Energy Change for Climate Control
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  • Gas Policy : Conceptual Piracy ?

    Posted on March 17th, 2014 Jo No comments

    So, I’m talking with an oil and gas man. I can’t quite say who, or when or where, or indeed, which company he is working for. But he’s definitely a man, and working in the fossil fuel industry. So, I say, I suspect that within the major oil and gas companies there must be a plan about what to do after the shale gas and shale oil public relations bubble has run its course. When it becomes clear that they can never add much to global production, the decision will be about whether to run with sour conventional fossil fuel resources in provinces already well-explored, or go for sweet unconventionals in inaccessible, and formerly neglected, places. Iran could suddenly become our very best of friends, for example, or we could scramble for Africa. The option for sour conventional fossil fuels, he says, it depends on where it is. I assent.

    There’s always mining for methane hydrates, he volunteers. In the Arctic. They’re already doing it in Japan, I agree, but it would be complicated, I counter, to go for deep drilling in areas with significant pack ice for many months of the year. Plus, global warming is strong in the Arctic, and conditions could change rapidly in ten years, and risk the infrastructure. It’s not a very good place to want to be drilling – the challenges of cold and ice, or meltwaters from ice in summer, and climate-changed shorelines. But there’s the permafrost, he said, implying that all the plant they will build will be stable. In my mind I’m asking myself – does he know the permafrost is melting ? There is a shallow ocean, I admit, with a lot of continental shelf at the right depth for stable clathrate formation. One could even pump carbon dioxide into the methane hydrates to release the methane by replacing it with carbon dioxide in the crystalline structure. Or so I’ve heard. Although it might be quite hard to collect the methane coming out. Mining methane hydrates would technically be possible, but it really depends on where it is. There are quite a number of territorial claims in the Arctic area. What is Russia claiming about the Arctic Ocean coast ?

    Wouldn’t it just be easier and safer to mine sour conventionals ? Whichever route the oil and gas industry takes now, they will need to build a lot of new kit. If they choose remote sweet gas, they will need to build remote mining plant, pipelines and ship terminals. If they choose sour gas, they can then choose to methanate the Natural Carbon Dioxide that comes out of the wells as part of the Natural Gas. This would uprate the gas and so increase its value, and it wouldn’t be necessary to Capture the carbon dioxide for burial or reinjection. If the gas industry chooses to produce Renewable Hydrogen to enable methanation of acid fossil gas, they can then also be ready for the switch to a fully Renewable Gas without a second phase of building loads of new kit – and that would surely be a bonus ?

    I said that I didn’t really believe in the narrative that significant volumes of methane could be mined cleanly or reliably from underwater hydrates. And that’s where our conversation came to an end.

    I don’t believe that scrambling for the methane locked in undersea “fire ice” is an appropriately-scaled or workable plan. I wonder what the real plan is…and if the oil and gas industry haven’t got one, I wonder if the rest of us should help them ?

    None of the pictures of alternative fuels painted by the oil and gas industry in the last decade have turned out to be meaningful. Let’s talk historical evidence. In oil, the “advanced biofuels” meme is pretty much exhausted, and production plateauing. Is anybody still promising large production volumes of algae biodiesel ? Can second-generation ethanol rise to the challenge of displacing big number percentages of petrodiesel ? Natural Gas Liquids and condensate from Natural Gas processing in the USA could well all be destined to be additives for thinning the bitumen from the oil sands in Canada – but will production ever be high ? Shale and tight oil production is growing overall in the United States of America, but there are disagreements about how significant it can become (and remain, given the likely depletion rates). In gas, the shale bubble could almost be at bursting point. Can we trust future projections ? I suppose it depends on who they come from.

  • Peak Oil : Kitchen Burlesque

    Posted on March 17th, 2014 Jo No comments

    An engineering buddy and I find ourselves in my kitchen, reading out loud from Jeremy Leggett’s 2013 book “The Energy of Nations : Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance”. The main topic of the work, I feel, is the failure of the energy sector and the political elites to develop a realistic plan for the future, and their blinkered adherence to clever arguments taken from failing and cracked narratives – such as the belief that unconventional fossil fuels, such as tar sands, can make up for declining conventional oil and gas production. It’s also about compromise of the highest order in the most influential ranks. The vignettes recalling conversations with the high and mighty are pure comedy.

    “It’s very dramatic…”

    “You can imagine it being taken to the West End theatres…”

    “We should ask Ben Elton to take a look – adapt it for the stage…”

    “It should really have costumes. Period costumes…Racy costumes…”

    “Vaudeville ?”

    “No…burlesque ! Imagine the ex-CEO of BP, John Browne, in a frou-frou tutu, slipping a lacy silk strap from his shoulder…What a Lord !”

    “Do you think Jeremy Leggett would look good in a bodice ?”

  • In Confab : Paul Elsner

    Posted on January 23rd, 2014 Jo No comments

    Dr Paul Elsner of Birkbeck College at the University of London gave up some of his valuable time for me today at his little bijou garret-style office in Bloomsbury in Central London, with an excellent, redeeming view of the British Telecom Tower. Leader of the Energy and Climate Change module on Birkbeck’s Climate Change Management programme, he offered me tea and topical information on Renewable Energy, and some advice on discipline in authorship.

    He unpacked the recent whirlwind of optimism surrounding the exploitation of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, and how Climate Change policy is perhaps taking a step back. He said that we have to accept that this is the way the world is at the moment.

    I indicated that I don’t have much confidence in the “Shale Bubble”. I consider it mostly as a public relations exercise – and that there are special conditions in the United States of America where all this propaganda comes from. I said that there are several factors that mean the progress with low carbon fuels continues to be essential, and that Renewable Gas is likely to be key.

    1. First of all, the major energy companies, the oil and gas companies, are not in a healthy financial state to make huge investment. For example, BP has just had the legal ruling that there will be no limit to the amount of compensation claims they will have to face over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Royal Dutch Shell meanwhile has just had a serious quarterly profit warning – and if that is mostly due to constrained sales (“Peak Oil Demand”) because of economic collapse, that doesn’t help them with the kind of aggressive “discovery” they need to continue with to keep up their Reserves to Production ratio (the amount of proven resources they have on their books). These are not the only problems being faced in the industry. This problem with future anticipated capitalisation means that Big Oil and Gas cannot possibly look at major transitions into Renewable Electricity, so it would be pointless to ask, or try to construct a Carbon Market to force it to happen.

    2. Secondly, despite claims of large reserves of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, ripe for the exploitation of, even major bodies are not anticipating that Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas will be delayed by many years by the “Shale Gale”. The reservoir characteristics of unconventional fossil fuel fields do not mature in the same way as conventional ones. This means that depletion scenarios for fossil fuels are still as relevant to consider as the decades prior to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).

    3. Thirdly, the reservoir characteristics of conventional fossil fuel fields yet to exploit, especially in terms of chemical composition, are drifting towards increasingly “sour” conditions – with sigificant levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide in them. The sulphur must be removed for a variety of reasons, but the carbon dioxide remains an issue. The answer until recently from policy people would have been Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. Carbon dioxide should be washed from acid Natural Gas and sequestered under the ocean in salt caverns that previously held fossil hydrocarbons. It was hoped that Carbon Markets and other forms of carbon pricing would have assisted with the payment for CCS. However, recently there has been reduced confidence that this will be significant.

    Renewable Gas is an answer to all three of these issues. It can easily be pursued by the big players in the current energy provision system, with far less investment than wholesale change would demand. It can address concerns of gas resource depletion at a global scale, the onset of which could occur within 20 to 25 years. And it can be deployed to bring poor conventional fossil fuels into consideration for exploitation in the current time – answering regional gas resource depletion.

    Outside, daffodils were blooming in Tavistock Square. In January, yes. The “freaky” weather continues…

  • Gain in Transmission

    Posted on January 13th, 2014 Jo No comments

    It constantly amazes and intrigues me how human individuals operate in networks to formulate, clarify and standardise ideas, tools, machines, procedures and systems. Several decades ago, Renewable Electricity from sources such as wind power was considered idealistic vapourware, esoteric, unworkable and uncertain, and now it’s a mainstream generator of reliable electricity in the UK’s National Grid. Who would have thought that invisible, odourless, tasteless gas phase chemicals would heat our homes ? It’s now just so normal, it’s impossible to imagine that Natural Gas was once considered to be so insignificant that it was vented – not even flared – from oil wells.

    Judging by the sheer number of people working on aspects of Renewable Gas, I expect this too to be mainstream in the energy sector within a decade. What do others think ? I have begun the process of asking, for example, see below.

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A. Sears
    date: Mon, May 2, 2011 at 11:59 PM
    subject: Question from your TED talk

    Dear [Professor] Sears,

    I was intrigued by your TED talk that I recently viewed :-

    http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_sears_planning_for_the_end_of_oil.html

    Yes, I am interested in the idea of “printing” solar cells, which is what I think you might be alluding to with your reference to abalone shells.

    But I am more interested in what you base your estimate of “Peak Gas” on. I recently did some very basic modelling of hydrocarbon resources and electricity, which look somewhat different from the IEA and EIA work and reports from BP and Royal Dutch Shell. My conclusion was that Peak Oil is roughly now, Peak Natural Gas will be around 2030, and Peak Electricity around 2060 :-

    http://www.joabbess.com/2011/02/11/future-energy-tipping-points/

    I am going to try to improve these charts before I submit my MSc Masters Thesis, so I am trying to find out what other people base their projections on. Could you help me by pointing me at the basis of your assessment of Peak Natural Gas ?

    Thank you,

    jo.

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Richard A. Sears
    to: Jo Abbess
    date: Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    Jo,

    I am just now finding a number of old emails that got archived (and ignored) when I moved from MIT to Stanford a few years ago. A quick answer is that I did about what Hubbert did in 1956. No detailed statistical modeling, just look at the trends, think about what’s happening in the industry, and make what seem like reasonable statements about it.

    A number of interesting things have happened just in the last two years since you wrote to me. Significantly, US oil production is on the rise. When you count all hydrocarbon liquids, the US is or will soon be, the world largest producer. This just goes to one of my points from TED. Don’t expect oil and gas to go away any time soon. There are plenty of molecules out there. I first said this internally at Shell in the mid 1980′s when I was Manager of Exploration Economics and since then I’ve felt that I got it about right.

    I did just look at your website and would caution you about extrapolating very recent trends into the future. The rate of growth in shale gas production has slowed, but there’s an important economic factor driving that. Gas prices in the US are very low compared to oil. With the development of fraccing technology to enable oil and liquids production from shale formations, the industry has shifted their effort to the liquids-rich plays. A few statistics. Gas is currently around $3.50/mcf. On an energy equivalent basis, this equates to an oil price of about $20/barrel. Brent currently sells for $110/barrel and the light oils produced from the shale plays in the US are getting between $90 and $100/barrel, depending on where they can be delivered. As a consequence, in the 3rd quarter of 2013, compared to one year ago, oil well completions are up 18% while natural gas well completions declined 30%.

    Yes, you are right. Printing solar cells is an example of what I was talking about with Abalone shells. Similarly, what if you had paint that as it dried would self assemble into linked solar cells and your entire house is now generating electricity. I was totally amazed at the number of people that didn’t actually think about what I was saying and called me an !d!*t for imagining that I was going to transform coal itself into some magical new molecule. [...]

    In any case, I think it’s good that you’re thinking about these problems, and importantly it appears from your website that you’re thinking about the system and its complexity.

    Best regards,
    Rich Sears

    Richard A. Sears
    Visiting Scientist
    MIT Energy Initiative
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A Sears
    sent: Monday, May 02, 2011 3:59 PM

    Dear [Professor] Sears,

    Many thanks for your reply.

    I had kinda given up of ever hearing back from you, so it’s lovely to
    read your thoughts.

    May I blog them ?

    Regards,

    jo.

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Richard A Sears
    date: Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 5:03 PM
    to: Jo Abbess

    Jo,

    I have personally avoided blogging because I don’t want to put up with people writing mean comments about me. But the data is worth sharing. You should also know the sources of that data otherwise you open yourself to more criticism.

    The data on production comes from the International Energy Agency and a research firm PIRA. All of it was in recent press releases. The Energy Information Administration makes similar projections about future production. The data on well completions was recently released by API.

    No need to reference me. The data is out there for all to see. But if you do, fair warning. You will get stupid comments about how I used to be a VP at Shell so of course these are the things I’m going to say. [...]

    By the way, there’s something else that’s very interesting in the world of peak oil and various peaks. I have long believed, as hinted in my TED talk that the most important aspect of peak oil is the demand driven phenomena, not the supply side. It’s worth noting in this context that US oil consumption peaked in 2005 and has declined about 10% since then. This data can be found easily in the BP Statistical Report on World Energy. This is real and is a result of economic shifts, greater efficiency, and the penetration of renewables. Future energy projections (references above) show that this trend continues. A big component of US energy consumption is gasoline, and US gasoline consumption peaked in 2007. I think that data can be found at http://www.eia.gov, although I haven’t looked for it lately. It’s a little factoid that I think I remember.

    Rich

    Richard A. Sears
    Consulting Professor
    Department of Energy Resources Engineering
    Stanford University

    =x=x=x=x=x=x=x=x=

    from: Jo Abbess
    to: Richard A Sears
    date: Sun, Jan 12, 2014 at 11:47 AM

    Dear Professor Sears,

    HNY 2014 !

    This year I am hoping to attempt the climb on my own personal K2 by writing an academic book on Renewable Gas – sustainable, low-to-zero carbon emissions gas phase fuels.

    I am not a chemist, nor a chemical engineer, and so I would value any suggestions on who I should approach in the gas (and oil) industry to interview about projects that lean in this direction.

    Examples would be :-

    * Power-to-Gas : Using “spare” wind power to make Renewable Hydrogen – for example by electrolysis of water. Part of the German Power-to-Gas policy. Some hydrogen can be added to gas grids safely without changing regulations, pipework or end appliances.

    * Methanation : Using Renewable Hydrogen and young or recycled carbon gas to make methane (using the energy from “spare” wind power, for example). Also part of the German Power-to-Gas policy.

    NB “Young” carbon would be either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, and be sourced from biomass, Direct Air Capture, or from the ocean. “Old” carbon would come from the “deeper” geological carbon cycle, such as from fossil fuel, or industrial processes such as the manufacture of chemicals from minerals and/or rocks.

    Precursors to Renewable Gas also interest me, as transitions are important – transitions from a totally fossil fuel-based gas system to a sustainable gas system. I have recently looked at some basic analysis on the chemistry of Natural Gas, and its refinery. It seems that methanation could be useful in making sour gas available as sweetened, as long as Renewable Hydrogen is developed for this purpose. It seems that there is a lot of sour gas in remaining reserves, and the kind of CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) that would be required under emissions controls could make sour gas too expensive to use if it was just washed of acids.

    I don’t think the future of energy will be completely electrified – it will take a very long time to roll out 100% Renewable Electricity and there will always be problems transitioning out of liquid fuels to electricity in vehicular transportation.

    If you could suggest any names, organisations, university departments, companies, governance bodies that I should contact, or research papers that I should read, I would be highly grateful.

    Many thanks,

    jo.

  • The Catalysis of Hydrocarbons

    Posted on June 14th, 2013 Jo No comments

    Renewable Gasoline

    http://www.greencarcongress.com/2013/05/fulcrum-20130528.html#more

    http://www.infratechnology.com/technology/

    http://www.jouleunlimited.com/news/2013/joule-extends-solar-co2-conversion-platform-produce-renewable-gasoline-and-jet-fuel

  • They Think It’s Not All Over

    Posted on June 11th, 2013 Jo No comments



    [ Image Credit : Lakeview Gusher : TotallyTopTen.com ]

    So, the EIA say that the world has 10 years of shale oil resources which are technically recoverable. Woo hoo. We’ll pass over the question of why the American Department of Energy are guiding global energy policy, and why this glowing pronouncement looks just like the mass propaganda exercise for shale gas assessments that kicked off a few years ago, and move swiftly on to the numbers.

    No, actually, not straight on to the numbers. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out the public relations strategy for promoting increasingly dirtier fossil fuels. First, they got us accustomed to the idea of shale gas, and claimed without much evidence, that it was as “clean” as Natural Gas, and far, far cleaner than coal. Data that challenges this myth continues to be collected. Meanwhile, now we are habituated to accepting without reason the risks of subsurface and ground water reservoir destruction by hydraulic fracturing, we should be pliable enough to accept the next step up – oil shale oil fracking. And then the sales team can move on to warm us up to cruddier unconventionals, like bitumen exhumed from tar sands, and mining unstable sub-sea clathrates.

    Why do the oil and gas companies of the world and their trusted allies in the government energy departments so desperately want us to believe in the saving power of shale oil and gas ? Why is it necessary for them to pursue such an environmentally threatening course of product development ? Can it be that the leaders of the developed world and their industry experts recognise, but don’t want to admit to, Peak Oil, and its twin wraith, Peak Natural Gas, that will shadow it by about 10 to 15 years ?

    A little local context – UK oil production is falling like a stoneover the whole North Sea area. Various efforts have been made to stimulate new investment in exploration and discovery. The overall plan for the UK Continental Shelf has included opening up prospects via licence to smaller players in the hope of getting them to bet the farm, and if they come up trumps, permitted the larger oil and gas companies to snaffle up the small fry.

    But really, the flow of Brent crude oil is getting more expensive to guarantee. And it’s not just the North Sea – the inverse pyramid of the global oil futures market is teeteringly wobbly, even though Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) are now included in petroleum oil production figures. Cue panic stations at the Coalition (Oilition) Government offices – frantic rustling of review papers ahoy.

    To help them believe it’s not all over, riding into view from the stables of Propaganda Central, come the Six Horsemen of Unconventional Fossil Fuels : Tar Sands, Shale Gas, Shale Oil (Oil Shale Oil), Underground Coal Gasification, Coalbed Methane and Methane Hydrates.

    Shiny, happy projections of technically recoverable unconventional (night)mares are always lumped together, like we are able to suddenly open up the ground and it starts pouring out hydrocarbon goodies at industrial scale volumes. But no. All fossil fuel development is gradual – especially at the start of going after a particular resource. In the past, sometimes things started gushing or venting, but those days are gone. And any kind of natural pump out of the lithosphere is entirely absent for unconventional fossil fuels – it all takes energy and equipment to extract.

    And so we can expect trickles, not floods. So, will this prevent field depletion in any region ? No. It’s not going to put off Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas – it literally cannot be mined fast enough. Even if there are 10 years of current oil production volumes that can be exploited via mining oil shale, it will come in dribs and drabs, maybe over the course of 50 to 100 years. It might prolong the Peak Oil plateau by a year or so – that’s barely a ripple. Unconventional gas might be more useful, but even this cannot delay the inevitable. For example, despite the USA shale gas “miracle”, as the country continues to pour resources and effort into industrialising public lands, American Peak Natural Gas is still likely to be only 5 years, or possibly scraping 10 years, behind Global Peak Natural Gas which will bite at approximately 2030 or 2035-ish. I suspect this is why EIA charts of future gas production never go out beyond 2045 or so :-

    Ask a mathematician to model growth in unconventional fossil fuels compared to the anticipated and actual decline in “traditional” fossil fuels, and ask if unconventionals will compensate. They will not.

    The practice for oil and gas companies is to try to maintain shareholder confidence by making sure they have a minimum of 10 years of what is known as Reserves-to-Production ratio or R/P. By showing they have at least a decade of discovered resources, they can sell their business as a viable investment. Announcing that the world has 10 years of shale oil it can exploit sounds like a healthy R/P, but in actual fact, there is no way this can be recovered in that time window. The very way that this story has been packaged suggests that we are being encouraged to believe that the fossil fuel industry are a healthy economic sector. Yet it is so facile to debunk that perspective.

    People, it’s time to divest your portfolios of oil and gas concerns. If they have to start selling us the wonders of bitumen and kerogen, the closing curtain cannot be far away from dropping.

    They think it’s not all over, but it so clearly must be.

  • The Trouble With Tar

    Posted on June 6th, 2013 Jo No comments





    The bother with bitumen is that it’s as far from being a liquid as it is possible for a mixed bag of hydrocarbons to get without it being solid, flaky coal. If crude petroleum oil is a cup of tea with a tablespoonful of sugar syrup stirred into it, heavy oil can be like burnt toffee charred and stuck to the bottom of the pan, making the whole place stink of fence weatherisation paint.

    A couple of decades ago, thick oil deposits were ruled out as uneconomic to mine, but as petroleum oil prices have risen, tar and bitumen are now back on the driller’s menu. The oil and gas industry claim that advances in technology have made these resources viable to exploit, and to some extent this must be right. However the rising prices for liquid transport fuels over the last decade is probably the main motivation for going after these dirty “unconventional” fossil fuels. It certainly seems to be the key stimulus for a new flurry of activity in this area.


    [ Image Credit : Amjad Ali Shah ]

    The world’s dense oil resources finally rose above controversy to make it into BP’s annual energy review in the BP’s 2010 Statistical Review (the data for 2009). Note the difference with the previous year :-


    [ Image Credit : BP ]


    [ Image Credit : BP ]

    This difference in the Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) between the years is noted as being “due to an increase in Venezuelan official reserves”, and the data taken from the OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin, which includes “proven reserves of the Magna Reserve Project in the Orinoco Belt” :-

    http://www.expertguides.com/default.asp?Page=9&GuideID=238&Ed=132

    At a meeting held by the Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) held at the Institute of Physics (IoP) two days ago in London, called “Catalysis and Chemical Engineering 2013″, I chatted with a research scientist about the methods for extracting oil from seams of “tar”. Our conversation had its focus on a poster on the boards, summarising a paper that I think is this :-

    Optimization of the CAPRI Process for Heavy Oil Upgrading: Effect of Hydrogen and Guard Bed
    by Abarasi Hart, Amjad Shah, Gary Leeke, Malcolm Greaves and Joseph Wood, of the Universities of Birmingham and Bath, published in the journal Industrial and Engineering Chemical Research, 24 April 2013, DOI: 10.1021/ie400661x

    ( Other work previously : http://opus.bath.ac.uk/24298/, http://opus.bath.ac.uk/27784/,http://opus.bath.ac.uk/1063/, http://www.onepetro.org/mslib/servlet/onepetropreview?id=SPE-136870-PA, http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/NGBOViewGrant.aspx?GrantRef=EP/E057977/1, http://www.greencarcongress.com/2013/03/hashemi-20130325.html )

    The basic idea is to lay a pipe at the bottom of the seam of oil, then burn the edge of the seam, causing the oil to melt somewhat, pass into the pipe and get catalysed into a lighter oil, and then pumped out :-

    Of course, burning oil underground has potential issues. Nothing is ever as neat as the scholarly diagrams.

    The idea of packing the pipe with catalyst, rather than trying to run the catalyst through with the oil, shows some potential. It might be cheaper and more energy efficient to do this, rather than using electricity to heat the oil to make it flow. I mean, if you are going to use electricity to deliver liquid transport fuels, you might as well have electric drive transport vehicles instead.

    http://www.intecsea.com/publications/technical-publications/148-direct-electrical-heating-of-flowlines-guide-to-uses-and-benefits

    “Direct Electrical Heating of Flowlines – Guide to Uses and Benefits : Publish Date: 1/24/2012 : Author: Rebecca Fisher Roth : Conference: OTC Brazil (OTC-22631-PP) : Abstract: Direct Electrical Heating (DEH) of flowlines is a flow assurance technology that enables development of fields with heavy oil and fields in arctic regions, fields with long subsea tiebacks, and marginally profitable offshore fields. By allowing for operation in conditions outside of the hydrate region and/or above the wax appearance temperature, DEH opens up areas of development not otherwise considered viable by production companies and can significantly reduce CAPEX and OPEX for already-viable fields.”

    http://www.wartsila.com/file/Wartsila/en/1278532493326a1267106724867-Wartsila-O-V-DEH.pdf

    I wonder about the energy balance of the mining of heavy oils – how much energy needs to be used to mine these hydrocarbons ? And what of the risks – such as permanent underground fires, toxic surface “tailing ponds” from further refining, or major strata collapse ? Wouldn’t it just be easier, cleaner and cheaper to make energy on the surface of the Earth from realtime sunshine, instead of underground fossil sunshine ?


    [ Image Credit : BP ]

    http://www.controlrisks.com/Oversized%20assets/LATAM_oil_and_gas_whitepaper_2013_10.pdf

  • Carbon Bubble : Unburnable Assets

    Posted on June 3rd, 2013 Jo No comments



    [ Image Credit : anonymous ]


    Yet again, the fossil fuel companies think they can get away with uncommented public relations in my London neighbourhood. Previously, it was BP, touting its green credentials in selling biofuels, at the train station, ahead of the Olympic Games. For some reason, after I made some scathing remarks about it, the advertisement disappeared, and there was a white blank board there for weeks.

    This time, it’s Esso, and they probably think they have more spine, as they’ve taken multiple billboard spots. In fact, the place is saturated with this advertisement. And my answer is – yes, fuel economy is important to me – that’s why I don’t have a car.

    And if this district is anything to go by, Esso must be pouring money into this advertising campaign, and so my question is : why ? Why aren’t they pouring this money into biofuels research ? Answer : because that’s not working. So, why aren’t they putting this public relations money into renewable gas fuels instead, sustainable above-surface gas fuels that can be used in compressed gas cars or fuel cell vehicles ?

    Are Esso retreating into their “core business” like BP, and Shell, concentrating on petroleum oil and Natural Gas, and thereby exposing all their shareholders to the risk of an implosion of the Carbon Bubble ? Or another Deepwater Horizon, Macondo-style blowout ?

    Meanwhile, the movement for portfolio investors to divest from fossil fuel assets continues apace…

  • Renewable Gas : Research Parameters

    Posted on May 25th, 2013 Jo No comments

    “So what do you do ?” is a question I quite frequently have to answer, as I meet a lot of new people, in a lot of new audiences and settings, on a regular basis, as an integral part of my personal process of discovery.

    My internal autocue answer has modified, evolved, over the years, but currently sounds a lot like this, “I have a couple of part-time jobs, office administration, really. I do a spot of weblogging in my spare time. But I’m also doing some research into the potential for Renewable Gas.” I then pause for roughly two seconds. “Renewable Gas ?” comes back the question.

    “Yes,” I affirm in the positive, “Industrial-scale chemistry to produce gas fuels not dug up out of the ground. It is useful to plug the gaps in Renewable Electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”

    It’s not exactly an elevator pitch – I’m not really selling anything except a slight shift in the paradigm here. Renewable Energy. Renewable Electricity. Renewable Gas. Power and gas. Gas and power. It’s logical to want both to be as renewable and sustainable and as low carbon as possible.

    Wait another two seconds. “…What, you mean, like Biogas ?” comes the question. “Well, yes, and also high volumes of non-biological gas that’s produced above the ground instead of from fossil fuels.”

    The introductory chat normally fades after this exchange, as my respondent usually doesn’t have the necessary knowledge architecture to be able to make any sense of what my words represent. I think it’s fair to say I don’t win many chummy friends paradigm-bumping in this way, and some probably think I’m off the deep end psychologically, but hey, evolutionaries don’t ever have it easy.

    And I also find that it’s not easy to find a place in the hierarchy of established learning for my particular “research problem”. Which school could I possibly join ? Which research council would adopt me ?

    The first barrier to academic inclusion is that my research interest is clearly motivated by my concern about the risks of Climate Change – the degradation in the Earth’s life support systems from pumping unnaturally high volumes of carbon dioxide into the air – and Peak Fossil Fuels – the risks to humanity from a failure to grow subsurface energy production.

    My research is therefore “applied” research, according to the OECD definition (OECD, 2002). It’s not motivated simply by the desire to know new things – it is not “pure” research – it has an end game in mind. My research is being done in order to answer a practical problem – how to decarbonise gaseous, gas phase, energy fuel production.

    The second barrier to the ivory tower world that I have is that I do not have a technological contribution to make with this research. I am not inventing a chemical process that can “revolutionise” low carbon energy production. (I don’t believe in “revolutions” anyway. Nothing good ever happens by violent overthrow.) My research is not at the workbench end of engineering, so I am not going to work amongst a team of industrial technicians, so I am not going to produce a patent for clean energy that could save the world (or the economy).

    My research is more about observing and reporting the advances of others, and how these pieces add up to a journey of significant change in the energy sector. I want to join the dots from studies at the leading edge of research, showing how this demonstrates widespread aspiration for clean energy, and document instances of new energy technology, systems and infrastructure. I want to witness to the internal motivation of thousands of people working with the goal of clean energy across a very wide range of disciplines.

    This is positively positive; positivity, but it’s not positivism – it’s not pure, basic research. This piece of research could well influence people and events – it’s certainly already influencing me. It’s not hands-off neutral science. It interacts with its subjects. It intentionally intervenes.

    Since I don’t have an actual physical contribution or product to offer, and since I fully expect it to “interfere” with current dogma and political realities, what I am doing will be hard to acknowledge.

    This is not a PhD. But it is still a piece of philosophy, the love of wisdom that comes from the acquisition of knowledge.

    I have been clear for some time about what I should be studying. Call it “internal drive” if you like. The aim is to support the development of universal renewable energy as a response to the risks of climate change and peak fossil fuel energy production. That makes me automatically biased. I view my research subject through the prism of hope. But I would contend that this is a perfectly valid belief, as I already know some of what is possible. I’m not starting from a foundational blank slate – many Renewable Gas processes are already in use throughout industry and the energy sector. The fascinating part is watching these functions coalesce into a coherent alternative to the mining of fossil fuels. For the internal industry energy production conversation is changing its track, its tune.

    For a while now, “alternative” energy has been a minor vibration, a harmonic, accentuating the fossil fuel melody. As soon as the mid-noughties economic difficulties began to bite, greenwash activities were ditched, as oil and gas companies resorted to their core business. But the “green shoots” of green energy are still there, and every now and then, it is possible to see them poking up above the oilspill-desecrated soil. My role is to count blades and project bushes. Therefore my research is interpretivist or constructivist, although it is documenting positivist engineering progress. That’s quite hard for me to agree with, even though I reasoned it myself. I can still resist being labelled “post-positivist”, though, because I’m still interpreting reality not relativisms.

    So now, on from research paradigm to research methodologies. I was trained to be an experimentalist scientist, so this is a departure for me. In this case, I am not going to seek to make a physical contribution to the field by being actively involved as an engineer in a research programme, partly because from what I’ve read so far, most of the potential is already documented and scoped.

    I am going to use sociological methods, combining observation and rapportage, to and from various organisations through various media. Since I am involved in the narrative through my interactions with others, and I influence the outcomes of my research, this is partly auto-narrative, autoethnographic, ethnographic. An apt form for the research documentation is a weblog, as it is a longitudinal study, so discrete reports at time intervals are appropriate. Social media will be useful for joining the research to a potential audience, and Twitter has the kind of immediacy I prefer.

    My observation will therefore be akin to journalism – engineering journalism, where the term “engineering” covers both technological and sociological aspects of change. A kind of energy futures “travelogue”, an observer of an emerging reality.

    My research methods will include reading the science and interacting with engineers. I hope to do a study trip (or two) as a way of embedding myself into the new energy sector, with the explicit intention of ensuring I am not purely a commentator-observer. My research documentation will include a slow collation of my sources and references – a literature review that evolves over time.

    My personal contribution will be slight, but hopefully set archaic and inefficient proposals for energy development based on “traditional” answers (such as nuclear power, “unconventional” fossil fuel production and Carbon Capture and Storage for coal) in high relief.

    My research choices as they currently stand :-

    1. I do not think I want to join an academic group.

    2. I do not think I want to work for an energy engineering company.

    3. I do not want to claim a discovery in an experimental sense. Indeed, I do not need to, as I am documenting discoveries and experiments.

    4. I want to be clear about my bias towards promoting 100% renewable energy, as a desirable ambition, in response to the risks posed by climate change and peak fossil fuel production.

    5. I need to admit that my research may influence outcomes, and so is applied rather than basic (Roll-Hansen, 2009).

    References

    OECD, 2002. “Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys on Research and Experimental Development”, Frascati Manual :-
    http://browse.oecdbookshop.org/oecd/pdfs/free/9202081e.pdf

    Roll-Hansen, 2009. “Why the distinction between basic (theoretical) and applied (practical) research is important in the politics of science”, Nils Roll-Hansen, Centre for the Philosophy of Natural and Social Science Contingency and Dissent in Science, Technical Report 04/09 :-
    http://www2.lse.ac.uk/CPNSS/projects/CoreResearchProjects/ContingencyDissentInScience/DP/DPRoll-HansenOnline0409.pdf

  • A Question of Resilience

    Posted on January 28th, 2013 Jo No comments

    Again, the evil and greedy oil, gas and mining companies have proved their wickedness by manipulating public opinion, by directly financing conspiracy theorists who deny climate change science. The irony is tangibly acidic. The paranoid have actually been duped by a genuine conspiracy. They have drunk the Kool Aid; they have believed the lies; they have continued to communicate doubt. They think they are challenging corruption in high places, but what they are really doing is reinforcing apathy in the face of genuine risk.

    The questions posed so unrelentingly by the climate change deniers have sewn a patchwork tapestry of disinformation, which continues to poison genuine dialogue and is undermining political progress. We cannot take these people with us into constructive engagement, and ask them to help us forge a broad consensus. It is as if they exist in a parallel universe. Some of us will continue to attempt to conduct dialogue, but will end up wasting our time. The documentation by the media is faulty, and perpetuates the success of the denier strategy of divide and rule.

    But hold on a minute. There are problems with the stance of climate change denial, but what about the positioning of climate change activists ? Let’s try that first paragraph one more time :-

    [ Again, the "evil" and "greedy" oil, gas and mining companies have proved their "wickedness" by manipulating public opinion, by directly financing conspiracy theorists who deny climate change science. The irony is tangibly acidic. The paranoid have actually been duped by a genuine conspiracy. They have drunk the Kool Aid; they have believed the lies; they have continued to communicate doubt. They think they are challenging corruption in high places, but what they are really doing is reinforcing apathy in the face of genuine risk. ]

    By casting the fossil fuel and mining corporations as wrongly motivated, by using negative emotive labels, the dominant narrative of political activists has failed, once again, to move us all forward. These kinds of revelations about underhand corporate public relations activities are by now unsurprising. The news cannot shock, although it may disgust. Yet, since nothing is offered to counter-balance or correct the inappropriate behaviour of the “fossil fuellers”, they win the game they invented, the game they wrote the rules for. Protesting at a petrol station achieves nothing of any note, not even when there’s a camera-friendly polar bear. We hear the message of pain, but there is no ointment. There is a disconnect between the gruesome discovery and any way out of this mess. The revelation of intent of the carbon dinosaurs, the recounting of the anti-democratic activities, does not result in change.

    Environmental pollution is a “victimless” crime – no matter how much we sympathise or empathise with the plight of poisoned floating fish, dying bees, asthmatic kids, or cancer-laden people. Fines and taxes cannot rectify the scourge of environmental pollution, because there is no ultimate accountability. Regulation cannot be enforced. The misbehaviour just carries on, because there is systemic momentum. There is no legal redress (“due process” in Americanese) for those who are suffering the worsening effects of climate change, and there is no treaty that can be made to curb greenhouse gas emissions that anybody can be bound to by international sanctions.

    And so when we hear the same old story – that the energy industry is propagandising – we cannot respond. We don’t know what we can do. We are paralysed. This narrative is so tired, it snores.

    Truth may have been a victim, but the energy industry are also vulnerable – they are acting in self-defence mode. Let’s take the big vista in : there is stress in the global production of fossil fuel energy, and all routes to an easy fix, even if it’s only a short-term fix, are choked.

    So let’s ask the question – why do the energy companies deceive ? Do they think they are being deceptive ? Why do fossil fuel miners seek to massage public opinion ? This is a question of resilience, of Darwinian survival – seeking advantage by altering policy by tampering with public assent. They believe in their product, they construct their mission – they are protecting their future profits, they’re making a living. They’re humans in human organisations. They’re not “evil”, “greedy” or “lying” – as a rule. There are no demons here, nor can we convincingly summon them.

    Look at the activist game plan – we announce the deliberate actions of the fossil fuel companies to influence the political mandate. But these scandals are only ever voiced, never acted upon. They cannot be acted upon because those who care have no power, no agency, to correct or prevent the outcomes. And those who should care, do not care, because they themselves have rationalised the misdemeanours of the fossil fuellers. They too have drunk from the goblet of doubt. Amongst English-speaking politicians, I detect a good number who consider climate change to be a matter for wait-and-see rather than urgent measures. Besides those who continue to downplay the seriousness of climate change.

    Look also at the difference between the covert nature of the support for climate change deniers, and the open public relations activities of the fossil fuel and mining companies. They speak in the right way for their audiences. That’s smart.

    In time, the end of the fossil fuel age will become apparent, certain vague shapes on the horizon will come out of the blur and into sharp focus. But in the meantime, the carbon dinosaurs are taking action to secure market share, maintain the value of their stock, prop up the value of their shareholders’ assets. The action plan for survival of the oil, gas, coal and mining operations now includes the promotion of extreme energy – so-called unconventional fossil fuels, the once-dismissed lower quality resources such as tight gas, shale gas, shale oil and coalbed methane (coal seam methane). Why are the energy industry trying to gild the rotten lily ? Is the support for unconventional fossil fuels a move for certain countries, such as the United States of America, to develop more indigenous sources of energy – more homegrown energy to make them independent of foreign influence ? This could be the main factor – most of the public relations for shale gas, for example, seems to come from USA.

    The answer could come by responding to another question. Could it be that the production of petroleum oil has in fact peaked – that decline has set in for good ? Could it be that the Saudis are not “turning off the taps” to force market prices, because in actual fact the taps are being turned off for them, by natural well depletion ? The Arab Spring is a marvellous distraction – the economic sanctions and military and democratic upheaval are excellent explanations for the plateau in global oil production.

    It seems possible from what I have looked at that Peak Oil is a reality, that decline in the volumes of produced petroleum is inevitable. The fossil fuel producers, the international corporations who have their shareholders and stock prices to maintain, have been pushing the narrative that the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels can replace lost conventional production. They have been painting a picture of the horn of plenty – a cornucopia of unconventional fossil fuels far exceeding conventional resources. To please their investors, the fossil fuel companies are lying about the future.

    Sure, brute force and some new technology are opening up “unconventionals” but this will not herald the “golden age” of shale gas or oils from shale. Shale gas fields deplete rapidly, and tar sands production is hugely polluting and likely to be unsustainable in several ways because of that. There might be huge reserves – but who knows how quickly heavy oils can be produced ? And how much energy input is required to create output energy from other low grade fossil strata ? It is simply not possible to be certain that the volumes of unconventional fossil fuel production can match the decline in conventionals.

    The facts of the matter need admitting – there is no expansion of sweet crude oil production possible. There’s no more crude – there’s only crud. And slow crud, at that.

    Peak Oil is a geological fact, not a market artefact. The production levels of crude and condensate may not recover, even if military-backed diplomacy wins the day for the energy industry in the Middle East and North Africa.

    Peak Oil has implications for resilience of the whole global economy – the conversion of social and trade systems to use new forms of energy will take some considerable time – and their integrity is at risk if Peak Oil cannot be navigated smoothly. Peak Oil is dangerous – it seems useful to deny it as long as possible.

    It’s pretty clear that we’ve been handed lots of unreliable sops over the years. The energy industry promised us that biofuels could replace gasoline and diesel – but the realisation of this dream has been blocked at every turn by inconvenient failings. The energy industry has, to my mind, been deploying duds in order to build in a delay while they attempt to research and develop genuine alternatives to conventional fossil fuels – but they are failing. The dominant narrative of success is at risk – will all of this continue to hold together ? Can people continue to believe in the security of energy systems – the stability of trade and economic wealth creation ? Oh yes, people raise concerns – for example about disruption in the Middle East and North Africa, and then propose “solutions” – regime change, military support for opposition forces, non-invasive invasions. But overall, despite these all too evident skirmishes, the impression of resilience is left intact. The problem is being framed as one of “edge issues” – not systemic. It’s not clear how long they can keep up with this game.

    The facade is cracking. The mask is slipping. BP and Centrica in a bout of hyper-realism have said that the development of shale gas in the UK will not be a “game changer”. It may be that their core reasoning is to drag down the market value of Cuadrilla, maybe in order to purchase it. But anyway, they have defied the American energy industry public relations – hurrah ! Shale gas is not the milk of a honey-worded mother goddess after all – but what’s their alternative story ? That previously under-developed gas in Iran and Iraq will be secured ? And what about petroleum ? Will the public relations bubble about that be punctured too ? Telling people about Peak Oil – how useful is that ? They won’t do it because it has to be kept unbelievable and unbelieved in order to save face and keep global order. Academics talk about Peak Oil, but it is not just a dry, technical question confined to ivory towers. Attention is diverted, but the issue remains. Looking at it doesn’t solve it, so we are encouraged not to look at it.

    So, why do the energy industry purposely set out to manipulate public opinion ? Well, the reason for their open advertising strategy is clear – to convince investors, governments, customers, that all is well in oil and gas – that there is a “gas glut” – that the world is still awash in petroleum and Natural Gas – that the future will be even more providential than the past – that the only way is up. All the projections of the oil and gas industry and the national, regional and international agencies are that energy demand will continue to rise – the underlying impression you are intended to be left with is that, therefore, global energy supply will also continue to rise. Business has never been better, and it can only get more profitable. We will need to turn to unconventional resources, but hey, there’s so much of the stuff, we’ll be swimming in it.

    But what is the purpose of the covert “public relations” of the energy industry ? Why do they seek to put out deception via secretly-funded groups ? When the truth emerges, as it always does in the end, the anger and indignation of the climate change activists is guaranteed. And angry and indignant activists can easily be ignored. So, the purpose in funding climate change deniers is to emotionally manipulate climate change activists – rattle their cages, shake their prison bars. Let them rail – it keeps the greens busy, too occupied with their emotional disturbance. By looking at these infractions in depth are we being distracted from the bigger picture ? Can we make any change in global governance by bringing energy industry deception to light ?

    Even as commentators peddle conspiracy theories about the science and politics of a warming planet, the “leader of the free world” is inaugurated into a second term and announces action on climate change. Although progressives around the world applaud this, I’m not sure what concrete action the President and his elite colleague team of rich, mostly white, middle-aged men can take. I am listening to the heartbeat of the conversation, and my take away is this : by announcing action on climate change, Barack Obama is declaring war on the sovereignty of the oil and gas producing nations of the Middle East and North Africa.

    You see, the Middle East and North Africa are awash in Natural Gas. Untapped Natural Gas. The seismic surveys are complete. The secret services have de-stabilised democracy in a number of countries now, and this “soft power” will assist in constructing a new narrative – that unruliness in the Middle East and North Africa is preventing progress – that the unstable countries are withholding Natural Gas from the world – the fossil fuel that can replace petroleum oil in vehicles when chemically processed, the fossil fuel that has half the carbon emissions of coal when generating electricity. Resources of Natural Gas need “protecting”, securing, “liberating”, to save the world’s economy from collapse.

    Obama stands up and declares “war” on climate change. And all I hear is a klaxon alarm for military assault on Iran.

    But even then, if the world turns to previously untapped Natural Gas, I believe this is only a short-term answer to Peak Oil. Because waiting in the wings, about ten years behind, is Peak Natural Gas. And there is no answer to Peak Natural Gas, unless it includes a genuine revolution in energy production away from what lies beneath. And that threatens the sustenance of the oil and gas industry.

    No wonder, then, that those who fund climate change denial – who stand to profit from access to untapped fossil fuels, secured by military aggresssion in the Middle East and North Africa – also fund opposition to renewable energy. The full details of this are still emerging. Will we continue to express horror and distaste when the strategy becomes more transparent ? Will that achieve anything ? Or will we focus on ways to bring about the only possible future – a fossil-fuel-free energy economy ? This will always take more action than words, but messaging will remain key. The central message is one that will sound strange to most people, but it needs to be said : fossil fuels will not continue to sustain the global economy : all will change.

    Funnily enough, that is exactly the summary of the statements from the World Economic Forum in Davos – only the world’s administration are still not admitting to Peak Fossil Fuels. Instead, they are using climate change as the rationale for purposeful decarbonisation.

    Well, whichever way it comes, let’s welcome it – as long as it comes soon. It’s not just the survival of individual oil and gas companies that is at stake – the whole global economy is at risk from Peak Fossil Fuels – and climate change. I use the word “economy”, because that is the word used by MBAs. What I mean is, the whole of human civilisation and life on Earth is at risk from Peak Fossil Fuels and climate change. Unconventional fossil fuels are the most polluting answer to any question, and expansion of their use will undoubtedly set off “climate bombs“.

    Don’t get me wrong – Natural Gas is a good bridge to the future, but it is only a transition fuel, not a destination. Please, can we not have war against Iran. Please let’s have some peaceful trade instead. And some public admissions of the seriousness of both Peak Fossil Fuels and climate change by all the key players in governance and energy.

  • A Referendum for Energy

    Posted on January 24th, 2013 Jo No comments

    As I dodged the perfunctory little spots of snow yesterday, on my way down to Highbury and Islington underground train station, I passed a man who appeared to have jerky muscle control attempting to punch numbers on the keypad of a cash machine in the wall. He was missing, but he was grinning. A personal joke, perhaps. The only way he could get his money out of the bank to buy a pint of milk and a sliced loaf for his tea was to accurately tap his PIN number. But he wasn’t certain his body would let him. I threw him an enquiring glance, but he seemed too involved in trying to get control of his arms and legs to think of accepting help.

    This, I felt, was a metaphor for the state of energy policy and planning in the United Kingdom – everybody in the industry and public sector has focus, but nobody appears to have much in the way of overall control – or even, sometimes, direction. I attended two meetings today setting out to address very different parts of the energy agenda : the social provision of energy services to the fuel-poor, and the impact that administrative devolution may have on reaching Britain’s Renewable Energy targets.

    At St Luke’s Centre in Central Street in Islington, I heard from the SHINE team on the progress they are making in providing integrated social interventions to improve the quality of life for those who suffer fuel poverty in winter, where they need to spend more than 10% of their income on energy, and are vulnerable to extreme temperatures in both summer heatwaves and winter cold snaps. The Seasonal Health Interventions Network was winning a Community Footprint award from the National Energy Action charity for success in their ability to reach at-risk people through referrals for a basket of social needs, including fuel poverty. It was pointed out that people who struggle to pay energy bills are more likely to suffer a range of poverty problems, and that by linking up the social services and other agencies, one referral could lead to multiple problem-solving.

    In an economy that is suffering signs of contraction, and with austerity measures being imposed, and increasing unemployment, it is clear that social services are being stretched, and yet need is still great, and statutory responsibility for handling poverty is still mostly a publicly-funded matter. By offering a “one-stop shop”, SHINE is able to offer people a range of energy conservation and efficiency services alongside fire safety and benefits checks and other help to make sure those in need are protected at home and get what they are entitled to. With 1 in 5 households meeting the fuel poverty criteria, there is clearly a lot of work to do. Hackney and Islington feel that the SHINE model could be useful to other London Boroughs, particularly as the Local Authority borders are porous.

    We had a presentation on the Cold Weather Plan from Carl Petrokovsky working for the Department of Health, explaining how national action on cold weather planning is being organised, using Met Office weather forecasts to generate appropriate alert levels, in a similar way to heatwave alerts in summer – warnings that I understand could become much more important in future owing to the possible range of outcomes from climate change.

    By way of some explanation – more global warming could mean significant warming for the UK. More UK warming could mean longer and, or, more frequent heated periods in summer weather, perhaps with higher temperatures. More UK warming could also mean more disturbances in an effect known as “blocking” where weather systems lock into place, in any season, potentially pinning the UK under a very hot or very cold mass of air for weeks on end. In addition, more UK warming could mean more precipitation – which would mean more rain in summer and more snow in winter.

    Essentially, extremes in weather are public health issues, and particularly in winter, more people are likely to suffer hospitalisation from the extreme cold, or falls, or poor air quality from boiler fumes – and maybe end up in residential care. Much of this expensive change of life is preventable, as are many of the excess winter deaths due to cold. The risks of increasing severity in adverse conditions due to climate change are appropriately dealt with by addressing the waste of energy at home – targeting social goals can in effect contribute to meeting wider adaptational goals in overall energy consumption.

    If the UK were to be treated as a single system, and the exports and imports of the most significant value analysed, the increasing net import of energy – the yawning gap in the balance of trade – would be seen in its true light – the country is becoming impoverished. Domestic, indigenously produced sources of energy urgently need to be developed. Policy instruments and measured designed to reinvigorate oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and over the whole UKCS – UK Continental Shelf – are not showing signs of improving production significantly. European-level policy on biofuels did not revolutionise European agriculture as regards energy cropping – although it did contribute to decimating Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest. The obvious logical end point of this kind of thought process is that we need vast amounts of new Renewable Energy to retain a functioning economy, given global financial, and therefore, trade capacity, weakness.

    Many groups, both with the remit for public service and private enterprise oppose the deployment of wind and solar power, and even energy conservation measures such as building wall cladding. Commentators with access to major media platforms spread disinformation about the ability of Renewable Energy technologies to add value. In England, in particular, debates rage, and many hurdles are encountered. Yet within the United Kingdom as a whole, there are real indicators of progressive change, particularly in Scotland and Wales.

    I picked up the threads of some of these advances by attending a PRASEG meeting on “Delivering Renewable Energy Under Devolution”, held at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in Westminster, London; a tour to back up the launch of a new academic report that analyses performance of the devolved administrations and their counterpart in the English Government in Westminster. The conclusions pointed to something that I think could be very useful – if Scotland takes the referendum decision for independence, and continues to show strong leadership and business and community engagement in Renewable Energy deployment, the original UK Renewable Energy targets could be surpassed.

    I ended the afternoon exchanging some perceptions with an academic from Northern Ireland. We shared that Eire and Northern Ireland could become virtually energy-independent – what with the Renewable Electricity it is possible to generate on the West Coast, and the Renewable Gas it is possible to produce from the island’s grass (amongst other things). We also discussed the tendency of England to suck energy out of its neighbour territories. I suggested that England had appropriated Scottish hydrocarbon resources, literally draining the Scottish North Sea dry of fossil fuels in exchange for token payments to the Western Isles, and suchlike. If Scotland leads on Renewable Energy and becomes independent, I suggested, the country could finally make back the wealth it lost to England. We also shared our views about the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland being asked to wire all their new Renewable Electricity to England, an announcement that has been waiting to happen for some time. England could also bleed Wales of green power with the same lines being installed to import green juice from across the Irish Sea.

    I doubt that politics will completely nix progress on Renewable Energy deployment – the economics are rapidly becoming clear that clean, green power and gas are essential for the future. However, I would suggest we could expect some turbulence in the political sphere, as the English have to learn the hard way that they have a responsibility to rapidly increase their production of low carbon energy.

    Asking the English if they want to break ties with the European Union, as David Cameron has suggested with this week’s news on a Referendum, is the most unworkable idea, I think. England, and in fact, all the individual countries of the United Kingdom, need close participation in Europe, to join in with the development of new European energy networks, in order to overcome the risks of economic collapse. It may happen that Scotland, and perhaps Wales, even, separate themselves from any increasing English isolation and join the great pan-Europe energy projects in their own right. Their economies may stabilise and improve, while the fortunes of England may tumble, as those with decision-making powers, crony influence and web logs in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail, resist the net benefits of the low carbon energy revolution.

    [ Many thanks to Simon and all at the Unity Kitchen at St Luke's Centre, and the handsomely reviving Unity Latte, and a big hi to all the lunching ladies and gents with whom I shared opinions on the chunkiness of the soup of the day and the correct identification of the vegetables in it. ]

    Other Snapshots of Yesterday #1 : Approached by short woman with a notebook in Parliament Square, pointing out to me a handwritten list that included the line “Big Ben”. I pointed at the clock tower and started to explain. The titchy tourist apologised for non-comprehension by saying, “French”, so then I explained the feature attraction to her in French, which I think quite surprised her. We are all European.

    Other Snapshots of Yesterday #2 : Spoke with an Austrian academic by the fire for coffee at IMechE, One Birdcage Walk, about the odd attitudes as regards gun ownership in the United States, and the American tendency to collective, cohort behaviour. I suggested that this tendency could be useful, as the levels of progressive political thinking, for instance about drone warfare, could put an end to the practice. When aerial bombardment was first conducted, it should have been challenged in law at that point. We are all Europeans.

    Other Snapshots of Yesterday #3 : Met a very creative Belgian from Gent, living in London. We are all European.

    Other Snapshots of Yesterday #4 : We Europeans, we are all so civilised. We think that we need to heat venues for meetings, so that people feel comfortable. Levels of comfort are different for different people, but the lack of informed agreement means that the default setting for temperature always ends up being too high. The St Luke’s Centre meeting room was at roughly 23.5 degrees C when I arrived, and roughly 25 degrees C with all the visitors in the room. I shared with a co-attendee that my personal maximum operating temperature is around 19 degrees C. She thought that was fine for night-time. The IMechE venue on the 2nd floor was roughly 19 – 20 degrees C, but the basement was roughly 24 degrees C. Since one degree Celsius of temperature reduction can knock about 10% of the winter heating bill, why are public meetings about energy not more conscious of adjusting their surroundings ?

  • Biofuels : Less Than Zero

    Posted on December 12th, 2012 Jo No comments

    Science journalism sometimes make me sigh out loud, and if you caught me reading it, you might see me visibly deflate, sinking into my padded commuter train seat with a look of anger-changes-nothing what’s-the-point despair painted across my empty sadface.

    This time the source of my resignation and defeat is the magazine. I present you an article from issue 2894 of 10 December 2012, written by Bob Holmes, cleverly entitled “Less Than Zero”, with part of the O in Zero rubbed out as a design device to catch the eye (it does). The online version has the headline “Biofuel that’s better than carbon neutral”, with the subhead, “The race is on to create a biofuel that sucks carbon out of the sky and locks it away where it can’t warm the planet”

    Why should the prospect of carbon-sequestrating vehicle fuel leave me so unexcited and underwhelmed ? Because of the fudges.

    Fudge #1 : Carbon dioxide concentration levels

    “The green sludge burbles away quietly in its tangle of tubes in the Spanish desert. Soaking up sunshine and carbon dioxide from a nearby factory, it grows quickly. Every day, workers skim off some sludge and take it away to be transformed into oil…”

    This first paragraph is about algae being grown using concentrated industrial carbon dioxide from a nearby cement factory. The second paragraph confuses algae oil production using high levels of carbon dioxide with growing biomass in normal air with normal levels of carbon dioxide :-

    “Indeed, this is no ordinary oil. It belongs to a magical class of “carbon negative” fuels, ones that take carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it away for good. The basic idea is fairly simple. You grow plants, in this case algae, which naturally draw CO2 from the atmosphere. After you extract the oil, you’re left with a residue that holds a substantial portion of the carbon…”

    Let’s get this straight – the algal oil production of the first paragraph does not belong to “a magical class of “carbon negative” fuels…that naturally draw CO2 from the atmosphere.” In the first paragraph, the algae is being grown using industrial concentrations of carbon dioxide, not atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide.

    Fudge #2 : Net carbon dioxide emissions

    The algal biodiesel oil being produced in the first paragraph depends for its growth on carbon dioxide that would have been vented to the atmosphere from a “carbon positive” process – in other words, from a process that is a source of net greenhouse gas emissions to air. The algae grown using this diverted carbon dioxide will only temporarily capture this carbon dioxide – as (most of it) will be released again when it’s burned as fuel.

    There is no way that the algal biodiesel oil mentioned in the first paragraph can be “carbon negative”.

    Confirmation of this comes later on in the article, when actual representative numbers are used :-

    “…Bio Fuel Systems, (BFS) a small company in Alicante, Spain, that uses cyanobacteria to make its “Blue Petroleum”…The numbers given to New Scientist by BFS president Bernard Stroiazzo illustrate the fraction of carbon that can be trapped by the process. To make a single barrel of oil, the algae suck a little over 2 tonnes of CO2 from the smokestack of the cement works. Not all of that stays out of the atmosphere, though. The algal cultures need regular mixing, which takes energy, as does supplying fertiliser and creating the oil through a patented process involving high heat and pressure. All the fossil fuels needed for these processes release about 700 kilogrammes of CO2. Burning the oil itself – in car engines, say – emits another 450 kg. The rest of the carbon – the equivalent of about 900 kg of CO2 – stays in the leftovers, an inorganic carbonate sludge that can be buried or mixed into concrete. “That will never go back in the atmosphere,” says Stroiazzo…”

    So, let’s unpack that.

    a. The cement works emits 2,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide that is captured for the algae growing process. These would have been direct greenhouse gas emissions to air had they not been diverted. So at this point we are 2,000 kg “carbon negative”.

    b. Supplying fertiliser (which may or may not include accounting for manufacturing and transporting fertiliser) and making the oil through their patented pyrolysis (high heat and pressure) technique, causes 700 kg of carbon dioxide emissions (not to mention the carbon embedded in the equipment required). The numbers do not specify whether other kinds of greenhouse gas emissions are implicated, so let’s just stick with carbon dioxide. Subtacting this from the previous number makes us 1,300 kg “carbon negative”.

    c. Burning the oil in engines releases another 450 kg of carbon dioxide. That makes us 850 kg “carbon negative”. Apparently this is “the equivalent of about 900 kg of CO2″, which is in the “leftovers”, which can be buried or used in hardcore or surfacing material.

    So, a total of 2,000 + 700 + 450 = 3,150 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted, and only, say, 900 kg of carbon dioxide is sequestered. That’s around 29% of the total of the emissions, and at first glance, that looks rather good, but it disguises something. The 700 kg of emissions that were caused by the processing of the algal biofuel were unnecessary, and only 900 kg of the carbon dioxide is left sequestered at the end. That’s not a very good trade-off. In fact, that’s a very poor efficiency of overall carbon capture.

    Fudge #3 : Dependency on industrial sources of concentrated carbon emissions and heat

    And none of this would work without a source of concentrated carbon dioxide. “A few companies are developing technologies to extract and concentrate CO2 from the air. Global Thermostat, based in New York, has patented a process that uses chemicals and low-temperature waste heat – about 90 °C – to capture CO2 from a stream of air. Its pilot plant has been operating near San Francisco for more than a year, and a second is on the way, says co-founder Graciela Chichilnisky. The company has already signed an agreement to supply its technology to Algae Systems and is in talks with several other algal biofuel companies, she says.”

    From the Global Thermostat website, under the heading “Exclusive Benefits”, “Highly flexible location – GT technology can be located anywhere – the only inputs needed are heat and air”. What this actually means is that the DAC (direct air capture) system being developed can only operate on the back end of an industrial facility. So this “GT technology” is only parasitical.

    Fudge #4 : Not addressing the problem at the source

    In the final paragraph of this article, Bob Holmes writes, “Since we can’t seem to keep the CO2 from entering the atmosphere, we’re left with only two ways to avoid trouble. We could embark on grand geoengineering schemes to cool the planet, all of which bring huge risks of unintended consequences (New Scientist, 22 September, p 30). Or we could try to pull some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere, one car trip at a time…”

    I would challenge him on that statement “…we can’t seem to keep the CO2 from entering the atmosphere…”. The alternatives are rather poor in terms of efficiency and potential harmful side effects. In all of this article there is no attempt to address whether all the carbon dioxide and heat coming from the industrial facility, and the transportation that requires low carbon fuels, are “necessary” in the first place – if consumer demand, globalised trading patterns and industrial processes were streamlined, the global economy could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and waste heat output without the need for inefficient tinkering.

    Fudge #5 : Progress is not as good as it seems

    “…To date, the research facility has produced only a few thousand litres of fuel. However, a pilot plant – bankrolled by investors including Google, BP and GE – will start operation near Los Angeles this month… Cool Planet’s results are encouraging…”Even if carbon-negative biofuels turns out to be just a bit player, they will have done at least a little to reduced carbon emissions.”…”

    “Encouraging” ?

    Ah…BP. The oil and gas giant that distracted us away from their highly polluting hydrocarbon fuel production by setting up a solar power business.

    It’s just more greenwash.

  • Fossil Fuel Company Obligation

    Posted on November 6th, 2012 Jo No comments

    I knew I knew her from somewhere, Ms Henrietta Lynch PhD, from the UCL Energy Institute. I had the feeling we’d sheltered together from the rain/police helicopters at a Climate Camp somewhere, but she was fairly convinced we’d crossed paths at the Frontline Club, where, if she was recalling correctly, I probably tried to pick an “difference of opinion” with somebody, which she would have remembered as more than a little awkward.

    Why ? Because when I’m surrounded by smart people displaying self-confidence, I sometimes feel pushed to try to irritate them out of any complacency they may be harbouring. Niceness can give me itchy feet, or rather emotional hives, and I don’t see why others should feel settled when I feel all scratchy.

    So here we were at a Parliamentary event, and I was on my best behaviour, neither challenging nor remonstrative, but all the same, I felt the urge to engage Henrietta in disagreement. It was nothing personal, really. It was all about cognition, perception – worldviews, even. After my usual gauche preamble, I snuck in with a barbed gambit, “The United Nations climate change process has completely failed.” A shadow of anxiety crossed her brow. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that”, said Henrietta Lynch. She went on to recount for me the validity of the UN climate talks, and how much further we are because of the Kyoto Protocol. “Ruined by Article 12″, I said, “…the flexible mechanisms”. She said I shouldn’t underestimate the effort that had gone into getting everybody into the room to talk about a response to climate change. I said, it would be useful if the delegates to the climate talks had power of some kind – executive decision-making status. Henrietta insisted that delegates to the climate talks do indeed have authority.

    I said that the really significant players, the oil and gas production companies, were not at the climate talks, and that there would be no progress until they were. I said that the last time the UN really consulted the oil and gas companies was in the 1990s, and the outcome of that was proposals for carbon trading and Carbon Capture and Storage. Each year, I said, the adminstration of the climate talks did the diplomatic equivalent of passing round a busker’s hat to the national delegations, begging for commitments to carbon emissions reductions. Besides leading to squabbling and game-playing, the country representatives do not even have the practical means of achieving these changes. Instead, I said, the energy production companies should be summoned to the climate talks and given obligations – to decarbonise the energy resources they sell, and to increase their production of renewable and sustainable energy. I said that without that, there will be no progress.

    Oil and gas companies always point to energy demand as their get-out-of-jail-free card – they insist that while the world demands fossil fuel energy, they, the energy resource companies, are being responsible in producing it. Their economists say that consumer behaviour can be modified by pricing carbon dioxide emissions, and yet the vast majority of the energy they supply is full of embedded carbon – there is no greener choice. They know that it is impossible to set an economically significant carbon price in any form, that there are too many forces against it, and that any behavioural “signal” from carbon pricing is likely to be swallowed up by volatility in the prices of fossil fuels, and tax revenue demands. Most crucially, the oil and gas companies know that fossil fuels will remain essential for transport vehicles for some time, as it will be a long, hard struggle to replace all the drive engines in the world, and high volumes of transport are essential because of the globalised nature of trade.

    Oil and gas companies have made token handwaving gestures towards sustainability. BP has spent roughly 5% of its annual budget on renewable energy, although it’s dropped its solar power division, and has now dropped its cellulosic ethanol facility. BP says that it will “instead will focus on research and development“. Research and development into what, precisely ? Improved oil and gas drilling for harsh environmental conditions like the Arctic Ocean or sub-sea high depth, high pressure fields ? How many renewable energy pipedreams are exhausted ? BP are willing to take competitors to court over biobutanol, but even advanced techniques to produce this biofuel are not yet commercialised.

    So, the oil and gas majors do not appear to be serious about renewable energy, but are they also in denial about fossil fuels ? All business school graduates, anybody who has studied for an MBA or attended an economics course, they all come out with the mantra that technology will deliver, that innovation in technology will race ahead of the problems. Yet, as the rolling disasters of the multiple Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear reactor accident and the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from the blowout of the Horizon Deepwater drilling rig show, technological advancement ain’t what it used to be. Put not your faith in technology, for engineering may fail.

    For the oil and gas companies to be going after the development of unconventional fossil fuel resources is an unspoken, tacit admission of failure – not only of holding a bold vision of change, but also a demonstration of the failure of being able to increase production from discoveries of more conventional petroleum and Natural Gas. It is true that oil and gas exploration has improved, and that technology to drill for oil and gas has improved, but it could be said that the halting pace of technological advancement means that the growth in fossil fuel exploitation is not strong enough to meet projected demand. Technology does not always make things more efficient – the basic fossil fuel resources are getting much poorer, and perhaps scarcer.

    There is some evidence that global petroleum crude oil production rates have peaked, despite BP adding significant South American heavy oil fields to their annual Statistical Review of World Energy within the last few years. Some of the jitteriness in total production is down to geopolitical factors, like the chokehold that the United States has imposed on Iran via economic sanctions, and some of it is related to consumption patterns, but there is an element of resource failure, as indicated in this IMF report from last month :-

    “Over the past decade the world economy has experienced a persistent increase in oil prices. While part of this may have been due to continued rapid demand growth in emerging markets, stagnant supply also played a major role. Figure 1 shows the sequence of downward shifts in the trend growth rate of world oil production since the late 1960s. The latest trend break occurred in late 2005, when the average growth rate of 1.8 percent per annum of the 1981-2005 period could no longer be sustained, and production entered a fluctuating plateau that it has maintained ever since.”

    There is an increasing amount of evidence and projection of Peak Oil from diverse sources, so perhaps our attention should be drawn to it. If this type of analysis is to be trusted, regardless of whether the oil and gas companies pursue unconventional oil, change is inevitable. Bringing the oil and gas companies onto the world stage at the United Nations climate talks and demanding a reduction in fossil fuel production would be an straightford thing to make commitments to – as it is happening already. A huge facesaver in many respects – except that it does not answer the energy security question – how the world is going to be able to adapt to falling fossil fuel supplies. You see, besides Peak Oil, there are other peaks to contend with – it will not simply be a matter of exchanging one energy resource with another.

    Can the oil and gas companies hold on by selling us Natural Gas to replace failing oil ? Only if Natural Gas itself is not peaking. As the oil and gas companies drill deeper, more Natural Gas is likely to be found than petroleum oil, but because they are so often associated, Peak Oil is likely to be followed quite sharply by Peak Natural Gas. But does anybody in the oil and gas companies really know ? And if they did, would they be able to let their shareholders and world’s media know about it without their businesses crumbling ?

    What I want to know is : with all the skills of dialogue, collaboration, and facilitation that the human race has developed, why can Civil Society not engage the oil and gas companies in productive communication on these problems ?

  • Cross-Motivation

    Posted on October 7th, 2012 Jo No comments

    A fully renewable energy future is not only possible, it is inevitable.

    We need to maximise the roll out of wind and solar renewable electricity systems, and at the same time fully develop marine, geothermal and hydropower energy, and of course, energy storage.

    We need strong energy conservation and energy efficiency directives to be enacted in every state, sector and region.

    But we need to get from here to there. It requires the application of personal energy from all – from governments, from industry, from society.

    In arguing for focus on the development of Renewable Gas, which I believe can and will be a bridge from here to a fully renewable energy future, I am making an appeal to those who view themselves as environmentalists, and also an appeal to those who view themselves as part of the energy industry.

    Those who cast themselves as the “good guys”, those who want to protect the environment from the ravages of the energy industry, have for decades set themselves in opposition, politically and socially, to those in the energy production and supply sectors, and this has created a wall of negativity, a block to progress in many areas.

    I would ask you to accept the situation we find ourselves in – even those who live off-grid and who have very low personal energy and material consumption – we are all dependent on the energy industry – we have a massive fossil fuel infrastructure, and companies that wield immense political power, and this cannot be changed overnight by some revolutionary activity, or by pulling public theatrical stunts.

    It definitely cannot be changed by accusation, finger-pointing and blame. We are not going to wake up tomorrow in a zero carbon world. There needs to be a transition – there needs to be a vision and a will. Instead of a depressive, negative, cynical assessment of today that erects and maintains barriers to co-operation, we need optimistic, positive understanding.

    In the past there has been naievety – and some environmentalists have been taken in by public relations greenwash. This is not that. The kind of propaganda used to maintain market share for the energy industry continues to prevent and poison good communications and trust. I no more believe in the magic snuff of the shale gas “game changer” than I believe in the existence of goblins and fairies. The shine on the nuclear “renaissance” wore off ever before it was buffed up. And the hopeless dream of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) becoming a global-scale solution for carbon emissions is about as realistic to me as the geoengineering described in Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings”.

    Nuclear power and CCS are actually about mining and concrete construction – they’re not energy or climate solutions. I’m not taken in by token gestures of a small slice of wind or solar power or the promise of a segment of biofuels from large oil and gas companies. Public relations and lobbying are the lowest form of faked, usurping power – but simply attacking brands will fail to make real change. I think honesty, realism and pragmatism are the way forward – and there is nothing more practical than pushing for Renewable Gas to back up the accelerated deployment of renewable electricity to its fullest scale.

    My appeal to those in control of energy provision is – to see through the fog to the unstoppable. State support, both political and financial, of new energy technologies and infrastructure has to be a short- to medium-term goal – because of the volatility of the economy, and the demands of your shareholders. The need to build public support for new energy means that we the citizens must all be offered the opportunity to own energy – and so that means building a common purpose between the energy sector and society – and that purpose must be Zero Carbon.

    There is and will continue to be a porous border between the energy industry and governments – energy is a social utility of high political value. However, the privilege and access that this provides should not automatically mean that the energy industry can plunder public coffers for their own profit. What contribution can the energy industry make to society – apart from the provision of energy at cost – in addition to the subsidies ? Energy, being so vital to the economy, will mean that the energy sector will continue to survive, but it has to change its shape.

    You can dance around the facts, but climate change is hitting home, and there is no point in continuing to be in denial about Peak Oil, Peak Coal and Peak Natural Gas. These are genuine risks, not only to the planet, or its people, but also your business plans. We need to be using less energy overall, and less carbon energy within the eventual envelope of energy consumption. So the energy sector needs to move away from maximising sales of energy to optimising sales of energy services and selling low carbon energy systems, power and fuels.

    You would be wrong to dismiss me as an “eco warrior” – I’m an engineer – and I’ve always believed in co-operation, expertise, professionalism, technology and industrial prowess. What impresses me is low carbon energy deployment and zero carbon energy research. Progress is in evidence, and it is showing the way to the future. Realistically speaking, in 20 years’ time, nobody will be able to dismiss the risks and threats of climate change and energy insecurity – the evidence accumulates. We, the zero carbon visionaries, are not going to stop talking about this and acting on it – as time goes by, the reasons for all to engage with these issues will increase, regardless of efforts to distract.

    Nothing is perfect. I no more believe in a green utopia than I do in unicorns. But without reacting to climate change and energy insecurity, the stock market will not carry you, even though the governments must for the mean time, until clean and green energy engineering and service organisations rise up to replace you. Lobbying for pretences will ultimately fail – fail not only governments or peoples, but you. You, the energy industry, must start acting for the long-term or you will be ousted. As your CEOs retire, younger heads will fill leadership shoes – and younger minds know and accept the perils of climate change and energy insecurity.

    This is the evolution, not revolution. It is time to publicly admit that you do know that economically recoverable fossil fuels are limited, and that climate change is as dangerous to your business models as it is to human settlements and the biosphere. Admit it in a way that points to a sustainable future – for you and the climate. The pollution of economically borderline unconventional fuels is wrong and avoidable – what we need are renewable energies, energy conservation and energy efficiency. One without the others is not enough.

    How can your business succeed ? In selling renewable energy, energy conservation and energy efficiency. You have to sell the management of energy. You have to be genuinely “world class” and show us how. No more spills, blowouts and emissions. No more tokenistic sponsorship of arts, culture and sports. The veneer of respectability is wearing thin.

    As an engineer, I understand the problems of system management – all things within the boundary wall need to be considered and dealt with. One thing is certain, however. Everything is within the walls. And that means that all must change.


    http://houstonfeldenkrais.com/tag/cross-motivation/ “…Of course, the money would be great. But adding in the reward/punishment dimension is a sure way to sabotage brilliant performance. Moshe Feldenkrais observed that when one is striving to meet an externally imposed goal, the spine shortens, muscles tense, and the body (and mind) actually works against itself. He called this “cross motivation,” and it occurs when one forsakes one’s internal truth to maintain external equilibrium. There are lots of examples of this: the child stops doing what she’s doing because of the fear of losing parental approval, love, protection. The employee cooks the books to keep his job. The candidate delivers the sound bite, and dies a little inside. Feldenkrais attributed most of our human mental and physical difficulties to the problem of cross motivation. If you watch Michael Phelps swim, you can’t help but notice that he makes it look easy. He is clearly strong and powerful, but all of his strength and power are focused on moving him through the water with the greatest speed and efficiency. There’s no wasted effort, no struggle, no straining. He is free of cross-motivation! Would straining make him faster? Of course not. Unnecessary muscular effort would make him less buoyant, less mobile, less flexible. Will dangling a million dollars at the finish line make him swim faster? Probably just the opposite, unless Michael Phelps has some great inner resources to draw upon. The young Mr. Phelps has already learned how to tune out a lot of the hype. He’ll need to rely on “the cultivation of detachment,” the ability to care without caring…”

  • Are We Ready for Energy Change ? A Dissertation

    Posted on September 7th, 2012 Jo No comments

    The world is on course for two degrees, but I already have two degrees – yes, you can from henceforward refer to me as Ms J. Abbess MSc. And here is a carefully edited part of my dissertation “Are We Ready for Energy Change ?”. My conclusion ? In summary : “No, we’re not.” Next steps ? More focus.

  • Un égard, un regard, un certain regard

    Posted on August 27th, 2012 Jo No comments

    Whatever it is, it starts with attention, paying attention.

    Attention to numbers, faces, needs, consideration of the rights and wrongs and probables.

    Thinking things through, looking vulnerable children and aggressive control freaks directly in the eye, being truly brave enough to face both radiant beauty and unbelievable evil with equanimity.

    To study. To look, and then look again.

    To adopt a manner of seeing, and if you cannot see, to learn to truly absorb the soundscape of your world – to pick up the detail, to fully engage.

    It is a way of filling up your soul with the new, the good, the amazing; and also the way to empty worthless vanity from your life.

    Simone Weil expressed this truth in these words : “Toutes les fois qu’on fait vraiment attention, on détruit du mal en soi.” If you pay close attention, you learn what is truly of value, and you jettison incongruities and waywardness. She also pronounced that “L’attention est la forme la plus rare et la plus pure de la générosité.” And she is right. People feel truly valued if you gaze at them, and properly listen to them.

    Those of us who have researched climate change and the limits to natural resources, those of us who have looked beyond the public relations of energy companies whose shares are traded on the stock markets – we are paying attention. We have been working hard to raise the issues for the attention of others, and sometimes this has depleted our personal energies, caused us sleepless nights, given us depression, fatalism, made us listless, aimless, frustrated.

    Some of us turn to prayer or other forms of meditation. We are enabled to listen, to learn, to try again to communicate, to bridge divides, to empathise.

    A transformation can take place. The person who pays close attention to others becomes trusted, attractive in a pure, transparent way. People know our hearts, they have confidence in us, when we give them our time and an open door.

    Read the rest of this entry »

  • Obey the Future

    Posted on August 5th, 2012 Jo No comments

    Disobedience only gets you so far. Resistance can be fertile, but intellectual ghettos can be futile. The human tendency to generalise creates too much negativity and prevents us from being constructive. We complain about the “evil” oil and gas companies; the “greedy” coal merchants and their “lying” bankster financiers; but refuse to see the diamonds in the mud.

    We should obey the future. In the future, all people will respect each other. There will no longer be war propaganda carried by the media, demonising leaders of foreign countries, or scorn for opposing political parties. In the future, human beings will respect and have regard for other human beings. So we should live that future, live that value, have care for one another. I don’t mean we are obliged to give money to charity to help needy people in poor countries. I don’t mean we should campaign for our government to commit funds to the Climate Finance initiatives, whose aim is to support adaptation to climate chaos in developing countries. No, charity is not enough, and never matches the need. Philanthropy will not answer climate change, and so solutions need to be built into the infrastructure of the global economy, sewn into the design, woven into the fabric. There should be no manufacture, no trade, no form of consumption that does not take account of the climate change impacts on the poor, and on the rich, on ecosystems, on ourselves.

    Yes, it’s true that corporations are destroying the biosphere, but we cannot take a step back, grimace and point fingers of blame, for we are all involved in the eco-destructive economy. We are all hooked on dirty energy and polluting trade, and it’s hard to change this. It’s especially hard for oil, gas and coal companies to change track – they have investors and shareholders, and they are obliged to maintain the value in their business, and keep making profits. Yes, they should stop avoiding their responsibilities to the future. Yes, they should stop telling the rest of us to implement carbon taxation or carbon trading. They know that a comprehensive carbon price can never be established, that’s why they tell us to do it. It’s a technique of avoidance. But gathering climate storms, and accumulating unsolved climate damages, are leading the world’s energy corporations to think carefully of the risks of business as usual. How can the governments and society of the world help the energy companies to evolve ? Is more regulation needed ? And if so, what kind of political energy would be required to bring this about ? The United Nations climate change process is broken, there is no framework or treaty at hand, and the climate change social movement has stopped growing, so there is no longer any democratic pressure on the energy production companies and countries to change.

    Many climate change activists talk of fear and frustration – the futility of their efforts. They are trapped into the analysis that teaches that greed and deceit are all around them. Yet change is inevitable, and the future is coming to us today, and all is quite possibly full of light. Where is this river of hope, this conduit of shining progress ? Where, this organised intention of good ?

    We have to celebrate the dull. Change is frequently not very exciting. Behind the scenes, policy people, democratic leaders, social engineers, corporate managers, are pushing towards the Zero Carbon future reality. They push and pull in the areas open to them, appropriate to their roles, their paid functions. Whole rafts of national and regional policy is wedded to making better use of energy, using less energy overall, displacing carbon energy from all economic sectors.

    And then there’s the progressive politics. Every leader who knows the shape of the future should strive to be a Van Jones, or a Jenny Jones, any green-tinged Jones you can think of. We should enquire of our political leaders and our public activists what flavour of environmental ecology they espouse. We should demand green policies in every party, expect clean energy support from every faction. We should not only vote progressive, we should promote future-thinking authority in all spheres of social management – a future of deeper mutual respect, of leaner economy, of cleaner energy.

    The future will be tough. In fact, the future is flowing to us faster than ever, and we need resilience in the face of assured destructive change – in environment and in economy. To develop resilience we need to forgo negativity and embrace positivity. So I ask you – don’t just be anti-coal, be pro-wind, pro-solar and pro-energy conservation. Where leaders emerge from the companies and organisations that do so much harm, celebrate them and their vision of a brighter, better, lower carbon future. Where administrations take the trouble to manage their energy use, and improve their efficiency in the use of resources, applaud them, and load them with accolades. Awards may be trite, but praise can encourage better behaviour, create exemplars, inspire goodly competition. Let us encourage the people with good influence in every organisation, institution and corporation. Change is afoot, and people with genuine power are walking confidently to a more wholesome future.

    Protect your soul. Don’t get locked into the rejection of evil, but hold fast to what is good. Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Be strong for goodness, even as you turn your back on a life of grime.

    Live the Zero Carbon future, and make it come as soon as it can.

    Read the rest of this entry »

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  • We Need To Talk About Syria

    Posted on August 4th, 2012 Jo 1 comment

    Kofi Annan has thrown up his hands and backed away from his role as UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria tasked with a peace mission. In one sense it is all too predictable. The United Nations Security Council is divided, reflecting deep faultlines in the policy positions of the main body of the UN.

    It is probably too early in the evolution of global human governance to expect military violence to be declared illegal, but at least there are voices starting to speak up demanding that there be no armed foreign intervention in Syria. The trouble is that although warfare by foreign parties in Syria has not been publicly declared, there are, by many accounts, military and security operatives of a number of external country administrations already in play inside its borders. Foreign ministers in several major countries have pledged support to either the Syrian “regime” – you know – its “ruling government”, or to the “opposition” “rebels” – otherwise known as gangs of armed thugs. Or quite possibly people from a nebulous ill-defined shadowy organisation known as “Al-Qaeda”.

    There are some reports that foreign involvement was behind the bombing of members of President Bashar al-Assad’s government in July, a near “decapitation” – as Assad himself could have been easily killed in the incident, and that a reprisal attack took place several days later – possibly severely injuring or even killing Prince Bandar, newly recruited chief of intelligence in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – recently drafted in – apparently with a mission to topple Syria’s “regime” – you know, Syria’s “legitimate administration” – a former ambassador to the United States of America. Although this is not yet confirmed. Or denied.

    Despite conciliatory moves, countries of stern influence in the United Nations continue to call for Assad to quit, for reasons that nobody really delves into. Oh yes, as a mild-mannered London-trained ex-ophthalmologist, he’s supposed to be some kind of Hitler character, killing thousands of “his own people”. This story clearly doesn’t stick very well to the man, particularly since this narrative was also recently falsely used against the former leader of Libya. Another story that hasn’t been washing is that the Syrian “regime”, you know, the “proper authorities of administration”, has been responsible for starting all the violence in Syria – but there is now plenty of evidence to the contrary. So why has it been necessary to demonise Assad ? Why has it been that – allegedly – various governments have decided to get dirty hands and stir up violence in Syria in means overt and covert ?

    And with the risks to global oil supply, why has it been necessary for the United States of America and the European Union to implement and enforce an oil embargo on Syria ? I mean, you would have thought it would be in everybody’s best interests to keep the oil flowing from every source possible. But no, sanctions it is, and Syria’s had to give up a considerable amount of their production. I know, I know, before the embargo Syria’s output was only 10% of Iran’s current production (see below), but it has meant a lot for Syria’s trade balance. According to the CIA Factbook on Syria (under “Economy”), nearly three quarters of all oil produced has been for export (although it was consuming more Natural Gas than it could produce – presumably for power generation). Plus, it’s national debt put it in the bottom ranks of the world’s countries meaning it can ill-afford to become more impoverished.

    So remind me again, what was the oil embargo for ? To depose Assad by making him unpopular because of a nosediving economy ? And why does Assad need to go, actually ? Nobody’s saying that the country has been run perfectly. Gruesome tales have been told of what can happen in Syria – but then, horrible things happen in every country, including in the United States of America, and yet the United Nations is not insisting that Barack Obama stand aside.

    Several key cities in Syria have existed in tolerant civilisation for thousands of years. Why does war have to come to Syria ? Why is there civil war being conducted in Damascus ? Even stoics are finding this hard to bear. Wikipedia notes despairingly and ungrammatically “In the second decade of the 21th century Damascus was damaged from the ongoing Syrian Civil War”.

    The more I think about it, the more I come circling back to the same theory – that the economic attack on Syria, and the now almost indisputable accounts of outside meddling that is provoking the conflict (and may have even instigated it in the first place), is simply part of a plan to make the oil and gas resources of all Middle Eastern countries available to global markets at reasonable prices. I mean, look at Iraq, whose oil production was severely hit as a result of military destruction by the international warfare community, but which is now making a splendid recovery (see below) and most of the profits are pouring into the coffers of the multinational oil and gas companies, and diesel and petrol stay relatively inexpensive. Or not, as the case may be. The plan for countries across the Middle East is probably the along the same general line – first accuse the country’s government of heinous crimes, then apply economic sanctions or energy sanctions of some kind, then apply diplomatic and media pressure, (and then, these days, send in the spooks to kick up an “Arab Spring”) and then send in the gunships or gunchoppers – attack helicopters. This narrative has been successfully applied to bring Iraq to heel, and then Libya, and now it seems Syria is being talked down the same blood-paved road, and Iran is being pushed along a parallel track.

    Iran. Now there’s an interesting case. Iran is not a pushover. It has taken nearly seven years of manoeuvring to make the completely unfounded case that Iran is building (or planning to build) nuclear weapons. Iran has been enriching uranium for its stated aim of developing a civilian nuclear power program, and this has been used as the justification to impose sanctions against Iran, including an oil embargo, which is having an impact on their production (see below). Besides painting the leader of Iran as an evil dictator, the propagandists of this world also seem to be trying to wield a new stick to beat Iran with – in the form of the call to end fossil fuel subsidies. Billed as a climate change policy by the G20, it is more a punitive measure against developing countries who have been using fossil fuel subsidies to make sure their citizens can get cheap energy. If Iran is no longer permitted to subsidise energy for citizens it will be forced to sell the oil and gas abroad – a buyer’s market only too pleased to suck dry the world’s second largest oil and Natural Gas producer. That volume of oil and gas being made available on the world’s markets would definitely keep global prices of oil and gas as low as possible.

    Anyway, back to Syria. Clearly, there are problems, although reports of enormous and desperate increases in violence are probably not accurate. Painting the story as increasingly agitated is a common media device to engage the readers with the situation – but if it gets too sensationalised the narrative could start to affect decisionmakers, and may lead to illegitimate and inappropriate influence being exerted from abroad. Instead of William Hague MP, British Foreign Secretary for the United Kingdom, offering tactical support to the Syrian “rebels”, he should announce an immediate diplomatic mission to the Syrian government, and the various rebel groups, offering the undoubted skills of his secret service personnel in mediating a ceasefire between the authorities and the opposition. Otherwise we could end up with NATO committing to tens of thousands of weaponised air sorties over Syria and destroying a large part of this ancient culture, just as they did with Libya. All economic and energy sanctions and embargoes against Syria should be dropped, as they are aggravating the conflict. If the international community uses the language and action of peace, then perhaps Syria can be encouraged back to the ways of peace.

    In the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, “Regime change is not our profession.”





  • Tillerson Talks It Down

    Posted on July 14th, 2012 Jo No comments

    Rex Tillerson, Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil, was recently invited to talk to the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States of America, as part of their series on CEOs.

    His “on the record” briefing was uploaded to YouTube almost immediately as he made a number of very interesting comments.

    Reactions were mixed.

    The thing most commented upon was his handwaving away the significance of climate change – a little change here, a little change over there and you could almost see the traditional magician’s fez here – shazam – nothing to worry about.

    In amongst all the online furore about this, was discussion of his continued Membership of the Church of Oil Cornucopia – he must have mentioned the word “technology” about seventy-five times in fifteen minutes. He clearly believes, as do his shareholders and management board, that his oil company can continue to get progressively more of the black stuff out of tar sands, oil shales or oil-bearing shale sediments and ever-tighter locked-in not naturally outgassing “natural” gas out of gas shales. At least in Northern America.

    As numerous commentators with a background in Economics have claimed, well, the price of oil is rising, and that creates a market for dirtier, harder-to-reach oil. Obviously. But missing from their Law of Supply and Demand is an analysis of how oil prices are actually determined in the real world. It’s certainly not a free market – there are numerous factors that control the price of the end-product, gasoline, not least state sponsorship of industries, either through direct subsidies, or through the support of dependent industries such as car manufacture. At least in North America.

    In the background, there is ongoing shuttle diplomacy between the major western economies and the assortment of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) who still have the world’s largest pool of cleaner-ish petroleum under their feet. That, naturally, has an impact on supply and pricing : even though the strength of this bonding is not as tight-fast as it historically was, there appears to have been more of it since around 2005. Or at least, that’s when I first started monitoring it consciously.

    In addition to that, there are only a limited number of players in the oil industry. It is almost impossible to break into the sector without an obscene amount of capital, and exceedingly good buddy-type relationships with everybody else in the field – including sheikhs you formerly knew from when you attended specialty schools. So, no, the market in oil is not free in any sense. It is rigged – if you’ll excuse the pun.

    And then there’s foundational reasons why oil prices are artificial – and may not cause a boom in the “unconventional” production that Rex Tillerson is so excited about (in a rancher-down-the-farm kind of way). Oil is still fundamental to the global economy. In fact, the price of oil underpins most business, as oil is still dominant in the transportation of goods and commodities. Despite all the techno-wizardry, it is fundamentally more costly to drill for fossil fuels in shale, than from pressure wells where oil just gloops out of the ground if you stick a pipe in.

    It’s not the drilling that’s the major factor – so the technology is not the main driver of the cost. It’s the put-up, take-down costs – the costs of erecting the infrastructure for a well, or putting underground shale heating or fracturing equipment in place, and the cleaning up afterwards. Some of the technologies used to mine shales for oil use an incredible amount of water, and this all needs to be processed, unless you don’t mind desecrating large swathes of sub-tropical scenery. Or Canada.

    The price of oil production has a knock-on effect, including on the very markets that underpin oil production – so increasing oil prices have a cyclic forcing effect – upwards. It also has an impact on the prices of other essential things, such as food. One can see a parallel rise in the price of oil and the price of staple crops in the last few years – and the spiralling cost of grain wheat, rice and corn maize is not all down to climate change.

    Oil companies are in a quandary – they need to have higher oil prices to justify their unconventional oil operations – and they also need good relationships with governments, who know they cannot get re-elected if too many people blame them for rising costs of living. Plus, there’s the global security factor – several dozen countries already have economies close to bust because of the cost of oil imports. There are many reasons to keep oil prices depressed.

    Let’s ask that subtle, delicate question : why did Rex Tillerson espouse the attitudes he did when asked to go on the record ? Why belittle the effects of climate change ? The answer is partly to soothe the minds of American investors, (and MENA investors in America). If such a powerful player in the energy sector believes “we can adapt to that” about climate change, clearly behind-the-scenes he will be lobbying against excessive carbon pricing or taxation with the American federal administration.

    And why be so confident that technology can keep the oil flowing, and make up for the cracks appearing in conventional supply chains by a frenzy of shale works ? Well, logically, he’s got to encourage shareholder confidence, and also government confidence, that his industry can continue to deliver. But, let’s just surmise that before he was shunted onto the stage in June, he’d had a little pre-briefing with some government officials. They would be advising him to show high levels of satisfaction with unconventional oil production growth (in America) – after all, this would act against the rollercoaster of panic buying and panic selling in futures contracts that has hit the oil markets in recent months.

    So Rex Tillerson is pushed awkwardly to centre stage. Global production of oil ? No problem ! It’s at record highs (if we massage the data), and likely to get even better. At least in America. For a while. But hey, there’s no chance of oil production declining – it’s important to stress that. If everyone can be convinced to believe that there’s a veritable river of oil, for the forseeable future, then oil prices will stay reasonable, and we can all carry on as we are. Nothing will crash or burn. Except the climate.

    Rex Tillerson’s interview on global (American) oil production may have been used to achieve several propaganda aims – but the key one, it seems to me, was to talk down the price of oil. Of course, this will have a knock-on effect on how much unconventional oil is affordable and accessible, and maybe precipitate a real peak in oil production – just the thing he’s denying. But keeping the price of oil within a reasonable operating range is more important than Rex Tillerson’s impact on the American Presidential elections, or even Rex Tillerson’s legacy.

  • George Monbiot : Peak Agitation

    Posted on July 7th, 2012 Jo 1 comment

    My electronic mail inbox and Twitter “social media” timeline are full of people sparking and foaming about George Monbiot’s latest kow-tow to American academia. Apparently, he has discarded the evidence of many, many researchers, energy engineers and market players and poured luke-warm, regurgitated scorn on the evidence and inevitability of “Peak Oil”.

    The level of agitation contradicting his stance has reached a new peak – in fact, I think I might claim this as “Peak Agitation”.

    Here is just one example from Paul Mobbs, author of “Energy Beyond Oil”, and a multi-talented, multi-sectoral educator and researcher.

    I initially read it in my inbox and nearly fell of my chair gobsmacked. When I had recovered from being astonished, and asked Mobbsey if I could quote him, perhaps anonymously, he wrote back :-

    “No, you can quite clearly and boldly attach my name and email address to it ! And perhaps ask George for a response ?”

    Sadly, George Monbiot appears to have jammed his thumbs in his ears as regards my commentary, so he is very unlikely to read this or become aware of the strength of opposition to his new positioning. But anyway – here’s for what’s it’s worth (and when it comes from Paul Mobbs, it’s worth a great deal) :-


    Re: Peak oil – we were wrong. When the facts change we must change.

    Hi all,

    I’ve sat patiently through the various emails between you all — mainly to
    take soundings of where you’re all at on this matter. In addition, over the
    last few days I’ve separately received four dozen or so emails all asking
    to “take on” Monbiot. I wasn’t going to reply because I’ve so many more
    pressing matters to take care of, but given the weight of demands I can’t
    avoid it.

    I don’t see any point in “taking on” Monbiot; the points he raises, and the
    debate that he has initiated, are so off beam compared to the basis of the
    issues involved that it there’s no point proceeding along that line of
    thought. You can’t answer a question if the question itself is not
    understood!!

    Let’s get one thing straight — present economic difficulties are not simply
    to do with “oil”, but with the more general issue of “limits to growth”.
    That’s a complex interaction of resource production, thermodynamics,
    technology, and relating all of these together, economic theory. Reducing
    this just to an issue of oil or carbon will fail to answer why the trends
    we see emerging today are taking place. Instead we have to look towards a
    process which sees energy, resources, technology and human economics as a
    single system.

    The problem with this whole debate is that those involved — Monbiot
    included — only have the vaguest understanding of how resource depletion
    interacts with the human economy. And in a similar way, the wider
    environment movement has been wholly compromised by its failure to engage
    with the debate over ecological limits as part of their promotion of
    alternative lifestyles. Unless you are prepared to adapt to the reality of
    what the “limits” issues portends for the human economy, you’re not going
    to make any progress on this matter.

    Monbiot’s greatest mistake is to try and associate peak oil and climate
    change. They are wholly different issues. In fact, over the last few years,
    one of the greatest mistakes by the environment movement generally (and
    Monbiot is an exemplar of this) has been to reduce all issues to one
    metric/indicator — carbon. This “carbonism” has distorted the nature of
    the debate over human development/progress, and in the process the
    “business as usual” fossil-fuelled supertanker has been allowed to thunder
    on regardless because solving carbon emissions is a fundamentally different
    type of problem to solving the issue of resource/energy depletion.

    Carbon emissions are a secondary effect of economic activity. It is
    incidental to the economic process, even when measures such as carbon
    markets are applied. Provided we’re not worried about the cost, we can use
    technological measures to abate emissions — and government/industry have
    used this as a filibuster to market a technological agenda in response and
    thus ignore the basic incompatibility of economic growth with the
    ecological limits of the Earth’s biosphere. As far as I am concerned, many
    in mainstream environmentalism have been complicit in that process; and
    have failed to provide the example and leadership necessary to initiate a
    debate on the true alternatives to yet more intense/complex
    industrialisation and globalisation.

    In contrast, physical energy supply is different because it’s a prerequisite
    of economic growth — you can’t have economic activity without a
    qualitatively sufficient energy supply (yes, the “quality” of the energy is
    just as important as the physical scale of supply). About half of all
    growth is the value of new energy supply added to the economy, and another
    fifth is the result of energy efficiency — the traditional measures of
    capital and labour respectively make up a tenth and fifth of growth. As yet
    mainstream economic theory refuses to internalise the issue of energy
    quality, and the effect of falling energy/resource returns, even though this
    is demonstrably one of the failing aspects of our current economic model
    (debt is the other, and that’s an even more complex matter to explore if
    we’re looking at inter-generational effects).

    The fact that all commodity prices have been rising along with growth for
    the past decade — a phenomena directly related to the human system hitting
    the “limits to growth” — is one of the major factors driving current
    economic difficulties. Arguably we’ve been hitting the “limits” since the
    late 70s. The difficulty in explaining that on a political stage is that
    we’re talking about processes which operate over decades and centuries, not
    over campaign cycles or political terms of office. As a result, due to the
    impatience of the modern political/media agenda, the political debate over
    limits has suffered because commentators always take too short-term a
    viewpoint. Monbiot’s recent conversion on nuclear and peak oil is such an
    example, and is at the heart of the report Monbiot cites in justification of
    his views — a report, not coincidentally, written by a long-term opponent
    of peak oil theory, working for lobby groups who promote business-as-usual
    solutions to ecological issues.

    Likewise, because the neo-classical economists who advise governments and
    corporations don’t believe in the concept of “limits”, the measures they’ve
    adopted to try and solve the problem (e.g. quantitative easing) are not
    helping the problem, but merely forestall the inevitable collapse. For
    example, we can’t borrow money today to spur a recovery if there will be
    insufficient growth in the future to pay for that debt. Basically, whilst you
    may theoretically borrow money from your grandchildren, you can’t borrow
    the energy that future economic growth requires to generate that money if
    it doesn’t exist to be used at that future date. Perhaps more perversely, a
    large proportion of the economic actors who have expressed support for
    limits are not advocating ecological solutions to the problem, they’re
    cashing-in by trying to advise people how to make money out of economic
    catastrophe.

    Carbon emissions and resource depletion are a function of economic growth.
    There is an absolute correlation between growth and carbon emissions. I
    don’t just mean that emissions and the rate of depletion fall during
    recessions — and thus “recessions are good for the environment”. If you
    look at the rate of growth in emissions over the last 50 years, the change
    in energy prices has a correlation to changes in carbon emissions as the
    price of fuel influences economic activity. That’s why carbon emissions
    broke with their historic trend, halving their previous growth rate, after
    the oil crisis of the 1970s; and why they then rebounded as energy prices
    fell during the 90s.

    The idea that we can “decarbonise” the economy and continue just as before
    is fundamentally flawed. I know some of you will scream and howl at this
    idea, but if you look at the research on the interaction between energy and
    economic productivity there is no other conclusion. Due to their high
    energy density and relative ease of use, all fossil fuels have an economic
    advantage over all the alternatives. That said, as conventional oil and gas
    deplete, and “unconventional” sources with far lower energy returns are
    brought into the market, that differential is decreasing — but we won’t
    reach general parity with renewables for another decade or two.

    Note also this has nothing to do with subsidies, or industrial power –
    it’s a basic physical fact that the energy density of renewables is lower
    than the historic value of fossil fuels. On a level playing field, renewable
    energy costs more and has a lower return on investment than fossil fuels.

    We do have the technology to develop a predominantly renewable human
    economy, but the economic basis of such a system will be wholly different to
    that we live within today. Unless you are prepared to reform the economic
    process alongside changing the resource base of society, we’ll never
    see any realistic change because all such “ecological” viewpoints are
    inconsistent with the values at the heart of modern capitalism (that’s not
    a political point either, it’s just a fact based upon how these systems
    must operate). E.g., when the Mail/Telegraph trumpet that more wind power
    will cost more and lower growth/competitiveness, they’re right — but the
    issue here is not the facts about wind, it’s that the theory/expectation of
    continued growth, which they are measuring the performance of wind against,
    is itself no longer supported by the physical fundamentals of the human
    economy.

    The present problem is not simply “peak oil”. Even if volumetric production
    remained constant, due to the falling level of energy return on investment
    of all fossil fuels the effects of rising prices and falling systemic
    efficiency will still disrupt the economic cycle (albeit at a slower rate
    than when it is tied to a simultaneous volumetric reduction). Allied to the
    problems with the supply of many industrial minerals, especially the
    minerals which are key to the latest energy and industrial process/energy
    technologies (e.g. rare earths, indium, gallium, etc.), what we have is a
    recipe for a general systems failure in the operation of the human system.
    And again, that’s not related to climate change, or simple lack of energy,
    but because of the systemic complexity of modern human society, and what
    happens to any complex system when it is perturbed by external factors.

    The worst thing which can happen right now — even if it were possible,
    which is entirely doubtful — would be a “return to growth”. The idea of
    “green growth”, within the norms of neo-classical economics, is even more
    fallacious due to the differing thermodynamic factors driving that system.
    Instead what we have to concentrate upon is changing the political economy
    of the human system to internalise the issue of limits. At present, apart
    from a few scientists and green economists on the sidelines, no one is
    seriously putting that point of view — not even the Green Party. And as I
    perceive it from talking to people about this for the last 12 years, that’s
    for a very simple reason… it’s not what people, especially the political
    establishment, want to hear.

    Rio+20 was an absolute failure. In fact what annoyed me the most was that
    the media kept talking about the “second” Rio conference, when in fact it
    was the third UNCED conference in the Stockholm conference in ’72. If you
    contrast 1972 with 2012, the results of this years deliberations were worse
    than the policies sketched out in the 70s ! Seriously, the environment
    movement is being trounced, and as I see it that’s because they have lost
    the intellectual and theoretical rigour that it possessed in the 70s and
    80s. Rather than having a clear alternative vision, what they promote is
    “the same but different”. Once environmentalism became a media campaign
    about differing consumption options, rather than an absolute framework for
    evaluating the effects of consumption, it lost its ability to dictate the
    agenda — because its the ability to look forward and observe/anticipate
    trends unfolding, however unwelcome those truths might be, which gives
    groups political power.

    Politicians have lost control of the economy because their materialist
    ambitions no longer fit to the extant reality of the economic process. This
    outcome was foreseen over 40 years ago by economists like Georgescu-Roegen
    and Boulding but ignored, even amongst many liberals and especially the
    left, for political reasons. These same principles, based around the issue
    of limits, were also the founding reality of the modern environment
    movement — but over the last 20 years the movement has lost this basic
    grounding in physics and economics as it has moved towards an
    aspirationally materialist agenda (green consumerism/sustainable
    consumption, etc.).

    Unless you’re prepared to talk about limits to growth, and the fact that
    the economic theories developed over two centuries of unconstrained
    expansion now have no relevance to a system constrained by physical limits,
    then you will not solve this problem. Just as with Monbiot’s “change” on
    the issue of nuclear, his failure is a matter of basic theory and
    methodological frameworks, not of facts or data. Unfortunately people keep
    throwing data at each other without considering that the framework within
    which those facts are considered and understood has changed, and that
    consequently their conclusions may not be correct; and until the movement
    accepts that the rules governing the system have changed we’ll not make
    progress in advancing viable solutions.

    To conclude then, Monbiot’s mistake isn’t about peak oil, or climate
    change, it’s a failure to internalise the physical realities of the
    “limits” now driving the human system. Unless you consider the interaction
    of energy, economics and pollution, any abstractions you draw about each of
    those factors individually will fail to tell you how the system as a whole
    is functioning. Those limits might dictate the end of “growth economics”,
    but they DO NOT dictate the end of “human development”. There are many ways
    we can address our present economic and environmental difficulties, but that
    cannot take place unless we accept that changing our material ambitions is
    a prerequisite of that process.

    Let’s be clear here. The principles which drive the economy today would be
    wholly alien to Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and others who first laid down
    the rules of the system two centuries ago. Likewise Marxism and similarly
    derived ideas have no validity either because they were generated during an
    era when there were no constraining limits. There is no “going back” to
    previous theories/ideologies on this issue because we face a scenario today
    which humans society — with the exception of those ancient societies who
    experienced ecological overshoot (Rome, Mayans, Easter Islanders, etc.) –
    have never had to face before.

    We have to move forward, to evaluate and understand is the role of
    ecological limits within the future human economic process and how this
    changes our advocacy of “solutions”. That debate should be at the heart of
    the environment movement, and the issue of limits should lead all
    discussions about all environmental issues — not green/sustainable
    consumerism and other measures which seek to reassure and pacify affluent
    consumers. That said, especially given the demographic skew within
    membership of the environment movement, we have to begin by being honest
    with ourselves in accepting the “limits agenda” and what it means for the
    make-up of our own lives.

    In the final analysis, you cannot be an environmentalist unless you accept
    and promote the idea of limits. That was at the heart of the movement from
    the early 70s, and if we want to present a viable alternative to disaster
    capitalism then that is once again what we must develop and promote as an
    alternative.

    Peace ‘n love ‘n’ home made hummus,

    P.

    .

    “We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
    nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
    for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
    that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
    righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
    God, and with one another, that these things may abound.”
    (Edward Burrough, 1659 – from ‘Quaker Faith and Practice’)

    Paul’s book, “Energy Beyond Oil”, is out now!
    For details see http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/ebo/

    Read my ‘essay’ weblog, “Ecolonomics”, at:
    http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/ecolonomics/

    Paul Mobbs, Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations
    email – mobbsey@gn.apc.org
    website – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/index.shtml

  • Moving towards a logical conclusion

    Posted on May 5th, 2012 Jo 1 comment

    Although I consider him to be an enemy of the people by being a key architect of the privatisation of the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), I was delighted to hear Andrew Lansley say this about tobacco sales : “We don’t work in partnership with the tobacco companies because we are trying to arrive at a point where they have no business in this country.” Finally, after over ten years of hard work by a rainbow coalition of healthcare providers, local government administration, campaigners, social activists, educators and charities, it is possible for the UK Secretary of State for Health to tell the tobacco industry their products are not wanted here.

    The deep question is : why didn’t the UK Government just ban the tobacco companies outright at the start or tell them to diversify out of selling cancer sticks in order to keep their retail licences ? Well, the simple answer is that companies like British American Tobacco (BAT) are privately-owned capitalised companies, with many pension and other major funds heavily invested. The UK Department of Business, Trade, Enterprise, Industry, Information, Skills, Services and Manufacturing or whatever it’s been variously called over the last few decades, simply couldn’t tell shareholders to pull their investment out of death-by-inhalation stocks.

    Everyone sees a return on investment in the industries of death generally, such as the arms trade, the junk food industry, and petrochemicals (ask yourself : how many people have suffered and died because of diesel particulate-provoked asthma ?) It takes a certain amount of time to reach the logical conclusion that wars do not need to be fought, making armaments redundant; for healthy food to become seen as essential to beat off diabetes and obesity epidemics; and for urban transport to be electrified to save lungs and hearts.

    No, you just can’t ban an entire product range overnight because, finally, the science has broken through the doubt barrier and shown beyond reasonable scepticism that tobacco smoking causes cancer, emphysema and other serious and fatal conditions. No, you have to go at it step by painful step, reducing availability, changing the rules on presentation at the point of sale, putting up signs in public places.

    And it all takes time, this gradualist approach. The tobacco industry may now wind down to a dribble in Britain (although it will continue to do well in Asia and Africa), and peoples’ savings for retirement will have soon all moved out of fag ends into something else.

    Yet, we don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to the climate change and energy crisis. We simply don’t have the 25 to 50 years it could take to adopt a gradualist approach to energy sector change. Anything that takes longer than 10 years to begin to displace carbon out of the energy economy is too slow to be useful.

    People are slowly beginning to wake up to the fact that their money is invested in climate change, and are making demands on their pension fund and bank account managers – but this is all happening too slowly – despite the keen interest in ethical investment.

    The energy sector has got to change – and change fast. Changing the energy sector so radically and so quickly is not something that can be done by applying small changes to the costs of energy – particularly as the wider costs of energy are so volatile anyway. Gradually introducing renewable energy technologies with subsidies and grants and special tax breaks is not going to displace carbon fast enough.

    Governments may not like the thought – but maybe they will consider starting to ban things – and not be shy about being explicit. However, this kind of action will generate significant resistance and dissent.

    How then to rapidly alter the world’s entire energy sector ?

    Start telling the truth about how the energy sector is scraping the bottom of the barrel in a number of fuels and fields ? Could this approach cause a run at the investment bank ? Could it tip the balance in energy systems deployment towards the less-intensive options – green energy – the only possible area of growth in the energy sector – which becomes the only possible logical conclusion ?

  • Energy Independence : Scheer Truth

    Posted on March 26th, 2012 Jo No comments

    Image Credit : Carl-A. Fechner, fechnerMedia

    Renewable energy pessimists are everywhere.

    Some commentators, government leaders, energy companies and representatives of international institutions are keen to show that not only is the renewable energy deployment glass half empty, the water hasn’t even wet the bottom of the glass yet.

    Yet there are renewable energy architects – developers, promoters, politicians, scientists, engineers and academics – who document the evidence of the rapid growth in zero carbon energy – who show us that the sustainable energy glass could be brimming over.

    What do experts say ? Here’s the belated Hermann Scheer from the film “The 4th Revolution : Energy Autonomy” :-

    Read the rest of this entry »

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  • Academic Freedom #6 : Policy Levers

    Posted on March 23rd, 2012 Jo No comments

    Image Credit : Taproot

    Many scientists express that their aim in their work is to offer a good foundation for Government decision-making. Our gathering and processing of data and evidence is to be offered to the lawmakers to enable them to choose a way forward, and design a strategy to get there. This is a noble ambition – to be a useful servant of the facts (or at least a disciple of statistics with plus and minus margins of error).

    However, science is not the only force at work in influencing Government decisions. For a start, Governments change through elections in democracies, and all debate about public policy passes through a narrow ideological gate – where people decide on a very small range of questions that concern them at the time. Election issues are almost always centred around tax and welfare, and elections are often called for the favourite politicians of the moment.

    And then there’s the question of which organisations influence elected governments on a day-to-day basis – who has the ear of leaders and their senior staff ? The public relations budget lines of large companies and corporations can be kept trim and tidy – politicians are easy to get access to if you have a lot of capital to invest (or make out that you do).

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  • Carbon Captured #2 : Socialising Cost, Privatising Profits

    Posted on March 22nd, 2012 Jo No comments


    Image Credit : Michael Sterner

    Carbon dioxide is a fuel. And I don’t mean plant food.

    As petroleum oil and Natural Gas production hit peaks that cannot be surpassed, and the world begins to realise that depletion is inevitable, the world’s energy producers will turn to alternatives, including various forms of fuel and gas made from carbon dioxide, chemically adjusted with hydrogen derived from renewable resources.

    It seems to me hypocritical for the large oil and gas companies to pitch for public funds to support their investment in Carbon Capture and Storage. Why ? Because this public funding will get converted into private profits the day they start to pump the carbon dioxide back out of storage to make Renewable Gas.

    From a personal perspective, I find the argument for public financing of Carbon Capture and Storage particularly toxic when it is proposed to raise the revenue by placing an artificial price or tax on carbon. This would mean that the taxpaper-consumer pays for the emissions burden of hydrocarbon fossil fuel energy, and then gets to pay again for alternative energy, produced using the stored waste gases that they already paid for.

    Charge energy customers twice. What a great bailout for fossil fuels !

    I suspect that the only reason that Royal Dutch Shell and BP admit to climate change is so they can push their Carbon Capture and Storage schemes – bid tendering for public subsidy.

    Forget the subsidies currently in place around the world for wind and solar power. Global carbon finance pushed at Carbon Capture and Storage will be of a much higher order of expenditure.

    If the oil and gas companies want to build Carbon Capture and Storage facilities – let them pay for them themselves. After all, in many cases, they have been able to economically justify them by using carbon dioxide pumping to increase oil production – what’s known as Enhanced Oil Recovery.

    Or if they insist on public finance for geo-sequestration of carbon dioxide in Carbon Capture and Storage projects, let them give us the carbon dioxide back for free when we need it for Renewable Gas production in the coming decades.

  • Carbon Captured : The Ultimate Bailout

    Posted on March 20th, 2012 Jo No comments

    Image Credit : SCCS

    Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a collection of actual and proposed technologies to return the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels back underground, or somewhere else where they can stop interfering with the global carbon cycle.

    An excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing a range of problems, including acid ocean and most seriously, climate change.

    Carbon Capture and Storage, or Sequestration, was first seriously proposed back in the 1970s, by a range of scientists and engineers, including Cesare Marchetti, (“On Geoengineering and the CO2 problem”, Climatic Change, Volume 1, Number 1, Pages 59 – 68) who is reputed to have coined the term “geoengineering” (see “Geoengineering: Could or should we do it?”, Stephen H. Schneider, Climatic Change, Volume 33, Number 3, Pages 291 – 302).

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