Jumping off Mount Gideon

[Friends, I have suffered a little writer’s block, so I resolved to spark some creativity in myself by joining a little local writers group. The leader of the group suggested a title, I Googled the allegedly fictional location and found it existed, and that it was near a wind farm; and Google Maps led me to the rest of my research and inspiration for this piece. Caveat Lector : it’s fictional, even though a lot of it is factual. Also, it’s only a draft, but it needs to settle for a while before I can refine/sift it. ]

Jumping Off Mount Gideon [1]
by Jo Abbess

In the blue-green sun-kissed uplands, west of the sediment-spewing Chocolate River sprung at Petitcodiac village, and north of the shrunken Shepody Lake, its feeder tributaries re-engineered hundreds of years ago; north still of the shale flats jutting out into the Bay of Fundy, rises Mount Gideon, shrouded in managed native Canadian spruce, pine and fir. Part of the ranging, half-a-billion-year-old craton of the Caledonian Highlands of New Brunswick, it is solid ground, and its first European inhabitants must have been hardy. Looking up, the early settlers must have seen the once-bare hinterland looming over the mudstone and sandstone shoreline, with its steep gullied waterways carved by the receding pre-historic icesheets, and it must have been redolent of the mountainous “encampments of the just” [2] where the Biblical Gideon of the Book of Judges [3] trained his elite crack troops and plotted his revenge against the hordes of ravaging Midianites. The fur-trappers and gravel miners on the eve of the 18th Century built a community by the bay, and drove a winding road up through Mount Gideon’s ravines and over its heights, a byway long since eroded and erased and replaced by a functional forestry access track. Ethnic cleansing of the first-come Acadians in the summer of 1755 destroyed much of the larger settlements in the region of Chipoudy, henceforth anglicised to Shepody. Two groups of deportation vigilantes, originally tasked with taking prisoners, burned down the infrastructure and put to death those who hadn’t fled to the woods, and since that day, nobody really lives up on the mount, aside from the occasional lumberjack in his trailer home cached off New Ireland Road, and the odd temporary bivouac of touring hippy couples, en route from Hopewell Rocks to Laverty Falls on the Moosehorn Trail in the national park, via the Caledonia Gorge and Black Hole on the Upper Salmon River. These days there is no risk of social crisis, but an insidious slow-moving environmental crisis is underway. Streams falling from Mount Gideon, spider lines scratched on early parish maps, the West River and Beaver Brook, no longer flow year-round, and there’s very little freshwater locally, apart from a few scattered tarns, cradled in the impervious igneous, plutonic rock of the hinterland. Rainwater does support the timber plantations, for now, but drought and beetle are a rising threat, brought on by creeping climate change. Humans may no longer be setting fires, but Nature is, because human beings have interfered with the order of things.

Mount Gideon isn’t really a proper peak : from its summit it’s clear it’s only a local undulation like other protruding spine bones in the broad back of the hills. Its cap sprouts industrial woodland, planted in regular patterns visible from space, reached by gravel-bordered runnelled dirt track. The former ancient water courses that fall away sharply from the highest point on the weald are filled with perilously-rooted trees, leaning haphazardly out from the precipitous banks of the ravines. The plantations and roadside thickets obscure the view of Chignecto Bay and the strong-tided Minas Passage, where the tidal turbine energy project is still being developed. With no coastal horizon, this could be hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, in the centre of an endless Avalonian Terrane. A silvicultural and latterly agroforestry economy that grew from the wealth of wood eventually developed a dependence on fossil fuels, but what thin coal seams locally have long been exhausted, and the metamorphic mass underfoot salts no petroleum oil or gas beneath. Tanker ship and truck brought energy for tractor and homestead for decades, but seeing little future in the black stuff, local sparsely-populated Crown Land was designated for renewable energy. Just to the north of Mount Gideon lie the Kent Hills, a scene of contention and social protest when the wind farm was originally proposed. For some, wind turbines would mechanise the landscape, cause frequency vibration sickness, spark forest fires from glinting blades, induce mass migraine from flickering sweeps of metal. Windmills were seen as monsters, but sense prevailed, through the normal processes of local democracy and municipal authority, and even a wind farm expansion came about. It is true that engineering giants have cornered the market in the first development sweep of wind power – those hoping for small-scale, locally-owned new energy solutions to the carbon crisis have had to relent and accept that only big players have the economic power to kickstart new technologies at scale. There are some who suspect that the anti-turbine groups were sponsored secretly by the very firms who wanted to capitalise on the ensuing vacuum in local energy supply; and that this revolt went too far. There was speculation about sabotage when one of the wind turbine nacelles caught fire a while back and became a sneering viral internet sensation. When the shale gas 1970s extraction technology revival circus came to Nova Scotia, the wind power companies were thought to have been involved in the large protest campaign that resulted in a New Brunswick moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the coastal lowlands. The geology was anyways largely against an expansion in meaningful fossil fuel mining in the area, and the central Precarboniferous massif would have held no gas of any kind, so this was an easily-won regulation, especially considering the risks to the Chignecto Bay fisheries from mining pollution.

TransAlta, they of “Clean Power, Today and Tomorrow”, sensed an prime moment for expansion. They had already forged useful alliances with the local logging companies during the development of Kent Hills Wind Farm, and so they knew that planning issues could be overcome. However, they wanted to appease the remnant of anti-technologists, so they devised a creative social engagement plan. They invited energy and climate change activists from all over Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the rest of Quebec to organise a pro-wind power camp and festival on the top of Mount Gideon. The idea was to celebrate wind power in a creative and co-operative way. The Crown Land was clearcut of trees as the first stage of the wind farm expansion, so the location was ideal. To enable the festival to function, water was piped to the summit, teepees and yurts were erected, and a local food delivery firm was hired to supply. The ambition of the cultural committee was to create an open, welcoming space with plenty of local colour and entertainment, inviting visitors and the media to review plans for the new wind farm. The festival was an international Twitter success, and attracted many North American, European and even Australasian revellers, although a small anarchist group from the French national territory in St Pierre et Miquelon created a bit of a diplomatic incident by accidentally setting fire to some overhanging trees in a ravine during a hash-smoking party.

Unbeknownst to the festival committee, a small and dedicated group of activists used the cover of the camp to plan a Gideon-style resistance to the Energy East pipeline plan. TransCanada wanted to bring heavy tar sands oil, blended with American light petroleum condensate, east from Alberta. The recent history of onshore oil pipelines and rail consignments was not encouraging – major spills had already taken place – and several disastrous accidents, such as the derailment and fireball at Plaster Rock, where the freight was routed by track to Irving Refinery. The original Energy East plan was to bring oil to the Irving Oil Canaport facility at Saint John, but a proposal had been made to extend the pipeline to the Atlantic coast. The new route would have to either make its circuitous way through Moncton, or cross under the Bay of Fundy, in order to be routed to Canso on the eastern side of Nova Scotia. The Energy East pipeline was already being criticised because of its planned route near important waterways and sensitive ecological sites. And the activist group had discovered that TransCanada had contracted a site evaluation at Cape Enrage on the western shore of the bay. Land jutted out into the water from here, making it the shortest crossing point to Nova Scotia. To route a pipeline here would mean it would have to cross Fundy National Park, sensitive fish and bird wading areas on the marshes and mudflats of the Waterside and Little Ridge, and cross over into the Raven Head Wilderness Area.

Gideon’s campaign had succeeded because of three things. His army had been whittled down to a compact, focused, elite force; they had used the element of surprise, and they had used the power of the enemy against itself. The activist group decided on a high level of secrecy about their alliance, but part of their plan was very public. They were divided into three groups : the Wasps, the Eagles and the Hawks. The Wasps would be the hidden force. They would construct and test drones, jumping off Mount Gideon, and flown out at night down the old river gullies, their route hidden by the topography, to spy on the TransCanada surface works. The plan was that when they had had enough practice the team would be ready to do this on a regular basis in future. If TransCanada did start building a pipeline here, the Wasps would be able to come back periodically and transport mudballs by drone to drop in the area. These squidgy payloads of dirt would contain special cultures of bacteria, including methanogens, that produce methane and other volatile chemicals. The environmental monitoring teams at the site would pick up spikes in hydrocarbon emissions, and this would inevitably bring into question the integrity of the pipeline. The Eagles would start a nationwide campaign for legal assistance, asking for lawyers to work pro bono to countermand the Energy East pipeline route, deploying the most recent scientific research on the fossil fuel industry, and all the factors that compromise oil and gas infrastructure. The Hawks would develop relationships with major energy investors, such as pension funds and insurance firms, and use public relations to highlight the risks of fossil fuel energy development, given the risks of climate change and the geological depletion of high quality resources. Nobody should be mining tar sands – the dirtiest form of energy ever devised. If TransCanada wanted to pipeline poisonous, toxic, air-damaging, climate-changing gloop all across the pristine biomes of precious Canada, the Mount Gideon teams were going to resist it in every way possible.

What the Mount Gideon teams did not know, but we know now, was that some of the activists at the camp were actually employees of the New Brunswick dynasties Irving and McCain. These families and their firms had saved the post-Confederation economy of the Maritime Provinces in the 20th Century, through vertical integration. Internally, within the Irving conglomerate, many recognised that fossil fuels had a limited future, even though some of the firms were part of the tar sands oil pipeline project. They were intending to take full advantage of the suspension of the light oil export ban from the United States for the purpose of liquefying Canadian heavy oils to make a more acceptable consumer product, as well as being something that could actually flow through pipes. They had held secret negotiations between their forestry units and the McCain family farming businesses. Research done for the companies had revealed that synthetic, carbon-neutral gas could be made from wood, grains and grasses, and that this would appeal to potential investors more than tar sands projects. They realised that if the Energy East project failed, they could step in to fill the gap in the energy market with their own brand of biomass-sourced renewables. They calculated that the potential for Renewable Gas was an order of magnitude larger than that of wind power, so they stood to profit as low carbon energy gained in popularity. Once again, in energy, big business intended to succeed, but they needed to do so in a way that was not confrontational. What better than to have a bunch of activists direct attention away from carbon-heavy environmentally-damaging energy to allow your clean, green, lean solutions to emerge victorious and virtuous ?


[1] This is a fictional, marginally futuristic account, but contains a number of factual, current accuracies.
[2] Bible, Psalm 34
[3] Bible, Judges 6-8

New Hands on DECC

So, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have a new top dog – Alex Chisholm – formerly the attack beast in charge of putting pressure on the electricity utility companies over their pricing rip-offs when at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

There’s a huge and dirty intray awaiting this poor fellow, including the demonstrable failings of the Energy Act that’s just been signed into law. I’d recommend that he call for the immediate separation of the department into two distinct and individually funded business units : Nuclear and The Rest. Why ? Because nuclear power in the UK has nothing to do with answering the risk of climate change, despite some public relations type people trying to assert its “low carbon” status. Plus, the financial liabilities of the nuclear section of DECC mean it’s just going to bring the rest of the department down unless there’s a divorce.

The UK Government have been pursuing new fission nuclear power with reams of policy manoeuvres. The call for new nuclear power is basically a tautological argument centring on a proposal to transition to meet all energy demand by power generation resources, and the presumption of vastly increasing energy independence. If you want to convert all heating and cooling and transport to electricity, and you want to have few energy imports, then you will need to have a high level of new nuclear power. If new nuclear power can be built, it will generate on a consistent basis, and so, to gain the benefit of self-sufficiency, you will want to transfer all energy demand to electricity. Because you assume that you will have lots of new nuclear power, you need to have new nuclear power. It’s a tautology. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sensible or even practical way to proceed.

DECC evolved mostly from the need to have a government department exclusively involved in the decommissioning of old nuclear power plants and the disposal of radioactive nuclear power plant waste and waste nuclear fuel. The still existing fleet of nuclear power plants is set to diminish as leaking, creaking, cracking and barely secure reactors and their unreliable steam generation equipment need to be shut down. At which point, this department will lose its cachet of being an energy provider and start to be merely an energy user and cash consumer – since there’s not enough money in the pot for essential decommissioning and disposal and DECC will need to go cap in hand to the UK Treasury for the next few decades to complete its core mission of nuclear decommissioning. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out why this department will remain committed to the concept of new nuclear power. It would certainly justify the continuing existence of the department.

The flagship DECC-driven nuclear power project for Hinkley Point C has run aground on a number of sharp issues – including the apparent financial suicide of the companies set to build it, the probably illegal restructuring loans and subsidy arrangements that various governments have made, what appears to be the outright engineering incompetency of the main construction firm, and the sheer waste of money involved. It would be cheaper by around 50% to 70% to construct lots of new wind power and some backup gas-fired power generation plant – and could potentially be lower carbon in total – especially if the gas is manufactured low carbon gas.

In order to stand a chance of making any new low carbon energy investment in the UK, the Department of Energy and Climate Change needs to split – much like the banks have. The risky, nuclear stuff in one team, and the securely certainly advantageous renewable energy stuff in the other team. We will have more wind power, more solar power and more of lots of other renewables in the next 10 years. We are unlikely to see an increase in nuclear power generation in the UK for the next 15. It’s time to split these business units to protect our chances of successful energy investment.

Fields of Diesel Generators

Recently, I had a very helpful telephone conversation with somebody I shall call Ben – because that’s his name, obviously, so there’s no point in trying to camoflage that fact. It was a very positive conversation, with lots of personal energy from both parties – just the sort of constructive engagement I like.

Amongst a range of other things, we were batting about ideas for what could constitute a business model or economic case for the development of Renewable Gas production – whether Renewable Hydrogen or Renewable Methane. Our wander through the highways and byways of energy markets and energy policy led us to this sore point – that the National Grid is likely to resort to “fields of diesel generators” for some of its emergency backup for the power grid in the next few years – if new gas-fired power plants don’t get built. Various acronyms you might find in this space include STOR and BM.

Now, diesel is a very dirty fuel – so dirty that it appears to be impossible to build catalytic exhaust filters for diesel road vehicles that meet any of the air pollution standards and keep up fuel consumption performance. It’s not just VW that have had trouble meeting intention with faction – all vehicle manufacturers have difficulties balancing all the requirements demanded of them. Perhaps it’s time to admit that we need to ditch the diesel fuel itself, rather than vainly try to square the circle.

The last thing we really need is diesel being used as the fuel to prop up the thin margins in the power generation network – burned in essentially open cycle plant – incurring dirty emissions and a massive waste of heat energy. Maybe this is where the petrorefiners of Great Britain could provide a Renewable Gas alternative. Building new plant or reconfiguring existing plant for Renewable Gas production would obviously entail capital investment, which would create a premium price on initial operations. However, in the event of the National Grid requiring emergency electricity generation backup, the traded prices for that power would be high – which means that slightly more expensive Renewable Gas could find a niche use which didn’t undermine the normal economics of the market.

If there could be a policy mandate – a requirement that Renewable Gas is used in open cycle grid-balancing generation – for example when the wind dies down and the sun sets – then we could have fields of Renewable Gas generators and keep the overall grid carbon emissions lower than they would otherwise have been.

Both Ben and I enjoyed this concept and shared a cackle or two – a simple narrative that could be adopted very easily if the right people got it.

Renewable Gas – that’s the craic.

Energy Security, National Security #1

Our assiduous government in the United Kingdom has conducted a national security review, as they should, but it appears the collective intelligence on energy of the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Commonwealth Office is on a scale of poor to dangerously out of date.

No, LNG doesn’t stand for “liquid natural gas”. LNG stands for Liquefied Natural Gas. I think this report has confused LNG with NGLs.

Natural Gas Liquids, or NGLs, are condensable constituents of gas-prone hydrocarbon wells. In other words, the well in question produces a lot of gas, but at the temperatures and pressures in the well underground, hydrocarbons that would normally be liquid on the surface are in the gas phase, underground. But when they are pumped/drilled out, they are condensed to liquids. So, what are these chemicals ? Well, here are the approximate Boiling Points of various typical fossil hydrocarbons, approximate because some of these molecules have different shapes and arrangements which influences their physical properties :-

Boiling Points of Short-Chain Hydrocarbons
Methane : approximately -161.5 degrees Celsius
Ethane : approximately -89.0 degrees Celsius
Propane : approximattely -42.0 degrees Celsius
Butane : approximately -1.0 degrees Celsius
Pentane : approximately 36.1 degrees Celsius
Heptane : approximately 98.42 degrees Celsius

You would expect NGLs, liquids condensed out of Natural Gas, to be mostly butane and heavier molecules, but depending on the techniques used – which are often cryogenic – some propane and ethane can turn up in NGLs, especially if they are kept cold. The remaining methane together with small amounts of ethane and propane and a trace of higher hydrocarbons is considered “dry” Natural Gas.

By contrast, LNG is produced by a process that chills Natural Gas without separating the methane, until it is liquid, and takes up a much smaller volume, making it practical for transportation. OK, you can see why mistakes are possible. Both processes operate at sub-zero temperatures and result in liquid hydrocarbons. But it is really important to keep these concepts separate – especially as methane-free liquid forms of short-chain hydrocarbons are often used for non-energy purposes.

Amongst other criticisms I have of this report, it is important to note that the UK’s production of crude oil and Natural Gas is not “gradually” declining. It is declining at quite a pace, and so imports are “certain” to grow, not merely “likely”. I note that Natural Gas production decline is not mentioned, only oil.

…to be continued…

Shell and BP : from “Delay and Deny” to “Delay and Distract”

Shell, BP and some of their confederates in the European oil and gas industry have inched, or perhaps “centimetred”, forward in their narrative on climate change. Previously, the major oil and gas companies were regularly outed as deniers of climate change science; either because of their own public statements, or because of secretive support of organisations active in denying climate change science. It does seem, finally, that Shell in particular has decided to drop this counter-productive “playing of both sides”. Not that there are any “sides” to climate change science. The science on climate change is unequivocal : changes are taking place across the world, and recent global warming is unprecedented, and has almost definitely been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and land use change.

So Shell and BP have finally realised that they need to shed the mantle of subtle or not-so-subtle denial, although they cling to the shreds of dispute when they utter doubts about the actual numbers or impacts of global warming (for example : http://www.joabbess.com/2015/06/01/shells-public-relations-offensive/). However, we have to grant them a little leeway on that, because although petrogeologists need to understand the science of global warming in order to know where to prospect for oil and gas, their corporate superiors in the organisation may not be scientists at all, and have no understanding of the global carbon cycle and why it’s so disruptive to dig up all that oil and gas hydrocarbon and burn it into the sky. So we should cut the CEOs of Shell and BP a little slack on where they plump for in the spectrum of climate change narrative – from “utter outright doom” to “trifling perturbation”. The central point is that they have stopped denying climate change. In fact, they’re being open that climate change is happening. It’s a miracle ! They have seen the light !

But not that much light, though. Shell and BP’s former position of “scepticism” of the gravity and actuality of global warming and climate change was deployed to great effect in delaying any major change in their business strategies. Obviously, it would have been unseemly to attempt to transmogrify into renewable energy businesses, which is why anybody in the executive branches who showed signs of becoming pro-green has been shunted. There are a number of fairly decent scalps on the fortress pikes, much to their shame. Shell and BP have a continuing duty to their shareholders – to make a profit from selling dirt – and this has shelved any intention to transition to lower carbon energy producers. Granted, both Shell and BP have attempted to reform their internal businesses by applying an actual or virtual price on carbon dioxide emissions, and in some aspects have cleaned up and tidied up their mining and chemical processing. The worsening chemistry of the cheaper fossil fuel resources they have started to use has had implications on their own internal emissions control, but you have to give them credit for trying to do better than they used to do. However, despite their internal adjustments, their external-facing position of denial of the seriousness of climate change has supported them in delaying major change.

With these recent public admissions of accepting climate change as a fact (although CEOs without appropriate science degrees irritatingly disagree with some of the numbers on global warming), it seems possible that Shell and BP have moved from an outright “delay and deny” position, which is to be applauded.

However, they might have moved from “delay and deny” to “delay and distract”. Since the commencement of the global climate talks, from about the 1980s, Shell and BP have said the equivalent of “if the world is serious about acting on global warming (if global warming exists, and global warming is caused by fossil fuels), then the world should agree policy for a framework, and then we will work within that framework.” This is in effect nothing more than the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has put forward, so nobody has noticed that Shell and BP are avoiding taking any action themselves here, by making action somebody else’s responsibility.

Shell and BP have known that it would take some considerable time to get unanimity between governments on the reality and severity of climate change. Shell and BP knew that it would take even longer to set up a market in carbon, or a system of carbon dioxide emissions taxation. Shell and BP knew right from the outset that if they kept pushing the ball back to the United Nations, nothing would transpire. The proof of the success of this strategy was the Copenhagen conference in 2009. The next proof of the durability of this delaying tactic will be the outcomes of the Paris 2015 conference. The most that can come out of Paris is another set of slightly improved targets from governments, but no mechanism for translating these into real change.

Shell and BP and the other oil and gas companies have pushed the argument towards a price on carbon, and a market in carbon, and expensive Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. Not that a price on carbon is likely to be anywhere near high enough to pay for Carbon Capture and Storage. But anyway, the point is that these are all distractions. What really needs to happen is that Shell and BP and the rest need to change their products from high carbon to low carbon. They’ve delayed long enough. Now is the time for the United Nations to demand that the fossil fuel companies change their products.

This demand is not just about protecting the survival of the human race, or indeed, the whole biome. Everybody is basically on the same page on this : the Earth should remain liveable-inable. This demand for change is about the survival of Shell and BP as energy companies. They have already started to talk about moving their businesses away from oil to gas. There are high profile companies developing gas-powered cars, trains, ships and possibly even planes. But this will only be a first step. Natural Gas needs to be a bridge to a fully zero carbon world. The oil and gas companies need to transition from oil to gas, and then they need to transition to low carbon gas.

Renewable Gas is not merely “vapourware” – the techniques and technologies for making low carbon gas are available, and have been for decades, or in some cases, centuries. Shell and BP know they can manufacture gas instead of digging it up. They know they can do the chemistry because they already have to do much of the same chemistry in processing fossil hydrocarbons now to meet environmental and performance criteria. BP has known since the 1970s or before that it can recycle carbon in energy systems. Shell is currently producing hydrogen from biomass, and they could do more. A price on carbon is not going to make this transition to low carbon gas. While Shell and BP are delaying the low carbon transition by placing focus on the price of carbon, they could lose a lot of shareholders who shy away from the “carbon bubble” risk of hydrocarbon investment. Shell and BP need to decide for themselves that they want to survive as energy companies, and go public with their plans to transition to low carbon gas, instead of continuing to distract attention away from themselves.

Why Shell is Wrong

So, some people do not understand why I am opposed to the proposal for a price on carbon put forward by Royal Dutch Shell and their oil and gas company confederates.

Those who have been following developments in climate change policy and the energy sector know that the oil and gas companies have been proposing a price on carbon for decades; and yet little has been achieved in cutting carbon dioxide emissions, even though carbon markets and taxes have been instituted in several regions.

Supporters of pricing carbon dioxide emissions urge the “give it time” approach, believing that continuing down the road of tweaking the price of energy in the global economy will cause a significant change in the types of resources being extracted.

My view is that economic policy and the strengthening of carbon markets and cross-border carbon taxes cannot provide a framework for timely and major shifts in the carbon intensity of energy resources, and here’s a brief analysis of why.

1.   A price on carbon shifts the locus of action on to the energy consumer and investor

A price on carbon could be expected to alter the profitability of certain fossil fuel mining, drilling and processing operations. For example, the carbon dioxide emissions of a “tank of gas” from a well-to-wheel or mine-to-wheel perspective, could be made to show up in the price on the fuel station forecourt pump. Leaving aside the question of how the carbon tax or unit price would be applied and redistributed for the moment, a price on carbon dioxide emissions could result in fuel A being more expensive than fuel B at the point of sale. Fuel A could expect to fall in popularity, and its sales could falter, and this could filter its effect back up the chain of production, and have implications on the capital expenditure on the production of Fuel A, and the confidence of the investors in investing in Fuel A, and so the oil and gas company would pull out of Fuel A.

However, the business decisions of the oil and gas company are assumed to be dependent on the consumer and the investor. By bowing to the might god of unit price, Shell and its confederates are essentially arguing that they will act only when the energy consumers and energy investors act. There are problems with this declaration of “we only do what we are told by the market” position. What if the unit price of Fuel A is only marginally affected by the price on carbon ? What if Fuel A is regarded as a superior product because of its premium price or other marketing factors ? This situation actually exists – the sales of petroleum oil-based gasoline and diesel are very healthy, despite the fact that running a car on Natural Gas, biogas or electricity could be far cheaper. Apart from the fact that so many motor cars in the global fleet have liquid fuel-oriented engines, what else is keeping people purchasing oil-based fuels when they are frequently more costly than the alternative options ?

And what about investment ? Fuel A might become more costly to produce with a price on carbon, but it will also be more expensive when it is sold, and this could create an extra margin of profit for the producers of Fuel A, and they could then return higher dividends to their shareholders. Why should investors stop holding stocks in Fuel A when their rates of return are higher ?

If neither consumers nor investors are going to change their practice because Fuel A becomes more costly than Fuel B because of a price on carbon, then the oil and gas company are not going to transition out of Fuel A resources.

For Shell to urge a price on carbon therefore, is a delegation of responsibility for change to other actors. This is irresponsible. Shell needs to lead on emissions reduction, not insist that other people change.

2.   A price on carbon will not change overall prices or purchasing decsions

In economic theory, choices about products, goods and services are based on key factors such as trust in the supplier, confidence in the product, availability and sustainability of the service, and, of course, the price. Price is a major determinant in most markets, and artificially altering the price of a vital commodity will certainly alter purchasing decisions – unless, that is, the price of the commodity in question increases across the board. If all the players in the field start offering a more expensive product, for example, because of supply chain issues felt across the market, then consumers will not change their choices.

Now consider the global markets in energy. Upwards of 80% of all energy consumed in the global economy is fossil fuel-based. Putting a price on carbon will raise the prices of energy pretty much universally. There will not be enough cleaner, greener product to purchase, so most purchasing decisions will remain the same. Price differentiation in the energy market will not be established by asserting a price on carbon.

A key part of Shell’s argument is that price differentiation will occur because of a price on carbon, and that this will drive behaviour change, and yet there is nothing to suggest it could do that effectively.

3.   A price on carbon will not enable Carbon Capture and Storage

Athough a key part of Shell’s argument about a price on carbon is the rationale that it would stimulate the growth in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), it seems unlikely that the world will ever agree to a price on carbon that would be sufficient to stimulate significant levels of CCS. A price on carbon will be deemed to be high enough when it creates a difference in the marginal extra production cost of a unit of one energy resource compared to another. A carbon price can only be argued for on the basis of this optimisation process – after all – a carbon price will be expected to be cost-efficient, and not punitive to markets. In other words, carbon prices will be tolerated if they tickle the final cost of energy, but not if they mangle with it. However, CCS could imply the use of 20% to 45% extra energy consumption at a facility or plant. In other words, CCS would create a parasitic load on energy resources that is not slim enough to be supported by a cost-optimal carbon price.

Some argue that the technology for CCS is improving, and that the parasitic load of CCS at installations could be reduced to around 10% to 15% extra energy consumption. However, it is hard to imagine a price on carbon that would pay even for this. And additionally, CCS will continue to require higher levels of energy consumption which is highly inefficient in the use of resources.

Shell’s argument that CCS is vital, and that a price on carbon can support CCS, is invalidated by this simple analysis.

4.   Shell needs to be fully engaged in energy transition

Calling for a price on carbon diverts attention from the fact that Shell itself needs to transition out of fossil fuels in order for the world to decarbonise its energy.

Shell rightly says that they should stick to their “core capabilities” – in other words geology and chemistry, instead of wind power and solar power. However, they need to demonstrate that they are willing to act within their central business activities.

Prior to the explosion in the exploitation of deep geological hydrocarbon resources for liquid and gas fuels, there was an energy economy that used coal and chemistry to manufacture gas and liquid fuels. Manufactured gas could still replace Natural Gas, if there are climate, economic or technological limits to how much Natural Gas can be resourced or safely deployed. Of course, to meet climate policy goals, coal chemistry would need to be replaced by biomass chemistry, and significant development of Renewable Hydrogen technologies.

Within its own production facilities, Shell has the answers to meet this challenge. Instead of telling the rest of the world to change its economy and its behaviour, Shell should take up the baton of transition, and perfect its production of low carbon manufactured gas.

The Price on Carbon

Although The Guardian newspaper employs intelligent people, sometimes they don’t realise they’ve been duped into acting as a mouthpiece for corporate propaganda. The “strapline” for the organisation is “Owned by no one. Free to say anything.”, and so it seemed like a major coup to be granted an interview with Ben Van Beurden of Royal Dutch Shell, recorded for a podcast that was uploaded on 29th May 2015.

However, the journalists, outoing editor Alan Rusbridger, Damian Carrington and Terry McAllister probably didn’t fully appreciate that this was part of an orchestrated piece of public relations. The same day as the podcast was published, Shell, along with five other oil and gas companies wrote a letter to officials of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Favourable copy appeared in various places, for example, at Climate Central, The Daily Telegraph and in the Financial Times where a letter also appeared.

In the letter to Christiana Figueres and Laurent Fabius of the UNFCCC, Shell and fellow companies BP, BG Group, Eni, Total and Statoil, wrote that they appreciate the risks of the “critical challenge” of climate change and that they “stand ready to play their part”. After listing their contributions towards a lower carbon energy economy, they wrote :-

“For us to do more, we need governments across the world to provide us with clear, stable, long-term, ambitious policy frameworks. This would reduce uncertainty and help stimulate investments in the right low carbon technologies and the right resources at the right pace.”

“We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element of these frameworks. If governments act to price carbon, this discourages high carbon options and encourages the most efficient ways of reducing emissions widely, including reduced demand for the most carbon intensive fossil fuels, greater energy efficiency, the use of natural gas in place of coal, increased investment in carbon capture and storage, renewable energy, smart buildings and grids, off-grid access to energy, cleaner cars and new mobility business models and behaviors.”

The obvious problem with this call is that the oil and gas companies are pushing responsibility for change out to other actors in the economy, namely, the governments; yet the governments have been stymied at every turn by the lobbying of the oil and gas companies – a non-virtuous cycle of pressure. Where is the commitment by the oil and gas companies to act regardless of regulatory framework ?

I think that many of the technological and efficiency gains mentioned above can be achieved without pricing carbon, and I also think that efforts to assert a price on carbon dioxide emissions will fail to achieve significant change. Here are my top five reasons :-

1. Large portions of the economy will probably be ringfenced from participating in a carbon market or have exemptions from paying a carbon tax. There will always be special pleading, and it is likely that large industrial concerns, and centralised transportation such as aviation, will be able to beat back at a liability for paying for carbon dioxide emissions. Large industrial manufacture will be able to claim that their business is essential in sustaining the economy, so they should not be subject to a price on carbon. International industry and aviation, because of its international nature, will be able to claim that a carbon tax or a market in carbon could infringe their cross-border rights to trade without punitive regulatory charges.

2. Those who dig up carbon will not pay the carbon price. Fossil fuel producers will pass any carbon costs placed on them to the end consumers of fossil fuels. A price on carbon will inevitably make the cost of energy more expensive for every consumer, since somewhere in the region of 80% of global energy is fossil fuel-derived. Customers do not have a non-carbon option to turn to, so will be forced to pay the carbon charges.

3. A price on carbon dioxide emissions will not stop energy producers digging up carbon. An artificial re-levelising of the costs of high carbon energy will certainly deter some projects from going ahead, as they will become unprofitable – such as heavy oil, tar sands and remote oil, such as in the Arctic. However, even with jiggled energy prices from a price on carbon, fossil fuel producers will continue to dig up carbon and sell it to be burned into the sky.

4. A price on carbon dioxide emissions is being touted as a way to incentivise carbon capture and storage (CCS) by the authors of the letter – and we’ve known since they first started talking about CCS in the 1990s that they believe CCS can wring great change. Yet CCS will only be viable at centralised facilities, such as mines and power plants. It will not be possible to apply CCS in transport, or in millions of homes with gas-fired boilers.

5. A price on carbon dioxide emissions will not cause the real change that is needed – the world should as far as possible stop digging up carbon and burning it into the sky. What fossil carbon that still enters energy systems should be recycled where possible, using Renewable Gas technologies, and any other carbon that enters the energy systems should be sourced from renewable resources such as biomass.

Shell’s Public Relations Offensive #2

And so it has begun – Shell’s public relations offensive ahead of the 2015 Paris climate talks. The substance of their “advocacy” – and for a heavyweight corporation, it’s less lobbying than badgering – is that the rest of the world should adapt. Policymakers should set a price on carbon, according to Shell. A price on carbon might make some dirty, polluting energy projects unprofitable, and there’s some value in that. A price on carbon might also stimulate a certain amount of Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, the capturing and permanent underground sequestration of carbon dioxide at large mines, industrial plant and power stations. But how much CCS could be incentivised by pricing carbon is still unclear. Egging on the rest of the world to price carbon would give Shell the room to carry on digging up carbon and burning it and then capturing it and burying it – because energy prices would inevitably rise to cover this cost. Shell continues with the line that they started in the 1990s – that they should continue to dig up carbon and burn it, or sell it to other people to burn, and that the rest of the world should continue to pay for the carbon to be captured and buried – but Shell has not answered a basic problem. As any physicist could tell you, CCS is incredibly energy-inefficient, which makes it cost-inefficient. A price on carbon wouldn’t solve that. It would be far more energy-efficient, and therefore cost-efficient, to either not dig up the carbon in the first place, or, failing that, recycle carbon dioxide into new energy. Shell have the chemical prowess to recycle carbon dioxide into Renewable Gas, but they are still not planning to do it. They are continuing to offer us the worst of all possible worlds. They are absolutely right to stick to their “core capabilities” – other corporations can ramp up renewable electricity such as wind and solar farms – but Shell does chemistry, so it is appropriate for them to manufacture Renewable Gas. They are already using most of the basic process steps in their production of synthetic crude in Canada, and their processing of coal and biomass in The Netherlands. They need to join the dots and aim for Renewable Gas. This will be far less expensive, and much more efficient, than Carbon Capture and Storage. The world does not need to shoulder the expense and effort of setting a price on carbon. Shell and its fellow fossil fuel companies need to transition out to Renewable Gas.

Renewable Gas : A Presentation #2

So, this is the second slide from my presentation at Birkbeck, University of London, last week.

When making an argument, it is best to start from consensus and well-accredited data, so I started with government analysis of the energy sector of the economy in the United Kingdom. Production of Natural Gas in the UK is declining, and imports are rising.

I did not go into much detail about this chart, but there is a wealth of analysis out there that I would recommend people check out.

Despite continued investment in oil and gas, North Sea production is declining, and it is generally accepted that this basin or province as a whole is depleting – that is – “running out”.

Here, for example, is more DECC data. The Summary of UK Estimated Remaining Recoverable Hydrocarbon Resources, published in 2014, had these numbers for UK Oil and Gas Reserves :-

billion barrels of oil equivalentLowerCentralUpper
Oil and Gas Reserves4.58.212.1
Potential Additional Resources1.43.46.4
Undiscovered Resources2.16.19.2

The summary concluded with the estimate of remaining recoverable hydrocarbons from the UK Continental Shelf (offshore) resources would be between 11.1 and 21 billion barrels of oil equivalent (bboe).

Other data in the report showed estimates of cumuluative and annual oil production :-

billion barrels of oil equivalentCumulative productionAnnual production
To date to end 201241.30.6 (in 2012)
To date to end 201241.80.5 (in 2013)
Additional production 2013 to 20307.00.44 (average 2014 to 2030)
Additional production 2013 to 20409.10.21 (average 2031 to 2040)
Additional production 2013 to 205010.40.13 (average 2041 to 2050)

Another source of estimates on remaining oil and gas resources, reserves and yet-to-find potential is from the Wood Review of 2014 :-

billion barrels of oil equivalentLow caseMid-caseHigh case
DECC reference122235
Wood Review1224

So it’s clear that British oil and gas production is in decline, and that also, reserves and resources to exploit are depleting. The Wood Review made several recommendations to pump up production, and maximise the total recoverable quantities. Some interpreted this as an indication that good times were ahead. However, increased production in the near future is only going to deplete these resources faster.

OK, so the UK is finding the North Sea running dry, but what about other countries ? This from the BP Statistical Review of Energy, 2014 :-

Oil – proved reserves
Thousand million barrels

At end 1993

At end 2003

At end 2012
United Kingdom4.54.33.0

Natural gas – Proved Reserves
Trillion cubic metres

At end 1993

At end 2003

At end 2012
United Kingdom0.60.90.2

Oil and gas chief executives may be in denial about a peak in global crude oil production, but they don’t challenge geology on the North Sea. Here’s what BP’s CEO Bob Dudley said on 17th February 2015, during a presentation of the BP Energy Outlook 2035 :-

“The North sea is a very mature oil and gas province and it will inevitably go through a decline. It peaked in 1999 at around 2.9 millions barrels per day and our projections are that it will be half a million barrels in 2035”.

That’s “inevitably” regardless of the application of innovation and new technology. New kit might bring on production sooner, but won’t replenish the final count of reserves to exploit.

So what are the likely dates for Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas production in the North Sea bordering countries ?

Norway : by 2030.

The Netherlands : peaked already. Due to become a net importer of Natural Gas by 2025.

Denmark : net importer of oil and gas by 2030.

Only Just Getting Started

In the last couple of years I have researched and written a book about the technologies and systems of Renewable Gas – gas energy fuels that are low in net carbon dioxide emissions. From what I have learned so far, it seems that another energy world is possible, and that the transition is already happening. The forces that are shaping this change are not just climate or environmental policy, or concerns about energy security. Renewable Gas is inevitable because of a range of geological, economic and industrial reasons.

I didn’t train as a chemist or chemical process engineer, and I haven’t had a background in the fossil fuel energy industry, so I’ve had to look at a number of very basic areas of engineering, for example, the distillation and fractionation of crude petroleum oil, petroleum refinery, gas processing, and the thermodynamics of gas chemistry in industrial-scale reactors. Why did I need to look at the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical industry when I was researching Renewable Gas ? Because that’s where a lot of the change can come from. Renewable Gas is partly about biogas, but it’s also about industrial gas processes, and a lot of them are used in the petrorefinery and chemicals sectors.

In addition, I researched energy system technologies. Whilst assessing the potential for efficiency gains in energy systems through the use of Renewable Electricity and Renewable Gas, I rekindled an interest in fuel cells. For the first time in a long time, I began to want to build something – a solid oxide fuel cell which switches mode to an electrolysis unit that produces hydrogen from water. Whether I ever get to do that is still a question, but it shows how involved I’m feeling that I want to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.

Even though I have covered a lot of ground, I feel I’m only just getting started, as there is a lot more that I need to research and document. At the same time, I feel that I don’t have enough data, and that it will be hard to get the data I need, partly because of proprietary issues, where energy and engineering companies are protective of developments, particularly as regards actual numbers. Merely being a university researcher is probably not going to be sufficient. I would probably need to be an official within a government agency, or an industry institute, in order to be permitted to reach in to more detail about the potential for Renewable Gas. But there are problems with these possible avenues.

You see, having done the research I have conducted so far, I am even more scornful of government energy policy than I was previously, especially because of industrial tampering. In addition, I am even more scathing about the energy industry “playing both sides” on climate change. Even though there are some smart and competent people in them, the governments do not appear to be intelligent enough to see through expensive diversions in technology or unworkable proposals for economic tweaking. These non-solutions are embraced and promoted by the energy industry, and make progress difficult. No, carbon dioxide emissions taxation or pricing, or a market in carbon, are not going to make the kind of changes we need on climate change; and in addition they are going to be extremely difficult and slow to implement. No, Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is never going to become relatively affordable in any economic scenario. No, nuclear power is too cumbersome, slow and dodgy – a technical term – to ever make a genuine impact on the total of carbon emissons. No, it’s not energy users who need to reduce their consumption of energy, it’s the energy companies who need to reduce the levels of fossil fuels they utilise in the energy they sell. No, unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas, are not the answer to high emissions from coal. No, biofuels added to petrofuels for vehicles won’t stem total vehicle emissions without reducing fuel consumption and limiting the number of vehicles in use.

I think that the fossil fuel companies know these proposals cannot bring about significant change, which is precisely why they lobby for them. They used to deny climate change outright, because it spelled the end of their industry. Now they promote scepticism about the risks of climate change, whilst at the same time putting their name to things that can’t work to suppress major amounts of emissions. This is a delayer’s game.

Because I find the UK Government energy and climate policy ridiculous on many counts, I doubt they will ever want me to lead with Renewable Gas on one of their projects. And because I think the energy industry needs to accept and admit that they need to undergo a major change, and yet they spend most of their public relations euros telling the world they don’t need to, and that other people need to make change instead, I doubt the energy industry will ever invite me to consult with them on how to make the Energy Transition.

I suppose there is an outside chance that the major engineering firms might work with me, after all, I have been an engineer, and many of these companies are already working in the Renewable Gas field, although they’re normally “third party” players for the most part – providing engineering solutions to energy companies.

Because I’ve had to drag myself through the equivalent of a “petro degree”, learning about the geology and chemistry of oil and gas, I can see more clearly than before that the fossil fuel industry contains within it the seeds of positive change, with its use of technologies appropriate for manufacturing low carbon “surface gas”. I have learned that Renewable Gas would be a logical progression for the oil and gas industry, and also essential to rein in their own carbon emissions from processing cheaper crude oils. If they weren’t so busy telling governments how to tamper with energy markets, pushing the blame for emissions on others, and begging for subsidies for CCS projects, they could instead be planning for a future where they get to stay in business.

The oil and gas companies, especially the vertically integrated tranche, could become producers and retailers of low carbon gas, and take part in a programme for decentralised and efficient energy provision, and maintain their valued contribution to society. At the moment, however, they’re still stuck in the 20th Century.

I’m a positive person, so I’m not going to dwell too much on how stuck-in-the-fossilised-mud the governments and petroindustry are. What I’m aiming to do is start the conversation on how the development of Renewable Gas could displace dirty fossil fuels, and eventually replace the cleaner-but-still-fossil Natural Gas as well.