible and bring a new veneer of transparency in their reporting.
This whole thing looks too much like setting up the populace for official recognition of peak oil and preparing that same populace for a new round of stringent measures designed to allow for a claimed smooth and painless transition into a lower energy future. Groundwork for this, of course, will necessitate a new and invigorated climate of fear akin to that following 9/11 as the government and their media partners stress to the unwary populace the serious implications of peak oil and the pain that will result on Main Street if the people do not follow the dictates of government as they address the issue.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Most people do not understand the nature and manner in which oil is stored underground. They mistakenly think it exists in a large pool, like an underground lake or like certain, but very few, water aquifers. It does not.
I am not a geologist but I have, through extensive reading and research, come to understand reasonably what the physical characteristics of an oil reserve are. In most cases oil exists in and is dispersed through porous layers of underground rock, ideally sandstone, and is held in place in that source rock by a heavier, denser cap of rock above it, up through which the oil in the reserve cannot flow. In some cases, most notably in tar sands, oil is held in a subsurface layer of sand but must be secured there by some form of heavy overburden of rock or clay.
But oil in a reservoir generally, but not always, is under pressure. This is generally because of the natural gas volatiles that occur hand in hand with the oil. Oil is extracted or recoverable by releasing that pressure and allowing the oil to be pushed by that pressure to the surface through a well. But that oil will only continue to flow upward as long as the pressure in the reservoir continues. The more oil that is extracted from the reservoir the more the pressure drops, the lower the flow rate becomes until, eventually, the pressure is completely dissipated and the flow stops.
Advanced drilling and extraction techniques used in the oil industry today are attempts to compensate for this natural drop in reserve pressure. Natural gas, carbon dioxide, water and seawater injection are all used in various reserves in order to maintain the pressure needed to drive the oil to the surface. The catch-22 in the use of such techniques, unfortunately, is that the more such techniques are used the more the geological integrity of the reserve is damaged and, ultimately, the less oil that is eventually recoverable. This is being proven out in oil field after oil field, such as in the North Sea, where flow rates, once the peak extraction has been reached, falls off 2-5 times or more quickly than using conventional techniques. So, although you can get the oil out of the ground faster using these techniques the amount of oil the field will ultimately yield is reduced, sometimes by as much as half or even more.
With the possible exception of tar sands, and even there it is questionable, no oil field will ever yield up all of the oil it contains. Eventually the field pressure drops to a point where whatever amount remains simply is not recoverable. Long before that, however, continued recovery and extraction surpasses the point where it is economically viable or reaches the point where the energy invested in recovery exceeds the energy recovered. To put that on an apples-to-apples basis, at that point more oil (energy) is used to get the oil out than the amount of oil you get out.
This is what peak oil is about. Peak oil is the point at which the collective flow rate from all the world's oil fields reaches and surpasses its maximum level and begins an increasingly progressive decline in production. From that point on, unless society's dependence on oil somehow diminishes, demand for oil will increasingly exceed the amount of oil available to fill that demand. Logically this period will be characterised, at least in a capitalist system, by continually rising oil prices. Reduction in demand will, of course, fall to the level of availability with the price rises claiming the casualties.
Governments, politicians, oil industry executives, and even the media have put extraordinary efforts over the past several decades to hide the true state of global oil reserves. They deride and attempt to marginalize the peak oil pundits. They over-trumpet the latest oil discoveries as proof that the peak oil theory is all wrong. They progressively lump new non-conventional and alternative sources of oil into global oil statistics as though they have always been part of the crude oil supply. They attempt to disguise declining flow rates as "voluntary production cut-backs". And quite consistently those leaving this sphere of influence - departing oil industry executives, retiring politicians, retiring oil geologists, departing oil statisticians, etc. - begin telling a very different story than what they were pressured and coerced into telling while they were on the inside.
Most recently, in an article in the UK Guardian, "Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower" an insider in the IEA (International Energy Agency) reveals how the IEA has consistently massaged their oil data because it was "imperative not to anger the Americans". They have been guilty of fudging the numbers in order "to avoid severe economic dislocation," and panic in the marketplace.
But here's the rub. The IEA isn't just some marginal oil statistics company. It was specifically established in 1974 to be a trusted, reliable source of oil and energy data to the 28 largest, wealthiest and most powerful industrialized nations in the world. The global economy, global foreign policy, global planning is all predicated on the data produced for these nations by the IEA. And it has all been lies. Tell them what they want to hear, to hell with truth.
So how did the peak oil pundits become the bad guys? They have been desperately trying to open the eyes and ears of politicians and governments and the media to realities, realities that will have one of the greatest impacts in human history on our generation. And yet the IEA will issue a couple of Mea Culpas and say a few hail Marys and all will be forgiven and tomorrow the world will be right back to accepting their bogus statistics. And the peak oil pundits will still be criticized, demonized, marginalized and ignored.
Friday, September 25, 2009
I'm not sure if you've ever given it much thought but..... we are heading for a measurable and persistent decline in available global energy resources that will eventually leave us in a no-energy world. Seriously!
I assume you have heard about peak oil. Well, it's not just oil. It's natural gas, coal, hydro electricity, nuclear power, virtually all forms of energy. Oh, and of course global warming is happening at the same time. Have you ever considered what all that is going to mean to you? To your lifestyle? To the lives of your children and their children?
No? Well think about it. Please!
I don't want to rain on your parade, put a damper on your party. But things are going to change. Hell, they already are. And not for the better. Maybe you just haven't noticed.
I don't mean for you to become a (pick one; peakster, peaknik, peak-oiler, nut job), although that is certainly an option. But it takes years of study to be able to read between the lines of the utter crap politicians and the mainstream media throws at us as they struggle to avoid talking about reality. But won't you at least look at both sides of the debate? And there is a debate, and will continue to be a debate as long as so much effort is being put into keeping you from seeing the reality of the situation.
Just as denial is no way to deal with grief, it is no way to deal with energy decline and climate change. Sooner or later you have to stop trying to avoid reality and face up to it, however painful that may be.
I'm not going to go into a long song and dance here of trying to overwhelm you with the statistics. I'm not even going to try to convince you that peak oil is real. I have written over a hundred articles on this blog already aimed at doing that. And there are so many other sites doing the same. But a thousand articles aren't going to do the job unless you can be convinced to read them, unless you can be convinced to open your mind. And that is what I am trying to do here.
I know peak oil and the thought of terminal energy decline is scary. Very! I remember years ago when I first understood the implications of peak oil. I was paralyzed with fear. It took me well over a year to accept it as reality and to start looking beyond peak oil to what life is going to be like on the other side. I realized that denying it was not going to stop it from happening. There was going to be a peak and there was going to be a life on the other side of it. If I didn't think about it, allow for it, plan for it, prepare for it, then it was going to just happen to me and I would be caught up in a huge flood of unprepared people struggling trying to adjust to the massive changes it will bring. I didn't want to be part of that flood. And I don't think you do either.
Where do we look for an example of what life will be like in a post-carbon, post-oil, post-energy world? We can look to history, study what life was like before the industrial revolution. We can look to the third world, the poor countries where people live without energy and survive on $2.00 a day. We can look to various TV reality programs that place people intentionally in a non-industrial, agrarian lifestyle for a season, a year, several years. We can look to heritage villages like Toronto's Black Creek Pioneer Village, or Eastern Ontario's Upper Canada Village, or Australia's Olde Sydney Towne. In so many ways the post-carbon world will very likely look and function very much like the pre-carbon, pre-industrial world.
I am, in a sense, luckier than most around me. I can look to my own past, my own upbringing and childhood. Yes! I've been around for a few years. I was raised in a home where we heated with wood. We had a large, multi-tentacled wood furnace in the cellar and a large cookstove in the kitchen. Each year from the time I was twelve I would go with my stepfather and a neighbour out to the woodlot to cut our winter's supply of wood. We had no running water and no well, used an outhouse with old newspapers for toilet paper, bathed immodestly in a galvanized tub on the kitchen floor (in a house with five older sisters), carried pails of water from a neighbours pump a couple hundred yards up the street, got up first on cold winter mornings to restart the fire in the furnace and cookstove and break the ice on top of the water bucket. We closed off a major part of the house in winter to save on heat needs. We packed snow against the outside of the house in winter to help with insulation. The outside of my bedroom window, and other windows, was covered in plastic sheeting from fall until spring. We hard a large half-acre garden that produced much of what went into the cellar in mason jars every fall. For protein my step-father would bag a deer most years and that was supplemented with a couple of galvanized garbage cans full of sucker fish caught in the fall, and the odd stolen chicken through the winter.
You will, I am sure, see hardship in that. I see fond memories. But......... could I go back to living like that again? No. My health is deteriorating and I am getting on in age. If I were younger, yes. I could do it.
But what about you? If you've never lived like that it would be a very hard adjustment to make. I don't think most people could. Sooner or later, though, there may not be a choice. I never gave it a second thought as I was growing up. For a time I guess I never imagined that people could live any other way, at least not until a television found it's way into our home. But if you have lived your entire life in what we see as normal society today, how will you ever adopt to a lifestyle like that in which I was raised? Or even more primitive, like the lifestyle my parents and grandparents grew up with?
Think about it. Please!
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
As in the case of any commodity, when the availability of supply can no longer keep pace with demand then the availability, from that point onward, dictates the price of the commodity. It is no longer a buyer's market.
Global energy consumption per capita peaked sometime during the 1990s. Since that point the global population increase has been greater than the total global increase in energy production and energy consumption.
Although the rate of growth of per capita energy consumption in the US - which today uses roughly 25% of all energy used globally - has decreased from 2.5% in the early 1990s to less than 1.5% in 2008, it is still on the increase. Obviously, with a total global energy supply on the decline and U.S. per capita consumption still on the rise, the percent of total global energy use by the U.S. is on the increase while much of the rest of the world, particularly the third world, are being priced out of the energy market and are already having to cope with ever-decreasing energy availability.
Energy, unlike almost every other commodity, requires the consumption of some of itself - energy - in the production of itself. The more energy we produce the more energy consume in producing it. That is called EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). It can be difficult to equate one form of energy to another, especially since the pricing of different forms of energy is not consistent when it comes to the value of the energy produced. You will often see the acronym BOE used in regards to energy. This stands for Barrels of Oil Equivalent. And that is very important when trying to understand EROEI.
Let us take that to the extreme for simplicity's sake. Let us suppose the only form of energy available on this planet is oil, rather than the more complex Barrels of Oil Equivalent. The EROEI, therefore, shows how much energy, in the form of oil, is used in order to produce that oil. Obviously you want to use as little oil as possible to produce that oil because it is only the oil produced in excess of the oil used that is available for other uses than producing the oil in the first place.
At the beginning of the oil age it is estimated that the amount of energy used to produce the readily available, high quality oil with which the oil industry began was about one barrel used for every 100 barrels produced. Ninety-nine out of every 100 barrels of oil produced was available to be used for other than producing oil.
In the time since then, of course, the energy cost per barrel of oil produced has steadily risen. On average, when considering all forms of oil like tar sands and deep water, we get a little more than ten barrels of oil for every barrel of oil invested. In fact, when it gets to tar sands and ultra-deep-water oil and bio-fuels produced from corn ethanol, the EROEI ratio gets very close to 1:1. It takes almost the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of oil. If we ever pursue producing oil from the various shale deposits like Bakken it could take more energy to produce every barrel than what we get out of it.
The peak oil theory, contrary to what certain denialists continue to claim, does not suggest we are running out of oil. In fact most knowledgeable peak oil pundits will quickly point out that we will probably never run out of oil completely. What the peak oil theory does say is that we will reach a point where the flow, the rate of production, can no longer be increased, that demand will thereafter be greater than production and that that gap will widen year by year.
Once you pass that peak, as well, the energy gas of the energy produced will increase inexorably, pushing the world ever faster toward depletion. From the peak onward the cheap, easily-accessible, high quality oil has all been consumed. There is still oil left but it is much more expensive, in terms of energy consumption, to produce it. From peak onward, therefore, the amount of oil produced in excess of the amount of oil consumed in its production declines faster than the overall decline in the rate of production.
When the energy consumed in producing a barrel of oil passes the total energy contained in a barrel of oil, it doesn't matter what form of energy is used to produce that oil or what price that energy form is set at. At that point it takes more energy to produce energy than the energy produced. There is no energy surplus, over and above production energy cost, available to do anything other than produce oil.
So how much is our energy really worth, when calculated in terms of energy used in its production? Are we prepared to continue to produce oil and other forms of energy even when it takes more energy to produce it that what we get out of it? It is a question we will soon have to answer if our approach to peak oil continues to be; use as much as we can as long as we can and then figure out what to do for an encore. We don't yet see the net reduction in global energy production, the global energy consumption per capita. That price is being paid by the third world. But reality will soon come home to roost. Soon either the whole rest of the world will have to give up all claims to energy to support North America's energy habit or we will all be in the same rapid race to the bottom, ourselves included. Or we can all fight for what is left.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
It is always awkward forecasting the future. There are so many variables. But it is easier, in my mind, to predict what life will be like in that post-carbon world than at any point during the transition. If you can start with a clear vision of the destination you are in a better position to define your own transition path.
What will the post-carbon world look like? Here are just fifteen examples of the changes you will see in society as we slide down the energy-decline slope.
* The focus of life will be very much local, not the global focus of today. Sustainability will mean local self-sufficiency and self-reliance, either individually or as a community.
* Consumerism will be dead, dead, dead. The keyword will have become need, not want. Gone with consumerism will be the vast advertising industry that fuels consumerism today.
* Society will clearly not be dominated by the automobile. Electric cars may hang on for a while, as might cars running on locally-produced bio-diesel. The ultimate demise of the automobile will be, however, not a lack of fuel to run them but the inability to maintain the automobile manufacturing industry, an industry today based on planned obsolescence. Yes, it would be possible to make durable, rugged cars that would last decades, perhaps a century or more. But that would entail a complete overhaul of the industry mindset.
* Globalization will have died well before we enter the post-carbon world. In fact it is very much in the process of unwinding now. The massive fuel demands of large-scale trans-oceanic transport and the tremendous raw material demands of the ship-building industry simply are not going to be feasible in a world of net declining resources.
* Communities will produce all, or almost all, of their own food. If they trade it will likely be with other nearby communities but this will likely be limited to crisis times such as after crop failures.
* Travel will not be what it is today. Airlines will be a thing of the past, unless they convert to blimps and hot air balloons. Before that the industry will likely survive for a while as a luxury for the monied elite. Trans-oceanic shipping will be extremely limited, unless it reverts to sail but even then would be limited. Possibly, and hopefully, the once expansive railway system and services will be rebuilt in time but that is going to require a government commitment which, at the moment, seems very unlikely. The concept of travelling for vacation will probably disappear over time. The current highway systems will initially fall into disrepair and ultimately be abandoned to be reclaimed by nature. Some of the routes they followed may still be used, on horseback and on foot, since many of the early highways followed routes that were already well in use before that. People in cold climates will not travel south to escape winter but will, in fact, be very travel restricted by that winter weather.
* The manufacturing industry, if it survives, will be seriously downsized and refocused on society's needs, not the competitive and advertising-stimulated wants of today.
* Manufacturing processes will likely be reverse engineered so that production can be dispersed to regional areas where they will serve a discrete regional market.
* Housing will change dramatically, downsizing from the ubiquitous McMansions of today to the small, energy-efficient, cozy cottages and bungalows that were prevalent in our parents' time.
* Classical, perpetual-growth economics will have died a painful death. It is, indeed, in the process of dying now, real growth having already died years ago with the appearance of growth being propped up by a myriad of smoke-and-mirrors financial instruments. The wheels fell off in 2008 with the $147 dollar price for oil. Economists, if money is to continue as the lifeblood of human society, will have to find ways for that society to survive within a no-growth economy.
* The face of retail will change dramatically. Malls will be dead. A tremendous shake-out of the retail sector will have major casualties. What retail survives will mostly move into residential areas, close to the customer, and be run out of the home, not separate rental or owned space.
* The village or neighbourhood open-air market will become the primary source of commerce. Much of the commercial business will be for repair, maintenance, refit, mend, fix as the throw-away society dies.
* Many people assume the very useful internet will survive the decline in oil. It won't. The internet is cheap-energy- and technology-intensive. Cheap energy is even now disappearing as costs go up and available resources decline. And to think the computer manufacturing industry will survive the end of cheap energy is wishful thinking in the extreme. So the internet will not survive the end of cheap energy. Your ability to have and use a computer in any form in a post-carbon world will depend on your personal ability to fix, maintain and program it yourself, and your ability to personally or communally produce the energy to run it.
* Large cities with their multi-million populations and their rings of suburbs will not survive the end of cheap energy in their present form. They cannot be made food self-sufficient and do not have the internal resources to become self-reliant. They are critically dependent on massive infrastructure that is now expensive to maintain and, in the future, impossible to maintain. Cities in pre-industrial times generally did not exceed a million population (and those were rare), were surrounded by rich farmland (now covered by suburbs), depended on a large slave population (currently replaced by energy slaves), and generally had good water access for moving trade and commodities by sail and barge (now replaced by energy-intensive rail, trucking, ship and air).
* Medicine will become far less ubiquitous and far less technology intensive. That technology requires a thriving manufacturing industry that exists only because of cheap energy. And both the manufacture and use of that equipment consumes a great deal of energy. Every advance in technology has, in my opinion, reduced the ability and willingness of doctors to make a patient diagnosis with medical skills alone. This has been largely necessitated by our litigation-prone society.
How will you chart your course to sustainability through that minefield? It won't be easy because it depends so much on timing. The first thing that you must do, if you are to be successful, is keep a close eye on the news. The signs will be there but you have to develop a very active and effective bullshit filter. You will have to be able to read between the lines. You have to use something other than the corporate dominated and controlled mainstream media to get at the truth behind what that mainstream media is telling you. Use sources like the internet, alternative newspapers, independent TV and radio.
If you wait for the mainstream media to present a clear and honest picture, like those who were surprised at the financial downturn, it will be too late. And, most importantly, you have to follow the news regularly, even keep notes, in order to spot the trends that are developing. The mainstream media are not going to suddenly one day run a headline that says we've run out of cheap oil - all that's left is shale and tar sands. What they will do instead is probably barrage you with stories about the marvellous new technologies that allow us to extract oil from shale and how that technology will extend the oil age by hundreds of years.
Fair warning will be available but you will have to search for it, dig for it, find sources that you trust and rely on them. Seeing, recognizing and accepting those warnings should, in most cases, give you enough chance to avoid the worst. It is, in my opinion, a terrible waste of your energy trying to convince others what is coming. Those who rely exclusively on the mainstream media will laugh at you and call you a doomer until the shit hits the fan. Then they will simply avoid you.
Good luck and enjoy the trip!
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
In the case of both species evolution and human social evolution, the punctuated equilibrium has been generally a function of available energy. When a species overshoots the energy carrying capacity of its environment (which for most means exceeding the food supply) sudden bursts in evolutionary change happen as certain existing mutations in the gene pool are suddenly favoured by the changes in environment. Mutations are common but it takes certain conditions for them to become favoured.
In the case of other species that energy is derived from food alone. Only in the case of man does external energy, in the form primarily of fossil fuels, enter the picture. Our use of external energy has for millenia interrupted the cyclical nature of evolutionary punctuated equilibrium, smoothing out the large peaks and valleys of natural evolution because we have in that time had access to and used more energy than what we are limited to in the natural food supply.
There has been little change in our man-made environment, little opportunity for mutations to achieve dominance in human species. But as our hospitals and medical journals will reveal, mutations happen all the time. That creates the potential for an uncomfortable relationship; the longer the period of stasis the more abrupt and dramatic the period of punctuated equilibrium will be when it comes.
Human society (as opposed to the human species) has, however, gone through a process of evolutionary punctuated equilibrium each time there has been a major change in our energy supply, as with the discovery of a new energy source (See my articles in this blog; Energy as the Catalyst in the Punctuated Equilibrium of Human Population Growth and Alternative Energy, Add-ons and Replacements ). This was the case with the taming of wind power, the discovery of peat, coal, oil, electricity, natural gas, the taming of water to produce hydro-electricity, uranium to produce nuclear power and even the advent of agriculture.
As with any other species taking a new food item into its diet, each of those energy sources has been exploited as an add-on to our ever-increasing energy mix. With each new energy source discovered, the proportion of total energy use satisfied by the old sources decreases (though the absolute usage may stay as high as it was) in favour of the new, usually more efficient energy source. An energy source is rarely abandoned by choice once it has been incorporated into the energy mix.
Only depletion that forces the abandonment of an energy source seems to be able to accomplish that. This could be seen, for example, in Cuba with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the virtual, and sudden, elimination of oil as an energy source for that country. They were suddenly forced into finding a way to live without what had been their dominant energy source. (It is interesting to note now that oil has been discovered in Cuba's territorial waters the U.S. and the oil majors want to challenge Cuba's claim to those waters so they can have access to the oil.) Similarly, wood as a source of heat energy was virtually abandoned in Britain, due to massive deforestation, as coal became the dominant heating fuel in its place.
Life on the way up the energy slope, as each new source of energy is exploited, is as herky-jerky and traumatic as the punctuated equilibrium of species evolution. A look at the the past three centuries since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is the history of dramatic and sudden changes affecting the whole of society. The Industrial Revolution itself dramatically changed the landscape of Europe and North America in just a couple of decades as coal became a primary industrial fuel as well as the preferred home-heating fuel.
As would be expected, the way down the energy slope will also he very uneven. Never in human history, however, have we had a period when the net total energy available was in decline. But that will be the case with peak oil because natural gas, coal, uranium, hydro-electric production all appear as though they will be peaking at roughly the same time. Is there another magic energy source waiting in the wings? It is possible - through various alternatives like wind, solar, methane, tidal and other alternatives - to replace the energy derived from one of those sources (except oil). But there is no other energy source that is seen as even fractionally possible to replace our total energy mix, or replacing oil alone.
If, however, you can accept that species evolution has been a continuum, and that human social evolution to this point has been a continuum, then it should be possible for you to see the changes that will happen as a result of peak oil as a continuum. That can help take the fear out of the peak oil issue. The most frightening aspect about peak oil for most people is the dramatic and abrupt changes it will make in the way we live our lives.
But change is change, whether it is perceived as good or bad. Change is what you make of it. If you approach it with fear and negativism it will be difficult and traumatic, even debilitating. If you approach it with excitement and a sense of adventure, however, it can be a life-confirming experience. Peak oil, after all, will happen whether you like it or not. The changes that it will bring will happen whether you like them or not. You may as well make the best of it.
A continuum through peak oil to a post-carbon future will be a process of transition, adapting to and adopting changes into your lifestyle that move you inexorably toward the lifestyle you will have to be living in that post-carbon world. There is a growing grass-roots transition-town movement that started in Britain but has expanded to other parts of the world, including North America. These are communities that are planning how their community will transition into a post-carbon world. Some of these are medium-sized cities, many small towns. Admittedly, many of those efforts are faltering because they fail to get the wider community involved. But the fact that the movement keeps expanding means, hopefully, that a critical mass is building.
The continuum that so many are looking for in order to find comfort in accepting the peak oil theory and/or joining the peak oil movement has to be found in understanding what the post-carbon world will look like. Knowing that it is possible to reasonably understand the evolutionary changes society will go through between now and then. One absolute, however, is that the continuum, the transition, can not be found in or based on business as usual, by clinging to the present. That is a dead-end path.
Monday, August 10, 2009
The current increase in awareness and interest is, of course, partly due to the most serious global economic crisis since the great depression, through which even the uninitiated are finally seeing that our global, perpetual-growth-oriented economic system is no longer sustainable, if it ever was.
Yet, however, when most people think at all about sustainability they are still thinking in terms of economic sustainability, about sustainability of the materialistic lifestyle to which we have become accustomed this past half century, sustainability of sprawling suburbia and the family car, about sustainable development and growth, some way to sustain business as usual. But it's the thought that counts. Right?
The ability to get a significant number of people to think about real sustainability, long-term societal, environmental and species sustainability, is going to require a deep and fundamental change in mindset. The core of sustainability planning can not be that which is itself unsustainable. A problem cannot be its own solution.
I see it all the time, even in the peak oil groups in which I participate. People assume that a certain aspect of civilization or technology which they are particularly dependant upon will survive. So many people assume, for example, that if/when society collapses the internet will survive. It is so useful, after all. But most people are surprised to learn that it takes a tremendous amount of energy and technology to run the internet, especially in its global incarnation with which we have become so accustomed. I have friends in England, Germany, Brazil, South Africa, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand with whom I communicate all the time. It may be by e-mail. It may be live chat, either by text or even, frequently, by video and audio using our webcams. Sure, it's great. But I definitely do not assume that facility will still exist if society and the global economy seriously and terminally collapse.
The basic problem is that people think about changes relative to what currently is. They get fixated on what they are going to lose. They view the whole journey into the future negatively, as a journey away from the present with which they are knowledgeable and comfortable, like somebody moving out of their well-loved old house after the bank forecloses, rather than an exciting journey toward the future, like someone happily choosing to move into a new or different house.
The simple reality that seems to elude most people in the discussion about peak oil is that peak oil means peak food! There are far more people (6.6 billion) on this planet than the planet can sustain naturally, without the use of fossil fuels (many serious and credible researchers estimate the natural carrying capacity to be between 500 million and 1.5 billion). When those fossil fuels go into serious and irreversible decline, which they will, we are going to have to try to feed our massive population without them. Sustainability means, simply, the ability to feed the population, whether that consideration be local or global.
So, forget about the present! Our current society as it is can not survive peak oil. It is the business as usual of our human society that has turned peak oil into a crisis, if not an outright disaster/catastrophe. The loss of oil, after all, is not a crisis by itself. The crisis is created by our deep dependence on oil, especially for the production, processing and distribution of food.
Don't bemoan what we are leaving behind. Think about where we are going forward to. What will that future look like? If you are focused on the past the future will make itself and you will have to live with the results, whatever they are. Only by focusing on that future do you have any potential of controlling what that future will be. One way or another, a post-fossil-fuel future is coming. You can prepare for it but you can't prevent it. The best way not to be negatively affected by oil depletion is to not be dependent on oil. Set yourself free now, and many people are proving that is possible, while it is in your control to do so rather than have it forced on you.
I don't know what the future will be like. There are far too many variables. But I am reasonably convinced that whatever society emerges will not be based on cities as we have come to know them this past century (in recent decades we have reached the point where over half the world's population live in cities). Cities do not, and generally cannot, produce all of the resources they consume nor manage the refuse they generate (Toronto recently went through a 5-week garbage strike during which 25,000 tons of garbage piled up temporary dump sites in parks and rinks).
Modern cities, with their ever-expanding suburban sprawl and centralized concentration of business, industry and labour, are unsustainable, a product of the high energy age that will follow the energy downslope into the abyss. They draw their resources from ever larger externalities, starting with regions criss-crossed with canals and railways at the onset of the Industrial Revolution and now expanded to sucking in resources from all over the globe, those resources moved about the globe by energy-intensive ships and aircraft.
Long term sustainability as we approach and pass the end of the high-energy age is going to have to see a reversal of that trend. The focus will be forced into ever-decreasing spheres, from the global resource base down to the regional and community resource base. Sustainability for a community will mean resource self-sufficiency and community self-reliance. That which a community needs will have to be available within the community or its immediately surrounding area, only rarely by trade with neighbouring communities.
Let's look at some of the key components of that future community self-reliance and self sufficiency.
The first key to community self-sufficiency will be food self-sufficiency, the ability of a community to produce all of the food needed to sustain its population. Almost all agriculture today is dependent on centralized seed companies. The crop varieties available are limited, having shrunken steadily since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Access to seeds is dependent on those central seed companies and an energy-intensive global distribution system. There are several companies, like Monsanto, Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill, whose corporate objective is to control the means of global food production. Increasingly seeds are both hybridized and genetically engineered, many with terminator genes so they will not produce seed, negating the age-old practice of seed-saving, saving the seed from this year's crop to produce next year's crop.
As global industry falters and the global distribution system grinds to a halt for lack of energy that seed system will, at first, become increasingly unreliable with the energy expense of distributing anything to rural areas. Eventually it will simply disappear.
For any community to be self-sufficient beyond the end of the oil and high-energy age it is going to have to become both willing and able to produce next year's seed from this year's crop. It is going to have to develop and maintain local crop variations suited to the local climate and soil conditions. This requires critical farming skills that have been lost over this past century that are going to have to be relearned before a community can develop this type of self-sufficiency. This will, of course, require some head start time (reliable estimate is two decades) so that the skills are built up before the industrial seed industry collapses.
There are, however, other aspects of this that require a head start as well. Few farmers today keep on hand seed for two years of crops. Why should they? They get their seed fresh each year from the seed company. If we wait until the seed companies collapse, however, where are the seeds going to come from with which to get started without them? If your crops are already in the ground, assuming they aren't genetically modified with terminator genes, you are going to have to let a significant portion of your crop go to seed at the end of the season in order to have enough seed for next year's crop. But suppose the seed industry collapses in winter or spring, after you have harvested your crops and before new seeds would normally be ordered. You will be absolutely dead in the water.
If you start saving seed now, or soon, you will not only develop skills in seed-saving but you will have your own seed on hand in the event of the collapse of the seed industry. You will also develop the knowledge of what crops are genetically modified and learned to avoid them in favour of natural crops that will produce seed which you can save.
This is not that easy, however. The seed industry is extremely aggressive in protecting its turf. Saving seed from crops produced using seeds purchased from a major seed company will probably be prohibited by law. You need to learn what heritage seeds are available to you, generally from small local seed companies, and use those as your starting point. Even then, however, as was the case with Percy Schmeiser and others, if your crop gets cross-contaminated from a nearby crop from patent-protected or genetically modified seed, you may be prohibited by law from saving seed produced by that entire crop. And the courts thus far have come down very much in favour of the seed companies in these cases. So there are many roadblocks in the way of your early preparation for this and almost all aspects of future sustainability. But persevere.
In order to be self-sufficient and self-reliant on the other side of the energy collapse a community is going to be critically dependent on a safe, reliable, clean water supply. That's a no-brainer, right? There are the municipal water supply, the heavy duty industrial pumps to supply water for crop irrigation, water purification systems, running water in all the houses. All of these, of course, require a heavy investment of funds both to acquire but also to maintain. Once we are seriously into energy decline and the global distribution system begins to collapse and global industry runs into supply and distribution and cost problems all of these systems will begin to break down. Not too long afterward they will simply cease to function. The community is going to need in place a water supply system that is not dependent on fossil fuels, big expensive industrial machinery and equipment, heavy and expensive maintenance, and capable of supplying sustainably all of the community's water needs.
Unless you are starting a new community from the ground up, and I am definitely not recommending this, that is going to have to be done through an established, and probably very conservative, community council. Getting them to replace the current water systems with a new one designed for a post-fossil-fuel age that they do not understand is fast approaching is not going to be an easy task but, as with seeds above, waiting until it becomes a necessity is not going to work. The groundwork is going to have to be laid well in advance.
The safety issue concerns the presence of water management infrastructure upstream from the community. Dams, causeways, canals and canal locks, and other similar infrastructure has a limited lifespan and requires extensive and expensive maintenance. If any of these are upstream from the community the potential for catastrophic inundation of the community is elevated and the potential for interruption of the water supply gets greater over time. Global warming also has a significant potential to impact the future viability of your water supply, both in terms of seasonal flow and contamination. In addition, any industrial infrastructure upstream, such as mining operations with their toxic tailing ponds, has the high potential of contaminating your water source once maintenance of that infrastructure ceases with the collapse of the company or the industry.
Soil, like water, is critically important to all life on earth. The foundation for all higher life-forms is the plants that grow in the soil. Over millions of years nature has perfected techniques for creating, building and maintaining soil fertility for crops, fields, woodlands and wetlands.
Unfortunately nature's systems were not built around man. Our use of pesticides kills the important micro-organisms in the soil that are critical to fertility. Our use of artificial fertilizers seriously upsets the natural complex balance of minerals in the soil, those fertilizer focusing on primarily just three elements; nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Herbicides destroy the other plants (we call them weeds) that are critical to support for the broad spectrum of soil micro-organisms that create complex soil fertility. Our monocropping encourages the overpopulation of specific groups of micro-organisms at the expense of others. Our plowing of fields upsets and even destroys the soil environment particular micro-organisms need, exposing deep soil organisms to the deadly (for them) air and the sun, suffocating shallow sub-surface micro-organism by burying them deep in the soil. Constant use of heavy farm equipment and plowing have built up a hardpan 6-8 inches below the surface that prevents the movement of critical micro-organisms up and down through the soil, prevents many plants from sinking roots deep enough to get sub-surface water, and builds up a layer of toxins just above the hardpan. Our constant irrigation of crops leaches critical nutrients out of the top soil, causes those crops to develop shallow root systems negating the ability of roots to bring minerals up from the deep sub-soil to the topsoil to nourish plants and micro-organisms and to bring up water from deep within the soil. The combination of over-irrigation and constant application of agro-chemicals has dramatically increased the salt content in the soil, so much so that long-used commercial agricultural soil and even whole farms have had to be abandoned because of the salt burden.
Almost all commercial agricultural soil is sterile, with all the nutrients for plants supplied by fertilizers and other agrochemical additives, soil and plant immune system functions dependent on pesticides and herbicides, water supplied by mechanical irrigation. When the advancing energy crisis forces us to farm without those the fertility needed to grow crops on that soil will simply not exist. It will have to be carefully rebuilt, either by nature or by us, before those soils can produce healthy, abundant crops. With the current levels of global population producing sufficient food on chemically sterilized soils will be impossible, another reality that will force the focus away from global and down to regional and community.
The basic components that must be restored to sterile soils are a full spectrum mineral complex, carbon, organic matter, nitrogen and, most importantly, a broad spectrum of soil micro-organisms. There are many soil improvement techniques that are beneficial, such as creating terra preta soil, but over time the full complexity of living soil must be restored if sustainability is to be achieved.
There is an unfortunate tendency today to think that those who own and run and work on farms are farmers, that they know how to farm. A fairer characterization would be mechano-chemical food producers. Take away their chemicals and their big equipment and and their mechanical irrigation and they wouldn't know where to begin.
There are, in the industrialized world in which we live, very few traditional farmers left and even fewer of their children are choosing to follow in their parents' footsteps. There are far too few to serve as a base for a new, post-fossil-fuel farming industry when the fossil fuels run out and the high-tech farm equipment stops running. That is not to suggest that traditional farming is the only method by which to produce sufficient volumes of food to feed a significant community. Permaculture, for example, is proving to be an excellent technique. But this too requires the long-term development of an extensive, in-the-field skill set, only the rudiments of which can be learned in a classroom.
The farming skills necessary to eke the optimum amount of food out of a piece of land are not easily come by. Even our agricultural schools today tend to focus on chemical/industrial farming techniques. Those fortunate enough to be learning traditional farming skills are doing so at the hand of one of those few traditional farmers still practicing their craft, by apprenticing at their shoulder.
And, of course, today's industrial farms are far too large to be farmed using traditional farming skills. They are designed for and dependent on fossil fuels and large equipment, designed for technological efficiency. They use specialized varieties of seeds to produce crops that can be efficiently harvested with massive mechanization. A return to traditional farming will also necessitate a return to traditional-sized farms, small, labour-intensive farms. The transition from industrial farming to traditional is going to require major land redistribution. The good news is that crop yields using traditional techniques (once the fertility of the soil has been re-established) are 20-50% higher or better.
Sustainable forest management
In any climate, particularly northern climates like Canada and Northern Europe, forests are going to be critical for sustainability in a post-fossil-fuel age. Unfortunately, in the climates in which they will be most needed the forests have long-since been decimated by clear cutting for agricultural land, building materials and urban development and expansion.
Most of the major forests that remain today are not near the population centers that are going to need them in a post-oil world. In a post-oil world forests are going to be needed still for building materials, for fuel, for soil retention and as a habitat for wild animals which will probably increasingly be turned to as a food source. As animal habitat what forests remain are sadly lacking, those forests hacked up into disconnected stands that offer little in the way of contiguous habitat.
In order to not further decimate the forests as fossil fuels run down and then run out a great deal of forest regrowth is going to be needed. It takes, if one includes hardwoods like maple and oak, a hundred years or more to grow a forest from seedlings. Even with the most optimistic peak oil forecasts we do not have that long. There is a lot of reforestation taking place today but most of that is for fast growing softwoods like pine, the objective of which is to quickly produce trees that can again be cut commercially. Sustainable forest management is only being practiced in a few places.
We need a massive, broad-based reforestation effort now to ensure that those forests are going to be there when the fossil fuels can no longer satisfy our needs. We need to stop the clearing and degredation of what forests still remain and give them an opportunity to develop old growth.
Before fossil fuels farming was conducted using a combination of human and animal power. Before the advent of the automobile the population of horses in North America exceeded the number of humans. Today it is a small fraction of the human population and the vast majority of what stock does exist is for pleasure riding and racing. There are very few draft horses around and even fewer oxen, mules and donkeys.
The amount of labour that is going to be required to produce the food needed for a global human population of 6.6 billion plus when the fossil fuels have gone into irreversible decline is going to be massive. To enter that era without a massively increased stock of draft animals will mean that all of that work is going to have to accomplished with human labour. That will require well over half the human population (experienced) just producing food. It will take a minimum of two decades to build up the stock of draft animals to a level that we can effectively manage food production for that level of population without fossil fuels and mechanized farm equipment.
Non-mechanized farm equipment
Most of the non-mechanized farm equipment still in existence is being used for planters on suburban lawns or as decoration in front of country stores or rusting away behind dilapidated barns. There are few, if any, manufacturers of this equipment left in the industrialized world. An industry to produce such equipment is unlikely to build up before the demand is there for the product.
That presents an interesting Catch-22. The demand is not likely to be there before the fossil fuels needed for mechanized farming have gone into serious decline. It is unlikely that a whole new industry with heavy fossil fuel needs is going to be able to get off the ground when those very fossil fuels have gone into heavy decline. And government subsidies to facilitate development of such an industry are unlikely with a rapidly eroding tax base due to a shrinking labour market with the inevitable demise of industry as we know it.
Additionally that non-mechanized farm equipment manufactured and used in under-developed and developing countries, though it could in theory fill the need in the industrialized world, will not likely become available in the industrialized world due to the lack of raw materials and fuels in the countries of origin and the lack of shipping and fuel for it to be transported to the industrialized world.
Unless the political leadership in the industrialized world accept the imminence of peak oil, understand the implications that that event will encompass, and take it very seriously while there is still time to prepare, the transition to a post-carbon society in the industrialized world is going to be a very painful one.
Of course, another piece of non-mechanized equipment (not necessarily for the farm) that is manufactured and available in abundance in underdeveloped and developing countries is the bicycle. Utilitarian, rugged and, relative to the recreation and sport cycles available in the industrialized world, inexpensive. The bicycle is the perfect personal transport for a post-carbon world.
Trades, Arts and Crafts
Probably the greatest change on the community landscape over the past century is the loss of local community trades, arts and crafts. The former personal and community self-reliance has been traded for the convenience of the global market place driven by the availability of cheap, reliable fuel. Gone is the village blacksmith, the village cobbler, the village tailor, the village dressmaker, the village butcher. Gone are the local handmade furniture, clothings, the owner-built home, the locally-milled grain. Gone are the jacks-of-all-trades, which would describe half the population a century ago. Those trades that still exist within most communities are practiced in specialization to the exclusion of all others.
The village of a century ago could have survived the loss of oil. Hell the people might not even realize it had happened until well after the event when they noticed no trucks had come through town in the past six months. That same community today may have trouble surviving that six months. They would have long since run out of not just fuel but food and probably most durable goods, and be in no position to replace them locally. If that were the dead of winter in most Canadian communities teams of people would have to clean out the bodies in the spring.
Self-reliance.......... Without a global manufacturing and distribution system, or even a national one, self-reliance for the individual and the community, especially rural communities, is critical one we get well into the post-peak era. If the global and national manufacturing and distribution systems to not crash suddenly they will disintegrate gradually, becoming increasingly unreliable until they finally break down. The impact of this will be hardest in rural communities away from the manufacturing centers.
Peak oil is going to mean much more than the loss of oil and derivative fuels and other products. It is going to mean peak food, in an overpopulated world of over 6.6 billion people. The ability to produce food for that level of population with petro-chemical inputs will be severely hampered because of the impact that chemically-based farming has had on the commercial agriculture soils in the industrialized, food exporting countries of the world. It is going to take decades of highly focussed effort to ready ourselves for food self-sufficiency in a post-peak world, decades that should have started long ago.
With billions of lives at stake, including those of people in the industrialized world, we cannot afford to enter the peak oil era naively optimistic that technology will see us through, that we will find and develop alternative energy sources in time. And we certainly can't afford to enter this era blissfully ignorant of the severe ramifications of getting there unprepared.
Monday, April 20, 2009
Massive Marine Methane Hydrate Destabilization/Release a Potential Major Positive Feedback Mechanism in Accelerating Global Warming
Perhaps the favorite argument of those anxious to take society down a dangerous path - such as that of exploiting a new energy resource like methane hydrates - when there is opposition to that intent out of concern of the risk and danger involved, is to demand that those opposed to their actions prove the alleged danger.
It is an argument that has been increasingly supported by politicians hoping to keep the wheels on the growth-dependent global economy and others who stand to gain from the actions being debated. The growth on which their power depends derives from energy, lots of it.
It seems that invariably the approach favoured by those in power is to let the debated actions continue until that proof of danger is produced, hoping that such proof will not materialize. But almost invariably the satisfactory proof demanded is extremely illusive and in the time it takes to produce that proof an extraordinary amount of damage has already been achieved. All too often the society is already far too advanced down the path to dependence on that resource that the ultimate decision is to carry on, that the risk is deemed manageable, minor and acceptable relative to the perceived benefits being achieved.
While that proof is being developed, and even after it has been presented and supported by countless experts, the tactics of denial, misinformation and disinformation not only continue but accelerate. Whenever any minor point of contention can be created, when any minute error of detail in the proof can be found, it is vigorously put forward as proof that the entire proof is invalid. For every thousand experts endorsing the proof a small number of often highly-paid industry shills are put forward to claim that the debate is not over, that the research is not conclusive, that the proof is incomplete and full of holes, and that the proof should not be allowed to stand in the way of progress.
The concept of using risk, doubt and uncertainty as a need for caution seems to be lost in favor of recklessly proceeding. The logic of demanding proof of safety rather than proof of danger is ignored.
This is the tactic that has been used in industry opposition to the climate change argument. The amount of time and money having to be expended/wasted on the inevitable proof because of this industry opposition and campaign of disinformation is almost enough, and is intended, to dissuade those working on that proof from even bothering. Fortunately, for society, they are not dissuaded.
Any potential crisis that could possibly block or slow economic progress is deemed less a problem than the economic crisis that a more cautious approach could bring about. There is no long term view and no environmental or societal conscience when it comes to economics. There is only the short term profit motive which trumps all other considerations.
Now back to our scheduled programming
There is growing debate today, as the reality of diminishing global oil reserves sinks in, about methane hydrates as a potential energy source and the potential global risks and dangers in their exploitation. The optimism is rapidly waning that economical carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology will be developed to allow the use of coal to be cleaned up to a level that will alleviate global warming. Governments and energy industries throughout the world are increasingly looking at methane as the next great energy source. After all, there is estimated to be more carbon locked up in methane hydrates than in all of the other fossil fuels combined, enough to power human society, according to the optimists, through to the end of this millennium.
But the risks inherent in the exploitation of methane from hydrates are very, very real and every effort must be made to push awareness of those risks out into the public arena to help prevent us from blindly following self-appointed, self-interested leaders down a path rife with dangers that have been vigorously and intentionally kept from public view with a campaign of denial, misinformation and disinformation.
Again I digress
Before I go any further it is, I believe, important to clarify something. I am not suggesting for a moment that those in government or the individuals in corporations like energy companies are setting out to intentionally destroy the world or even to do damage to society. Most of those individuals are probably basically good people who believe that they are doing the best that they can for their companies, their countries, for humanity. I believe strongly that the basic problem is the nature of the corporation and other institutions like government.
Both are created by people but once created the people within those institutions must follow the tunnel-visioned objectives of the institution regardless of their personal beliefs or sense of ethics and morality.
Corporations are, legally at least, artificial people, like computers in a sense. But neither corporations nor computers by their nature have the essential elements that define humanness. They have no soul, no ethics, no morality. They have specified objectives laid out for them by their people and do not allow human fallibility to get in the way of pursuing and, if possible, achieving those single-minded objectives. Failure to do so will see a person removed and replaced by someone who will get with the program.
Institutions and corporations differ from real people in another important respect. They potentially have an existence, a life, well in excess of the lifespan of their human components. The parts are easily replaced without significantly altering the whole.
Back on Track
What are Methane Hydrates? Most methane in the world is a gas - like natural gas and similarly usable as an energy source - formed from organic matter broken down by bacteria. Methane hydrates are molecules of methane gas trapped in a water-ice cage. The hydrate reserves occur, primarily in the oceans along continental shelf margins, and in Arctic permafrost. Methane is also released, in gaseous form, from swamps, peat bogs, shallow lakes and by various animals like ruminants (e.g. cattle, buffalo, water buffalo). There is some small-scale commercial production of methane gas, in Denmark for example, using animal manure in huge methane digesters that use natural bacteria to break down the organic matter and produce the gas which is drawn off and used like natural gas.
Methane hydrates were little studied and only poorly understood before the last three decades. Even now full understanding is still potentially decades away. Although debated, many experts and scientists believe there may be more carbon energy locked up in marine and permafrost methane hydrates than in all of the oil, natural gas and coal in the world combined. That makes them a very attractive potential energy source as world reserves of those three fossil fuels decline. That potential as an energy source is, in fact, the primary financial driver to the study of methane hydrates.
But there are a few important points about methane hydrates that raise red flags and strongly suggest that we proceed with caution in any intent to exploit them for energy.
- Methane hydrates are pockets of methane trapped in a cage of water ice. They occur where they do because they require very specific conditions of temperature and pressure to be stable. Raise the temperature and/or lower the pressure and the molecules break down and release the methane gas.
- The methane in the hydrates is held at a density 160 times that of methane in the atmosphere, meaning as it escapes from the hydrate it expands 160 times.
- Methane in the atmosphere is more than 60 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). It is, however, much shorter lived. It oxidizes fairly quickly in the atmosphere. But it oxidizes to CO2 which is much more stable and much longer lived than the methane itself.
- The temperature at which methane hydrates are stable is not the densest form of water ice. That means that methane hydrate molecules are always subject to two opposing pressures as they warm; the ice forming the cage wants to contract and the methane inside the cage wants to expand. That makes the stability zone in which methane hydrates can exist very narrow and unstable with the slightest changes in temperature and pressure.
- Below the bottom of the hydrate stability zone (HSZ) there is generally more methane but without the hydrates, in gaseous form trapped in the pores of sediment and capped or held in place by the methane hydrates above. Disrupting the cap of methane hydrates, therefore, runs the risk of massive releases of methane not just from the hydrates but of the gaseous methane below the hydrates.
- There have been numerous accidental releases of methane hydrates in the past fifty years in connection with deep sea oil and gas drilling operations (methane hydrates often occur in conjunction with oil and natural gas deposits), extraction platform seabed anchoring, dredging operations, undersea landslides triggered by volcanoes and earthquakes, shifts in undersea temperatures with changes in ocean currents, in the Arctic as sea temperatures rise, and more.
- The risk of accidental releases of the methane gas increases dramatically when we begin to work directly on methane hydrate reserves. Certain suggested methods of methane hydrate exploitation represent very great risks. One of these is sonic destabilization of the methane hydrates which has the potential of destabilizing large sections of the reserves, not just the segment being focused on.
- Most methane hydrates in both undersea reserves and in Arctic permafrost are loosely dispersed and not sufficiently concentrated to allow economical recovery for use as energy.
Most sub sea methane hydrate deposits occur on the downslope edge of continental shelves.
- The risk of massive landslides occurring - potentially resulting in tsunamis - from a large release of methane gas is, therefore, quite high. There is considerable and growing geological evidence that this has occurred several times in earth's past, often in the warming periods at the end of ice ages.
And that is potentially the greatest concern with methane hydrates, whether or not we attempt to exploit them as an energy resource. Scientific studies in the Arctic have already shown that methane venting from the ocean floor is increasing as the temperature of Arctic waters climbs. And Arctic temperature rise is much more rapid, and will continue to be so, than in the tropics as global warming proceeds.
That release of methane as global warming proceeds sets up a powerful positive feedback mechanism that accelerates the warming. Geological science has shown that methane did not initiate the end of ice ages but accelerated the process. We are in a period of overall global warming. I will leave aside the question of whether that is caused by man or by a change in the sunspot cycle. It is irrelevant. A two degree Celsius rise in average global temperature is more than enough to trigger massive methane hydrate releases. That same two degree rise anywhere, such as in the Arctic, threatens release of the hydrate reserves in that area. The temperature rise in Arctic waters is already heralding the beginning of the acceleration of Arctic methane hydrate releases. Potential changes in the course or temperature of the Atlantic thermal currents could also threaten major methane hydrate reserves along the east coast continental shelf of North America from the Caribbean to the Arctic.
I'm certain that those in favor of progress at any price, those in the energy industry, the denial lobby surrounding governments everywhere, will be able to find small errors in my argument to declare them null and void. That, after all, is their job. Don't let them fool you. The risks to our planet and our global human society are high enough to demand that they prove their case.
The following can offer some additional reading and were used as source material for some of the newer components of my argument.
1) Could changing ocean circulation have destabilized methane hydrate at the Paleocene/Eocene boundary?
2) Methane Hydrate and Abrupt Climate Change
3) METHANE HYDRATE DESTABILIZATION, DEGLACIATION AND OCEANIC ANOXIA, AND BIOLOGICAL INNOVATION IN THE LATE NEOPROTEROZOIC
4) Methane hydrate destabilization as a result of anthropogenic warming
5) Global Climate Destabilization is Major Security & Economic Threat
6) Methane Hydrates Research
7) Methane seeps,methane hydrate destabilization,and the late Neoproterozoic postglacial cap carbonates
8) Methane Hydrates Issues and Opportunities
9) Methane hydrates in the sea floor
10) Could Methane Trigger a Climate Doomsday Within a Human Lifespan?
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
- Methane Timebomb Ticking - Boilingspot.blogspot.com
- The USGS assessment of abrupt climate change - Energy and Environment Viewpoint
- Bush urges US to stake claim to Arctic territory in last-gasp energy grab - C-Questor group newsletter
- Scientific deep ocean drilling: Revealing the Earth's secrets - Doxtop
- Japan digs ocean deep to find natural resources - Methane Hydrates - Greenpacks
- USGS: Alaskan gas could heat millions of homes - Top Gold News
- Study: Lots of recoverable frozen gas in Alaska - blog Rubens
- Methane hydrate extraction - Mercury Rising
- "Ice That Burns" May Yield Clean, Sustainable Bridge to Global Energy Future - Newswise
- Japan to drill offshore for methane hydrate - EnergyCurrent
- Japan aiming to commercialize new ocean resources in 10 years - iStock Analyst
- Govt to Study: Exploit ocean resources - Asian news feed
- Ice That Burns Could Be a Green Fossil Fuel - Newscientist.com
- Flammable ice is the future of the human idea alternative energy - Anrosoft
- Flammable ice could be carbon-neutral fuel - pound360
- Scientists have found ecological way to burn methane. - The Science
- Boosting energy production from 'ice that burns' - Science centric
The volume of material being released on the subject of exploiting methane hydrates as an energy source is dwarfed by the plethora of articles detailing the activity in the area of Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). The combination of these two bode very badly for global warming. The potential for accidental release of large volumes of methane from hydrates and the inability to develop an economically viable technology and methodology for CCS very much weakens the potential for decreasing anthropogenic greenhouse gasses to a level that global warming can be arrested.
Our hunger and lust for new energy sources, as oil and natural gas resources begin to decline after peak oil, continues to put pressure on governments everywhere to weaken the regulations for carbon emissions. CCS is, through carbon trading, showing all the hallmarks of turning into another taxpayer-subsidized ponzi scheme with every other corporation, whether or not they are involved in the energy industry, lining up at the taxpayer trough looking for their share of the research money and stockpiling carbon credits waiting for legislation that will drive up the price as carbon emitters are forced by implemented legislation into buying credits.
As you will see in the archives of this blog, I have written several articles on both CCS and methane hydrates. With the lack of material in mainstream media, however, the potential for any public pressure in these areas continues to be weak. If it stays weak and public pressure never develops the desire of those in power to keep the train speeding toward the precipice rather than putting on the brakes will rule the day. Sooner or later some sanity must seep into the circles of power or we are going to pay a tremendous price to support their lust for power.
Saturday, March 21, 2009
But....... I see so much of what I consider misreading of the current economic crisis that I thought; What the hell? Can't possibly be any more wrong than a lot of that hog swill I've been reading. So here goes.
The vast majority of economists, politicians and business leaders seem to believe - at least for public consumption - that the current economic crisis, like all past economic crises, is a temporary problem that will soon be corrected and we will get back on the growth gravy train. Politicians and pundits spend a good part of every day in front of TV cameras and media microphones trying to convince you that recovery is just around the corner and that you should take the padlock off your wallet and get out there and spend. What else are they going to tell you? The truth? God forbid!
There are probably just as many unlistened-to people at the opposite extreme, who believe that this crisis is unlike any other and that the end of our high-tech, virtual society is at an end. Though, in my opinion, neither group is right, the latter is more right than the economic optimists.
This is not the end. It is, again in my opinion, a strong foreshock of the final, devastating economic crisis to come. I do not believe we are that far away, for reasons I will detail below. I believe the Big One will be upon us within three years. Actually, I'll qualify that a little tighter; within three years of the beginning of the economic recovery. Why?
If we do not find some way of loosening the grip of finance and economics on the running of human society I can't see, given so many resource constraints and the rapid devaluation of money in the current financial crisis, how we can possibly have or even think we have a full economic recovery and long-term future for human society as it is currently constituted.
- Almost all proposed political, financial and economic solutions to the current economic crisis assume that the resources to restart and maintain the growth economy to achieve recovery are there. The harsh reality is they are not. We have already passed peak oil and the peak in countless other resources. Continuous growth simply is not possible when available resources are in decline. The continuing denial of this reality gets in the way of designing effective solutions.
- Even in a global recession we are still using up around 30 billion barrels of oil a year. We hit peak oil in spring 2005 (The Oil Drum suggests it was in 2008). That has been disguised by bringing alternative fuels (like biofuels, CTL, GTL and tar sands) on line, by switching from reporting crude oil to reporting all liquids, and by the current economic crisis reducing demand and distracting attention from energy concerns.
- If demand rises from present levels by 2% per year, and supply continues to fall from those peak oil levels by 2% per year, by 2020 demand will exceed supply by over 17-billion barrels/year and rising. The negative economic impact, even if nations agree to stabilize oil prices, will be in excess of $20-trillion/year globally and rising (each barrel of oil is the foundation of well over $1000 of economic activity).
- Energy projects throughout the world, particularly oil, are being cancelled or put on hold every day - waiting for oil prices to recover to and stabilize at levels the world could not cope with a year ago - since the beginning of this financial crisis. Such projects will not be restarted quickly, even when the credit tap is turned back on.
- Even if the global economy begins to recover this year (which looks increasingly unlikely), there will not be enough oil (or other energy resources or many other resources) next year to satisfy demand. Recovery/growth plans will fall short by nearly $5-trillion. By 2015 they will fall short by over $10-trillion annually. There simply are not enough energy resources left in the world to power enough economic growth to recover from the current economic crisis where tens of trillions of dollars (some say hundreds of trillions) of wealth have been lost. If product demand returns and continues to track the promises of economic growth, rather than the reality of diminishing supply, then hyper-inflation should set in within the next three years as product demand will, by that time, exceed product supply by over $10-trillion/year.
- In the U.S., and probably other newer western nations like Canada and Australia, as suggested in joeplanner.blogspot.com "at least as much land has been developed .... in the last 15 years as in the previous 400 years of our history." And all of that land development has been for the expansion of auto-dependant residential and retail suburbia through the use of ever-escalating debt. The infrastructure development and maintenance costs for all that new developed land are threatening to bankrupt governments at all levels.
- In the past several decades in North America retail space per person, mostly in malls, has risen from four to nearly 40 square feet. That is 10-30 times greater retail space per person than in any of the nations of Europe. Even with the current economic crisis, as much as a quarter of that retail space now sits empty and suburban malls are dying at an alarming rate. And this is just the beginning.
- The Baker-Hughes Rig Count survey suggests that operational drill-rig counts in North America are down 10-15% since the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008, with further declines in rig count continuing every week. The oil industry is not gearing up for an economic recovery. They are betting on continuing declines. And are not likely to be on the leading edge of the recovery, like they were in the 1990s when they got burned badly. The cost of oil projects is magnitudes greater than it was then and they need a much higher oil price to justify development.
- The Baltic Dry Index, which tracks global trans-oceanic shipping, reports massive declines in shipping contracts throughout the world. The downside of that is that many ship owners, already running at the margins due to increased fuel and docking costs, are decommissioning their ships. The fleet available to support a rebuild of global trade to the levels needed for an economic recovery will not be there in the short run. With continued failures in the ship building industry, not to mention shortage of energy and raw materials, the ability to ramp up global shipping will be seriously constrained.
I am often accused of talking doom and gloom. Guilty as charged. Unrealistic optimism and unbridled greed have brought us to the point of a global financial crisis that will, by the time this is over, make the Great Depression look like a picnic. A pessimist, as the saying goes, is an informed optimist. I strongly believe its time for a little of what the majority insist on calling pessimism but is, in reality, REALISM. Perpetual growth is not sustainable, is not possible. It is a myth, a ponzi scheme.
As politicians, industry leaders and the media succeed in breaking down your resistance and convince you that the economy is headed into recovery and you return, even if slowly, to your old debt-based spending habits the reality of the barriers to that recovery will begin to be very apparent. Not enough oil. Not enough coal. Not enough natural gas. Not enough uranium. Not enough progress in wind energy. Not enough iron. Not enough copper. Not enough lithium. Not enough. Not enough. Not enough.............
The public reaction to this economic crisis has been, considering the depth and magnitude of it, surprisingly muted and passive. The demonstrations and riots have been very limited. It is as if we are all in a state of shock. And our leaders would like to keep us there, thank you very much, until recovery is under way. But every day more and more people are waking up. More and more people are opening their eyes and ears and reading between the lines. It is very unlikely that that passivity will characterize public response to the next and more major crisis just around the corner. Enough is enough already. No more bailouts. No more golden parachutes. No more unsustainable growth. It's time to face reality and redesign the system for the resource depleted world that is quickly becoming reality. It is time for true leadership, for leaders in touch with reality. End the greed. End the pork barrel spending. End the pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams. Give us that hard dose of reality and tell us how to deal with it. I think our leaders will be surprised at how ready and able people are to deal with. But that's just my opinion.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
And when the perception of the tar sands turns negative, no problem. We'll just call it the oil sands. Everybody loves oil. Hell, the world runs on oil. The only problem is, they're not oil sands.
What comes out of the tar sands is not oil. It is, in fact, tar, bitumen, the same sticky, smelly stuff they build roads with. With a lot of processing, using up a lot of energy and other precious resources like clean water, it can be turned into a synthetic oil which, with further processing using up a lot more energy and other resources, can be turned into gasoline. But it takes almost as much energy to produce a gallon of gasoline from tar sands as the energy you get out of the gallon of gasoline.
Oil, on the other hand (at least the easy to recover oil with which the oil age began) can return as much as a hundred times more energy than what it costs to process it. Even the more expensive, difficult to find, extract and process oil which we are dealing with today returns far more energy than what it costs to process it.
Euphemisms like oil sands are a form of whitewash having but one purpose. They cover up the less attractive, seamy side of the issue. Tar sands is, hands down, the dirtiest, most polluting source of energy on the planet. The once pristine environment of northern Alberta and the Yukon and Northwest Territories are being absolutely destroyed by the tar sands operations. People living in the region are developing cancers and other deadly diseases at an alarming rate far exceeding that in any other region of the country. Communities downstream on the Athabasca River can no longer use the water from that river.
The tar sands are not an energy boom. They are an energy boondoggle.
All the press of late focuses on the massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other air pollutants the tar sands operations generate. The pipedream of CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) is touted as the answer to that problem, if it ever proves out and becomes economically viable.
But CCS will do nothing for cleaning up the massive containment ponds full of liquid toxins. It will do nothing to clean up the Athabasca River and the Arctic Ocean that are receiving all of the uncontained toxins. It will do nothing for restoring the environment that is being raped by the tar sands operations. Nature laid down a benign overburden of rock and soil above the tar-soaked sands over millions of years and built a bountiful natural environment despite the toxic swamp lying beneath it. That overburden is being progressively stripped away by tar sands operators, exposing the tar sands below. What is left when they shut down their operations and walk away is a toxic landscape incapable of supporting life even at a minimal level.
So let's stop with the euphemism. Even the label of tar sands does not adequately portray the horrific nature of what is being unleashed in the Athabasca region. But these recent attempts to further con the nation and the world into thinking the tar sands are harmless are bordering on the criminal. Let's call them what they are. Let's shut them down. And let's focus our efforts on figuring out how to undo the massive amount of damage that has already been done rather than trying to figure out how to continue that damage more efficiently and faster.
What the hell is the point of making a mistake as big as the tar sands without learning from it?