Jumping off Mount Gideon

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

Jumping Off Mount Gideon [1]
by Jo Abbess

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

JODI Oil and BP #4

In my seemingly futile and interminable quest to reconcile the differences between the data provided by the JODI Oil organisation and BP as revealed in part by the annual BP Statistical Review of World Energy, I have moved on to looking at production (primary supply), found a problem as regards Africa, and had some confirmation that a major adjustment in how the data is collected happened in 2009.

First – the problem with Africa. The basket “Other Africa” for oil production is far less in the BP data than it is in the JODI Oil data – shown by negative figures in the comparison. For 2015, this is approximately 65% in scale (-3800 KBD) of the summed positive difference between the BP and JODI figures for the named countries (5884 KBD). This reminds me that there was a problem with the refined oil product consumption figures for “Other Africa” as well. Without a detailed breakdown of individual country accounts from BP it is almost impossible to know where these differences arise, it seems to me, or begin to understand why these differences are so large. Maybe I should just ask BP for a full country breakdown – if they’d ever deign to communicate this kind of information with me. Standing by my email Inbox right now… Could be here some time…

It is fairly clear from the comparison for North America that a major shift in understanding by either BP or JODI Oil took place in 2009, as the oil production data converge significantly for that year onwards. There was similar evidence of this in the refined oil products consumption data.

As with the consumption data, the production data for the Middle East region is strongly divergent between BP and JODI. I did read something potentially useful in the JODI Oil Manual, which I would recommend everyone interested in energy data to read. In the notes for Crude Oil, I read : “One critical issue is whether the volumes of NGL, lease or field condensates and oils extracted from bituminous minerals are included. All organisations exclude NGL from crude oil. If condensates are able to be excluded, it should be noted to the JODI organisation(s) of which the country/economy is a member. Most OPEC member countries exclude condensates.” Now, I guess, the struggle will be to find some data on condensates. Of which there are a variety of sources and nomenclature, be they light liquid hydrocarbons from oil and gas production or oil and gas refining/processing/cryoprocessing. There may be faultlines of comprehension and categorisation, such as about who considers NGPL or Natural Gas Plant Liquids from Natural Gas processing plants to be in the category of NGLs – Natural Gas Liquids, and therefore effectively in the bucket of Crude Oil.

I’m no closer to any answers on why BP oil data doesn’t align with JODI Oil data. And it looks like I’ve just opened a whole can of condensate wormy questions.

JODI Oil and BP #3

So after the mystery of why JODI Oil regional refinery products demand data (oil products consumption) is so different from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy for 2016, I took a look at the individual country data supplied by BP and compared it to the JODI Oil numbers.

The first thing that struck me was that there are many items of data that are very similar between the BP and JODI Oil data; and yet there are also a good number that are significantly different – and the vast majority of these show BP reporting much higher oil consumption than JODI. This means that the definitions that BP and JODI are using for oil products consumption must correlate in many cases, when countries make their reports. But it also means that there are some understandings of oil consumption that BP has that do not have cognates in the JODI Oil reports.

The second thing that struck me was that each region in BP apart from North America is showing a total much higher than JODI Oil. Only some of the countries are specifically named in the BP report, and other countries are lumped into the bucket of “Other” within each region. Each “Other” figure is much higher in the BP report than in the JODI Oil data. Part of the reason is clearly going to be because some countries have not been reporting to JODI Oil, or not reporting reliably. For example, for South and Central America, JODI Oil data for Bermuda, Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti and Suriname are all zeroes; and JODI Oil data for Bolivia has zeroes for NOV2015 and DEC2015 (other months average at 63 KBD). But these could all be expected to be low oil products producers; so it is unclear to me where BP thinks consumption is occurring outside of the individually-named countries.

The “Other Africa” line is much higher in BP than in JODI, which looks dubious. I have not looked at this closely, but this might relate to countries such as Nigeria who produce and also consume a lot of oil.

The most significant differences : countries where no JODI Oil data is available : Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Israel, Bangladesh, Pakistan; and also countries with medium-to-high BP oil consumption data compared to JODI : Brazil, Venezuela, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation, all the named Middle East countries, South Africa, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam.

It could be that in some cases the BP data is for all oil consumption – from national refineries and imports; whereas the JODI Oil data is for consumption from a nation’s own refinery. I would need to check this in more detail, but at first glance, the BP oil consumption data for the Middle East is much more divergent from the JODI Oil data than for other regions, and this does not make sense. I know that refinery product self-consumption is increasing in Middle East countries that are in strong economic development, but not all Middle East countries are experiencing increasing national demand, and I cannot imagine that oil products imports are so high in this region as to explain these differences between BP and JODI Oil data.

Another thing to note is that Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (formerly known as the “Former Soviet Union”) data divergence accounts for most of the data divergence in the “Europe & Eurasia” region; and that BP oil consumption data for the Russian Federation (which forms a part of CIS) is much higher than the data given to JODI.

I now have too many questions about how and from whom all this data is sourced, how categories of liquid hydrocarbons are delineated, and doubts about how anybody could check the reliability of any of this data. Without more information, I cannot analyse this data further; but maybe looking at oil consumption is not that illuminating. There appears to be a small and steady increase in annual oil demand and consumption over the recent period – this is indicated by both BP and JODI Oil data. The real issues for my analysis are whether oil production is capable of sustainably satisfying this demand-with-small-annual-increases, so my next step is to move to look at liquid hydrocarbons production data.

JODI Oil and BP #2

Previously, I was comparing data from the annual BP Statistical Review of World Energy with the annual averages of JODI Oil data, and when I cast my eye over a table of differences, it was easy to spot that something happened in 2009 – the data from the two sources jumped to more closely correlate. For some countries and product types, if it didn’t happen in 2009, it happened in 2010; but since then some data lines have begun to diverge again. Either somebody was lying prior to 2009 (and by “lying”, I mean, making errors in reporting on hydrocarbon refinery), or something changed in the definitions of the sub-categories of hydrocarbon products from petrorefineries. At this stage, I cannot tell if the corrections were done by BP or by JODI Oil, but the corrections show a step change. This intrigued me, so, here follow a few diagrams and some summary notes.

The example of North America is dominated by a correction in the data for the United States of America (whether the correction was in the JODI Oil data, or in the BP data) for the “Others” category. Since 2009, the data lines have been coming progressively closer, until it seems they are reporting from either the same sources, or using the same industry data to base their calculations on.

Data from South and Central America as a whole is rather random when compared between BP and JODI – however there is a clear correction in the category “Others” in 2009, and perhaps a further correction to both “Light distillates” and “Others” in 2011. Since then, the trend is for BP and JODI data to diverge.

The 2009 correction for the “Europe and Eurasia” region (an artefact) is mainly due to the big correction for the European Union in 2009 for “Light distillates” and “Others”. The data for CIS undergoes a smaller correction, and this is in 2010, for “Fuel oil” and “Others”.

The “Others” category is also adjusted for the Middle East in 2009.

There are minor corrections in the data for Africa in both 2009 and 2010, and recently a large divergence for “Middle distillates”.

Asia Pacific data is corrected for “Light distillates”, “Middle distillates” and “Others” in 2009, reflecting corrections in both China and Japan data.

Corrections in 2009 for OECD data are the main reason for the differences between BP and JODI to snap shut; whilst Non-OECD data still remains divergent.

Peak Oil Redux

Peak conventional crude petroleum oil production is apparently here already – the only thing that’s been growing global total liquids is North American unconventional oils : tight oil – which includes shale oil in the United States of America – and tar sands oil from bitumen in Canada – either refined into synthetic crude, or blended with other oils – both heavy and light.

But there’s a problem with unconventional oils – or rather several – but the key one is the commodity price of oil, which has been low for many months, and has caused unconventional oil producers to rein in their operations. It’s hitting conventional producers too. A quick check of Section 3 “Oil data : upstream” in OPEC’s 2016 Annual Statistical Bulletin shows a worrying number of negative 2014 to 2015 change values – for example “Active rigs by country”, “Wells completed in OPEC Members”, and “Producing wells in OPEC Members”.

But in the short term, it’s the loss of uneconomic unconventional oil production that will hit hardest. Besides problems with operational margins for all forms of unconventionals, exceptional air temperatures (should we mention global warming yet ?) in the northern part of North America have contributed to a seizure in Canadian tar sands oil production – because of extensive wildfires.

Here’s two charted summaries of the most recent data from the EIA on tight oil (which includes shale oil) and dry shale gas production in the United States – which is also suffering.

Once the drop in North American unconventionals begins to register in statistics for global total liquids production, some concern will probably be expressed. Peak Oil just might be sharper and harder and sooner than some people think.

The Lies That You Choose

I have had the great fortune to meet another student of the Non-Science of Economics who believes most strongly that Energy is only a sub-sector of the Holy Economy, instead of one of its foundations, and doesn’t understand why issues with the flow of commodities (which include energy resources) into the system is critical to the survival of the global economy, and that the growth in the Services Industries and Knowledge Economy cannot compensate for the depletion of freshwater, fossil fuels and other raw resources.

This person believes in Technology, as if it can fly by itself, without seeming to understand how Technological Innovation is really advanced by state investment – a democracy of focus. This otherwise intelligent learner has also failed to grasp, apparently, that the only way that the Economy can grow in future is through investment in things with real value, such as Energy, especially where this investment is essential owing to decades of under-investment precipitated by privatisation – such as in Energy – investment in both networks of grids or pipes, and raw resources. And this from somebody who understands that developing countries are being held back by land grab and natural resource privatisation – for example ground water; and that there is no more money to be made from property investment, as the market has boomed and blown.

How to burst these over-expanded false value bubbles in the mind ? When I try to talk about the depletion of natural resources, and planetary boundaries, people often break eye contact and stare vacantly out of the nearest window, or accept the facts, but don’t see the significance of them. Now this may be because I’m not the best of communicators, or it may be due to the heavy weight of propaganda leading to belief in the Magical Unrealism always taught in Economics and at Business Schools.

Whatever. This is where I’m stuck in trying to design a way to talk about the necessity of energy transition – the move from digging up minerals to catching the wind, sunlight and recycling gases. If I say, “Look, ladies and laddies, fossil fuels are depleting”, the audience will respond with “where there’s a drill, there’s a way”. As if somehow the free market (not that a free market actually exists), will somehow step up and provide new production and new resources, conjuring them from somewhere.

What are arguments that connect the dots for people ? How to demonstrate the potential for a real peak in oil, gas, coal and uranium production ? I think I need to start with a basic flow analysis. On the one side of the commodity delivery pipeline, major discoveries have decreased, and the costs of discovery have increased. The hidden underbelly of this is that tapping into reservoirs and seams has a timeline to depletion – the point at which the richness of the seam is degraded significantly, and the initial pressure in the well or reservoir is reduced to unexploitable levels – regardless of the technology deployed. On the other end of the commodities pipeline is the measure of consumption – and most authorities agree that the demand for energy will remain strong. All these factors add up to a time-limited game.

Oh, you can choose to believe that everything will continue as it always seems to have. But the Golden Age of Plenty is drawing to a close, my friend.

Energy Security : National Security #3

Although the Autumn Statement and the Spending Review are attracting all the media and political attention, I have been more interested by the UK Government’s Security Review – or to give it is full title : the “National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015”, or (SDSR), document number Cm 9161.

Its aim is stated in its sub-heading “A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom”, but on matters of energy, I would suggest it fails to nail down security at all.

In my analysis, having dealt with what appears to be a misunderstanding about the nature of hydrocarbon markets, I then started to address the prospect of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) imports from the United States.

My next probe is into the global gas pipeline networks indicated by this mention of the “Southern Gas Corridor” in Section 3.40 : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

First of all, and perhaps of secondmost importance, the “Southern Gas Corridor” is more of a European Union policy suite than an individual pipeline. In fact, it’s not just one pipeline – several pipelines are involved, some actual, some under construction, some cancelled, some renamed, some re-routed, and some whose development is threatened by geopolitical struggle and even warfare.

It is this matter of warfare that is the most important in considering the future of Natural Gas being supplied to the European Union from the Caspian Sea region : Turkmenistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Azerbijan. Oh, and we should mention Uzbekistan, and its human rights abuses, before moving on. And Iraq and Syria – where Islamic State sits, brooding.

Natural Gas is probably why we are all friends with Iran again. Our long-lasting dispute with Iran was ostensibly about nuclear power, but actually, it was all about Natural Gas. When Russia were our New Best Friend, Iran had to be isolated. But now Russia is being a tricky trading partner, and being beastly to Ukraine, Iran is who we’ve turned to, to cry on their shoulder, and beg for an alternative source of gas.

So we’ve back-pedalled on the concept of waging economic or military conflict against Iran, so now we have a more southerly option for our massive East-to-West gas delivery pipeline project – a route that takes in Iran, and avoids passing through Georgia and Azerbaijan – where Russia could interfere.

The problem with this plan is that the pipeline would need to pass through Syria and/or southern Turkey at some point. Syria is the country where Islamic State is currently being bombed by the United States and some European countries. And Turkey is the country where there has been a revival of what amounts pretty much to civil war with the Kurdish population – who also live in Iraq (and the edges of Syria and Iran).

Russia is envious of the southerly Southern Gas Corridor plan, and jealous of its own version(s) of the gas-to-Europe project, and influence in Georgia and Azerbaijan. So perhaps we should not be surprised that Russia and Turkey have had several military and political stand-offs in the last few months.

We in the United Kingdom should also be cautious about getting dragged into military action in Syria – if we’re thinking seriously about future energy security. Further destabilisation of the region through military upheaval would make it difficult to complete the Southern Gas Corridor, and make the European Union increasingly dependent on Russia for energy.

In the UK, although we claim to use no Russian gas at all, we do get gas through the interconnectors from The Netherlands and Belgium, and they get gas from Russia, so actually, the UK is using Russian gas. The UK gets over half its Natural Gas from Norway, and Norway has been a strong producer of Natural Gas, so why should we be worried ? Well, it appears that Norwegian Natural Gas production may have peaked. Let’s re-visit Section 3.40 one more time : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

The problem is that nobody can fight geology. If Norway has peaked in Natural Gas production, there is little that anyone can do to increase it, and even if production could be raised in Norway through one technique or another (such as carbon dioxide injection into gas wells), it wouldn’t last long, and wouldn’t be very significant. Norway is going to continue to supply gas to its other trading partners besides the UK, so how could the UK commandeer more of the Norwegian supply ? It seems likely that “increased supply from Norway” is just not possible.

But back to the Southern Gas Corridor. It is in the United Kingdom’s security interests to support fresh gas supplies to the European Union. Because we may not be able to depend on Russia, we need the Southern Gas Corridor. Which is why we should think very, very carefully before getting involved in increased military attacks on Syria.

Energy Security, National Security #2

The UK Government’s Security Review (SDSR), published 23rd November 2015, regrettably shows traces of propaganda not supported by current data.

For example, the report states in Section 3.40 that : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

I have already addressed my recommendation that the writers of this report should be more careful to distinguish between Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) which is a methane-rich product that can substitute for Natural Gas; and Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) which is a methane-poor product that cannot substitute for Natural Gas.

However, assuming that the writers of the report are talking about cryogenically stored and transported Natural Gas-sourced energy gases, there is a problem in assuming that the United States will be exporting any large amounts of LNG to Europe any time soon. In fact, there are several problems.

Just because the business and political press have been touting the exciting prospect of US LNG exports, doesn’t mean that the data backs up this meme.

First of all, although American Natural Gas production (gross withdrawals from oil and gas wells) continues to grow at a rate that appears unaffected by low Natural Gas prices, the production of shale gas appears to have plateau’d, which might well be related to Natural Gas prices.

Secondly, although exports of Natural Gas as a whole and exports of Natural Gas by pipeline remain healthy, LNG exports have fallen since the heady days of 2010-2011.

Next, although the oil and gas industry proposed lots of LNG export terminals, only a handful are being constructed, and there are already predictions that they will run under-capacity, or won’t get completed.

And further, as regards potential future LNG customers, although China is rejecting LNG imports for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with falling economic growth rates, none of that LNG currently comes from the United States. And China is planning to develop its own onshore Natural Gas and will take LNG from the Australia/Indonesia region.

The bulk of US LNG exports go to Taiwan and Japan, and Japan is unlikely to restart many nuclear power plants, so Japan will continue to need this gas.

On top of all this, the United States is a very minor LNG exporter, so major change should be considered unlikely in the near term.

And it any LNG is heading for Europe, it will probably end up in France, perhaps because they need a better backup plan for their turbulent nuclear power plants.

All of which adds up to a puzzled look on my face. How can the British Government reasonably expect the commencement of significant quantities of American LNG exports to arrive in the UK ? The only reason they believe this is because there has been American propaganda, promulgated through media of all kinds, for the last five or so years, to convince the world that the USA can achieve greater energy independence through the “explosion” in shale gas production.

It’s a story told by many successive US Governments – that the US can achieve greater energy independence, but the reality is very, very different.

The UK Government should not believe any narrative of this nature, in my view, nor include it in national security analyses.

…to be continued…

Energy Security, National Security #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued…

Amber Rudd : First Skirmish

As if to provide proof for the sneaking suspicion that Great Britain is run by the wealthy, rather than by the people, and that energy policy is decided by a close-knit circle of privileged dynasties, up bubbles Amber Rudd MP’s first whirl of skirmish as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change : her brother Roland is chairperson of a lobbying firm, Finsbury, which is seeking to get state approval for a controversial gas storage scheme at Preesall, near Fleetwood, on behalf of the developers, Halite Energy of Preston, Lancashire.

Whilst some claim there is a starkly obvious conflict of interest for Rudd to take part in the decision-making process, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) could have denied it, but have instead confirmed that the potential reversal of a 2013 decision will be made, not by Rudd, but by Lord Bourne.

New gas storage in the United Kingdom is a crucial piece of the energy infrastructure provision, as recognised by successive governments. Developments have been ongoing, such as the opening of the Holford facility at Byley in Cheshire. Besides new gas storage, there are anticipated improvements for interconnectors with mainland Europe. These are needed for raising the volume of Natural Gas available to the British market, and for optimising Natural Gas flows and sales in the European regional context – a part of the EC’s “Energy Union”.

An underlying issue not much aired is that increased gas infrastructure is necessary not just to improve competition in the energy markets – it is also to compensate for Peak Natural Gas in the North Sea – something many commentators regularly strive to deny. The new Conservative Government policy on energy is not fit to meet this challenge. The new Secretary of State has gone public about the UK Government’s continued commitment to the exploitation of shale gas – a resource that even her own experts can tell her is unlikely to produce more than a footnote to annual gas supplies for several decades. In addition, should David Cameron be forced to usher in a Referendum on Europe, and the voters petulantly pull out of the Europe project, Britain’s control over Natural Gas imports is likely to suffer, either because of the failure of the “Energy Union” in markets and infrastructure, or because of cost perturbations.

Amber Rudd MP is sitting on a mountain of trouble, undergirded by energy policy vapourware : the promotion of shale gas is not going to solve Britain’s gas import surge; the devotion to new nuclear power is not going to bring new atomic electrons to the grid for decades, and the UK Continental Shelf is going to be expensive for the Treasury to incentivise to mine. What Amber needs is a proper energy policy, based on focused support for low carbon technologies, such as wind power, solar power and Renewable Gas to back up renewable electricity when the sun is not shining and wind is not blowing.

The Great Transition to Gas

Hello, hello; what have we here then ? Royal Dutch Shell buying out BG Group (formerly known as British Gas). Is this the start of the great transition out of petroleum oil into gas fuels ?

Volatile crude petroleum oil commodity prices over the last decade have played some undoubted havoc with oil and gas company strategy. High crude prices have pushed the choice of refinery feedstocks towards cheap heavy and immature gunk; influenced decisions about the choices for new petrorefineries and caused ripples of panic amongst trade and transport chiefs : you can’t keep the engine of globalisation ticking over if the key fuel is getting considerably more expensive, and you can’t meet your carbon budgets without restricting supplies.

Low crude commodity prices have surely caused oil and gas corporation leaders to break out into the proverbial sweat. Heavy oil, deep oil, and complicated oil suddenly become unprofitable to mine, drill and pump. Because the economic balance of refinery shifts. Because low commodity prices must translate into low end user refined product prices.

There maybe isn’t an ideal commodity price for crude oil. All the while, as crude oil commodity prices jump around like a medieval flea, the price of Natural Gas, and the gassy “light ends” of slightly unconventional and deep crude oil, stay quite cheap to produce and cheap to use. It’s a shame that there are so many vehicles on the road/sea/rails that use liquid fuels…all this is very likely to change.

Shell appear to be consolidating their future gas business by buying out the competition. Hurrah for common sense ! The next stage of their evolution, after the transition of all oil applications to gas, will be to ramp up Renewable Gas production : low carbon gas supplies will decarbonise every part of the economy, from power generation, to transport, to heating, to industrial chemistry.

This is a viable low carbon solution – to accelerate the use of renewable electricity – wind power and solar principally – and at the same time, transition the oil and gas companies to become gas companies, and thence to Renewable Gas companies.

Renewable Gas : A Presentation #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oil – proved reserves
Thousand million barrels

At end 1993

At end 2003

At end 2012
United Kingdom4.54.33.0

Natural gas – Proved Reserves
Trillion cubic metres

At end 1993

At end 2003

At end 2012
United Kingdom0.60.90.2

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

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

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

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

Norway : by 2030.

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

Denmark : net importer of oil and gas by 2030.

UKERC : Gas by Design (2)

This week, I had the opportunity to join the launch of the UKERC’s latest research into the future of gas. The esteemed delegates included members of a Russian Trade Delegation and several people from the US Embassy. Clearly, the future of gas is an international thing.

[continued from Gas by Design ]

Mike Bradshaw, Warwick Business School = [MB]

[MB] I’m somewhat daunted by this audience – the report is aimed perhaps for informed public audience. The media [ambushed us on the question of shale gas, shale gas attracted more attention] but things we didn’t cover much about there we can cover here. It’s been a real rollercoaster ride in the gas industry. Any flights of fancy (in the report) are our faults and not theirs [reference to work of colleagues, such as Jonathan Stern at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies]. A set of shortcomings dealing with the issue of Energy Security. There is a tendency to think that oil and gas are the same. They’re not. The framework, the actors and the networks, trade statistics, policies [much different for gas than for oil]. [In the UK for example we are seeing] a rapid increase in import dependence [and in other countries]. Need to [pay] particular understanding on what will happen in far-flung places. Today, the US-China agreement could influence gas demand. [In the literature on gas, some anomalies, perhaps]. Academics may not understand markets. [What we are seeing here is] the globalisation of UK gas security – primarily Europeanisation. There is growing uncertainty [about] the material flow of gas. [Threshold] balance in three sectors – strong seasonality, impact of climate and temperature [on gas demand]. The Russian agreement with Ukraine [and Europe] – the one thing everybody was hoping for was a warm winter. While the gas market is important [industrial use and energy use], domestic/residential demand is still very significant [proportion of total demand], so we need to look at energy efficiency [building insulation rates] and ask will people rip out their gas boilers ? For the UK, we are some way across the gas bridge – gas has enabled us to meet [most of] our Kyoto Protocol commitments. Not long until we’ve crossed it. Our coal – gone. With coal gone, what fills the gaps ? Renewable electricity – but there is much intermittency already. We’re not saying that import dependency is necessarily a problem. Physical security is not really the problem – but the [dependence on] the interconnectors, the LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) imports – these create uncertainties. The UK also plays a role as a gas exporter – and in landing Norwegian gas [bringing it into the European market]. I’m a geographer – have to have at least one map – of gas flows [in and out of the country]. The NTS (National Transmission System – the high pressure Natural Gas-carrying pipeline network – the “backbone” of the gas transmission and distribution system of National Grid] has responded to change – for example in the increasing sources of LNG [and “backflow” and “crossflow” requirements]. There are 9 points of entry for gas into the UK at the moment. If the Bowland Shale is exploited, there could be 100s of new points of entry [the injection of biogas as biomethane into the gas grid would also create new entry points]. A new challenge to the system. [The gas network has had some time to react in the past, for example] LNG imports – the decision to ramp up the capacity was taken a long time ago. [Evolution of] prices in Asia have tracked the gas away [from the European markets] after the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. And recently, we have decided to “fill up the tanks” again [LNG imports have risen in the last 24 or so months]. Very little LNG is “firm” – it needs to follow the market. It’s not good to simply say that “the LNG will come” [without modelling this market]. The literature over-emphasises the physical security of the upstream supplies of gas. [The projections have] unconventional gas growing [and growing amounts of biogas]. But it’s far too early to know about shale gas – far too early to make promises about money when we don’t even have a market [yet]. Policy cannot influence the upstream especially in a privatised market. The interconnectors into the European Union means we have to pay much more attention to the Third EU Energy Package. Colleagues in Oxford are tracking that. The thorny question of storage. We have less than 5 bcm (billion cubic metres). We’d like 10% perhaps [of the winter period demand ?] Who should pay for it ? [A very large proportion of our storage is in one place] the Rough. We know what happens – we had a fire at the Rough in 2006… Everyone worries about geopolitics, but there are other potential sources of problems – our ageing infrastructure […] if there is a technical problem and high demand [at the same time]. Resilience [of our gas system is demonstrated by the fact that we have] gas-on-gas competition [in the markets] – “liquid” gas hub trading – setting the NBP (National Balancing Point). [There are actually 3 kinds of gas security to consider] (a) Security of Supply – not really a problem; (b) Security of Transport (Transit) – this depends on markets and (c) Security of Demand – [which strongly depends on whether there is a] different role for gas in the future. But we need to design enough capacity even though we may not use all of it [or not all of the time]. We have mothballed gas-fired power plants already, for reasons you all know about. We already see the failure of the ETS (European Union Emissions Trading Scheme) [but if this can be reformed, as as the Industrial Emissions Directive bites] there will be a return to gas as coal closes. The role of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) becomes critical in retaining gas. CCS however doesn’t answer issues of [physical energy security, since CCS requires higher levels of fuel use].

[Question from the floor] Gas has a role to play in transition. But how do we need to manage that role ? Too much focus on building Renewable Energy system. What is the impact on the current infrastructure ? For managing that decline in the incumbent system – gas is there to help – gas by design rather than gas by default.

[Question from the floor, Jonathan Stern] [In your graphs/diagrams] the Middle East is a major contributor to gas trade. We see it differently. The Qataris [could/may/will] hold back [with expanding production] until 2030. Iran – our study [sees it as] a substitute contributor. Oil-indexed gas under threat and under challenge. If you could focus more on the global gas price… [New resources of gas could be very dispersed.]Very difficult to get UK people to understand [these] impacts on the gas prices [will] come from different places than they can think of.

[Question from the floor] Availability of CCS capacity ? When ? How much ? Assumptions of cost ?

[Question from the floor : Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth] Gas as a bridge – how much gas do we need for [this process] ? What about unburnable carbon ? Do we need more gas to meet demands ?

[Answer – to Jonathan Stern – from Christophe McGlade ?] The model doesn’t represent particularly well political probabilities. Iran has a lot of gas – some can come online. It will bring it online if it wants to export it. Some simplifications… might be over optimistic. Your work is helpful to clarify.

On gas prices – indexation versus global gas price – all the later scenarios assumed a globalised gas price. More reasonable assumptions.

On CCS : first [coming onstream] 2025 – initially quite a low level, then increasing by 10% a year. The capital costs are approximately 60% greater than other options and causes a drop in around 10% on efficiency [because making CCS work costs you in extra fuel consumed]. If the prices of energy [including gas] increase, then CCS will have a lesser relative value [?].

On availability of gas : under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario, we could consume 5 tcm (trillion cubic metres) of gas – and this can come from reserves and resources. There are a lot of resources of Natural Gas, but some of it will be at a higher price. In the model we assume development of some new resources, with a growth in shale gas, and other unconventional gas. Because of the climate deal, we need to leave some gas underground.

[Answer from the panel] Indexation of gas prices to oil… Further gas demand is in Asia – it’s a question of whose gas gets burnt. [Something like] 70% of all Natural Gas gets burned indigenously [within the country in which it is produced]. When we talk about “unburnable gas”, we get the response “you’re dreaming” from some oil companies, “it won’t be our fossil fuels that get stranded”. LNG models envisage a different demand profile [in the future, compared to now]. When China [really gets] concerned about air quality [for example]. Different implications.

[Question from the floor, from Centrica ?] What’s in the model for the globalised gas price – Henry Hub plus a bit ? There is not a standard one price.

[Question from the floor] On the question of bridging – the long-term bridge. What issues do you see when you get to 2030 for investment ? [We can see] only for the next few years. What will investors think about that ?

[Question from the floor] [With reference to the Sankey diagram of gas use in the UK] How would that change in a scenario of [electrification – heat and transport being converted to run on electrical power] ?

[Question from the floor] Stranded assets. How the markets might react ? Can you put any numbers on it – especially in the non-CCS scenario ? When do we need to decide [major strategy] for example, [whether we could or should be] shutting off the gas grid ? How would we fund that ? Where are the pinch points ?

[Answer from the panel] On the global gas price – the model does not assume a single price – [it will differ over each] region. [The price is allowed to change regionally [but is assumed to arise from global gas trading without reference to oil prices.] Asian basin will always be more expensive. There will be a temperature differential between different hubs [since consumption is strongly correlated with seasonal change]. On stranded assets – I think you mean gas power plants ? The model is socially-optimal – all regions working towards the 2 degrees Celsius global warming target. The model doesn’t limit stranded assets – and do get in the non-CCS scenario. Build gas plants to 2025 – then used at very low load factors. Coal plants need to reduce [to zero] given that the 2 degrees Celsius targets are demanding. Will need gas for grid balancing – [new gas-fired power generation assets will be] built and not used at high load factors.

[Answer from the panel] Our report – we have assume a whole system question for transition. How successful will the Capacity Mechanism be ? UKERC looking at electrification of heating – but they have not considered the impact on gas (gas-to-power). Will the incentives in place be effective ? The Carbon Budget – what are the implications ? Need to use whole system analysis to understand the impact on gas. Issue of stranded assets : increasingly important now [not at some point in the future]. On pinch point : do we need to wait another three years [for more research] ? Researchers have looked more at what to spend – what to build – and less on how to manage the transition. UKERC have started to explore heat options. It’s a live issue. Referenced in the report.

[Question from the floor, from Richard Sverrisson, News Editor of Montel] Will reform to the EU ETS – the Market Stability Reserve (MSR) – will that be enough to bring gas plant into service ?

[Question from the floor] On oil indexation and the recent crash in the crude price – what if it keeps continuing [downwards] ? It takes gas prices down to be competitive with hub prices. [What about the impact on the economic profitability of] shale oil – where gas driving related prices ? Are there some pricing [functions/variables] in the modelling – or is it merely a physical construct ?

[Question from the floor, from Rob Gross of UCL] On intermittency and the flexibility of low carbon capacity. The geographical units in the modelling are large – the role of gas depends on how the model is constrained vis-a-vis intermittency.

[Answer from the panel, from Christophe McGlade] On carbon dioxide pricing : in the 2 degrees Celsius scenario, the price is assumed to be $200 per tonne. In the non-CCS scenario, the price is in the region of $400 – $500 per tonne [?] From 2020 : carbon price rises steeply – higher than the Carbon Floor Price. How is the the 2 degrees Celsius target introduced ? If you place a temperature constraint on the energy system, the model converts that into carbon emissions. The latest IPCC report shows that there remains an almost linear trend between carbon budget and temperature rise – or should I say a greenhouse gas budget instead : carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The emissions pledges of the [European Union ?] have been adopted by this model – also the development of renewable energy and fuel standards. No exogenous assumptions on carbon pricing. On intermittency – the seasonality is represented by summer, winter and intermediate; and time day generalised as morning, night, evening and peak (morning peak). [Tighter modelling would provide more] certainty which would remove ~40% of effective demand [?] Each technology has a contribution to make to peak load. Although, we assume nothing from wind power – cannot capture hour to hour market. The model does build capacity that then it doesn’t use.

[Answer from the panel] On carbon pricing and the EU ETS reform : I wouldn’t hold my breath [that this will happen, or that it will have a major impact]. We have a new commission and their priority is Poland – nothing serious will happen on carbon pricing until 2020. Their emphasis is much more on Central European issues. I don’t expect [us] to have a strong carbon price since policy [will probably be] more focussed on social democracy issues. Moving to a relatively lower price on oil : Asia will hedge. Other explorters currently sticking to indexation with oil. The low price of wet gas (condensate) in the USA is a result of the over-supply, which followed an over-supply in NGLs (Natural Gas Liquids) – a bumpy road. Implications from USA experience ? Again, comes back to watching what is happening in Asia.

[to be continued…]

European Referendum : Corpse Factory

So I was in a meeting on a dateless date, at an organisation with a nameless name, with some other unidentifiable people in the room with me. For some reason I had been invited, I cannot think why. Ah, yes, I can. I was invited to attend because, apparently, I am a “campaigner”. I am, allegedly, somebody who buys into the notion that communications should serve the purpose of directing public attention and support towards a particular outcome, decided in advance by a political elite. And it seems, if I believe something is right, and that a message needs communicating, I will take action, but never invoice, because I am a believer. Well let me tell you right here and now, I am not that person. I may have that reputation, but really, I despise propaganda : the deliberate formation of a murmur of Tweet starlings, or the collective wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of the same story, the scandal story hauled out to scare the horses and herd them to the salt water shore, the faux narrative of collective political or social will for change.

I want to believe that even though I am occasionally paid to communicate a story (but most often not), that my narrative, and importantly my agenda, is my own. I will not be co-opted. I shall not be defined by storytelling, I shall not be paid for spreading information – for if I were to be telling money-backed tales, I may end up peddling lies. And I do not want lies to be spoken. I am an ontologist. My ontology is :-


and not


There is no “therefore” in what I write. When I say “should”, like, “we should adopt renewable energy”, it’s your choice as to whether you agree with me. You shouldn’t read anything and be swayed or directed, except by the force of reason based on evidence. I am the photographer, the recorder, but not the public relations consultant. And I am especially not an unsalaried volunteer. I paint the future using my own perspective, my own understanding, my own research, my own best judgement, but I am not telling people what to think. Although I go slightly beyond merely noting and analysing what is happening, to articulate possible futures, I am not a persuader.

I do not want to write the script for the actions of the readers or listeners. I do not want to precipitate a revolution, or dehydrate the horses before leading them to the river bank. I want to describe rather than proscribe or prescribe. I want to scribe the way I see things, I do not do it in order to create waves or push buttons or light beacons. The facts should speak for themselves, and if anybody consumes my communication, they should be free to act as they feel fit, or suits. I am not a paid-for, paid-up, in-the-pocket campaigner. I am not spun round other peoples’ fingers like a talking puppet. I am a free person.

So, there I was in this meeting, and the people in the room were discussing an event that is likely to take place. It appears from some analysis that the next British Government could well be another Coalition Government, with the Conservative Party having only a shaving of a majority for rule. And when they have crossed the i’s and dotted the t’s and formed a currently impossible political marriage, which I’m guessing will involve the Green Party as well as the Liberal Democrats, then they will need to live up to their promise to hold a referendum on British participation in the Grand European Experiment – economic union with other European countries.

But nobody talks about Europe. Except to complain. In the meeting I attended, the hosts of the meeting were consulting for ways to highlight the Europe Question, and to give it a pro-Union light.

For me, it’s facile. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is just a bunch of mediocre-sized islands off the coast of the European continent. Something like 80% of UK trade is with European countries, because Europe is our gateway to the rest of the global market, and you always do the most trade with your neighbours. It’s natural. Can anybody seriously suggest we ditch the Common Market – the agreements that European countries have come to to ensure common standards of goods and services, common terms and conditions of trade and common legal processes regulating trade ? So we want to reserve some kind of sovereignty over some kinds of decisions ? Why ? The UK is heavily involved in the central European institutions and governance bodies. We have massive input. We vote for MEPs. Why should things not go our way ? And even if things don’t go perfectly our way, will the negotiated compromises be so bad ? Subsidiarity – making decisions at the lowest/best/most appropriate level of administration – that’s still going to keep a lot of British control over British affairs. Surely the UK suffers a greater risk of interference from any pan-Atlantic trade deal that it does from Europe ?

The UK have made commitments. Our Parliament has agreed that we need to work on climate change, social justice and economic stability. We have implicitly agreed that to address climate change we need Energy Change and environmental regulation; to achieve social justice we need human rights, justice, health, education and a benefits system; and for economic stability we need economic stimuli – for example, in national infrastructure projects. In terms of climate change and Energy Change there is so much we need to do. If we stay in Europe, all of this will be so much easier. Within the European project for energy market harmonisation is the work on standards to achieve gas and electricity grid harmonisation. The improvement and augmenting of interconnections between countries, and the provision of wider energy storage, will enable the balanced use of renewable energy. Governments need to create incentives for deploying renewable energy. Governments need to create mechanisms to leverage and facilitate renewable energy deployment. Without Europe, outwith Europe, it will cost us more, and be more complex. Within Europe, it will be easier.

So, in the meeting I attended, I put forward my vision : if the UK stays in Europe, it will be easier to handle problems of energy – improving and replacing infrastructure and plant, co-ordinating the uptake of new renewable energy technologies and dealing with emerging energy security issues. Why, the North Sea, as everybody knows, is draining dry, and we can only build certain levels of relationship with countries outside the European Union, such as Russia. If the UK left the EU, the EU would be competitors with the UK for Russian Natural Gas, for example. I said I thought that energy security was a good thing to explain to people and a good reason to raise support for UK’s continued participation in Europe.

So, somebody else in the meeting, who shall remain faceless and nameless, poured very cold water on this idea. They seemed to disbelieve that the UK faces risks to energy security. Instead, they suggested that the pro-Europe argument should be based on how the UK can “keep our place at the table”. How out of touch can one get, I thought to myself ? This kind of patrician argument is not going to wash. Appealing to some non-existent pride in the UK’s continued role as stakeholder in the European project is going to go down like a lead balloon. It’s a vote loser, for sure.

What most people care about first is money. Their money. Any appeal to their pockets is going to help. We live in tough times – thanks to Government austerity policy – and we still cannot get a handle on public borrowing and spending. Because of the Government’s austerity policy.

So how about we cast it like this : your energy is going to get much more expensive if the UK abandons the European community of nations. Plus, your lights could genuinely go out, unless you, the people, either as taxpayers or billpayers, fork out for new energy investments that the energy companies haven’t made for 20 years. Because of privatisation. Without taking part in the European energy market harmonisation, and the European development of new and renewable energy infrastructure, plant and networks, your bills could significantly rise/spiral out of control. If European companies were required to sell energy assets back to the UK, because the UK pulled out of Europe, we would be in a very fine mess indeed. Do you really want this kind of chaos ? Energy policy in the UK is already bad enough.

The facts are available to those who search : British production of oil and gas from the North Sea is declining at something like 6% a year. The UK became a net energy importer between 2004 and 2006 (depending on how you define it). The Netherlands will become a net Natural Gas importer in the 2020s. Norway’s Natural Gas will reach a peak some time in the 2020s. It’s no good thinking that because the UK is a “gas hub”, and that British finance can currently spin up gas imports to the UK, that this situation is going to remain true. Within 10 to 15 years, I think that the UK will face significant competition for Natural Gas supplies with other European countries. Better to be in the debating chamber, surely, rather than scratching at the wind-and-rain-splattered window from outside ? So can the UK forge a gas alliance with countries outside the European Union, and apart from Norway ? A gas import alliance that sticks ? And that isn’t demolished by competition from the rest of the European Union for gas supplies that come through pipes sitting in European Union territory ? OK, the UK might want to leave full European Union membership, and join Norway in the European Economic Area, but will this guarantee beneficial import status for Natural Gas from countries that supply the full members of the European Community ?

I said, instead of trying to talk about direct opposites – either Inside Europe or Outside Europe – let’s talk about how things can be helped by wider co-operation. The European Union was founded on energy treaties – coal and nuclear energy (and steel), and now Europe needs to move to a union forged on renewable power and Natural Gas – and later Renewable Gas – and it’s going to be so much easier to do if the UK stays at the party.

The North Sea needs re-developing. Not for oil, but for wind power. This is going to happen best with full cross-border co-operation. Already, the UK has agreed to play a large part in the “North Sea Offshore Grid” wind power project in league with Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. And Luxembourg, strangely, although it doesn’t have a coast. Unlike new nuclear power, which could be decades in construction, offshore and onshore wind in Europe can be quick-build. If you want new power, you pick wind and solar. And, despite policy fumbles, this is happening. Actually, in the end, who really cares about subsidies for renewable energy, when the most capital-heavy organisations in the world start backing renewable power ? In some ways, I don’t care who brings me low carbon energy, and I don’t care if I have to pay for it through my tax or my bills, I just want it to happen. OK, offshore wind power is for the big boys, and you’re never going to get a diversity of suppliers with this project, and the dreams of decentralised energy are vapours, whisked away by giant engineering firms, but at least renewable energy is going to happen. One day people will realise that for the newspapers to rehearse the arguments of High Net Worth Individuals, and for sheep-like energy ministers to complain about onshore wind power and solar farms, is just a way to keep small electricity generators out of the energy markets, and allow the incumbent energy players to keep making profits. But when the need for a multiplicity of small energy installations becomes critical, I think this tune will change.

I can see all this. But, because I am not a spin meister, or spin meistress, or a campaigner, I’m not going to be crafting fine messages to share with my networks on this particular subject. I did start (see below), but then I thought better of it. I dislike the use of social media, web logging and journalism to push an agenda. The trouble is, I know that the people who are vehemently against the European endeavour have so many trigger arguments tested and ready to deploy, such as : immigration, regulations, budgetary demands. None of these stand up to scutiny, but they are very easy props on which to deploy Corpse Factory scares and scandals, up there with the War on Terror. The pro-European segment of the population always stays so silent. If there were to be a Referendum on Europe today, I can pretty much guarantee a kneejerk exit. The British public act collectively by reflex. They never re-analyse their position. They mob, gang and plunder.

I don’t think pro-Europe organisations know how to sell Europe. But they shouldn’t need to “sell” Europe. European membership should be an obvious best choice. So why should I try to talk up Europe ? I couldn’t have any influence, as one lone voice, against the Daily Mails, Daily Expresses and Daily Telegraphs of this world. And anyway, it’s not really my fight to fight. I don’t have a job title that reads “arch propagandist”. I am not that person. It does not become me. I prefer straight-talking, not mind-bending.

I won’t get invited back. That’s just fine. I am not a volunteer campaigner. I’m not a political pusher. I’ve only played the role of “evangelist” on climate change, renewable energy and good policy because sometimes there is little else I can think of that might help or make a difference. But I don’t have any influence. And I don’t want any. I am just going to continue telling it the way I see it. Giving my perspective. I cannot guarantee any outcomes. And anyway, I prefer democratic engagement over salesmanship. Don’t ask me to sell your ideas, your policies, your projections. I don’t want to.

Full membership of the European Union is the logical option for the United Kingdom, no matter how many tired dead donkey corpses the rabid tabloid media keep digging up to appall us all. Sooner or later, we also need to consider joining the Euro currency, and I predict we will, but I’m not your convincer on that argument, either.

“What has Europe ever done for us ?”

Common Climate : Common Cause : Common Market

On climate change, the United Kingdom has secured the Climate Change Act, legislation with broad-based support across all political parties. The UK shares the concerns of other European countries about the potential risks and impacts from climate change in our geographical region. Society-level change in response to climate change includes energy change – changing the sources and use of energy – and changing policies for land use to include planting forests and energy crops. Within the European Community, the UK has worked to secure region-wide legislation on renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste control and air quality. All of these contribute to the response to climate change, and have developed action on climate change into a common cause. In addition to regulatory change, the European Community is seeking to develop trading mechanisms to enable carbon dioxide emissions control, and it working to develop a common market in carbon.

Common Future : Common Purpose : Common Interest

Common Values : Common Opportunities : Common Voice

Common Security : Common Goals : Common Networks

Common Infrastructure : Common Society : Common Protection

Common Standards : Common Framework : Common Development

Fiefdom of Information

Sigh. I think I’m going to need to start sending out Freedom of Information requests… Several cups of tea later…

To: Information Rights Unit, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 5th Floor, Victoria 3, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H OET

28th April 2014

Request to the Department of Energy and Climate Change

Re: Policy and Strategy for North Sea Natural Gas Fields Depletion

Dear Madam / Sir,

I researching the history of the development of the gas industry in the United Kingdom, and some of the parallel evolution of the industry in the United States of America and mainland Europe.

In looking at the period of the mid- to late- 1960s, and the British decision to transition from manufactured gas to Natural Gas supplies, I have been able to answer some of my questions, but not all of them, so far.

From a variety of sources, I have been able to determine that there were contingency plans to provide substitutes for Natural Gas, either to solve technical problems in the grid conversion away from town gas, or to compensate should North Sea Natural Gas production growth be sluggish, or demand growth higher than anticipated.

Technologies included the enriching of “lean” hydrogen-rich synthesis gas (reformed from a range of light hydrocarbons, by-products of the petroleum refining industry); Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) and methane-“rich” gas making processes; and simple mixtures of light hydrocarbons with air.

In the National Archives Cmd/Cmnd/Command document 3438 “Fuel Policy. Presented to Parliament by the Minister of Power Nov 1967”, I found discussion on how North Sea gas fields could best be exploited, and about expected depletion rates, and that this could promote further exploration and discovery.

In a range of books and papers of the time, I have found some discussion about options to increase imports of Natural Gas, either by the shipping of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) or by pipeline from The Netherlands.

Current British policy in respect of Natural Gas supplies appears to rest on “pipeline diplomacy”, ensuring imports through continued co-operation with partner supplier countries and international organisations.

I remain unclear about what official technological or structural strategy may exist to bridge the gap between depleting North Sea Natural Gas supplies and continued strong demand, in the event of failure of this policy.

It is clear from my research into early gas field development that depletion is inevitable, and that although some production can be restored with various techniques, that eventually wells become uneconomic, no matter what the size of the original gas field.

To my mind, it seems unthinkable that the depletion of the North Sea gas fields was unanticipated, and yet I have yet to find comprehensive policy statements that cover this eventuality and answer its needs.

Under the Freedom of Information Act (2000), I am requesting information to answer the following questions :-

1.   At the time of European exploration for Natural Gas in the period 1948 to 1965, and the British conversion from manufactured gas to Natural Gas, in the period 1966 to 1977, what was HM Government’s policy to compensate for the eventual depletion of the North Sea gas fields ?

2.   What negotiations and agreements were made between HM Government and the nationalised gas industry between 1948 and 1986; and between HM Government and the privatised gas industry between 1986 and today regarding the projections of decline in gas production from the UK Continental Shelf, and any compensating strategy, such as the development of unconventional gas resources, such as shale gas ?

3.   Is there any policy or strategy to restore the SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas) production capacity of the UK in the event of a longstanding crisis emerging, for example from a sharp rise in imported Natural Gas costs or geopolitical upheaval ?

4.   Has HM Government any plan to acquire the Intellectual Property rights to SNG production technology, whether from British Gas/Centrica or any other private enterprise, especially for the slagging version of the Lurgi gasifier technology ?

5.   Has HM Government any stated policy intention to launch new research and development into, or pilot demonstrations of, SNG ?

6.   Does HM Government have any clearly-defined policy on the production and use of manufactured gas of any type ? If so, please can I know references for the documents ?

7.   Does HM Government anticipate that manufactured gas production could need to increase in order to support the production of synthetic liquid vehicle fuels; and if so, which technologies are to be considered ?

Thank you for your attention to my request for information.



On Having to Start Somewhere

In the last few weeks I have heard a lot of noble but futile hopes on the subject of carbon dioxide emissions control.

People always seem to want to project too far into the future and lay out their wonder solution – something that is just too advanced enough to be attainable through any of the means we currently have at our disposal. It is impossible to imagine how the gulf can be bridged between the configuration of things today and their chosen future solutions.

Naive civil servants strongly believe in a massive programme of new nuclear power. Head-in-the-clouds climate change consultants and engineers who should know otherwise believe in widespread Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. MBA students believe in carbon pricing, with carbon trading, or a flat carbon tax. Social engineers believe in significant reductions in energy intensity and energy consumer behaviour change, and economists believe in huge cost reductions for all forms of renewable electricity generation.

To make any progress at all, we need to start where we are. Our economic system has strong emissions-dependent components that can easily be projected to fight off contenders. The thing is, you can’t take a whole layer of bricks out of a Jenga stack without severe degradation of its stability. You need to work with the stack as it is, with all the balances and stresses that already exist. It is too hard to attempt to change everything at once, and the glowing ethereal light of the future is just too ghostly to snatch a hold of without a firm grasp on an appropriate practical rather than spiritual guide.

Here’s part of an email exchange in which I strive for pragmatism in the face of what I perceive as a lack of realism.

To: Jo

I read your article with interest. You have focused on energy, whereas I
tend to focus on total resource. CCS does make sense and should be pushed
forward with real drive as existing power stations can be cleaned up with it
and enjoy a much longer life. Establishing CCS is cheaper than building new
nuclear and uses far less resources. Furthermore, CCS should be used on new
gas and biomass plants in the future.

What we are lacking at the moment is any politician with vision in this
space. Through a combination of boiler upgrades, insulation, appliance
upgrades and behaviour change, it is straight forward to halve domestic
energy use. Businesses are starting to make real headway with energy
savings. We can therefore maintain a current total energy demand for the
foreseeable future.

To service this demand, we should continue to eke out every last effective
joule from the current generating stock by adding cleansing kit to the dirty
performers. While this is being done, we can continue to develop renewable
energy and localised systems which can help to reduce the base load
requirement even further.

From an operational perspective, CCS has stagnated over the last 8 years, so
a test plant needs to be put in place as soon as possible.

The biggest issue for me is that, through political meddling and the
unintended consequences of ill-thought out subsidies, the market has been
skewed in such a way that the probability of a black-out next year is very
high indeed.

Green gas is invisible in many people’s thinking, but the latest House of
Lords Report highlighted its potential.

Vested interests are winning hands down in the stand-off with the big

From: Jo

What is the title of the House of Lords report to which you refer ?

Sadly, I am old enough to remember Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
the first time the notion went around the block, so I’d say that
progress has been thin for 30 years rather than 8.

Original proposals for CCS included sequestration at the bottom of the
ocean, which have only recently been ruled out as the study of global
ocean circulation has discovered more complex looping of deep and
shallower waters that originally modelled – the carbon dioxide would
come back up to the surface waters eventually…

The only way, I believe, that CCS can be made to work is by creating a
value stream from the actual carbon dioxide, and I don’t mean Enhanced
Oil Recovery (EOR).

And I also definitely do not mean carbon dioxide emissions pricing,
taxation or credit trading. The forces against an
investment-influencing carbon price are strong, if you analyse the
games going on in the various economic system components. I do not
believe that a strong carbon price can be asserted when major economic
components are locked into carbon – such as the major energy producers
and suppliers, and some parts of industry, and transport.

Also, carbon pricing is designed to be cost-efficient, as markets will
always find the lowest marginal pricing for any externality in fines
or charges – which is essentially what carbon dioxide emissions are.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme was bound to deliver a low carbon
price – that’s exactly what the economists predicted in modelling
carbon pricing.

I cannot see that a carbon price could be imposed that was more than
5% of the base commodity trade price. At those levels, the carbon
price is just an irritation to pass on to end consumers.

The main problem is that charging for emissions does not alter
investment decisions. Just like fines for pollution do not change the
risks for future pollution. I think that we should stop believing in
negative charging and start backing positive investment in the energy

You write “You have focused on energy, whereas I tend to focus on
total resource.” I assume you mean the infrastructure and trading
systems. My understanding leads me to expect that in the current
continuing economic stress, solutions to the energy crisis will indeed
need to re-use existing plant and infrastructure, which is why I
think that Renewable Gas is a viable option for decarbonising total
energy supply – it slots right in to substitute for Natural Gas.

My way to “eke out every last effective joule from the current
generating stock” is to clean up the fuel, rather than battle
thermodynamics and capture the carbon dioxide that comes out the back
end. Although I also recommend carbon recycling to reduce the need for
input feedstock.

I completely agree that energy efficiency – cutting energy demand
through insulation and so on – is essential. But there needs to be a
fundamental change in the way that profits are made in the energy
sector before this will happen in a significant way. Currently it
remains in the best interests of energy production and supply
companies to produce and supply as much energy as they can, as they
have a duty to their shareholders to return a profit through high
sales of their primary products.

“Vested interests” have every right under legally-binding trade
agreements to maximise their profits through the highest possible
sales in a market that is virtually a monopoly. I don’t think this can
be challenged, not even by climate change science. I think the way
forward is to change the commodities upon which the energy sector
thrives. If products from the energy sector include insulation and
other kinds of efficiency, and if the energy sector companies can
continue to make sales of these products, then they can reasonably be
expected to sell less energy. I’m suggesting that energy reduction
services need to have a lease component.

Although Alistair Buchanan formerly of Ofgem is right about the
electricity generation margins slipping really low in the next few
winters, there are STOR contracts that National Grid have been working
on, which should keep the lights on, unless Russia turn off the gas
taps, which is something nobody can do anything much about – not BP,
nor our diplomatic corps, the GECF (the gas OPEC), nor the WTO.

In Confab : Paul Elsner

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…

But Uh-Oh – Those Summer Nights

A normal, everyday Monday morning at Energy Geek Central. Yes, this is a normal conversation for me to take part in on a Monday morning. Energy geekery at breakfast. Perfect.

Nuclear Flower Power

This whole UK Government nuclear power programme plan is ridiculous ! 75 gigawatts (GW) of Generation III nuclear fission reactors ? What are they thinking ? Britain would need to rapidly ramp up its construction capabilities, and that’s not going to happen, even with the help of the Chinese. (And the Americans are not going to take too kindly to the idea of China getting strongly involved with British energy). And then, we’d need to secure almost a quarter of the world’s remaining reserves of uranium, which hasn’t actually been dug up yet. And to cap it all, we’d need to have 10 more geological disposal repositories for the resulting radioactive spent fuel, and we haven’t even managed to negotiate one yet. That is, unless we can burn a good part of that spent fuel in Generation IV nuclear fission reactors – which haven’t even been properly demonstrated yet ! Talk about unconscionable risk !

Baseload Should Be History By Now, But…

Whatever the technological capability for nuclear power plants to “load follow” and reduce their output in response to a chance in electricity demand, Generation III reactors would not be run as anything except “baseload” – constantly on, and constantly producing a constant amount of power – although they might turn them off in summer for maintenance. You see, the cost of a Generation III reactor and generation kit is in the initial build – so their investors are not going to permit them to run them at low load factors – even if they could.

There are risks to running a nuclear power plant at partial load – mostly to do with potential damage to the actual electricity generation equipment. But what are the technology risks that Hinkley Point C gets built, and all that capital is committed, and then it only runs for a couple of years until all that high burn up fuel crumbles and the reactors start leaking plutonium and they have to shut it down permanently ? Who can guarantee it’s a sound bet ?

If they actually work, running Generation III reactors at constant output as “baseload” will also completely mess with the power market. In all of the scenarios, high nuclear, high non-nuclear, or high fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there will always need to be some renewables in the mix. In all probability this will be rapidly deployed, highly technologically advanced solar power photovoltaics (PV). The amount of solar power that will be generated will be high in summer, but since you have a significant change in energy demand between summer and winter, you’re going to have a massive excess of electricity generation in summer if you add nuclear baseload to solar. Relative to the demand for energy, you’re going to get more Renewable Energy excess in summer and under-supply in winter (even though you get more offshore wind in winter), so it’s critical how you mix those two into your scenario.

The UK Government’s maximum 75 GW nuclear scenario comprises 55 GW Generation III and 20 GW Generation IV. They could have said 40 GW Gen III to feed Gen IV – the spent fuel from Gen III is needed to kick off Gen IV. Although, if LFTR took off, if they had enough fluoride materials there could be a Thorium way into Gen IV… but this is all so technical, no MP [ Member of Parliament ] is going to get their head round this before 2050.

The UK Government are saying that 16 GW of nuclear by 2030 should be seen as a first tranche, and that it could double or triple by 2040 – that’s one heck of a deployment rate ! If they think they can get 16 GW by 2030 – then triple that by 10 years later ? It’s not going to happen. And even 30 GW would be horrific. But it’s probably more plausible – if they can get 16 GW by 2030, they can arguably get double that by 2040.

As a rule of thumb, you would need around 10 tonnes of fissionable fuel to kickstart a Gen IV reactor. They’ve got 106 tonnes of Plutonium, plus 3 or 4 tonnes they recently acquired – from France or Germany (I forget which). So they could start 11 GW of Gen IV – possibly the PRISM – the Hitachi thing – sodium-cooled. They’ve been trying them since the Year Dot – these Fast Reactors – the Breeders – Dounreay. People are expressing more confidence in them now – “Pandora’s Promise” hangs around the narrative that the Clinton administration stopped research into Fast Reactors – Oak Ridge couldn’t be commercial. Throwing sodium around a core 80 times hotter than current core heats – you can’t throw water at it easily. You need something that can carry more heat out. It’s a high technological risk. But then get some French notable nuclear person saying Gen IV technologies – “they’re on the way and they can be done”.

Radioactive Waste Disposal Woes

The point being is – if you’re commissioning 30 GW of Gen III in the belief that Gen IV will be developed – then you are setting yourself up to be a hostage to technological fortune. That is a real ethical consideration. Because if you can’t burn the waste fuel from Gen III, you’re left with up to 10 radioactive waste repositories required when you can’t even get one at the moment. The default position is that radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be left at the power stations where they’re created. Typically, nuclear power plants are built on the coast as they need a lot of cooling water. If you are going for 30 GW you will need a load of new sites – possibly somewhere round the South East of England. This is where climate change comes in – rising sea levels, increased storm surge, dissolving, sinking, washed-away beaches, more extreme storms […] The default spent fuel scenario with numerous coastal decommissioned sites with radioactive interim stores which contain nearly half the current legacy radioactive waste […]

Based on the figures from the new Greenpeace report, I calculate that the added radioactive waste and radioactive spent fuel arisings from a programme of 16 GW of nuclear new build would be 244 million Terabequerel (TBq), compared to the legacy level of 87 million TBq.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are due to publish their Radioactive Waste Inventory and their Report on Radioactive Materials not in the Waste Inventory at the end of January 2014. We need to keep a watch out for that, because they may have adapted their anticipated Minimum and Maxmium Derived Inventory.

Politics Is Living In The Past

What you hear from politicians is they’re still talking about “baseload”, as if they’ve just found the Holy Grail of Energy Policy. And failed nuclear power. Then tidal. And barrages. This is all in the past. Stuff they’ve either read – in an article in a magazine at the dentist’s surgery waiting room, and they think, alright I’ll use that in a TV programme I’ve been invited to speak on, like Question Time. I think that perhaps, to change the direction of the argument, we might need to rubbish their contribution. A technological society needs to be talking about gasification, catalysis. If you regard yourselves as educated, and have a technological society – your way of living in the future is not only in manufacturing but also ideas – you need to be talking about this not that : low carbon gas fuels, not nuclear power. Ministers and senior civil servants probably suffer from poor briefing – or no briefing. They are relying on what is literally hearsay – informal discussions, or journalists effectively representing industrial interests. Newspapers are full of rubbish and it circulates, like gyres in the oceans. Just circulates around and around – full of rubbish.

I think part of the problem is that the politicians and chief civil servants and ministers are briefed by the “Old Guard” – very often the ex-nuclear power industry guard. They still believe in big construction projects, with long lead times and massive capital investment, whereas Renewable Electricity is racing ahead, piecemeal, and private investors are desperate to get their money into wind power and solar power because the returns are almost immediate and risk-free.

Together in Electric Dreams

Question : Why are the UK Government ploughing on with plans for so much nuclear power ?

1. They believe that a lot of transport and heat can be made to go electric.
2. They think they can use spent nuclear fuel in new reactors.
3. They think it will be cheaper than everything else.
4. They say it’s vital for UK Energy Security – for emissions reductions, for cost, and for baseload. The big three – always the stated aim of energy policy, and they think nuclear ticks all those three boxes. But it doesn’t.

What they’ll say is, yes, you have to import uranium, but you’ve got a 4 year stock. Any war you’re going to get yourselves involved in you can probably resolve in 4 days, or 4 weeks. If you go for a very high nuclear scenario, you would be taking quite a big share of the global resource of uranium. There’s 2,600 TWh of nuclear being produced globally. And global final energy demand is around 100,000 TWh – so nuclear power currently produces around 2.6% of global energy supply. At current rates of nuclear generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, you’ve got around 80 years of proven reserves and probably a bit more. Let’s say you double nuclear output by 2050 or 2040 – but in the same time you might just have enough uranium – and then find a bit more. But global energy demand rises significantly as well – so nuclear will still only provide around 3% of global energy demand. That’s not a climate solution – it’s just an energy distraction. All this guff about fusion. Well.

Cornering The Market In Undug Uranium

A 75 GW programme would produce at baseload 590 TWh a year – divide by 2,600 – is about 23% of proven global uranium reserves. You’re having to import, regardless of what other countries are doing, you’re trying to corner the market – roughly a quarter. Not even a quarter of the market – a quarter of all known reserves – it’s not all been produced yet. It’s still in the ground. So could you be sure that you could actually run these power stations if you build them ? Without global domination of the New British Empire […]. The security issues alone – defending coastal targets from a tweeb with a desire to blow them up. 50 years down the line they’re full of radioactive spent fuel that won’t have a repository to go to – we don’t want one here – and how much is it going to cost ?

My view is that offshore wind will be a major contributor in a high or 100% Renewable Electricity scenario by 2050 or 2060. Maybe 180 GW, that will also be around 600 TWh a year – comparable to that maximum nuclear programme. DECC’s final energy demand 2050 – several scenarios – final energy demand from 6 scenarios came out as between roughly 1,500 TWh a year and the maximum 2,500 TWh. Broadly speaking, if you’re trying to do that just with Renewable Electricity, you begin to struggle quite honestly, unless you’re doing over 600 TWh of offshore wind, and even then you need a fair amount of heat pump stuff which I’m not sure will come through. The good news is that solar might – because of the cost and technology breakthroughs. That brings with it a problem – because you’re delivering a lot of that energy in summer. The other point – David MacKay would say – in his book his estimate was 150 TWh from solar by 2050, on the grounds that that’s where you south-facing roofs are – you need to use higher efficiency triple junction cells with more than 40% efficiency and this would be too expensive for a rollout which would double or triple that 150 TWh – that would be too costly – because those cells are too costly. But with this new stuff, you might get that. Not only the cost goes down, but the coverage goes down. Not doing solar across swathes of countryside. There have always been two issues with solar power – cost and where it’s being deployed.

Uh-Oh, Summer Days. Uh-Oh, Summer Nights

With the solar-wind headline, summer days and summer nights are an issue.

With the nuclear headline, 2040 – they would have up to 50 GW, and that would need to run at somewhere between 75% and 95% capacity – to protect the investment and electric generation turbines.

It will be interesting to provide some figures – this is how much over-capacity you’re likely to get with this amount of offshore wind. But if you have this amount of nuclear power, you’ll get this amount […]

Energy demand is strongly variable with season. We have to consider not just power, but heat – you need to get that energy out in winter – up to 4 times as much during peak in winter evenings. How are you going to do that ? You need gas – or you need extensive Combined Heat and Power (CHP) (which needs gas). Or you need an unimaginable deployment of domestic heat pumps. Air source heat pumps won’t work at the time you need them most. Ground source heat pumps would require the digging up of Britain – and you can’t do that in most urban settings.

District Heat Fields

The other way to get heat out to everyone in a low carbon world – apart from low carbon gas – is having a field-based ground source heat pump scheme – just dig up a field next to a city – and just put in pipes and boreholes in a field. You’re not disturbing anybody. You could even grow crops on it next season. Low cost and large scale – but would need a District Heating (DH) network. There are one or two heat pump schemes around the world. Not sure if they are used for cooling in summer or heat extraction in the winter. The other thing is hot water underground. Put in an extra pipe in the normal channels to domestic dwellings. Any excess heat from power generation or electrolysis or whatever is put down this loop and heats the sub-ground. Because heat travels about 1 metre a month in soil, that heat should be retained for winter. A ground source heat sink. Geothermal energy could come through – they’re doing a scheme in Manchester. If there’s a nearby heat district network – it makes it easier. Just want to tee it into the nearest DH system. The urban heat demand is 150 TWh a year. You might be able to put DH out to suburban areas as well. There are 9 million gas-connected suburban homes – another about 150 TWh there as well – or a bit more maybe. Might get to dispose of 300 TWh in heat through DH. The Green Deal insulation gains might not be what is claimed – and condensing gas boiler efficiencies are not that great – which feeds into the argument that in terms of energy efficiency, you not only want to do insulation, but also DH – or low carbon gas. Which is the most cost-effective ? Could argue reasonable energy efficiency measures are cheapest – but DH might be a better bet. That involves a lot of digging.

Gas Is The Logical Answer

But everything’s already laid for gas. (…but from the greatest efficiency first perspective, if you’re not doing DH, you’re not using a lot of Renewable Heat you could otherwise use […] )

The best package would be the use of low carbon gases and sufficient DH to use Renewable Heat where it is available – such as desalination, electrolysis or other energy plant. It depends where the electrolysis is being done.

The Age of Your Carbon

It also depends on which carbon atoms you’re using. If you are recycling carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels into Renewable Gas, that’s OK. But you can’t easily recapture carbon emissions from the built environment (although you could effectively do that with heat storage). You can’t do carbon capture from transport either. So your low carbon gas has to come from biogenic molecules. Your Renewable Gas has to be synthesised using biogenic carbon molecules rather than fossil ones.

[…] I’m using the phrase “Young Carbon”. Young Carbon doesn’t have to be from plants – biological things that grow.

Well, there’s Direct Air Capture (DAC). It’s simple. David Sevier, London-based, is working on this. He’s using heat to capture carbon dioxide. You could do it from exhaust in a chimney or a gasification process – or force a load of air through a space. He would use heat and cooling to create an updraft. It would enable the “beyond capture” problem to be circumvented. Cost is non-competitive. Can be done technically. Using reject heat from power stations for the energy to do it. People don’t realise you can use a lot of heat to capture carbon, not electricity.

Young Carbon from Seawater

If you’re playing around with large amounts of seawater anyway – that is, for desalination for irrigation, why not also do Renewable Hydrogen, and pluck the Carbon Dioxide out of there too to react with the Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane ? I’m talking about very large amounts of seawater. Not “Seawater Greenhouses” – condensation designs mainly for growing exotic food. If you want large amounts of desalinated water – and you’re using Concentrated Solar Power – for irrigating deserts – you would want to grow things like cacti for biological carbon.

Say you had 40 GW of wind power on Dogger Bank, spinning at 40% load factor a year. You’ve also got electrolysers there. Any time you’re not powering the grid, you’re making gas – so capturing carbon dioxide from seawater, splitting water for hydrogen, making methane gas. Wouldn’t you want to use flash desalination first to get cleaner water for electrolysis ? Straight seawater electrolysis is also being done.

It depends on the relative quantities of gas concentrated in the seawater. If you’ve got oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that would be nice. You might get loads of oxygen and hydrogen, and only poor quantities of carbon dioxide ?

But if you could get hydrogen production going from spare wind power. And even if you had to pipe the carbon dioxide from conventional thermal power plants, you’re starting to look at a sea-based solution for gas production. Using seawater, though, chlorine is the problem […]

Look at the relative density of molecules – that sort of calculation that will show if this is going to fly. Carbon dioxide is a very fixed, stable molecule – it’s at about the bottom of the energy potential well – you have to get that reaction energy from somewhere.

How Much Spare Power Will There Be ?

If you’ve got an offshore wind and solar system. At night, obviously, the solar’s not working (unless new cells are built that can run on infrared night-time Earthshine). But you could still have 100 GWh of wind power at night not used for the power grid. The anticipated new nuclear 40 GW nuclear by 2030 will produce about 140 GWh – this would just complicate problems – adding baseload nuclear to a renewables-inclusive scenario. 40 GW is arguably a reasonable deployment of wind power by 2030 – low if anything.

You get less wind in a nuclear-inclusive scenario, but the upshot is you’ve definitely got a lot of power to deal with on a summer night with nuclear power. You do have with Renewable Electricity as well, but it varies more. Whichever route we take we’re likely to end up with excess electricity generation on summer nights.

In a 70 GW wind power deployment (50 GW offshore, 20 GW onshore – 160 TWh a year), you might have something like 50 to 100 GWh per night of excess (might get up to 150 GWh to store on a windy night). But if you have a 16 GW nuclear deployment by 2030 (125 TWh a year), you are definitely going to have 140 GWh of excess per night (that’s 16 GW for 10 hours less a bit). Night time by the way is roughly between 9pm and 7am between peak demands.

We could be making a lot of Renewable Gas !

Can you build enough Renewable Gas or whatever to soak up this excess nuclear or wind power ?

The energy mix is likely to be in reality somewhere in between these two extremes of high nuclear or high wind.

But if you develop a lot of solar – so that it knocks out nuclear power – it will be the summer day excess that’s most significant. And that’s what Germany is experiencing now.

Choices, choices, choices

There is a big choice in fossil fuels which isn’t really talked about very often – whether the oil and gas industry should go for unconventional fossil fuels, or attempt to make use of the remaining conventional resources that have a lower quality. The unconventionals narrative – shale gas, coalbed methane, methane hydrates, deepwater gas, Arctic oil and gas, heavy oil, is running out of steam as it becomes clear that some of these choices are expensive, and environmentally damaging (besides their climate change impact). So the option will be making use of gas with high acid gas composition. And the technological solutions for this will be the same as needed to start major production of Renewable Gas.

Capacity Payments

But you still need to answer the balancing question. If you have a high nuclear power scenario, you need maybe 50 TWh a year of gas-fired power generation. If high Renewable Electricity, you will need something like 100 TWh of gas, so you need Carbon Capture and Storage – or low carbon gas.

Even then, the gas power plants could be running only 30% of the year, and so you will need capacity payments to make sure new flexible plants get built and stay available for use.

If you have a high nuclear scenario, coupled with gas, you can meet the carbon budget – but it will squeeze out Renewable Electricity. If high in renewables, you need Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Recycling into Renewable Gas, but this would rule out nuclear power. It depends which sector joins up with which.

Carbon Capture, Carbon Budget

Can the Drax power plant – with maybe one pipeline 24 inches in diameter, carrying away 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – can it meet the UK’s Carbon Budget target ?

Mind the Gap : BBC Costing the Earth

I listened to an interesting mix of myth, mystery and magic on BBC Radio 4.

Myths included the notion that long-term, nuclear power would be cheap; that “alternative” energy technologies are expensive (well, nuclear power is, but true renewables are most certainly not); and the idea that burning biomass to create heat to create steam to turn turbines to generate electricity is an acceptably efficient use of biomass (it is not).

Biofuelwatch are hosting a public meeting on this very subject :-
“A Burning Issue – biomass and its impacts on forests and communities”
Tuesday, 29th October 2013, 7-9pm
Lumen Centre, London (close to St Pancras train station)
Lumen Centre, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RS

Interesting hints in the interviews I thought pointed to the idea that maybe, just maybe, some electricity generation capacity should be wholly owned by the Government – since the country is paying for it one way or another. A socialist model for gas-fired generation capacity that’s used as backup to wind and solar power ? Now there’s an interesting idea…


“Mind the Gap”
Channel: BBC Radio 4
Series: Costing the Earth
Presenter: Tom Heap
First broadcast: Tuesday 15th October 2013

Programme Notes :

“Our energy needs are growing as our energy supply dwindles.
Renewables have not come online quickly enough and we are increasingly
reliant on expensive imported gas or cheap but dirty coal. Last year
the UK burnt 50% more coal than in previous years but this helped
reverse years of steadily declining carbon dioxide emissions. By 2015
6 coal fired power stations will close and the cost of burning coal
will increase hugely due to the introduction of the carbon price
floor. Shale gas and biomass have been suggested as quick and easy
solutions but are they really sustainable, or cheap?”

“Carbon Capture and Storage could make coal or gas cleaner and a new
study suggests that with CCS bio energy could even decrease global
warming. Yet CCS has stalled in the UK and the rest of Europe and the
debate about the green credentials of biomass is intensifying. So what
is really the best answer to Britain’s energy needs? Tom Heap

00:44 – 00:48
[ Channel anchor ]
Britain’s energy needs are top of the agenda in “Costing the Earth”…

[ Channel anchor ]
…this week on “Costing the Earth”, Tom Heap is asking if our
ambitions to go green are being lost to the more immediate fear of
blackouts and brownouts.

[ Music : Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood 3 (Power Out)” ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Energy is suddenly big news – central to politics and the economy. The
countdown has started towards the imminent shutdown of many coal-fired
power stations, but the timetable to build their replacements has
barely begun.

It’ll cost a lot, we’ll have to pay, and the politicians are reluctant
to lay out the bill. But both the official regulator and industry are
warning that a crunch is coming.

So in this week’s “Costing the Earth”, we ask if the goal of clean,
green and affordable energy is being lost to a much darker reality.

[ Historical recordings ]

“The lights have started going out in the West Country : Bristol,
Exeter and Plymouth have all had their first power cuts this

“One of the biggest effects of the cuts was on traffic, because with
the traffic lights out of commission, major jams have built up,
particularly in the town centres. One of the oddest sights I saw is a
couple of ladies coming out of a hairdressers with towels around their
heads because the dryers weren’t working.”

“Television closes down at 10.30 [ pm ], and although the cinemas are
carrying on more or less normally, some London theatres have had to

“The various [ gas ] boards on both sides of the Pennines admit to
being taken by surprise with today’s cold spell which brought about
the cuts.”

“And now the major scandal sweeping the front pages of the papers this
morning, the advertisement by the South Eastern Gas Board recommending
that to save fuel, couples should share their bath.”

[ Caller ]
“I shall write to my local gas board and say don’t do it in
Birmingham. It might be alright for the trendy South, but we don’t
want it in Birmingham.”

[ Tom Heap ]

That was 1974.

Some things have changed today – maybe a more liberal attitude to
sharing the tub. But some things remain the same – an absence of
coal-fired electricity – threatening a blackout.

Back then it was strikes by miners. Now it’s old age of the power
plants, combined with an EU Directive obliging them to cut their
sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 2016, or close.

Some coal burners are avoiding the switch off by substituting wood;
and mothballed gas stations are also on standby.

But Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of
Oxford, now believes power cuts are likely.

[ Dieter Helm ]

Well, if we take the numbers produced by the key responsible bodies,
they predict that there’s a chance that by the winter of 2-15 [sic,
meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], the gap between the demand for
electricity and the supply could be as low as 2%.

And it turns out that those forecasts are based on extremely
optimistic assumptions about how far demand will fall in that period
(that the “Green Deal” will work, and so on) and that we won’t have
much economic growth.

So basically we are on course for a very serious energy crunch by the
winter of 2-15 [sic, meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], almost
regardless of what happens now, because nobody can build any power
stations between now and then.

It’s sort of one of those slow motion car crashes – you see the whole
symptoms of it, and people have been messing around reforming markets
and so on, without addressing what’s immediately in front of them.

[ Tom Heap ]

And that’s where you think we are now ?

[ Dieter Helm ]

I think there’s every risk of doing so.

Fortunately, the [ General ] Election is a year and a half away, and
there’s many opportunities for all the political parties to get real
about two things : get real about the energy crunch in 2-15 [sic,
meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016] and how they’re going to handle
it; and get real about creating the incentives to decarbonise our
electricity system, and deal with the serious environmental and
security and competitive issues which our electricity system faces.

And this is a massive investment requirement [ in ] electricity : all
those old stations retiring [ originally built ] back from the 1970s –
they’re all going to be gone.

Most of the nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lives.

We need a really big investment programme. And if you really want an
investment programme, you have to sit down and work out how you’re
going to incentivise people to do that building.

[ Tom Heap ]

If we want a new energy infrastructure based on renewables and
carbon-free alternatives, then now is the time to put those incentives
on the table.

The problem is that no-one seems to want to make the necessary
investment, least of all the “Big Six” energy companies, who are
already under pressure about high bills.

[ “Big Six” are : British Gas / Centrica, EdF Energy (Electricite
de France), E.On UK, RWE npower, Scottish Power and SSE ]

Sam Peacock of the energy company SSE [ Scottish and Southern Energy ]
gives the commercial proof of Dieter’s prediction.

If energy generators can’t make money out of generating energy,
they’ll be reluctant to do it.

[ Sam Peacock ]

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has looked at this in a lot of detail,
and said that around 2015, 2016, things start to get tighter. The
reason for this is European Directives, [ is [ a ] ] closing down some
of the old coal plants. And also the current poor economics around [
or surround [ -ing ] ] both existing plant and potential new plant.

So, at the moment it’s very, very difficult to make money out of a gas
plant, or invest in a new one. So this leads to there being, you know,
something of a crunch point around 2015, 2016, and Ofgem’s analysis
looks pretty sensible to us.

[ Tom Heap ]

And Sam Peacock lays the blame for this crisis firmly at the Government’s door.

[ Sam Peacock ]

The trilemma, as they call it – of decarbonisation, security of supply
and affordability – is being stretched, because the Government’s
moving us more towards cleaner technologies, which…which are more

However, if you were to take the costs of, you know, the extra costs
of developing these technologies off government [ sic, meaning
customer ] bills and into general taxation, you could knock about over
£100 off customer bills today, it’ll be bigger in the future, and you
can still get that much-needed investment going.

So, we think you can square the circle, but it’s going to take a
little bit of policy movement [ and ] it’s going to take shifting some
of those costs off customers and actually back where the policymakers
should be controlling them.

[ KLAXON ! Does he mean controlled energy prices ? That sounds a bit
centrally managed economy to me… ]

[ Tom Heap ]

No surprise that a power company would want to shift the pain of
rising energy costs from their bills to the tax bill.

But neither the Government nor the Opposition are actually proposing this.

Who pays the premium for expensve new energy sources is becoming like
a game of pass the toxic parcel.

[ Reference : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_potato_%28game%29 ]

I asked the [ UK Government Department of ] Energy and Climate Change
Secretary, Ed Davey, how much new money is required between now and


[ Ed Davey ]

About £110 billion – er, that’s critical to replace a lot of the coal
power stations that are closing, the nuclear power stations that are [
at the ] end of their lives, and replace a lot of the network which
has come to the end of its life, too.

So it’s a huge, massive investment task.

[ Tom Heap ]

So in the end we’re going to have to foot the bill for the £110 billion ?

[ Ed Davey ]

Yeah. Of course. That’s what happens now. People, in their bills that
they pay now, are paying for the network costs of investments made
several years, even several decades ago.

[ Yes – we’re still paying through our national nose to dispose of
radioactive waste and decommission old nuclear reactors. The liability
of it all weighs heavily on the country’s neck… ]

And there’s no escaping that – we’ve got to keep the lights on – we’ve
got to keep the country powered.

You have to look at both sides of the equation. If we’re helping
people make their homes more inefficient [ sic, meaning energy
efficient ], their product appliances more efficient, we’re doing
everything we possibly can to try to help the bills be kept down,

while we’re having to make these big investments to keep the lights
on, and to make sure that we don’t cook the planet, as you say.

[ Tom Heap ]

You mention the lights going out. There are predictions that we’re
headed towards just 2% of spare capacity in the system in a few years’

Are you worried about the dangers of, I don’t know, maybe not lights
going out for some people, but perhaps big energy users being told
when and when [ sic, meaning where ] they can’t use power in the
winter ?

[ Ed Davey ]

Well, there’s no doubt that as the coal power stations come offline,
and the nuclear power plants, er, close, we’re going to have make sure
that new power plants are coming on to replace them.

And if we don’t, there will be a problem with energy security.

Now we’ve been working very hard over a long time now to make sure we
attract that investment. We’ve been working with Ofgem, the regulator;
with National Grid, and we’re…

[ Tom Heap ]

…Being [ or it’s being ] tough. I don’t see companies racing to come
and fill in the gap here and those coal power plants are going off

[ Ed Davey ]

…we’re actually having record levels of energy investment in the country.

The problem was for 13 years under the last Government
[ same old, same old Coalition argument ] we saw low levels of investment
in energy, and we’re having to race to catch up, but fortunately we’re
winning that race. And we’re seeing, you know, billions of pounds
invested but we’ve still got to do more. We’re not there. I’m not
pretending we’re there yet. [ Are we there, yet ? ] But we do have the
policies in place.

So, Ofgem is currently consulting on a set of proposals which will
enable it to have reserve power to switch on at the peak if it’s

We’re, we’ve, bringing forward proposals in the Energy Bill for what’s
called a Capacity Market, so we can auction to get that extra capacity
we need.

So we’ve got the policies in place.

[ Tom Heap ]

Some of Ed Davey’s policies, not least the LibDem [ Liberal Democrat
Party ] U-turn on nuclear, have been guided by DECC [ Department of
Energy and Climate Change ] Chief Scientist David MacKay, author of
the influential book “Renewable Energy without the Hot Air” [ sic,
actually “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” ].

Does he think the lights will dim in the second half of this decade ?

[ David MacKay ]

I don’t think there’s going to be any problem maintaining the capacity
that we need. We just need to make clear where Electricity Market
Reform [ EMR, part of the Energy Bill ] is going, and the way in which
we will be maintaining capacity.

[ Tom Heap ]

But I don’t quite understand that, because it seems to me, you know,
some of those big coal-fired power stations are going to be going off.
What’s going to be coming in their place ?

[ David MacKay ]

Well, the biggest number of power stations that’s been built in the
last few years are gas power stations, and we just need a few more gas
power stations like that, to replace the coal
, and hopefully some
nuclear power stations will be coming on the bars, as well as the wind
farms that are being built at the moment.

[ Tom Heap ]

And you’re happy with that increase in gas-fired power stations, are
you ? I mean, you do care deeply, personally, about reducing our
greenhouse gases, and yet you’re saying we’re going to have to build
more gas-fired power stations.

[ David MacKay ]

I do. Even in many of the pathways that reach the 2050 target, there’s
still a role for gas in the long-term, because some power sources like
wind and solar power are intermittent, so if you want to be keeping
the lights on in 2050 when there’s no wind and there’s no sun, you’re
going to need some gas power stations there
. Maybe not operating so
much of the time as they do today, but there’ll still be a role in
keeping the lights on.

[ KLAXON ! If gas plants are used only for peak periods or for backup to
renewables, then the carbon emissions will be much less than if they are
running all the time. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Many energy experts though doubt that enough new wind power or nuclear
capacity could be built fast enough to affect the sums in a big way by

But that isn’t the only critical date looming over our energy system.
Even more challenging, though more distant, is the legally binding
objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.

David MacKay wants that certainty to provide the foundation for energy
decisions, and he showed me the effect of different choices with the
“Ultimate Future Energy App”. I was in his office, but anyone can try it online.

[ David MacKay ]

It’s a 2050 calculator. It computes energy demand and supply in
response to your choices, and it computes multiple consequences of
your choices. It computes carbon consequences. It also computes for
you estimates of air quality, consequences of different choices;
security of supply, consequences; and the costs of your choices.

So with this 2050 calculator, it’s an open source tool, and anyone can
go on the web and use the levers to imagine different futures in 2050
of how much action we’ve taken in different demand sectors and in
different supply sectors.

The calculator has many visualisations of the pathway that you’re choosing
and helps people understand all the trade-offs… There’s no silver
bullet for any of this. If I dial up a pathway someone made earlier,
we can visualise the implications in terms of the area occupied for
the onshore wind farms, and the area in the sea for the offshore wind
farms, and the length of the wave farms that you’ve built, and the
land area required for energy crops.

And many organisations have used this tool and some of them have given
us their preferred pathway. So you can see here the Friends of the
Earth have got their chosen pathway, the Campaign to Protect Rural
England, and various engineers like National Grid and Atkins have got
their pathways.

So you can see alternative ways of achieving our targets, of keeping
the lights on and taking climate change action. All of those pathways
all meet the 2050 target, but they do so with different mixes.

[ Tom Heap ]

And your view of this is you sort of can’t escape from the scientific
logic and rigour of it. You might wish things were different or you
could do it differently, but you’re sort of saying “Look, it’s either
one thing or the other”. That’s the point of this.

[ David MacKay ]

That’s true. You can’t be anti-everything. You can’t be anti-wind and
anti-nuclear and anti-home insulation. You won’t end up with a plan
that adds up.

[ KLAXON ! But you can be rationally against one or two things, like
expensive new nuclear power, and carbon and particulate emissions-heavy
biomass for the generation of electricity. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

But isn’t that exactly kind of the problem that we’ve had, without
pointing political fingers, that people rather have been
anti-everything, and that’s why we’re sort of not producing enough new
energy sources ?

[ David MacKay ]

Yeah. The majority of the British public I think are in favour of many
of these sources, but there are strong minorities who are vocally
opposed to every one of the major levers in this calculator. So one
aspiration I have for this tool is it may help those people come to a
position where they have a view that’s actually consistent with the
goal of keeping the lights on.

[ Tom Heap ]

Professor MacKay’s calculator also computes pounds and pence,
suggesting that both high and low carbon electricity work out pricey
in the end.

[ David MacKay ]

The total costs of all the pathways are pretty much the same.
“Business as Usual” is cheaper in the early years, and then pays more,
because on the “Business as Usual”, you carry on using fossil fuels,
and the prices of those fossil fuels are probably going to go up.

All of the pathways that take climate change action have a similar
total cost, but they pay more in the early years, ’cause you have to
pay for things like building insulation and power stations, like
nuclear power stations, or wind power, which cost up-front, but then
they’re very cheap to run in the future.

[ KLAXON ! Will the cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors and the
costs of the waste disposal be cheap ? I think not… ]

So the totals over the 40 or 50 year period here, are much the same for these.

[ Tom Heap ]

The cheapest immediate option of all is to keep shovelling the coal.
And last year coal overtook gas to be our biggest electricity
generation source, pushing up overall carbon emissions along the way
by 4.5%

[ KLAXON ! This is not very good for energy security – look where the
coal comes from… ]

As we heard earlier, most coal-fired power stations are scheduled for
termination, but some have won a reprieve, and trees are their
unlikely saviour.

Burning plenty of wood chip [ actually, Tom, it’s not wood “chip”, it’s
wood “pellets” – which often have other things mixed in with the wood,
like coal… ] allows coal furnaces to cut the sulphur dioxide and nitrous
oxide belching from their chimneys to below the level that requires their
closure under European law.

But some enthusiasts see wood being good for even more.


[ Outside ]

It’s one of those Autumn days that promises to be warm, but currently
is rather moist. I’m in a field surrounded by those dew-laden cobwebs
you get at this time of year.

But in the middle of this field is a plantation of willow. And I’m at
Rothamsted Research with Angela Karp who’s one of the directors here.

Angela, tell me about this willow I’m standing in front of here. I
mean, it’s about ten foot high or so, but what are you seeing ?

[ Angela Karp ]

Well, I’m seeing one of our better varieties that’s on display here.
We have a demonstration trial of about ten different varieties. This
is a good one, because it produces a lot of biomass, quite easily,
without a lot of additional fertilisers or anything. And as you can
see it’s got lovely straight stems. It’s got many stems, and at the
end of three years, we would harvest all those stems to get the
biomass from it. It’s nice and straight – it’s a lovely-looking, it’s
got no disease, no insects on it, very nice, clean willow.

[ Tom Heap ]

So, what you’ve been working on here as I understand it is trying to
create is the perfect willow – the most fuel for the least input – and
the easiest to harvest.

[ Angela Karp ]

That’s absolutely correct, because the whole reason for growing these
crops is to get the carbon from the atmosphere into the wood, and to
use that wood as a replacement for fossil fuels. Without putting a lot
of inputs in, because as soon as you add fertilisers you’re using
energy and carbon to make them, and that kind of defeats the whole
purpose of doing this.

[ KLAXON ! You don’t need to use fossil fuel energy or petrochemicals or
anything with carbon emissions to make fertiliser ! … Hang on, these
are GM trees, right ? So they will need inputs… ]

[ Tom Heap ]

And how much better do you think your new super-variety is, than say,
what was around, you know, 10 or 15 years ago. ‘Cause willow as an
idea for burning has been around for a bit. How much of an improvement
is this one here ?

[ Angela Karp ]

Quite a bit. So, these are actually are some of the, if you like,
middle-term varieties. So we started off yielding about 8 oven-dry
tonnes per hectare, and now we’ve almost doubled that.

[ Tom Heap ]

How big a place do you think biomass can have in the UK’s energy
picture in the future ?

[ Angela Karp ]

I think that it could contribute between 10% and 15% of our energy. If
we were to cultivate willows on 1 million hectares, we would probably
provide about 3% to 4% of energy in terms of electricity, and I think
that’s kind of a baseline figure. We could cultivate them on up to 3
million hectares, so you can multiply things up, and we could use them
in a much more energy-efficient way.

[ KLAXON ! Is that 4% of total energy or 4% of total electricity ?
Confused. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Do we really have 3 million hectares going a-begging for planting willow in ?

[ Angela Karp ]

Actually, surprisingly we do. So, people have this kind of myth
there’s not enough land, but just look around you and you will find
there’s lots of land that’s not used for cultivating food crops.

We don’t see them taking over the whole country. We see them being
grown synergistically with food crops.

[ KLAXON ! This is a bit different than the statement made in 2009. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

But I’d just like to dig down a little bit more into the carbon cycle
of the combustion of these things, because that’s been the recent
criticism of burning a lot of biomass, is that you put an early spike
in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, if you start burning a lot
of biomass, because this [ sounds of rustling ], this plant is going
to be turned into, well, partly, CO2 in the atmosphere.

[ Angela Karp ]

Yes, I think that’s probably a simple and not totally correct way of
looking at it. ‘Cause a lot depends on the actual conversion process
you are using.

So some conversion processes are much more efficient at taking
everything and converting it into what you want.

Heat for example is in excess of 80%, 90% conversion efficiency.

Electricity is a little bit more of the problem. And there, what
they’re looking at is capturing some of the carbon that you lose, and
converting that back in, in carbon storage processes, and that’s why
there’s a lot of talk now about carbon storage from these power

That I think is the future. It’s a question of connecting up all parts
of the process, and making sure that’s nothing wasted.


[ Tom Heap ]

So, is wood a desirable greener fuel ?

Not according to Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch, who objects to the
current plans for large-scale wood burning, its use to prop up coal,
and even its low carbon claims.

[ Almuth Ernsting ]

The currently-announced industry plans, and by that I mean existing
power stations, but far more so, power stations which are in the
planning process [ and ] many of which have already been consented –
those [ biomass ] power stations, would, if they all go ahead,
require to burn around 82 million tonnes of biomass, primarily wood,
every year. Now by comparison, the UK in total only produces around
10 million tonnes, so one eighth of that amount, in wood, for all
industries and purposes, every year.

We are looking on the one hand at a significant number of proposed,
and in some cases, under-construction or operating new-build biomass
power stations, but the largest single investment so far going into
the conversion of coal power station units to biomass, the largest and
most advanced one of which at the moment is Drax, who are, have
started to move towards converting half their capacity to burning wood

[ Tom Heap ]

Drax is that huge former, or still currently, coal-fired power station
in Yorkshire, isn’t it ?

[ Almuth Ernsting ]

Right, and they still want to keep burning coal as well. I mean, their
long-term vision, as they’ve announced, would be for 50:50 coal and

[ Tom Heap ]

What do you think about that potential growth ?

[ Almuth Ernsting ]

Well, we’re seriously concerned. We believe it’s seriously bad news
for climate change, it’s seriously bad news for forests, and it’s
really bad news for communities, especially in the Global South, who
are at risk of losing their land for further expansion of monoculture
tree plantations, to in future supply new power stations in the UK.

A really large amount, increasingly so, of the wood being burned,
comes from slow-growing, whole trees that are cut down for that
purpose, especially at the moment in temperate forests in North
America. Now those trees will take many, many decades to grow back
and potentially re-absorb that carbon dioxide, that’s if they’re
allowed and able to ever grow back.

[ Tom Heap ]

There’s another technology desperate for investment, which is critical
to avoiding power failure, whilst still hitting our mid-century carbon
reduction goals – CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage, the ability to
take the greenhouse gases from the chimney and bury them underground.

It’s especially useful for biomass and coal, with their relatively
high carbon emissions, but would also help gas be greener.

The Chancellor has approved 30 new gas-fired power stations, so long
as they are CCS-ready [ sic, should be “capture ready”, or
“carbon capture ready” ].

Jon Gibbons is the boss of the UK CCS Research Centre, based in an
industrial estate in Sheffield.

[ Noise of processing plant ]

Jon’s just brought me up a sort of 3D maze of galvanized steel and
shiny metal pipes to the top of a tower that must be 20 or so metres

Jon, what is this ?

[ Jon Gibbons ]

OK, so this is our capture unit, to take the CO2 out of the combustion
products from gas or coal. In the building behind us, in the test rigs
we’ve got, the gas turbine or the combustor rig, we’re burning coal or
gas, or oil, but mainly coal or gas.

We’re taking the combustion products through the green pipe over
there, bringing it into the bottom of the unit, and then you can see
these big tall columns we’ve got, about 18 inches diameter, half a
metre diameter, coming all the way up from the ground up to the level
we’re at.

It goes into one of those, it gets washed clean with water, and it
goes into this unit over here, and there it meets an amine solvent, a
chemical that will react reversibly with CO2, coming in the opposite
direction, over packing. So, it’s like sort of pebbles, if you can
imagine it, there’s a lot of surface area. The gas flows up, the
liquid flows down, and it picks up the CO2, just mainly the CO2.

[ Tom Heap ]

And that amine, that chemical as you call it, is stripping the CO2 out
of that exhaust gas. This will link to a storage facility.

What would then happen to the CO2 ?

[ Jon Gibbons ]

What would then happen is that the CO2 would be compressed up to
somewhere in excess of about 100 atmospheres. And it would turn from
being a gas into something that looks like a liquid, like water, about
the same density as water. And then it would be taken offshore in the
UK, probably tens or hundreds of kilometres offshore, and it would go
deep, deep down, over a kilometre down into the ground, and basically
get squeezed into stuff that looks like solid rock. If you go and look
at a sandstone building – looks solid, but actually, maybe a third of
it is little holes. And underground, where you’ve got cubic kilometres
of space, those little holes add up to an awful lot of free space. And
the CO2 gets squeezed into those, over time, and it spreads out, and
it just basically sits there forever, dissolves in the water, reacts
with the rocks, and will stay there for millions of years.

[ Tom Heap ]

Back in his office, I asked Jon why CCS seemed to be stuck in the lab.

[ Jon Gibbons ]

We’re doing enough I think on the research side, but what we really
need to do, is to do work on a full-scale deployment. Because you
can’t work on research in a vacuum. You need to get feedback –
learning by doing – from actual real projects.

And a lot of the problems we’ve got on delivering CCS, are to do with
how you handle the regulation for injecting CO2, and again, you can
only do that in real life.

So what we need to do is to see the commercialisation projects that
are being run by the Department of Energy and Climate Change actually
going through to real projects that can be delivered.

[ Tom Heap ]

Hmm. When I talk to engineers, they’re always very passionate and
actually quite optimistic about Carbon Capture and Storage. And when
I talk to people in industry, or indeed read the headlines, not least
a recent cancellation in Norway, it always seems like a very bleak picture.

[ Jon Gibbons ]

I think people are recognising that it’s getting quite hard to get
money for low carbon technologies.

So – recent presentation we had at one of our centre meetings, was
actually a professor from the United States, Howard Herzog. And he
said “You think you’re seeing a crisis in Carbon Capture and Storage.
But what you’re actually seeing is a crisis in climate change

[ KLAXON ! Priming us for a scaling back of commitment to the
Climate Change Act ? I do hope not. ]

Now, Carbon Capture and Storage, you do for no other purpose than
cutting CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, and it does that extremely
effectively. It’s an essential technology for cutting emissions. But
until you’ve got a global process that says – actually we’re going to
get on top of this problem; we’re going to cut emissions – get them to
safe level before we actually see people dying in large numbers from
climate change effects – ’cause, certainly, if people start dying,
then we will see a response – but ideally, you’d like to do it before
then. But until you get that going, then actually persuading people to
spend money for no other benefit than sorting out the climate is

There’s just no point, you know, no country can go it alone, so you
have to get accommodation. And there, we’re going through various
processes to debate that. Maybe people will come to an accommodation.
Maybe the USA and China will agree to tackle climate change. Maybe
they won’t.

What I am fairly confident is that you won’t see huge, you know,
really big cuts in CO2 emissions without that global agreement. But
I’m also confident that you won’t see big cuts in CO2 emissions
without CCS deployment.

And my guess is there’s about a 50:50 chance that we do CCS before we
need to, and about a 50:50 chance we do it after we have to. But I’m
pretty damn certain we’re going to do it.

[ Tom Heap ]

But we can’t wait for a global agreement that’s already been decades
in the making, with still no end in sight.

We need decisions now to provide more power with less pollution.

[ Music lyrics : “What’s the plan ? What’s the plan ?” ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford
believes we can only deliver our plentiful green energy future if we
abandon our attitude of buy-now pay-later.

[ KLAXON ! Does he mean a kind of hire purchase energy economy ?
I mean, we’re still paying for nuclear electricity from decades ago,
in our bills, and through our taxes to the Department of Energy and
Climate Change. ]

[ Dieter Helm ]

There’s a short-term requirement and a long-term requirement. The
short-term requirement is that we’re now in a real pickle. We face
this energy crunch. We’ve got to try to make the best of what we’ve
got. And I think it’s really like, you know, trying to get the
Spitfires back up again during the Battle of Britain. You know, you
patch and mend. You need somebody in command. You need someone
in control. And you do the best with what you’ve got.

In that context, we then have to really stand back and say, “And this
is what we have to do to get a serious, long-term, continuous, stable
investment environment, going forward.” In which, you know, we pay the
costs, but of course, not any monopoly profits, not any excess
profits, but we have a world in which the price of electricity is
related to the cost.”

[ KLAXON ! Is Dieter Helm proposing state ownership of energy plant ? ]


[ Programme anchor ]

“Costing the Earth” was presented by Tom Heap, and made in Bristol by
Helen Lennard.

[ Next broadcast : 16th October 2013, 21:00, BBC Radio 4 ]

Hadeo- and Archaeo-Geobiology

What can deep time teach us ?

Whilst doing a little background research into biological routes to hydrogen production, I came across a scientific journal paper, I can’t recall which, that suggested that the geological evidence indicates that Earth’s second atmosphere not only had a high concentration of methane, but also high levels of hydrogen gas.

Previously, my understanding was that the development of microbiological life included a good number of methanogens (micro-life that produces methane as a waste product) and methanotrophs (those that “trough” on methane), but that hydrogenogen (“respiring” hydrogen gas) and hydrogenotroph (metabolising hydrogen) species were a minority, and that this was reflected in modern-day decomposition, such as the cultures used in biogas plants for anaerobic digestion.

If there were high densities of hydrogen cycle lifeforms in the early Earth, maybe there are remnants, descendants of this branch of the tree of life, optimal at producing hydrogen gas as a by-product, which could be employed for biohydrogen production, but which haven’t yet been scoped.

After all, it has only been very recently that psychrophiles have been added to the range of microorganisms that have been found useful in biogas production – cold-loving, permafrost-living bugs to complement the thermophile and mesophile species.

Since hydrogen and methane are both ideal gas fuels, for a variety of reasons, including gas storage, combustion profiles and simple chemistry, I decided I needed to learn a little more.

I have now read a plethora of new theories and several books about the formation of the Earth (and the Moon) in the Hadean Eon, the development of Earth’s atmosphere, the development of life in the Archaean Eon, and the evolution of life caused by climate change, and these developments in living beings causing climate change in their turn.

Most of this knowledge is mediated to us by geology, and geobiology. But right at its heart is catalytic chemistry, once again. Here’s Robert Hazen (Robert M. Hazen) from page 138 of “The Story of Earth” :-

“Amino acids, sugars, and the components of DNA and RNA adsorb onto all of Earth’s most common rock-forming minerals […] We concluded that wherever the prebiotic ocean contacted minerals, highly concentrated arrangements of life’s molecules are likely to have emerged from the formless broth […] Many other researchers have also settled on such a conclusion – indeed, more than a few prominent biologists have also gravitated to minerals, because origins-of-life scenarios that involve only oceans and atmosphere face insurmountable problems in accounting for efficient mechanisms of molecular selection and concentration. Solid minerals have an unmatched potential to select, concentrate, and organize molecules. So minerals much have played a central role in life’s origins. Biochemistry is complex, with interwoven cycles and networks of molecular reactions. For those intricately layered processes to work, molecules have to have just the right sizes and shapes. Molecular selection is the task of finding the best molecule for each biochemical job, and template-directed selection on mineral surfaces is now the leading candidate for how nature did it […] left- and right-handed molecules […] It turns out that life is incredibly picky : cells almost exclusively employ left-handed amino acids and right-handed sugars. Chirality matters […] Our recent experiments have explored the possibility that chiral mineral surfaces played the starring role in selecting handed molecules, and perhaps the origins of life as well. […] Our experiments showed that certain left-handed molecules can aggregate on one set of crystal surfaces, while the mirror image […] on other sets […] As handed molecules are separated and concentrated, each surface becomes a tiny experiment in molecular selection and organization. On its own, no such natural experiment with minerals and molecules is likely to have generated life. But take countless trillions of trillions of trillions of mineral surfaces, each bathed in molecule-rich organic broth […] The tiny fraction of all those molecular combinations that wound up displaying easier self-assembly, or developed a stronger binding to mineral surfaces […] survived […] possibly to learn new tricks.”

A Referendum for Energy

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 ?

Fossil Fuel Company Obligation

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 ?

The Art of Non-Persuasion

I could never be in sales and marketing. I have a strong negative reaction to public relations, propaganda and the sticky, inauthentic charm of personal persuasion.

Lead a horse to water, show them how lovely and sparkling it is, talk them through their appreciation of water, how it could benefit their lives, make them thirsty, stand by and observe as they start to lap it up.

One of the mnemonics of marketing is AIDA, which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action, leading a “client” through the process, guiding a sale. Seize Attention. Create Interest. Inspire Desire. Precipitate Action. Some mindbenders insert the letter C for Commitment – hoping to be sure that Desire has turned into certain decision before permitting, allowing, enabling, contracting or encouraging the Action stage.

You won’t get that kind of psychological plasticity nonsense from me. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and ethics should be applied to every conversion of intent. In fact, the architect of a change of mind should be the mind who is changing – the marketeer or sales person should not proselytise, evangelise, lie, cheat, sneak, creep and massage until they have control.

I refuse to do “Suggestive Sell”. I only do “Show and Tell”.

I am quite observant, and so in interpersonal interactions I am very sensitive to rejection, the “no” forming in the mind of the other. I can sense when somebody is turned off by an idea or a proposal, sometimes even before they know it clearly themselves. I am habituated to detecting disinclination, and I am resigned to it. There is no bridge over the chasm of “no”. I know that marketing people are trained to not accept negative reactions they perceive – to keep pursuing the sale. But I don’t want to. I want to admit, permit, allow my correspondent to say “no” and mean “no”, and not be harrassed, deceived or cajoled to change it to a “yes”.

I have been accused of being on the dark side – in my attempts to show and tell on climate change and renewable energy. Some assume that because I am part of the “communications team”, I am conducting a sales job. I’m not. My discovery becomes your discovery, but it’s not a constructed irreality. For many, it’s true that they believe they need to follow the path of public relations – deploying the “information deficit model” of communication – hierarchically patronising. Me, expert. You, poor unknowing punter. Me, inform you. You, believe, repent, be cleaned and change your ways. In this sense, communications experts have made climate change a religious cult.

In energy futures, I meet so many who are wild-eyed, desperate to make a sale – those who have genuine knowledge of their subject – and who realise that their pitch is not strong enough in the eyes of others. It’s not just a question of money or funding. The engineers, often in large corporations, trying to make an impression on politicians. The consultants who are trying to influence companies and civil servants. The independent professionals trying to exert the wisdom of pragmatism and negotiated co-operation. The establishment trying to sell technical services. Those organisations and institutions playing with people – playing with belonging, with reputation, marketing outdated narratives. People who are in. People who are hands-off. People who are tipped and ditched. Those with connections who give the disconnected a small rocky platform. The awkwardness of invested power contending with radical outsiders. Denial of changing realities. The dearth of ready alternatives. Are you ready to be captured, used and discarded ? Chase government research and development grants. Steal your way into consultations. Play the game. Sell yourself. Dissociate and sell your soul.

I have to face the fact that I do need to sell myself. I have to do it in a way which remains open and honest. To sell myself and my conceptual framework, my proposals for ways forward on energy and climate change, I need a product. My person is often not enough of a product to sell – I am neuro-atypical. My Curriculum Vitae CV in resume is not enough of a product to sell me. My performance in interviews and meetings is often not enough of a product. My weblog has never been a vehicle for sales. I didn’t want it to be – or to be seen as that – as I try to avoid deceit in communications.

Change requires facilitation. You can’t just walk away when the non-persuasional communications dialogue challenge gets speared with distrust and dismissal. Somehow there has to be a way to present direction and decisions in a way that doesn’t have a shadow of evil hovering in the wings.

“A moment to change it all, is all it takes to start anew.
To the other side.”

Why do I need to “sell” myself ? Why do I need to develop a product – a vehicle with which to sell myself ?

1. In order to be recognised, in order to be welcomed, invited to make a contribution to the development of low carbon energy, the optimisation of the use of energy, and effective climate change policy.

2. In order to put my internal motivations and drive to some practical use. To employ my human energy in the service of the future of energy engineering and energy systems.

We Need To Talk About Syria

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

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.