Sunday, November 21, 2010

Regarding spam messages

I don't know what other blogs are experiencing but this blog, over the past six months, has become a target for spam messages trying to sell anything from movie downloads to sex toys and even some unmentionables. That torrent if spam has made me very disheartened to the point I am considering (but only considering) closing this blog. These messages are not the reason for the dearth of new material on my part, however. I have been very busy on a new novel involving methane hydrates in deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico. I am happy to report that the first draft of that novel, entitled "Block 743" is complete and will be in the hands of my first readers early in the new year. I'll post further messages in this blog as I proceed, hopefully all the way to publication.

Now.... For those who keep posting those spam messages to this blog, and you know who you are, you are completely wasting your time. I moderate all messages to the blog and, no matter how often you try, I am not going to approve those messages and let them through on the blog. So get stuffed.


Monday, August 02, 2010

Methane Hydrate Risk in our Pursuit of Energy

Everyone knows business men are trustworthy. Hell, survey after survey shows that they are more trusted than the family doctor or your local banker or pharmacist or those bleeding-heart scientists writing global warming reports for the IPCC or, God forbid, that wacko environmentalist living down the street who keeps showing up at all those Greenpeace demonstrations. So, of course we can count on business men, these pillars of society, to protect the environment and do the right thing and make decisions in the best interest of "the little people", as Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, so eloquently put it.

And we can trust corporations, like BP, Exxon, Halliburton, Enron and Lehman Brothers, to monitor and police their own operations. If they find something wrong they will make sure it gets fixed, and quickly. So there is no need for us or our governments to hold them accountable. They will hold themselves accountable. After all, isn't BP voluntarily setting aside $20-billion to cover costs and claims resulting from the Gulf oil spill? And don't they have thousands of people on the beaches and on shrimp boats cleaning up the oil spill? Oh wait, they were strong-armed into all of that by President Obama. Well they would have done it anyway, right?

The reality is, in my opinion, that the inordinate faith and trust afforded business and industry leaders and executives is both misplaced and highly irrational in face of the evidence of the collateral damage of their profit-centred decisions and actions over the last several decades. The reality is that, despite the fact that in the beginning people were prone to exclaim, "what a terrible accident", this was no accident. Far from it. The disaster that befell The Deepwater Horizon was the result of very high-risk human decisions in the face of overwhelming evidence that should have caused them to turn back. But don't take my word for it.

The following is from an article in entitled Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout? "Drillers have long been wary of methane hydrates because they can pack a powerful punch. One liter of water ice that has trapped individual methane molecules in the "cages" of its crystal structure can release 168 liters of methane gas when the ice decomposes. Bea [professor Robert Bea, of University of California, Berkeley], who has 55 years of experience assessing risks in and around offshore operations, says "there was concern at this location for gas hydrates. We're out to the [water depth] where it ought to be there." The deeper the water, the greater the pressure, which when high enough can keep hydrates stable well below the sea floor. .... And there were signs that drillers did encounter hydrates. About a month before the blowout, a "kick" of gas pressure hit the well hard enough that the platform was shut down. "Something under high pressure was being encountered," says Bea—apparently both hydrates and gas on different occasions."[3]

This is from a piece on the History channel titled, Methane Hydrate Explosion – Wars for Oil – BP Oil Spill Doomsday Scenario from History Channel. "The Horizon rig’s mechanic stated the well had problems for months, the drill repeatedly kicked due to methane gas pressure, the levels of gas were twice as high as he’d ever seen in his career. According to interviews with platform workers conducted during BP’s internal investigation, a bubble of methane gas escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before exploding. .......the upper mile of seafloor is cemented by methane hydrate which is much like permafrost and is stratified in layers. It melts and changes phases instantly back into gas at about 60F or 17C degrees. We have every reason to believe the hot pressurized oil and gas is eroding layers of formations from large leaks 1000 feet below the well head, probably more leaks below. There seems to be no way to stop this well and the processes will likely continue like opening cracks in a dam. At some point the well head pipe will blow off leaving an open hole … the substrate rock is fractured below the previously impermeable hydrate layers above."[4]

This warning is from an article title BP Oil Spill & Methane Hydrate on a site, "Because drilling can bring warm fluids up from depth, potentially melting the shallower gas hydrate, many researchers and engineers anticipate that drilling through gas hydrate may pose a hazard to the stability of the well, the platform anchors, the tethers, or even entire platforms."[5]

A further warning on Discovery is contained in this piece titled, Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters. "The decision by BP and many other energy companies to drill through areas of unusual ice-like crystals -- called methane hydrates -- is a risky one fraught with huge consequences for failure. .... "Methane hydrates are a geological hazard, and it's been well established for decades that they are dangerous," said Richard Charter, head of the Defenders of Wildlife marine program and member of the Department of Energy's methane hydrates advisory panel. "Until 10 or 15 years ago, the industry would avoid them no matter what." .... Now, Charter said, the rush to produce more oil for domestic consumption has forced companies like BP to take bigger risks by drilling in deep waters that are a breeding ground of hydrates. And they worry that a new drilling push into the Arctic Ocean -- which President Barack Obama has authorized to begin next month -- could expose a fragile and remote environment to additional risks from catastrophic oil spills." [7]

This sort of thing is not new. I was with Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster from a chemical gas leak at one of their plants in Bhopal India that killed several thousand people living near the plant. You could virtually hear the collective exhaled sigh of relief from the rest of the petrochemical industry at the time. The disaster at Bhopal was an accident waiting to happen, just as was the BP Gulf oil spill. The practices employed in the petrochemical industry, though within industry and legislative guidelines, were inevitably going to result in an event like Bhopal. The collective sigh of relief within the industry after Bhopal was the relief that it had happened to some other company first.

And therein lies the basis of my one tiny bit of sympathy for BP. Even though an entire industry my utilize practices that are inevitably going to lead to a disaster somewhere down the road (and huge, and very expensive political lobbies generally exist to make sure their hands aren't tied by needless safety standards), the blame for that disaster, when it happens, falls squarely on the sole shoulders of the one company that unfortunately is first to fall on its face. They bear all of the blame and finger pointing, even (or especially?) from others within their own industry employing the same risky practices, simply because they were the first to fall into the trap. The others within the industry are often prevented from later falling into the same trap by changes in the legislative and monitoring environment, changes that should have existed before.

Following Bhopal, Union Carbide eventually was broken into its component parts and sold off, along with company assets, in order for some shell of the former industrial giant to survive. And BP, the disaster already costing them untold billions, will undoubtedly go through the same process as it spirals downward. It may, like Union Carbide, ultimately survive, or it may not.

As another example, similar industry-wide risks are being taken throughout the US by the shale-gas industry. They use a process called hydraulic fracturing to release natural gas from shale rock. A massive surge in drilling - with hundreds of thousands of new gas wells across the country - was begun under the Bush administration. That industry, with the help and blessing of Vice President Cheney's NEPDG (National Energy Policy Development Group) was summarily exempted from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and dozens of other similar pieces of needlessly restrictive environmental legislation passed over the previous decades intended to protect the environment. The very predictable result is that underground water supplies and aquifers in most areas where this type of drilling is done have been contaminated with both natural gas and the toxic chemicals used in the drilling and extraction processes. People previously utilizing those underground water sources can now literally burn the water coming out of their taps because it is so highly contaminated with natural gas. They may not have drinkable water but at least they're getting their gas for free.

As those who have followed my blog know - and I apologize for the drop-off in articles over this past winter and spring because of personal health issues - I have been writing about methane hydrates for over four years now. And I strongly believe the BP Gulf disaster is far from over. I believe the whole reserve of Methane Hydrates through which the BP rig drilled has been destabilized and will continue to release its methane into the Gulf - readings near the well head already indicate methane levels up to a million times higher than normal - for many years to come. I further believe that if the well is successfully capped the hydrates will continue to release their methane and eventually result in a massive and explosive methane release the likes of which has not been seen in recorded history. In addition, recent readings indicate that the free oil in the Gulf is declining due to a virtual explosion of the bacteria that consume the oil. But that is a double edged sword because this bacterial bloom is rapidly building a dead zone in the Gulf with insufficient oxygen to support the marine life that normally inhabits these warm tropical waters.

But as bad as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and sinking may have been and as environmentally disastrous as the resulting Gulf oil spill is, this is still not the really serious environmental disaster I foresee if we continue toward full exploitation of Methane Hydrates as an energy source. And that is a serious interest and intent of the governments of several nations, among them; Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Taiwan, India, China, Canada, and the U.S. And the list grows every day.

The problem is - and this is a subject that is constantly debated - that methane hydrates are inherently unstable. It is a structure (methane gas trapped in a cage of water ice) composed of two opposing forces; the attempt by the ice cage to retain its crystalline structure and the attempt by the methane concentrated within that structure to re-expand (168 times) back into a free gas. And the only one of those two opposing forces that is stable and constant is that of the gas trying to free itself from the structure. The ice that contains it is subject to change with any change in the pressure around it or the temperature, or both.

If deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico or, more seriously, in the fragile Arctic Ocean, continues to push into Methane Hydrate zones, the risk of massive hydrate destabilization grows with each well. Once a deposit of Methane Hydrates is destabilized, if changes in temperature or pressure are sufficient to support it, the whole deposit can release its methane. That release could be gradual but there is just as strong a probability that it could be explosive and massive. Remember, methane is concentrated at 168 times the density of the gas in hydrate form, meaning it will expand 168 times when it reverts back into a gas. This can cause an explosive uplift in the seafloor overlaying the hydrate formation. It could result in a collapse of that area of seafloor. In either case, if rapid and explosive enough, the release could trigger a tsunami. The resulting environmental damage of such an event in the Arctic, or the serious potential of risk for residents living along the gulf shore on the Gulf of Mexico should such an event happen there, should cause both governments and energy companies to take serious pause following the current Gulf oil spill. A simple question needs to dominate all such discussions and considerations. Is our thoughtless energy greed worth the rapidly escalating risks that our pursuit of that energy is causing us to take?

Will that question even be considered?

1) Global Oil Supply Now Contracting?
2) BP’s oil spill fight plagued by methane hydrates, a hazard of deep water
3) Gulf Spill: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout?
4) Methane Hydrate Explosion – Wars for Oil – BP Oil Spill Doomsday Scenario from History Channel
5) BP Oil Spill & Methane Hydrate
6) BP Oil Spill – Methane Hydrate Never Mentioned – For What it’s Worth Buffalo Springfield
7) Volatile Methane Ice Could Spark More Drilling Disasters
Energy companies used to avoid methane hydrates no matter what. Now the industry may be drilling right into danger.
8) Ocean Warming Melts Methane Hydrates Which Screws Us All

Friday, April 02, 2010

A Balanced (hopefully) look at Methane Hydrates

When it comes to the issue of exploiting permafrost/undersea Methane Hydrates I definitely have a strong bias. I am against it. Nonetheless there are strong and, from some perspectives, valid opinions to the contrary. In this article I will attempt to present a balance of both sides of the argument, while taking certain editorial license consistent with my bias.

If you study the methane hydrate literature, as I have for the past several years - the newspaper and magazine articles, the web sites and blogs, the scientific papers - the one thing that is clear is that there are a lot of different and conflicting opinions in play. That is understandable. It is only in these past thirty years that the role of methane as an important carbon sink and a serious greenhouse gas, and the potential of methane hydrates as a fossil-fuel-replacing energy source have come to the forefront. Significant study of methane hydrates is really only in its infancy, and it is being driven, sponsored and financed by two different, opposing objectives. In fairness, however, I must point out that at this stage there are nearly as many concerns expressed and warnings issued from the energy industry as there are from the scientific community. The difference is that one side downplays the concerns and warnings and the other side pushes them to the forefront.

It is, nonetheless, those two different aspects of methane hydrates - as a source of the serious greenhouse gas more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide and as a potential energy source - that are at the heart of the divergence of opinion. Those, like myself, focused on methane as a greenhouse gas see the potentially serious environmental risks and dangers involved in attempting to exploit methane hydrates, especially in view of our energy exploitation track record. Those focused on methane hydrates as a major potential energy source tend to downplay the risks and dangers in the name of "need", progress and national energy security.

But haven't we been here before? The orchestrated debate over cigarettes and tobacco? The debate constantly swirling around the burning of fossil fuels? The debate over biofuels contributing to escalating global hunger? The furious global warming debate? Even the rancorous terminology hurled from either side of the debate is the same.

I have listed nearly thirty online sources at the end of this article that show, as clearly and in as balanced a manner as I can manage, the clear divergence of literature fostered by the two different camps. If you are uncertain how you feel about the exploitation of methane hydrates, or if you are looking to build your knowledge about them I urge you to visit as many of these sites as possible. Alternatively, google searches will give you literally hundreds of thousands of references and sites to investigate. If you are looking for an overview, with a bias toward a concern for the risks and dangers, I invite you to read the several other articles I have written in my blog on the subject.

Unintended consequences

Various sites listed deal with unintended consequences. We can destabilize a reserve of methane hydrates accidentally when we aren't even attempting to exploit it. Methane Hydrate: A surprising compound, has this, ".....ocean-based oil-drilling operations sometimes encounter methane hydrate deposits. As a drill spins through the hydrate, the process can cause it to dissociate. The freed gas may explode, causing the drilling crew to lose control of the well. Another concern is that unstable hydrate layers could give way beneath oil platforms or, on a larger scale, even cause tsunamis."[2] Gas Hydrates: Natural gas hydrate studies in Canada, adds, "Shallow gas in the Mackenzie Delta, that may be attributable to hydrate, resulted in the loss of life of two drillers during early exploration." and includes this warning, "Present atmospheric methane is increasing at such a rate that if it continues, methane will be the dominant greenhouse gas in the second half of the century."[4] And methane, I remind you, is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

What unintended consequences might occur when we are intentionally interfering with methane hydrate reserves, with whatever extraction technology we might use? Methane hydrates: Energy's most dangerous game, addresses this issue directly. "The paradox is that while gas can be extracted from methane hydrates, doing so poses potentially catastrophic risks. ..... A substantial amount of evidence suggests that weakening the lattice-like structure of gas hydrates has triggered underwater landslides on the continental margin. In other words, the extraction process, if done improperly, could cause sudden disruptions on the ocean floor, reducing ocean pressure rates and releasing methane gas from hydrates."[6] This is addressed further in Realizing the Energy Potential of Methane Hydrate for the United States, in this statement. "The production of methane from methane hydrate also involves potential drilling and production safety issues and environmental consequences. Production safety issues are sometimes called “geohazards” because they refer to adverse geologic and environmental consequences that may result from human disturbance of the methane hydrate and surrounding sedimentary layers."[12] However a strong counter argument is presented in, Methane and Methane Hydrates, Section 2, "Nonetheless, the hydrates in the sediments of the seafloor do remain frozen: after all, they are icy lattices. In addition, they remain frozen even well above the normal melting point of ice (0°C; 32°F), and at temperatures up to about 15°C (59°F). They manage this feat because of the enormous pressure that exists at these depths."[15]

Political Pressures to use Methane as an Energy Source

The use of methane as a fuel and energy source is not some distant pipe dream. Significant quantities of methane (produced with digesters from animal manure) are already in use in some countries such as Denmark. But there appears to be serious political pressure and a genuine rush on to get at and use permafrost and undersea methane hydrates as a game-changing energy source, as outlined in Methane hydrates: Energy's most dangerous game. "Major government research initiatives have been launched in China, India, Germany, Norway, Russia, Taiwan and several other countries." the article says. "The Japanese government has estimated that producing gas from methane hydrates is commercially viable when oil prices rise above $54 a barrel. ..... To date, Japan has made the biggest bet on methane hydrates and appears to be the closest to commercial production."[6]

The underpinning of the political pressures to exploit methane hydrates can clearly be seen in this statement from Methane Hydrate - The Gas Resource of the Future. "According to EIA, total U.S. natural gas consumption is expected to increase from about 22 trillion cubic feet today to 26 trillion cubic feet in 2030- a projected jump of more than 18 percent [ed note: If natural gas to liquid is pursued as a serious alternative source of transportation fuel this estimate is far too low.]. ..... Production of domestic conventional and unconventional natural gas cannot keep pace with demand growth. The development of new, cost-effective resources such as methane hydrate can play a major role in moderating price increases and ensuring adequate future supplies of natural gas for American consumers."[11]

Optimistic Time Frames

That same site gives us a glimpse into the optimistic time frames being suggested and pursued. "We think that the future may be sooner than some of us are considering," Robert Hunter, president of ASRC Energy Services, which led the first major field study in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay with BP Alaska Exploration and the Department of Energy, told Petroleum News. "In parts of the world such as the North Slope, with unique motivation, hydrates may become a very stable source of natural gas within the next five to 10 years."[6] One wonders what he means with that phrase, "....with unique motivation....". Another view of the time frames is presented in Methane Hydrate Could Augment Natural Gas Supplies. "DOE's program and programs in the national and international research community provide increasing confidence from a technical standpoint that some commercial production of methane from methane hydrate could be achieved in the United States before 2025," said Charles Paull .... senior scientist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California."[9]

Risks and Dangers

Another view of the risks and dangers involved, with or without human involvement and exploitation, is addressed in Gas (Methane) Hydrates -- A New Frontier, "Seafloor slopes of 5 degrees and less should be stable on the Atlantic continental margin, yet many landslide scars are present. The depth of the top of these scars is near the top of the hydrate zone, and seismic profiles indicate less hydrate in the sediment beneath slide scars. Evidence available suggests a link between hydrate instability and occurrence of landslides on the continental margin."[7]

A variety of extraction techniques are being looked at to overcome the inherent difficulties in exploiting methane hydrates, as detailed in A Breakthrough in Fuel Supplying From Methane Hydrates. "Getting methane hydrate gas to flow consistently and predictably, however, has been the problem. Using heat to release the gas works, but requires too much energy to be useful. Researchers have also been trying to release the methane by reducing the pressure on it. Then last month, the Mallik team became the first to use reduced pressure to get a steady, consistent flow."[13] Both of these techniques, however, and others, run the risk that once they successfully destabilize and disassociate the methane hydrates in any part of the reserve it could lead to a catastrophic runaway destabilization of the entire reserve, a warning repeated often through the literature listed at the end of this article. In the paper, Could Methane Trigger a Climate Doomsday Within a Human Lifespan? the concern over this potential is rooted in the geological past. "The new paper suggests that exactly this type of cascading release of methane reserves rapidly warmed the Earth 635 million years ago, replacing an Ice Age with a period of tropical heat. The study’s lead author suggests it could happen again, and fast - not over thousands or millions of years, but possibly within a century. ..... "This is a major concern because it’s possible that only a little warming can unleash this trapped methane," Martin Kennedy, a professor at UC Riverside, said in a release. "Unzippering the methane reservoir could potentially warm the Earth tens of degrees, and the mechanism could be geologically very rapid."."[23] The paper goes on to state that these concerns have caused a new focus in the scientific community. "Jim Kennett, a professor of geology and paleobiology at UC Santa Barbara, said that finding climate triggers and tipping points had become the most important scientific problem of our time."[23] These views, however, are not universal in the scientific community. "David Archer, a University of Chicago geosciences professor, argued in a paper last year that methane release appears likely to be "chronic rather than catastrophic" and only on the scale of human fossil-fuel combustion."[23] The concerns, however, are reiterated in Runaway Methane Global Warming. "From these records it appears that there have been short periods of only a few hundred years in the geological past when rapid increases of the Earth's temperature have occurred superimposed on top of the rise and fall of average temperatures over the longer term. For these short periods temperature rises of up to 8 degrees centigrade appear to have occurred on top of existing long term rises of 5 to 7 degrees to give temperatures up to 15 degrees centigrade warmer than today. Temperatures then fell back to the long term trend, the whole rise and fall only lasting a few hundred years. The most likely cause of this rapid global warming over such a short period is the release of methane into the atmosphere."[25]

In Methane Hydrates: A Carbon Management Challenge, the serious questions about the risks and dangers are asked but with no pretense of supplying answers or solutions. "What are the risks of recovering methane from ocean hydrates? Could the release of methane make the sediments unstable enough to cause the collapse of seafloor foundations for conventional oil and gas drilling rigs? Could the melting, or dissociation, of methane hydrate ice lead to releases of large volumes of methane to the atmosphere, raising greenhouse gas levels and exacerbating global warming?"[20] The depth and breadth of these issues are honestly explored in the U.S. Department of Energy paper, Methane Hydrates. "However, the issues surrounding methane hydrates go well beyond its energy resource potential. As field and laboratory studies supported by the Methane Hydrates Program continue to document hydrate’s integral and active role in the global environment, important new questions are raised about the influence of hydrates on the global carbon cycle, deep sea life, sea-floor stability, and other phenomena."[21] That verbiage, however, may just serve as a preamble to this, "Therefore, the National Methane Hydrate R&D Program is driven by the need to better understand the nature of hydrates, hydrate-bearing sediments, and the interaction between the global methane hydrate reservoir and the world’s oceans and atmosphere as a compliment to the ultimate realization of hydrate’s energy potential."[21]

If our global industrial society is to be kept rolling along at anything near its current vigorous pace, there is no question that global peaks in oil, natural gas and/or coal are going to require the exploitation of new energy sources such as methane hydrates, coal-bed methane, shale gas, shale oil, and the re-embracing of nuclear energy as a primary source of electrical energy. Plans for the exploitation of methane hydrates, however, in the name of energy security and in pursuit of the dream of national energy independence are not likely to materialize as governments and politicians hope and intend, It is very likely that methane will be drawn under the umbrella of natural gas and subject to global market trading and pricing. It is even more likely that the reserves of methane hydrates will end up in the hands of energy companies who are already lining up to buy leases in areas where significant methane hydrate reserves are suspected. Additionally the research and development on technologies for the extraction of methane hydrates is being driven and financed by these same energy companies. The likelihood of them willingly giving over control of those leases and that extraction to government energy departments is very slim. They will, after all, be moving heavily into these alternatives because their current cash cows are drying up. They need them for their future financial stability and continued growth.

I am quite sure that nothing bloggers such as myself or scientists have to say will ultimately have any bearing on what governments and the energy industry will do with methane hydrates. The best we can hope is to keep them honest.

Reference material

The following links were important sources of material for this article and are here for your reference.

1) Arctic Methane on the Move?
2) Methane Hydrate: A surprising compound
3) Methane hydrates
4) Gas Hydrates: Natural gas hydrate studies in Canada
5) Methane hydrates and global warming
6) Methane hydrates: Energy's most dangerous game
7) Gas (Methane) Hydrates -- A New Frontier
8) Japan eyes methane hydrate as energy savior
9) Methane Hydrate Could Augment Natural Gas Supplies
10) Japan Mines `Flammable Ice,' Flirts With Environmental Disaster
11) Methane Hydrate - The Gas Resource of the Future
12) Realizing the Energy Potential of Methane Hydrate for the United States
13) A Breakthrough in Fuel Supplying From Methane Hydrates
14) Permafrost Melting and Stability of Offshore Methane Hydrates Subject to Global Warming
16) Methane Hydrate Extraction To Become Viable?
17) Gas Hydrates: Entrance to a Methane Age or Climate Threat?
18) Ocean methane hydrates as a slow tipping point in the global carbon cycle
19) More evidence of climate change: Arctic methane hydrates evaporating
20) Methane Hydrates: A Carbon Management Challenge
22) Methane Hydrates: An Abundance of Clean Energy?
23) Could Methane Trigger a Climate Doomsday Within a Human Lifespan?
24) Methane Hydrates: What are they thinking?
25) Runaway Methane Global Warming
26) Melting of permafrost could trigger rapid global warming warns UN
27) METHANE HYDRATE ICE: A Possible Mechanism For Ice Age And Global Warming Cycles
28) Ice Sculptures for Science: Chain Saws, Pickaxes, Methane Hydrates and Climate Change
29) Global Warming: Methane Could Be Far Worse Than Carbon Dioxide

Friday, March 26, 2010

Methane Hydrates: The Planet's Largest Single Carbon Sink?

Methane hydrates are perhaps the largest and most important carbon sink on the planet. Some scientific estimates place the amount of carbon stored in methane hydrates as greater than all the carbon stored in oil, natural gas and coal combined.[1] They are critical in maintaining the stability of earth's atmosphere and temperature.

What is a carbon sink? According to, as an example, "A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon that it releases, whilst a carbon source is anything that releases more carbon than is absorbed. Forests, soils, oceans and the atmosphere all store carbon and this carbon moves between them in a continuous cycle. This constant movement of carbon means that forests act as sources or sinks at different times."[5]

Two primary carbon sinks, however, were not involved in that continuous cycling of carbon. Fossil fuel reserves (oil, natural gas and coal) and methane hydrate reserves (methane hydrates should properly be included in the categorization of fossil fuels), like the carbon locked in rocks, locked up carbon in stable reserves and took it out of the cycle. Until man started exploiting and burning fossil fuels those reserves were sinks only. We have, unfortunately, turned fossil fuels into one of the largest carbon sources on the planet. Now we are threatening to do the same with methane.

As recently as 1971, in fact, methane was not even on the radar as an important greenhouse gas. According to the report, Methane: A Scientific Journey from Obscurity to Climate Super-Stardom, "The first survey in 1971 on the possibility of inadvertent human modification of climate stated that "Methane has no direct effects on the climate or the biosphere [and] it is considered to be of no importance". The gas did not even appear in the index of the major climatology book of the time (Lamb's Climate Past, Present and Future)."[3]

As a result the study of methane hydrates is still very much in its infancy. Most of the research to date, in fact, has focused on the potential of using the methane in those hydrates as an energy source in light of the approaching peak and decline in oil and other fossil fuels. There has been little attention and little funding available for studying methane as a greenhouse gas and as a potential contributor to global warming, even its potential as a catalyst in a runaway greenhouse effect.

Why is all of that important? How serious a greenhouse gas is methane? Methane, when first released into the atmosphere is 62 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, it has a much shorter lifespan in the atmosphere. It quickly diminishes in potency to about 20 times that of carbon dioxide and will completely oxidize after about twenty years. But that's not the end of it's importance as a greenhouse gas. Methane in the upper atmosphere oxidizes into carbon dioxide and water vapour (also an important greenhouse gas) and will remain in the upper atmosphere as carbon dioxide for another hundred years. So it has a very potent early life as a greenhouse gas but also a long term life cycle as both reduced potency methane gas and then carbon dioxide.

One of the troubling aspects of methane hydrates (much more on this later) is that the methane in the hydrate is in gaseous form and under pressure. Where compressed natural gas (CNG) is artificially compressed and stored in steel cylinders or other containment vessels at pressures of 200-248 atmospheres,[6] the methane gas in methane hydrates is naturally present at a pressure of 162 atmospheres in a cage of ice.[4] Anyone who has ever seen a gas cylinder explode knows how explosive gases under pressure can be with a sudden release of that pressure.

Keith Bennett, a reader of my blog from the UK, recently sent me an e-mail in which he reminded me, "every time we have messed with nature we have found that we harm the ‘delicate balance’." This is what has bothered me with the increasing talk of exploiting methane hydrates as an energy source. We have already drastically impacted the other primary carbon sinks on this planet; cutting and burning the forests, dredging up and burning the fossil fuel reservoirs, destroying the carbon sequestration ability of our soils, saturating the oceans and diminishing their ability to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide, drastically changing the makeup of the atmosphere. We keep transferring the planet's carbon from stable sinks and reservoirs into the comparatively unstable atmosphere as carbon dioxide by burning massive volumes of fossil fuels. To date, methane hydrates were the last major carbon sink that we had not destroyed, a shortcoming we seem to be hell bent to rectify.

Ignorance may have been a legitimate excuse when we began the process of destroying the other important carbon sinks. We just did not realize the impact we were having. But we have now known for many decades and still continue to inflict damage on this planet's environment through our misuse and abuse of the carbon cycle. To now, with all that we have learned, head into the destruction of the last major carbon sink in the pursuit of more energy is to do so with no remaining excuse of ignorance to use. There is ignorance, but not such as to justify going forward. We simply do not know how important methane hydrates are as a carbon sink. We don't know what impact on the future livability of this planet we will have by exploiting methane hydrates and diminishing those reserves. We do know, as Keith Bennett suggested, that every time we have thus far "messed with" nature we have harmed the delicate balance that has evolved over millions and billions of years on this planet.

If we take the same approach with methane hydrates that we have taken with the exploitation of the other fossil fuels we most assuredly will further upset, if not destroy, that delicate balance. With fossil fuels, at every turn, we have leaned in favour of exploiting the energy resource rather than protecting the environment, both for ourselves and for future generations. Keep the wheels of industry rolling today at whatever cost to tomorrow.

Marine methane hydrate reserves are relatively stable but remain so within a fairly narrow range of temperature and pressure known as the Hydrate stability zone. In my article (also in the blog), The real problem with Methane Hydrates is Sliding under the Radar, I dealt with this issue at length. Here is an excerpt but I would seriously encourage you to read the whole article. "The physical nature of methane hydrates and the quite distinct physical properties of water - specifically H2O - and of methane (CH4) independently function both as a barrier to exploitation and as a serious environmental risk in conjunction with global warming. ..... H2O which is only water above 0C [at 1 atmosphere] and becomes vapour at higher temperatures - reaches its maximum density of 999.9720 kilograms per cubic meter at a temperature of 3.98C. At the freezing temperature of 0C its density has reduced to 998.8395 kilograms per cubic meter, 988.1170 at -10C. The critical part of that range, with regard to methane hydrates, is that from 0C to 3.98C. ..... The lower density of H2O as ice (998.8395) at 0C (even lower if the ice is super cooled) is what allows ice to float on the surface of water. Average global ocean temperatures today (this has varied over geological time, especially during different eras of ice age and global warming) is 2C. At 2C H2O has a density 999.9400, between that of ice at 0C of 998.8395 and the maximum density at 3.98C of 999.9720. It still supports, therefore, the lighter ice even in the Arctic. ..... Because of the lower density (greater buoyancy) of ice relative to sea water, submarine methane hydrates are always under pressure, physically wanting to rise to the surface. The [hydrate] deposits only become "relatively" stable when anchored by sufficient sediment on the ocean bottom. When and if that "anchorage" breaks down or is swept away, for example, by a sub-surface landslide, the hydrates can suddenly be released into the water and rise toward the surface. ..... The density of the gaseous methane in hydrates is 162 times greater than methane gas in the atmosphere. At the temperature and pressure of the sea water around and above the hydrate deposits, the methane gas contained in the hydrates should have much lower density (occupy much more space) than it does. This physical anomaly means that the pressure on the methane gas to expand is constantly at odds with and pushing against the ice cage enclosing it. This is a key component of the essential instability of methane hydrates. ..... Gas density generally decreases far more rapidly for gases than liquids or solids as temperature rises or pressure decreases. That means two factors can affect the stability of methane hydrates currently in the hydrate stability zone. Changes in sea level can affect the water pressure in the zone: a drop in sea level can decrease the pressure. Changes in temperature of the water can have the same effect. Increase of the temperature above the current average 2C can also dramatically affect that stability."

In view of the threat of global warming, the potential impact from rising sea temperatures warrants particular attention. As the temperature of the hydrate deposit rises two opposing things begin to happen. The ice cage around the methane shrinks, further increasing the pressure on the methane gas inside, similar to squeezing a cylinder containing a gas. This increases the tendency of the gas to seek escape from the containment. At the same time the ice cage containing the methane is softening and weakening, making it more susceptible to rupture. This increases the probability that the submarine methane hydrate deposits will destabilize and that they will do so explosively.

There is now considerable accepted scientific evidence that this has happened several times in the geological past,[10] most notably 55 million years ago, as per NASA.[11] Of more immediate concern, however, is the growing evidence that there is a measurable and significant increase in methane venting from hydrate deposits on the Arctic sea floor.[7][8] The temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing much more rapidly over the past century than elsewhere on earth. In fact, atmospheric methane concentrations have more than doubled over the past 200 years "due to decomposing organic materials in wetlands and swamps and human aided emissions from gas pipelines, coal mining, increases in irrigation and livestock flatulence."[11] The Arctic is a kind of canary in the coal mine when it comes to showing the early signs of global warming. The concern over Arctic sub sea methane venting is doubled when considering the potential positive feedback on releasing the massive amount of methane hydrates trapped in Arctic permafrost, both in northern North America and Europe/Asia. Large areas of Arctic permafrost coastline are, quite literally, oozing into the ocean and releasing their sequestered methane.
1) Methane hydrate - A major reservoir of carbon in the shallow geosphere?
2) Siberian Peatlands a Net Carbon Sink and Global Methane Source Since the Early Holocene
3) Methane: A Scientific Journey from Obscurity to Climate Super-Stardom
4) The real problem with Methane Hydrates is Sliding under the Radar
6) Compressed natural gas
7) JGR/MIT Study - Subsea Methane Clathrates May Already Be Venting Far More Quickly Than Projected
8) Extensive Methane Venting to the Atmosphere from Sediments of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf
9) Computer simulation strengthens link between climate change and release of subsea methane
10) Explosive methane venting at hydrate/gas transition in the bedrock

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


If and when the average person thinks about peak oil, their attention and concern are focused on the gasoline and diesel fuels that run the family car, the heating oil that warms the family home, and the jet fuel that runs the plane that takes the family on vacation. And that is reasonable. By far the biggest single use of crude oil is for the production of those various fuels. Our society literally runs on oil. But remember that there are over 300,000 other products, other than those fuels, in every day use around the world that are derived from oil.

The road between the undiscovered crude oil in the ground and the gasoline in your car's fuel tank - or any other usage - is a very long and expensive one. It must be discovered, analysed, wells drilled and extracted. From there it has to be gotten to a refinery for processing to produce gasoline, diesel, heating oil, jet fuel, lubricating oil and other lubricants. That resulting gasoline has to be distributed to a service station near you so you can drive your car in and fill up your tank.

In case you hadn't noticed, there is a shortage of oil refining capacity in the United States. From 324 oil refineries in operation in 1980-81 (when the U.S. was still a major exporter of refined products) closures over the past thirty years have reduced that number to less than 140.[13] In that same thirty years no new oil refineries have been built in the United States [16], and more refineries close each year. And increasingly tough and demanding environmental legislation, coupled with a general, overall reduction in the quality of available crude oil that is more difficult, expensive, and polluting to refine, lessens the probability that any will be constructed in the foreseeable future.

Despite the fact that more than 20 million barrels of oil are consumed in America every day, the total remaining refining capacity in the country is down to 17,734,900. And 1.6 million barrels or more of refined product are still exported to other countries every day, up 33% since 2007[15]. That is 9% of a total refinery output that is already insufficient to meet demand. This means that the capacity for refined product for American consumption of more than 20 million barrels a day is 16.225 million barrels a day, and dropping.

There is no spare capacity in the system, no refining buffer. Any refinery closure, whether temporary due to storms, strikes or other problems, or whether permanent, the shortfall cannot be made up from spare capacity. The favorite mantra of economists, of course, is that supply will always rise to meet demand. An average of 2-3 million barrels of refined product is being imported every day, largely from Europe, to make up for the current shortfall. And still there are no new refineries under construction to meet the unfulfilled demand. With an average capacity of 125,000 barrels a day, the equivalent of the output from over 15 unbuilt refineries is being imported every day. That could hardly be interpreted as supply rising to fill demand.

Margins in the refining industry are quite low, with costs continuously rising. In the early days of the oil industry when the majors could sell their oil for 20 times or more what it cost to produce it, the oil companies largely ran their own refineries and were prepared to live with the low margins in the refining end of the business which were more than offset from the huge profits in the oil production end of the business. But independently owned refineries are the order of the day with major after major selling off their refinery operations to independent refiners. And today, rather than new refining capacity coming online to satisfy the increasing demand for finished product as economic theory suggests, the refining industry is, in fact, looking to reduce overall capacity to drive margins up. The question is not whether but where and when capacity will be reduced further. The trend to date is to close capacity in states where state government has an anti-pollution agenda while holding on to capacity in those states that are refinery and oil industry friendly and likely to remain so.

And where refining capacity is being shut down is a recipe for future fuel shortage problems. The two latest refinery shut downs have been in the high population upper east coast market (Valero Energy Corp. shuttered permanently its 182,200 barrel-a-day Delaware City, Delaware, refinery last month because of “very poor economic conditions.” Sunoco Inc. shut indefinitely its 145,000 barrel-a-day Eagle Point plant in New Jersey in November) [8] taking nearly 300,000bpd capacity out of the system in the highest demand market area in the country.

Domestic gasoline supply on the east coast is now served almost exclusively by pipeline. But just like refining capacity, no new pipeline capacity is being built to satisfy increasing pipeline subscription from, for example, the gulf region to the east coast. In fact the primary pipeline serving the east coast has been badly oversubscribed because of these two refinery shutdowns for over six months now, even before the peak demand summer driving season, and supply is being pro-rated[7]. Pro-ration means nobody gets what they need but the pain is distributed equally.

There is not an overall shortage of refinery capacity globally. New refineries continue to be built in, for example, the middle east and Asia and some parts of Europe, in regions with more relaxed environmental standards where development in high profit industries like oil is encouraged. So, at least for now, refining capacity shortages in the United States can be made up from imports of refined product from overseas. [13] Increasing refiners are responding to domestic environmental legislation by shutting down domestic capacity and pushing it offshore. But the more the country builds a reliance on refined imports as well as crude imports the more vulnerable it becomes to shifts in global geopolitics. And the greater the growth of bottlenecks in the supply chain in the United States for refined product.

When peak oil critics and deniers claim that there is plenty of oil, that there is no oil shortage, they are right. What there is is a growing shortage of light sweet crude. There is plenty of tar sands oil, plenty of very high-sulfur heavy crude, plenty of high-sulfur oil sands crude, plenty of oil shale, and plenty of very expensive to extract deep sea oil, most of which is also high in sulfur. But these are almost all much more expensive and much more polluting to refine. The sulfur extracted from the heavy sour crude of a single 100,000 barrel-per-day refinery would be equivalent to 5% of the total national sulfur market and a shift to high-sulfur heavy crudes would totally flood that market.[9] Introduction of ever stricter environmental legislation makes the likelihood of such a shift happening very slight.

So we may or may not yet be at a global peak in crude oil production, depending on how you define it and what type of oil you include in your crude oil definition. Sooner or later, and more likely sooner, we will get there. Regardless the shift in type of oil available for refining means that we have reached a peak - whether temporary or permanent is unclear - in serviceable refinery capacity and refined product distribution systems. In light of this reality peak oil hardly seems to matter anymore.
Reference Material:
1) What is the chemical composition of gasoline?
2) What is Gasoline?
3) Petroleum
4) European oil refinery closures get serious
5) Recession leads to more refinery closures
6) Refinery closures - how many and how fast?
7) Refinery Closures Push Gasoline Infrastructure To The Breaking Point
8) Refinery Closures Drive Profit Margins Higher: Chart of Day
9) Processing of heavy high-sulfur crude oil
10) Tesoro CEO says expects more refinery closures
11) Some Refineries Likely to Close as Demand Ebbs
12) Report: Cap and Trade Bill Bringing Refinery Closures
13) No political will to keep oil refineries in America
15) U.S. gasoline, diesel exports soar
16) US: No New Refineries in 29 Years

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Problem with creating new blog entries

I am sorry to report that there is some sort of problem with creating new blog entries. Until the problem is fixed I am unable to post new material I have written for which I apologize

Sunday, March 14, 2010


What is infrastructure? Infrastructure is the essential, physical organizing framework meant to facilitate the smooth, day-to-day operation of society. It includes transit, waterworks, sewers and waste disposal, communications, the physical layout of the community and more. It is both a facilitator in helping the society function but also, often unintentionally, serves to limit and misdirect the manner of that operation and, most importantly, development and growth. The defensive walls constructed around the cities of Europe proved very valuable in protecting those cities from attack by enemies wielding swords and spears but they have also imposed frustrating limitations on the growth and development of those cities in modern times.

The American automobile industry, in order to improve its sales and profitability, bought up and shut down long-established and efficient public transit systems across the nation. They succeeded in having the interstate highway systems implemented, setting the nation on the road to being dominated by suburbs, of course devoid of public transit. They killed the city centre and left it to rot as retail rushed out to the suburbs where the customers now lived.

Many communities, trying to overcome the domination of the automobile, are finding that the needed added investment in effective public transit, and the infrastructure to support it, is generally greater than the public coffers can handle, definitely greater than the car-culture taxpayers are willing to support, that they are stuck with the private automobile being the driving force behind infrastructure choices. In my youth a saw the implementation of public water and sewer systems in my hometown, an expensive proposition that required years of special tax levies to pay and disrupted traffic and commerce in the town for years. The benefits were great enough - did you ever have to use an outhouse during a cold snap in the middle of February? - that the taxpayers were willing to absorb the special tax levies.

Man is not the only species that builds communal infrastructure. Among the others which do are; ants, termites, bees, beavers, groundhogs, prairie dogs, rabbits, and corral. Other species, however, do so instinctively. Man does so by intellectual choice. If anything, our instincts which were formed as early primates would mitigate against our creation of infrastructure. In fact, man is the only primate that does create infrastructure. This suggests that our tendency to create infrastructure was not a slow, evolutionary development but grew out of our developed methods of seeking security in numbers, of banding together and forming tribes.

Infrastructure and organized society have gone hand in hand from the beginning. It is critical in both modern and less developed societies. The infrastructure involved may be very, very different but equally critical. Infrastructure was critical to Greek society, the Romans (the Romans had a consistent town plan that they used in the development of most of their communities), the Aztecs and Mayans, and all other organized societies through history.

The one very important factor they all have in common is without constant maintenance the infrastructure soon begins to break down. And the society begins to break down with it. As it deteriorates the infrastructure that was critical in building the society becomes a dangerous liability. The critical dependence of society on its infrastructure was strongly highlighted in a report "Cumbria flooding exposes UK’s vulnerability to infrastructure failure". The report claims, "We are often only hours away from social collapse if our critical infrastructure were to fail totally.... The failure of a single piece of infrastructure, such as a bridge, not only causes difficulties in reaching basic commodities and services, but also leads to the failure of other connected infrastructure networks such as electricity, gas, telephone lines, waste and water supply."

All components of our infrastructure have a designed life span, either implied or explicit. Bridges and dams, for example, are generally designed for a life span of fifty years. Many commercial buildings may have a designed lifespan of thirty years or less. To achieve the designed life span, of course, the designer and builder of the infrastructure assume it will be properly maintained according to the instructions supplied. A large petrochemical plant I was involved in as a systems analyst, for example, had a large "chart room" where the thousands of drawings, blueprints and maintenance manuals and logs for the plant and all of its components were kept, maintained and constantly referenced by maintenance staff and engineers.

Designed life span is all too often viewed, by those assuming responsibility for it, to be somewhat like many view the "best before" label on the food they buy, a guideline, a ploy to sell more product. They will take their chances and keep their fingers crossed. Many dams and bridges with a designed life span of fifty years are still heavily in use a hundred years and more after construction, many without appropriate and needed levels of maintenance. Many bridges built for an anticipated traffic load of "x" are still in operation after twice their designed life span with traffic loads of 3-4 or even 10 times more than the design criteria. Many large dams still operating more than a hundred years after construction have lost over half of their reservoir capacity from silting and are in constant danger of over-topping during a heavy rainfall or from erosion-induced land and mud slides. Many community water and sewer systems are well over a hundred years old, some more than two hundred years old, with an annual burden of water main breaks running into the hundreds, some in the thousands (Toronto has an estimated 11,000 water main breaks a year). In most of these communities the extensive suburban development around those communities is being connected to the same antiquated water and sewer systems placing tremendous added load pressures on those systems every year and burdening those suburbs with a water and sewer system already past its designed life span when they connect to it.

Infrastructure maintenance requires, of course, an army of specially-trained maintenance staff and an abundance of specialized equipment and facilities. In most cases, however, maintenance is short-changed, most often due to politically-imposed budget constraints. According to the report "Infrastructure Failure in America", "America's infrastructure is aging.... Now, with ever rising costs and reduced funding/taxes for public projects, compromises and trade-offs are made and only the things in worst shape are attended to. Evidence of this is all over the place - power grid problems and blackouts, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the steam pipe explosion in New York, the levee breach in New Orleans. Unfortunately the blame falls on the agency responsible for infrastructure upkeep. Very rarely are the fingers pointed in the direction of politicians or government officials who make the money decisions and choose what gets funded." This is further highlighted in the report "Metropolitan Infrastructure Sustainability Study". This study found that "Funding emerged as the number one issue facing cities today. When asked to name their most serious infrastructure challenge, without prompting, three in five cities (59%*) said obtaining infrastructure funding was a key challenge. Some 42 percent* said funding gaps were creating challenges for maintaining or improving aging infrastructure. Cities are more likely to name funding for maintenance or retro-fitting of existing infrastructure, rather than funding for new infrastructure, as a critical challenge." Another report, "Infrastructure Investment Deficit" points out that "Recent research from various associations in Canada shows that there is a growing infrastructure investment deficit occurring in many sectors. This results in deteriorating infrastructure and escalating costs since the longer roads and buildings remain in a state of disrepair, the higher the costs to refurbish or replace."

This tendency to defer infrastructure maintenance is done under the assumption that the deficit can be made up later, and the hope that there will not be a disastrous infrastructure failure before then. But with peak oil fast approaching - or already here depending on which model you adhere to - this assumption that deferred maintenance can be caught up is very likely to result in a string of those disastrous failures that infrastructure and maintenance managers have for years been hoping against.

And yet even today massive investments continue to be made in new and upgraded infrastructure designed for operation in and dependent on a high-energy, high-tech world. A quick check of Google for "infrastructure investment" will net you literally millions of articles on projects for new and upgraded infrastructure.

But what if those choices were no longer available? What if the cost of maintenance and replacement mushrooms to 10-20 or more times current levels? What if the materials and parts needed to undertake that maintenance are no longer available? What if the specialized equipment and the transport to get equipment and maintenance personnel to the problem are no longer available? What if the heavy equipment to dig, build, move is no longer available? What if all of the fuel and energy to power all of that equipment is no longer available? This will be increasingly the case as we move deeper into the post peak era.

These are the true costs of peak oil. It's not about the cost of gasoline for the family car, not being to afford that driving vacation to Florida, the rising costs of food and other goods because of increasing transportation fuel costs. Those will be, or already are, the first warning signs that peak oil is upon us. But increasing costs will soon give way to scarcity and the depth of that scarcity will increase a little more each year. At first many poor nations will be priced out of the hydrocarbon fuel market. Soon, however, any level of government without the right to print money, even in rich countries, will start to wrestle with a growing disparity between income, which is primarily from taxation, and costs. Many of the American states, in fact, and many more communities, are already struggling hopelessly to balance their budgets. They soldier on, like the funding-deprived infrastructure maintenance staffs, in the belief that the deficit will be made up "when things return to normal." They fail to recognize the current situation as the new normal, the only slightly painful edge to a new reality that will not be corrected..... ever.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What will Peak Oil Really Mean?

Ultimately peak oil will not be a geological crisis, not an economic crisis, not a political crisis. Inevitably peak oil will be a global philosophical and psychological crisis.

Peak oil will represent the traumatic end of hope, of optimism, of promise, of faith, to all of which we have become addicted and upon which our overly-complex global economy is built.

It will signal the end of the insanely counter-intuitive belief that the worse things are the better they will become. Any member of any other species learns from the reality of life experience. If it encounters danger, hurt, pain, injury, it quickly learns to avoid the source of that negative. It doesn't assume their survival is a sign that things are about to get better. That appears to be a peculiarly human interpretation.

We are suckers for optimistic promises.

No politician in this country can ever get elected without promising growth and prosperity. They count on the public's short attention span and the low probability that anyone will ever hold them accountable and check whether the promises are delivered on. Anyone seeking leadership of any organization, be it a church, a bank, or a boy scout troop, must promise growth, prosperity, improvement and change or they will never attain the leadership position they seek.

Not only can one not seek leadership by talking about negative growth, austerity, belt-tightening, reduced living standards and the like, they can not even gain leadership by talking about holding the line, by promoting non-growth, sustainability, getting by. Sustainability must be oxymoronically packaged as sustainable development or sustainable growth to be politically acceptable.

The reality, despite the mainstream denial and obfuscation, is that we have already passed global peak oil. I believe production statistics show we reached that milestone in May, 2005.

The peak oil theory originally referred to a peak in conventional, on-shore crude-oil production. At the time that was the only oil we could turn into the fuels and the plethora of products oil was transformed into. The perceived importance of peak oil was not that it would signal the end of oil but rather the end of cheap, easy to access, easy to process oil. The impact would be a clear impediment to economic growth, no small event in a debt-based global economy critically dependent on perpetual growth. But how do you finance growth when the total US debt now exceeds the combined GDP of all the other nations on earth?

Just as important, the theory suggested, was that this event would signal the near term peak in all liquids production. This was based on the belief that no ramp-up in secondary sources of oil such as deep water and tar sands, or the expansion of ethanol and other biofuels, could possibly offset the declines in conventional oil production.

US on-shore, conventional oil production, for example, peaked in 1970-71, just as M. King Hubbert had projected in 1956. Despite increases from large discoveries in Alaska, persistent development of off-shore oil in the gulf of Mexico, improved extraction and processing technology, a manic growth in stripper wells, production levels from all sources have never been able to offset the declines following the peak of conventional production in the lower 48. Each year sees the US become more dependent on oil imports from increasingly hostile sources. The US economy is now irreversibly tied to the volatile and ever-increasing global price of oil.

The pattern of optimistic promises has, unfortunately, also become entrenched in the energy sector, particularly in the oil industry. Minor discoveries of new fields are vigorously and blatantly heralded as promises of a bright energy future, as new North Seas or Prudhoe Bays. Alberta's tar sands and those in Venezuela are touted as the new Saudi Arabia, despite the reality that it is a mining operation where the extraction and processing costs per barrel are 10-20 times that of Saudi Arabian oil. Optimists claim that there may be more hydrocarbon reserves in Haiti than Venezuela. Others continue to point to rock-hard oil shale deposits in the western US claiming they contain more oil than the middle east. New discovery announcements focus on full estimated (usually overestimated) reserve size despite the reality that the average field will only yield 30% of its oil or less. This, of course, is all aimed at perpetuating the socially-bought-into myth of endless global oil reserves just waiting for the right technology.

We don't like bad news, particularly when it has very long term implications. Individually and collectively we tend to slip into denial mode, focus on diversions, become numbed to the reality of the situation, cling to anyone willing to assure us it just ain't so, that things are going to get better. You can't live your life in crisis mode.

Some very interesting studies were done on the lifelong impact on Vietnamese children born into and raised to adulthood in a constant state of crisis and war. Somehow, it seems, it is necessary to create a sense of normalcy and stability, no matter the environment around you. Often, the more extreme that environment the more separated from that reality is the sense of normalcy created.

We have, in recent decades, turned this into a political institution; the denial industry. The primary objective of the denial industry is not clarity but rather to create confusion and conflict in the minds of the public by creating the impression that there are legitimate differences of opinion between experts and scientists. It is a strategy honed and perfected around the issue of smoking, a strategy they have continued to use, often with the same players, on issue after issue and now dominating the debate over global warming and peak oil.

But it is a generational culture shift that has facilitated the success of the denial industry. With the growth in accessible information through the media, the internet, cell phones and more, people have abandoned seeking answers to their questions through independent thought and instead turn to various media for those answers. They have abdicated to others the right to tell them how and what they should think, to define truth. It has been a key part of the technological dumbing down of society, nowhere more obviously than in North America. As Marshall McLuhan first told us, "the medium is the message." You can take a janitor, apply some makeup, put him in a suit and sit him in front of a camera with a script and people will accept him as an expert. The denial industry succeeds not because of the strength and veracity of their message and argument but because of the power of media. If it's on TV it must be true.

So what, you say. It's just spin and hype, right? We get that twenty-four-seven. All claims are exaggerated. If we know that, what harm is all this doing us?

Because........ it's all a damned distraction. It's an argument of semantics, definitions, terminology. By keeping everyone focused on the supposed debate over peak oil it keeps them from focusing on their own needed response to and preparation for peak oil.

Most people do not understand that peak oil is something for which society must prepare well ahead of time. Moreso today than in any other past period. Global debt has now risen to levels well above GDP. The money supply, created through even more debt, must continue to grow to service the debt already on the books. We MUST HAVE perpetual economic growth just for the economy to survive. There have been a series of well-researched and well thought out articles and papers lately, as a result of the global financial meltdown, about whether growth is even possible in the future. And that is a very, very valid question.

Growth, of course, has always been dependent on a steady, reliable, growing supply of inexpensive energy, particularly that derived from oil. Energy is the fuel of economic growth. Take away the energy needed for that growth, like depriving a growing hurricane of the energy it derives from warm tropical waters, and the growth stops and the system begins to decline and falter.

We need, however, to take the question one step further. We must not only ask whether growth will be possible in the future. We must also ask, now more than ever before, is growth even desirable in the future. Sooner or later, despite the constant arguments of economists to the contrary, growth must and will stop. Perpetual growth is a statistical economic myth. The earth is finite. All of the earth's resources are finite. Growth consumes those resources so growth cannot be perpetual in a finite world. Not rocket science.

We can put it off, as we have been doing for decades. Resources aren't about to run out. They are just getting more scarce and, as a result, more expensive. But they might last through your lifetime. You may be able to get through without adjusting at all, leave the whole problem to your children and their children. But somebody at some time soon is going to have to bite the bullet. Is your continued comfort and wealth worth the lives of your children and grandchildren?

No matter how austere their lives may be they are going to need resources, resources that we are frivolously wasting in the pursuit of dreams we can never achieve. The middle class that grew out of the industrial revolution is already, thanks to capitalistic excesses that led to the global financial meltdown, is already rapidly disappearing. We are rapidly moving to a two class society, the very rich and the very poor. Suburbia is the new ghetto, the new face of poverty. The accumulated wealth of the middle class is being transferred to the uber wealthy. You can still aspire to that wealth but the chance of you achieving it is all but gone.

Wake up. Prepare. While you can.