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
DRAFT

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 ?

Notes

[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

The Delta, The Ramp, The Stretch and The Duck #1

I gave a guest lecture at Birkbeck College, of the University of London on the evening of 22nd February 2017 in the evening, as part of the Energy and Climate Change module. I titled it, “Renewable Gas for Energy Storage : Scaling up the ‘Gas Battery’ to balance Wind and Solar Power and provide Low Carbon Heat and Transport”.

The basic concept is that since wind and solar power are variable in output, there has to be some support from other energy technologies. Some talk of batteries to store electrical energy as a chemical potential, and when they talk of batteries they think of large Lithium ion piles, or flow batteries, or other forms of liquid electrolyte with cathodes and anodes. When I talk about batteries, I think of electrical energy stored in the form of a gas. This gas battery doesn’t need expensive metal cathodes or anodes, and it doesn’t need an acid liquid electrolyte to operate. Gas that is synthesised from excess solar or wind power can be a fuel that can be used in chemical reactions, such as combustion, or burning, to generate electricity and heat when desired at some point in the future. It could be burned in a gas turbine, a gas boiler or a fuel cell, or in a vehicle engine. Or instead, a chemically inert gas can be stored under pressure, and this compressed gas can also be used to generate power on demand at a later date by harnessing energy from decompression. Another option would be holding a chemically reactive gas under pressure, allowing two stages of energy recovery.

As expected, the Birkbeck audience was very diverse, and had different social and educational backgrounds, and so there was little that could be assumed as common knowledge, especially since the topic was energy, which is normally only an interest for engineers, or at a stretch, economists.

I decided when preparing that I would attempt to use symbolism as a tool to build a narrative in the presentation. A bold move, perhaps, but I found it created an emblematic thread that ran through the slides quite nicely, and helped me tell the story. I used Mathematical and Physical notation, but I didn’t do any Mathematics or Physics.

I introduced the first concept : the Delta, or change. I explained this delta was not the same as a river delta, which gave me the excuse to show a fabulous night sky image of the Nile Delta taken from the International Space Station. I demonstrated the triangle shape that emerges from charting data that changes over time, and calculating its gradient, such as the temperature of the Earth’s surface.

I explained that the change in temperature of the Earth’s surface over the recent decades is an important metric to consider, not just in terms of scale, but in terms of speed. I showed that this rate of change appears in all the independent data sets.

I then went on to explain that the overall trend in the change in the temperature of the Earth’s surface is not the only phenomenon. Within regions, and within years and seasons, even between months and days, there are smaller scale changes that may not look like the overall delta. A lot of these changes give the appearance of cyclic phenomena, and they can have a periodicity of up to several decades, for example, “oscillations” in the oceans.

These discrete deltas and cycles could, to a casual observer, mask underlying trends, especially as the deltas can be larger than the trends; so climatologists look at a large set of measurements of all kinds, and have shown that some deltas are one way only, and are not cycling.

Teasing out the trends in all of the observations is a major enterprise that has been accomplished by thousands of scientists who have reported to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, part of the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Fifth Assessment Report is the most comprehensive yet, and shows that global warming is almost certainly ramping up – in other words, global warming is getting faster, or accelerating.

Many projections for the future of temperature changes at the Earth’s surface have been done, with the overall view that temperatures are likely to carry on rising for hundreds of years without an aggressive approach to curtail net greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere – principally carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).

From observations, it is clear that global warming causes climate change, and that the rate of temperature change is linked to the rate of climate change. In symbols, this reads : delta T for temperature over t for time leads to, or implies, a delta C for climate over t for time. The fact that global warming and its consequential climate change are able to continue worsening under the current emissions profile means that climate change is going to affect humanity for a long stretch. It also means that efforts to rein in emissions will also need to extend over time.

I finished this first section of my presentation by showing a list of what I call “Solution Principles” :-

1. Delays embed and extend the problem, making it harder to solve. So don’t delay.

2. Solve the problem at least as fast as creating it.

3. For maximum efficiency, minimum cost, and maximum speed, re-deploy agents of the problem in its solution.

In other words, make use of the existing energy, transport, agriculture, construction and chemical industries in approaching answers to the imperative to address global warming and climate change.

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 #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.

JODI Oil and BP #1

Once a year BP plc publishes their Statistical Review of World Energy, as they have done for 65 years, now. Recent editions have been digital and anodyne, with lots of mini-analyses and charts and positive messages about the petroleum industry. Whenever energy researchers ask questions, they are invariably directed to take a look at the BP report, as it is considered trustworthy and sound. Good scientists always try to find alternative sources of data, but it can be hard comparing the BP Stat Rev with other numerical offerings, partly because of the general lack of drill-down in-depth figures. Two other reputable data sources are the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the JODI Oil initiative. I have already looked at EIA data and data from the National Energy Board (NEB) of Canada recently in order to check on the risks of Peak Oil. Now I’m diving into JODI.

Two of my concerns of the week are to try to understand the status and health of the global economy – which can be seen through the lens of overall consumption of hydrocarbons; and to see if there are changes happening in relative demand levels for the different kinds of hydrocarbons – as this could indicate a transition towards a lower carbon economy. The BP Stat Rev of June 2016 offers an interesting table on Page 13 – “Oil: Regional consumption – by product group”, which breaks down hydrocarbon demand into four main categories : Light distillates, Middle distillates, Fuel oil and Other. The “Other” category for BP includes LPG – Liquefied Petroleum Gases, a blend of mostly propane and butanes (carbon chain C3 and C4), which are gaseous and not liquid at normal room temperature and pressure – so strictly speaking aren’t actually oil. They also have different sources from various process units within petroleum refinery and Natural Gas processing plants. The “Other” category also includes refinery gas – mostly methane and ethane (carbon chain C1 and C2), and hydrogen (H2); and presumably fuel additives and improvers made from otherwise unwanted gubbins at the petrorefinery.

Not by coincidence, the JODI Oil database, in its Secondary data table, also offers a breakdown of hydrocarbon demand from refinery into categories almost analagous to the BP groupings – LPG, Gasoline, Naphtha, Kerosenes, Gas/Diesel oil, Fuel oil, and Other products; where LPG added to Other should be the same as BP’s “Other” category, Gasoline added to Naphtha should be equivalent to BP’s “Light distillates”; and Kerosenes added to Gas/Diesel oil should be analagous to BP’s “Middle distillates. So I set out to average the JODI Oil data, day-weighting the monthly data records, to see if I could replicate the BP Stat Rev Page 13.

Very few of the data points matched BP’s report. I suspect this is partly due to averaging issues – I expect BP has access to daily demand figures, (although I can’t be sure, and I don’t know their data sources); whereas the JODI Oil data is presented as monthly averages for daily demand. However, there are a lot of figures in the BP report that are high compared to the JODI Oil database. This can only partly be due to the fact that not all countries are reporting to JODI – four countries in the Commonwealth of Indepdendent States (CIS) – formerly known as “Former Soviet Union” – are not reporting, for example. I’m wondering if this over-reporting in the BP report might be due to differences in the way that stock transfers are handled – perhaps demand for refinery products that are intended for storage purposes rather than direct consumption is included in the BP data, but not in JODI – but at the moment I don’t have any relevant information with which to confirm or deny this concept.

Anyway, the data is very close between BP and JODI for the United States in recent years, and there are some other lines where there is some agreement (for example – Fuel oil in Japan, and Light distillates in China), so I am going to take this as an indication that I understand the JODI Oil data sufficiently well to be able to look at monthly refinery demand, refinery output and oil production for each region and hopefully reach some useful conclusions.

Fields of Diesel Generators

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewable Gas – that’s the craic.

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 #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…


What To Do Next

Status-checking questions. I’m sure we all have them. I certainly do. Several times a week, or even day, I ask myself two little questions of portent : “What am I doing ?” and “Why am I here ?”. I ask myself these questions usually because my mind’s wandered off again, just out of reach, and I need to call myself to attention, and focus. I ask these little questions of myself when I do that thing we all do – I’ve set off with great purpose into another room, and then completely forgotten why I went there, or what I came to find or get. I also use these forms of enquiry when I’m at The Crossroads of Purpose – to determine what exactly it is I’m deciding to aim for. What are my goals this day, week, month, age ? Can I espy my aims, somewhere on the horizon ? Can I paddle labouriously towards them – against the tide – dodge/defeat the sharks ? Can I muster the will to carry this out – “longhauling it” ?

I’ve spent a long time writing a book, which I’m sure to bore everybody about for the next aeon. My intention in writing the book was to stimulate debate about what I consider to be the best direction for balanced energy systems – a combination of renewable electricity and Renewable Gas. I wanted to foster debate amongst the academics and engineers who may be my peers, certainly, hopefully providing a little seed for further research. Hopefully also having a small influence on energy policy, perhaps, or at least, getting myself and my ideas asked to various policy meetings for a little airing. But, if I could in some way, I also wanted to offer a bit of fizz to the internal conversations of companies in the energy sector. You see, it may be obvious, or it may not be, but action on climate change, which principally involves the reduction in the mining, drilling and burning of fossil fuels, principally also involves the co-operation of the fossil fuel extraction companies. Their products are nearly history, and so it must be that inside the headquarters of every transnational energy giant, corporate heads are churning through their options with a very large what-if spoon.

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A Partial Meeting of Engineering Minds

So I met somebody last week, at their invitation, to talk a little bit about my research into Renewable Gas.

I can’t say who it was, as I didn’t get their permission to do so. I can probably (caveat emptor) safely say that they are a fairly significant player in the energy engineering sector.

I think they were trying to assess whether my work was a bankable asset yet, but I think they quickly realised that I am nowhere near a full proposal for a Renewable Gas system.

Although there were some technologies and options over which we had a meeting of minds, I was quite disappointed by their opinions in connection with a number of energy projects in the United Kingdom.

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DECC Dungeons and Dragnets

Out of the blue, I got an invitation to a meeting in Whitehall.

I was to join industrial developers and academic researchers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in a meeting of the “Green Hydrogen Standard Working Group”.

The date was 12th June 2015. The weather was sunny and hot and merited a fine Italian lemonade, fizzing with carbon dioxide. The venue was an air-conditioned grey bunker, but it wasn’t an unfriendly dungeon, particularly as I already knew about half the people in the room.

The subject of the get-together was Green Hydrogen, and the work of the group is to formulate a policy for a Green Hydrogen standard, navigating a number of issues, including the intersection with other policy, and drawing in a very wide range of chemical engineers in the private sector.

My reputation for not putting up with any piffle clearly preceded me, as somebody at the meeting said he expected I would be quite critical. I said that I would not be saying anything, but that I would be listening carefully. Having said I wouldn’t speak, I must admit I laughed at all the right places in the discussion, and wrote copious notes, and participated frequently in the way of non-verbal communication, so as usual, I was very present. At the end I was asked for my opinion about the group’s work and I was politely congratulational on progress.

So, good. I behaved myself. And I got invited back for the next meeting. But what was it all about ?

Most of what it is necessary to communicate is that at the current time, most hydrogen production is either accidental output from the chemical industry, or made from fossil fuels – the main two being coal and Natural Gas.

Hydrogen is used extensively in the petroleum refinery industry, but there are bold plans to bring hydrogen to transport mobility through a variety of applications, for example, hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

Clearly, the Green Hydrogen standard has to be such that it lowers the bar on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – and it could turn out that the consensus converges on any technologies that have a net CO2 emissions profile lower than steam methane reforming (SMR), or the steam reforming of methane (SRM), of Natural Gas.

[ It’s at this very moment that I need to point out the “acronym conflict” in the use of “SMR” – which is confusingly being also used for “Small Modular Reactors” of the nuclear fission kind. In the context of what I am writing here, though, it is used in the context of turning methane into syngas – a product high in hydrogen content. ]

Some numbers about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) used in the manufacture of hydrogen were presented in the meeting, including the impact this would have on CO2 emissions, and these were very intriguing.

I had some good and useful conversations with people before and after the meeting, and left thinking that this process is going to be very useful to engage with – a kind of dragnet pulling key players into low carbon gas production.

Here follow my notes from the meeting. They are, of course, not to be taken verbatim. I have permission to recount aspects of the discussion, in gist, as it was an industrial liaison group, not an internal DECC meeting. However, I should not say who said what, or which companies or organisations they are working with or for.

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Nuclear Power Is Not An Energy Policy

The British Government do not have an energy policy. They may think they have one, and they may regularly tell us that they have one, but in reality, they don’t. There are a number of elements of regulatory work and market intervention that they are engaged with, but none of these by itself is significant enough to count as a policy for energy. Moreover, all of these elements taken together do not add up to energy security, energy efficiency, decarbonisation and affordable energy.

What it takes to have an energy policy is a clear understanding of what is a realistic strategy for reinvestment in energy after the dry years of privatisation, and a focus on energy efficiency, and getting sufficient low carbon energy built to meet the Carbon Budget on time. Current British Government ambitions on energy are not realistic, will not attract sufficient investment, will not promote increased energy efficiency and will not achieve the right scale and speed of decarbonisation.

I’m going to break down my critique into a series of small chunks. The first one is a quick look at the numbers and outcomes arising from the British Government’s obsessive promotion of nuclear power, a fantasy science fiction that is out of reach, not least because the industry is dog-tired and motheaten.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Shell is Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.   Shell needs to be fully engaged in energy transition

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

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

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

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

The Price on Carbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shell’s Public Relations Offensive #2

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

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.

Zero Careers In Plainspeaking

There are many ways to make a living, but there appear to be zero careers in plainspeaking.

I mean, who could I justify working with, or for ? And would any of them be prepared to accept me speaking my mind ?

Much of what I’ve been saying over the last ten years has been along the lines of “that will never work”, but people generally don’t get consulted or hired for picking holes in an organisation’s pet projects or business models.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role in the British Government ? Short answer : no.

The slightly longer answer : The British Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) ? No, they’re still hooked on the failed technology of nuclear power, the stupendously expensive and out-of-reach Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and the mythical beast of shale gas. OK, so they have a regular “coffee club” about Green Hydrogen (whatever that turns out to be according to their collective ruminations), and they’ve commissioned reports on synthetic methane, but I just couldn’t imagine they’re ever going to work up a serious plan on Renewable Gas. The British Government Department for Transport ? No, they still haven’t adopted a clear vision of the transition of the transport sector to low carbon energy. They’re still chipping away at things instead of coming up with a strategy.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a British oil and gas multinational ? Short and very terse and emphatic answer : no.

The extended answer : The oil and gas companies have had generous support and understanding from the world’s governments, and are respected and acclaimed. Yet they are in denial about “unburnable carbon” assets, and have dismissed the need for Energy Change that is the outcome of Peak Oil (whether on the supply or the demand side). Sneakily, they have also played both sides on Climate Change. Several major oil and gas companies have funded or in other ways supported Climate Change science denial. Additionally, the policy recommendations coming from the oil and gas companies are what I call a “delayer’s game”. For example, BP continues to recommend the adoption of a strong price on carbon, yet they know this would be politically unpalatable and take decades (if ever) to bring into effect. Shell continues to argue for extensive public subsidy support for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), knowing this would involve such huge sums of money, so it’s never going to happen, at least not for several decades. How on Earth could I work on any project with these corporations unless they adopt, from the centre, a genuine plan for transition out of fossil fuels ? I’m willing to accept that transition necessitates the continued use of Natural Gas and some petroleum for some decades, but BP and Royal Dutch Shell do need to have an actual plan for a transition to Renewable Gas and renewable power, otherwise I would be compromising everything I know by working with them.

Could I imagine myself taking on a role with a large engineering firm, such as Siemens, GE, or Alstom, taking part in a project on manufactured low carbon gas ? I suppose so. I mean, I’ve done an IT project with Siemens before. However, they would need to demonstrate that they are driving for a Renewable Gas transition before I could join a gas project with them. They might not want to be so bold and up-front about it, because they could risk the wrath of the oil and gas companies, whose business model would be destroyed by engineered gas and fuel solutions.

Could I imagine myself building fuel cells, or designing methanation catalysts, or improving hydrogen production, biocoke/biocoal manufacture or carbon dioxide capture from the oceans… with a university project ? Yes, but the research would need to be funded by companies (because all applied academic research is funded by companies) with a clear picture on Energy Change and their own published strategy on transition out of fossil fuels.

Could I imagine myself working on rolling out gas cars, buses and trucks ? Yes. The transition of the transport sector is the most difficult problem in Energy Change. However, apart from projects that are jumping straight to new vehicles running entirely on Hydrogen or Natural Gas, the good options for transition involve converting existing diesel engine vehicles to running mostly on Natural Gas, such as “dual fuel”, still needing roughly 20% of liquid diesel fuel for ignition purposes. So I would need to be involved with a project that aims to supply biodiesel, and have a plan to transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas.

Could I imagine myself working with a team that has extensive computing capabilities to model carbon dioxide recycling in power generation plant ? Yes.

Could I imagine myself modelling the use of hydrogen in petroleum refinery, and making technological recommendations for the oil and gas industry to manufacture Renewable Hydrogen ? Possibly. But I would need to be clear that I’m doing it to enable Energy Change, and not to prop up the fossil fuel paradigm – a game that is actually already bust and needs helping towards transition.

Could I imagine myself continuing to research the growth in Renewable Gas – both Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methane – in various countries and sectors ? Possibly. It’s my kind of fun, talking to engineers.

But whatever future work I consider myself doing, repeatedly I come up against this problem – whoever asked me to work with them would need to be aware that I do not tolerate non-solutions. I will continue to say what doesn’t work, and what cannot work.

If people want to pay me to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t working, and won’t work, then fine, I’ll take the role.

I’d much rather stay positive, though, and forge a role where I can promote the things that do work, can work and will work.

The project that I’m suitable for doesn’t exist yet, I feel. I’m probably going to continue in one way or another in research, and after that, since I cannot see a role that I could fit easily or ethically, I can see I’m going to have to write my own job description.

Renewable Gas : A Presentation #1

Last week, on the invitation of Dr Paul Elsner at Birkbeck, University of London, I gave a brief address of my research so far into Renewable Gas to this year’s Energy and Climate Change class, and asked and answered lots of questions before demolishing the mythical expert/student hierarchy paradigm – another incarnation of the “information deficit model”, perhaps – and proposed everyone work in breakout groups on how a transition from fossil fuel gas to Renewable Gas could be done.

A presentation of information was important before discussing strategies, as we had to cover ground from very disparate disciplines such as chemical process engineering, the petroleum industry, energy statistics, and energy technologies, to make sure everybody had a foundational framework. I tried to condense the engineering into just a few slides, following the general concept of UML – Unified Modelling Language – keeping everything really simple – especially as processing, or work flow (workflow) concepts can be hard to describe in words, so diagrams can really help get round the inevitable terminology confusions.

But before I dropped the class right into chemical engineering, I thought a good place to start would be in numbers, and in particular the relative contributions to energy in the United Kingdom from gas and electricity. Hence the first slide.

The first key point to notice is that most heat demand in the UK in winter is still provided by Natural Gas, whether Natural Gas in home boilers, or electricity generated using Natural Gas.

The second is that heat demand in energy terms is much larger than power demand in the cold months, and much larger than both power and heat demand in the warm months.

The third is that power demand when viewed on annual basis seems pretty regular (despite the finer grain view having issues with twice-daily peaks and weekday demand being much higher than weekends).

The reflection I gave was that it would make no sense to attempt to provide all that deep winter heat demand with electricity, as the UK would need an enormous amount of extra power generation, and in addition, much of this capacity would do nothing for most of the rest of the year.

The point I didn’t make was that nuclear power currently provides – according to official figures – less than 20% of UK electricity, however, this works out as only 7.48% of total UK primary energy demand (DUKES, 2014, Table 1.1.1, Mtoe basis). The contribution to total national primary energy demand from Natural Gas by contrast is 35.31%. The generation from nuclear power plants has been falling unevenly, and the plan to replace nuclear reactors that have reached their end of life is not going smoothly. The UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change have been pushing for new nuclear power, and project that all heating will convert to electricity, and that nuclear power will provide for much of this (75 GW by 2050). But if their plan relies on nuclear power, and nuclear power development is unreliable, it is hard to imagine that it will succeed.

Only Just Getting Started

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renewable Energy : Google Blind

In an interesting article by two Google engineers, Ross Koningstein and David Fork, "What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change : Today’s renewable energy technologies won’t save us. So what will?", the authors concluded from their modelling scenarios that :-

"While a large emissions cut sure sounded good, this scenario still showed substantial use of natural gas in the electricity sector. That’s because today’s renewable energy sources are limited by suitable geography and their own intermittent power production."

Erm. Yes. Renewable electricity is variable and sometimes not available, because, well, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, you know. This has been known for quite some time, actually. It’s not exactly news. Natural Gas is an excellent complement to renewable electricity, and that’s why major industrialised country grid networks rely on the pairing of gas and power, and will do so for some time to come. Thus far, no stunner.

What is astonishing is that these brain-the-size-of-a-planet guys do not appear to have asked the awkwardly obvious question of : "so, can we decarbonise the gas supply, then ?" Because the answer is "yes, very largely, yes."

And if you have Renewable Gas backing up Renewable Power, all of a sudden, shazam !, kabam ! and kapoom !, you have An Answer. You can use excess wind power and excess solar power to make gas, and you can store the gas to use when there’s a still, cold period on a wintry night. And at other times of low renewable power, too. And besides using spare green power to make green gas, you can make Renewable Gas in other ways, too.

The Google engineers write :-

"Now, [Research and Development] dollars must go to inventors who are tackling the daunting energy challenge so they can boldly try out their crazy ideas. We can’t yet imagine which of these technologies will ultimately work and usher in a new era of prosperity – but the people of this prosperous future won’t be able to imagine how we lived without them."

Actually, Renewable Gas is completely non-crazy. It’s already being done all over the world in a variety of locations – with a variety of raw resources. We just need to replace the fossil fuel resources with biomass – that’s all.

And there’s more – practically all the technology is over a century old – it just needs refining.

I wonder why the Google boys seem to have been so unaware of this. Maybe they didn’t study the thermodynamics of gas-to-gas reactions at kindergarten, or something.

Thanks to the deliberate misinterpretation of the Google "brothers" article, The Register, James Delingpole’s Breitbart News and Joanne Nova are not exactly helping move the Technological Debate forward, but that’s par for the course. They rubbished climate change science. Now they’ve been shown to be wrong, they’ve moved on, it seems, to rubbishing renewable energy systems. And they’re wrong there, too.

Onwards, my green engineering friends, and upwards.

Shell Shirks Carbon Responsibility

I was in a meeting today held at the Centre for European Reform in which Shell’s Chief Financial Officer, Simon Henry, made two arguments to absolve the oil and gas industry of responsibility for climate change. He painted coal as the real enemy, and reiterated the longest hand-washing argument in politics – that Shell believes that a Cap and Trade system is the best way to suppress carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, it’s not up to Shell to do anything about carbon. He argued that for transportation and trade the world is going to continue to need highly energy-dense liquid fuels for some time, essentially arguing for the continuation of his company’s current product slate. He did mention proudly in comments after the meeting that Shell are the world’s largest bioethanol producers, in Brazil, but didn’t open up the book on the transition of his whole company to providing the world with low carbon fuels. He said that Shell wants to be a part of the global climate change treaty process, but he gave no indication of what Shell could bring to the table to the negotiations, apart from pushing for carbon trading. Mark Campanale of the Carbon Tracker Initiative was sufficiently convinced by the “we’re not coal” argument to attempt to seek common cause with Simon Henry after the main meeting. It would be useful to have allies in the oil and gas companies on climate change, but it always seems to be that the rest of the world has to adopt Shell’s and BP’s view on everything from policy to energy resources before they’ll play ball.

During the meeting, Mark Campanale pointed out in questions that Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs are going to bring Indian coal to trade on the London Stock Exchange and that billions of dollars of coal stocks are to be traded in London, and that this undermines all climate change action. He said he wanted to understand Shell’s position, as the same shareholders that hold coal (shares), hold Shell. I think he was trying to get Simon Henry to call for a separation in investment focus – to show that investment in oil and gas is not the same as investing in Big Bad Coal. But Simon Henry did not bite. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s report of 2013, Unburnable Carbon, coal listed on the London Stock Exchange is equivalent to 49 gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (gtCO2), but oil and gas combined trade shares for stocks equivalent to 64 gtCO2, so there’s currently more emissions represented by oil and gas on the LSX than there is for coal. In the future, the emissions held in the coal traded in London have the potential to amount to 165 gtCO2, and oil and gas combined at 125 gtCO2. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is only responsible for about 1.6% of direct country carbon dioxide emissions (excluding emissions embedded in traded goods and services), the London Stock Exchange is set to be perhaps the world’s third largest exchange for emissions-causing fuels.

Here’s a rough transcript of what Simon Henry said. There are no guarantees that this is verbatim, as my handwriting is worse than a GP’s.

[Simon Henry] I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and use notes. Building a long-term sustainable energy system – certain forces shaping that. 7 billion people will become 9 billion people – [many] moving from off-grid to on-grid. That will be driven by economic growth. Urbanisation [could offer the possibility of] reducing demand for energy. Most economic growth will be in developing economies. New ways fo consuming energy. Our scenarios – in none do we see energy not growing materially – even with efficiencies. The current ~200 billion barrels of oil equivalent per day today of energy demand will rise to ~400 boe/d by 2050 – 50% higher than today. This will be demand-driven – nothing to do with supply…

[At least one positive-sounding grunt from the meeting – so there are some Peak Oil deniers in the room, then.]

[Simon Henry] …What is paramount for governments – if a threat, then it gets to the top of the agenda. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes climate change…

[A few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks around the table, including mine]

[Simon Henry] …in the absence of ways we change the use of energy […] Any approach to climate change has got to embrace science, policy and technology. All three levers must be pulled. Need a long-term stable policy that enables technology development. We think this is best in a market mechanism. […] Energy must be affordable at the point of use. What we call Triple A – available, acceptable and affordable. No silver bullet. Develop in a responsible way. Too much of it is soundbite – that simplifies what’s not a simple problem. It’s not gas versus coal. [Although, that appeared to be one of his chief arguments – that it is gas versus coal – and this is why we should play nice with Shell.]

1. Economy : About $1.5 to $2 trillion of new money must be invested in the energy industry each year, and this must be sustained until 2035 and beyond. A [few percent] of the world economy. It’s going to take time to make [massive changes]. […] “Better Growth : Better Climate” a report on “The New Climate Economy” by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the Calderon Report. [The world invested] $700 billion last year on oil and gas [or rather, $1 trillion] and $220 – $230 billion on wind power and solar power. The Calderon Report showed that 70% of energy is urban. $6 trillion is being spent on urban infrastructure [each year]. $90 trillion is available. [Urban settings are] more compact, more connected, there’s public transport, [can build in efficiencies] as well as reducing final energy need. Land Use is the other important area – huge impact on carbon emissions. Urbanisation enables efficiency in distributed generation [Combined Heat and Power (CHP)], [local grids]. Eye-popping costs, but the money will be spent anyway. If it’s done right it will [significantly] reduce [carbon emissions and energy demand]…

2. Technology Development : Governments are very bad at picking winners. Better to get the right incentives in and let the market players decide [optimisation]. They can intervene, for example by [supporting] Research and Development. But don’t specify the means to an end…The best solution is a strong predictable carbon price, at $40 a tonne or more or it won’t make any difference. We prefer Cap and Trade. Taxes don’t actually decrease carbon [emissions] but fundamentally add cost to the consumer. As oil prices rose [in 2008 – 2009] North Americans went to smaller cars…Drivers [set] their behaviour from [fuel] prices…

[An important point to note here : one of the reasons why Americans used less motor oil during the “Derivatives Bubble” recession between 2006 and 2010 was because the economy was shot, so people lost their employment, and/or their homes and there was mass migration, so of course there was less commuter driving, less salesman driving, less business driving. This wasn’t just a response to higher oil prices, because the peak in driving miles happened before the main spike in oil prices. In addition, not much of the American fleet of cars overturned in this period, so Americans didn’t go to smaller cars as an adaptation response to high oil prices. They probably turned to smaller cars when buying new cars because they were cheaper. I think Simon Henry is rather mistaken on this. ]

[Simon Henry] …As regards the Carbon Bubble : 65% of the Unburnable fossil fuels to meet the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is coal. People would stuggle to name the top five coal companies [although they find it easy to name the top five oil and gas companies]. Bearing in mind that you have to [continue to] transport stuff [you are going to need oil for some time to come.] Dealing with coal is the best way of moving forward. Coal is used for electricity – but there are better ways to make electricity – petcoke [petroleum coke – a residue from processing heavy and unconventional crude oil] for example…

[The climate change impact of burning (or gasifying) petroleum coke for power generation is possibly worse than burning (or gasifying) hard coal (anthracite), especially if the pet coke is sourced from tar sands, as emissions are made in the production of the pet coke before it even gets combusted.]

[Simon Henry] …It will take us 30 years to get away entirely from coal. Even if we used all the oil and gas, the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is still possible…

3. Policy : We tested this with the Dutch Government recently – need to create an honest dialogue for a long-term perspective. Demand for energy needs to change. It’s not about supply…

[Again, some “hear hears” from the room from the Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas deniers]

[Simon Henry] …it’s about demand. Our personal wish for [private] transport. [Not good to be] pushing the cost onto the big bad energy companies and their shareholders. It’s taxes or prices. [Politicians] must start to think of their children and not the next election…

…On targets and subsidies : India, Indonesia, Brazil […] to move on fossil fuel subsidies – can’t break the Laws of Economics forever. If our American friends drove the same cars we do, they’d reduce their oil consumption equivalent to all of the shale [Shale Gas ? Or Shale Oil ?]… Targets are an emotive issue when trying to get agreement from 190 countries. Only a few players that really matter : USA, China, EU, India – close to 70% of current emissions and maybe more in future. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency in the United States of America] [announcement] on power emissions. China responded in 24 hours. The EU target on 27% renewables is not [country-specific, uniform across-the-board]. Last week APEC US deal with China on emissions. They switched everything off [and banned traffic] and people saw blue sky. Coal with CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] we see as a good idea. We would hope for a multi-party commitment [from the United Nations climate talks], but [shows doubt]… To close : a couple of words on Shell – have to do that. We have only 2% [of the energy market], but we [hope we] can punch above our weight [in policy discussions]. We’re now beginning to establish gas as a transport fuel. Brazil – low carbon [bio]fuels. Three large CCS projects in Canada, EU… We need to look at our own energy use – pretty trivial, but [also] look at helping our customers look at theirs. Working with the DRC [China]. Only by including companies such as ourselves in [climate and energy policy] debate can we get the [global deal] we aspire to…

[…]

[Question from the table, Ed Wells (?), HSBC] : Green Bonds : how can they provide some of the finance [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] ? The first Renminbi denominated Green Bond from [?]. China has committed to non-fossil fuels. The G20 has just agreed the structure on infrastructure – important – not just for jobs and growth – parallel needs on climate change. [Us at HSBC…] Are people as excited about Green Bonds as we are ?

[Stephen Tindale] Yes.

[Question from the table, Anthony Cary, Commonwealth Scholarship Commission] …The key seems to be pricing carbon into the economy. You said you preferred Cap and Trade. I used to but despite reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) – [failures and] gaming the system. Tax seems to be a much more solid basis.

[Simon Henry] [The problem with the ETS] too many credits and too many exemptions. Get rid of the exemptions. Bank reserve of credits to push the price up. Degress the number of credits [traded]. Tax : if people can afford it, they pay the tax, doesn’t stop emissions. In the US, no consumption tax, they are very sensitive to the oil price going up and down – 2 to 3 million barrels a day [swing] on 16 million barrels a day. All the political impact on the US from shale could be done in the same way on efficiency [fuel standards and smaller cars]. Green Bonds are not something on top of – investment should be financed by Green Bonds, but investment is already being done today – better to get policy right and then all investment directed.

[…]

[Question from the table, Kirsten Gogan, Energy for Humanity] The role of nuclear power. By 2050, China will have 500 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power. Electricity is key. Particularly coal. Germany is building new coal as removing nuclear…

[My internal response] It’s at this point that my ability to swallow myths was lost. I felt like shouting, politely, across the table : ACTUALLY KIRSTEN, YOU, AND A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM ARE JUST PLAIN WRONG ON GERMANY AND COAL.

“Germany coal power generation at 10-year low in August”, 9th September 2014

And the only new coal-fired plants being built are those that were planned up to five years ago. No new coal-fired capacity is now being agreed.

[Kirsten Gogan]…German minister saying in public that you can’t phase out nuclear and coal at the same time. Nuclear is not included in that conversation. Need to work on policy to scale up nuclear to replace coal. Would it be useful to have a clear sectoral target on decarbonising – 100% on electricity ?

[Stephen Tindale] Electricity is the least difficult of the energy sectors to decarbonise. Therefore the focus should be on electricity. If a target would help (I’m not a fan) nuclear certainly needs to be a part of the discussions. Angela Merkel post-Fukushima has been crazy, in my opinion. If want to boost renewable energy, nuclear power will take subsidies away from that. But targets for renewable energy is the wrong objective.. If the target is keeping the climate stable then it’s worth subsidising nuclear. Subsidising is the wrong word – “risk reduction”.

[Simon Henry] If carbon was properly priced, nuclear would become economic by definition…

[My internal response] NO IT WOULDN’T. A LOT OF NUCLEAR CONSTRUCTION AND DECOMMISSIONING AND SPENT FUEL PROCESSING REQUIRES CARBON-BASED ENERGY.

[Simon Henry] …Basically, all German coal is exempted (from the EU ETS). If you have a proper market-based system then the right things will happen. The EU – hypocrisy at country level. Only [a couple of percent] of global emissions. The EU would matter if it was less hypocritical. China are more rational – long-term thinking. We worked with the DRC. Six differing carbon Cap and Trade schemes in operation to find the one that works best. They are effectively supporting renewable energy – add 15 GW each of wind and solar last year. They don’t listen to NIMBYs [they also build in the desert]. NIMBYism [reserved for] coal – because coal was built close to cities. [Relationship to Russia] – gas replacing coal. Not an accident. Five year plan. They believe in all solutions. Preferably Made in China so we can export to the rest of the world. [Their plans are for a range of aims] not just climate.

[…]
[…]

[Simon Henry] [in answer to a question about the City of London] We don’t rely on them to support our activities [my job security depends on a good relationship with them]]. We have to be successful first and develop [technological opportunities] [versus being weakened by taxes]. They can support change in technology. Financing coal may well be new money. Why should the City fund new coal investments ?

[Question from the table, asking about the “coal is 70% of the problem” message from Simon Henry] When you talk to the City investors, do you take the same message to the City ?

[Simon Henry] How much of 2.7 trillion tonnes of “Unburnable Carbon” is coal, oil and gas ? Two thirds of carbon reserves is coal. [For economic growth and] transport you need high density liquid fuels. Could make from coal [but the emissions impact would be high]. We need civil society to have a more serious [understanding] of the challenges.

After the discussion, I asked Simon Henry to clarify his words about the City of London.

[Simon Henry] We don’t use the City as a source of capital. 90% is equity finance. We don’t go to the market to raise equity. For every dollar of profit, we invest 75 cents, and pay out 25 cents as dividend to our shareholders. Reduces [problems] if we can show we can reinvest. [ $12 billion a year is dividend. ]

I asked if E&P [Exploration and Production] is working – if there are good returns on investment securing new reserves of fossil fuels – I know that the company aims for a 10 or 11 year Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) to ensure shareholder confidence.

Simon Henry mentioned the price of oil. I asked if the oil price was the only determinant on the return on investment in new E&P ?

[Simon Henry] If the oil price is $90 a barrel, that’s good. At $100 a barrel or $120 a barrel [there’s a much larger profit]. Our aim is to ensure we can survive at $70 a barrel. [On exploration] we still have a lot of things in play – not known if they are working yet… Going into the Arctic [At which point I said I hope we are not going into the Arctic]… [We are getting returns] Upstream is fine [supply of gas and oil]. Deepwater is fine. Big LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] is fine. Shale is a challenge. Heavy Oil returns could be better – profitable, but… [On new E&P] Iraq, X-stan, [work in progress]. Downstream [refinery] has challenges on return. Future focus – gas and deepwater. [On profitability of investment – ] “Gas is fine. Deepwater is fine.”

[My summary] So, in summary, I think all of this means that Shell believes that Cap and Trade is the way to control carbon, and that the Cap and Trade cost would be borne by their customers (in the form of higher bills for energy because of the costs of buying carbon credits), so their business will not be affected. Although a Cap and Trade market could possibly cap their own market and growth as the sales envelope for carbon would be fixed, since Shell are moving into lower carbon fuels – principally Natural Gas, their own business still has room for growth. They therefore support Cap and Trade because they believe it will not affect them. WHAT THEY DON’T APPEAR TO WANT PEOPLE TO ASK IS IF A CAP AND TRADE SYSTEM WILL ACTUALLY BE EFFECTIVE IN CURBING CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS. They want to be at the negotiating table. They believe that they’re not the problem – coal is. They believe that the world will continue to need high energy-dense oil for transport for some time to come. It doesn’t matter if the oil market gets constrained by natural limits to expansion because they have gas to expand with. They don’t see a problem with E&P so they believe they can keep up their R/P and stay profitable and share prices can continue to rise. As long as the oil price stays above $70 a barrel, they’re OK.

However, there was a hint in what Simon Henry talked about that all is not completely well in Petro-land.

a. Downstream profit warning

Almost in passing, Simon Henry admitted that downstream is potentially a challenge for maintaining returns on investment and profits. Downstream is petrorefinery and sales of the products. He didn’t say which end of the downstream was the issue, but oil consumption has recovered from the recent Big Dip recession, so that can’t be his problem – it must be in petrorefinery. There are a number of new regulations about fuel standards that are going to be more expensive to meet in terms of petroleum refinery – and the chemistry profiles of crude oils are changing over time – so that could also impact refinery costs.

b. Carbon disposal problem

The changing profile of crude oils being used for petrorefinery is bound to cause an excess of carbon to appear in material flows – and Simon Henry’s brief mention of petcoke is more significant than it may first appear. In future there may be way too much carbon to dispose of (petcoke is mostly carbon rejected by thermal processes to make fuels), and if Shell’s plan is to burn petcoke to make power as a solution to dispose of this carbon, then the carbon dioxide emissions profile of refineries is going to rise significantly… where’s the carbon responsiblity in that ?

UKERC : Gas by Design

Today I attended a meeting of minds.

It’s clear to me that the near-term and mid-term future for energy in the United Kingdom and the European Union will best be centred on Natural Gas and Renewable Electricity, and now the UK Energy Research Centre has modelled essentially the same scenario. This can become a common narrative amongst all parties – the policy people, the economists, the technologists, the non-governmental groups, as long as some key long-term de-carbonisation and energy security objectives are built into the plan.

The researchers wanted to emphasise from their report that the use of Natural Gas should not be a default option in the case that other strategies fail – they want to see a planned transition to a de-carbonised energy system using Natural Gas by design, as a bridge in that transition. Most of the people in the room found they could largely agree with this. Me, too. My only caveat was that when the researchers spoke about Gas-CCS – Natural Gas-fired power generation with Carbon Capture and Storage attached, my choice would be Gas-CCU – Natural Gas-fired power generation with Carbon Capture and Re-utilisation – carbon recycling – which will eventually lead to much lower emissions gas supply at source.

What follows is a transcription of my poorly-written notes at the meeting, so you cannot accept them as verbatim.

Jim Watson, UKERC = [JW]
Christophe McGlade, University College London (UCL) = [CM]
Mike Bradshaw, Warwick Business School = [MB]

[JW] Thanks to Matt Aylott. Live Tweeting #FutureOfGas. Clearly gas is very very important. It’s never out of the news. The media all want to talk about fracking… If we want to meet the 2 degrees Celsius target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, how much can gas be a part of this ? Is Natural Gas a bridge – how long a ride will that gas bridge be ?

[CM] Gas as a bridge ? There is healthy debate about the Natural Gas contribution to climate change [via the carbon dioxide emissions from burning Natural Gas, and also about how much less in emissions there is from burning Natural Gas compared to burning coal]. The IPCC said that “fuel switching” from coal to gas would offer emissions benefits, but some research, notably McJeon et al. (2014) made statements that switching to Natural Gas cannot confer emissions benefits. Until recently, there have not been many disaggregated assessments on gas as a bridge. We have used TIAM-UCL. The world is divided into 16 regions. The “climate module” seeks to constrain the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. One of the outcomes from our model was that export volumes [from all countries] would be severaly impacted by maintaining the price indexation between oil and gas. [Reading from chart on the screen : exports would peak in 2040s]. Another outcome was that gas consumption is not radically affected by different gas market structures. However, the over indexation to the oil price may destroy gas export markets. Total exports of natural gas are higher under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario compared to the 4 degrees Celsius scenario – particularly LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas]. A global climate deal will support gas exports. There will be a higher gas consumption under a 2 degrees Celsius deal compared to unconstrained scenario [leading to a 4 degrees Celsius global temperature rise]. The results of our modelling indicate that gas acts as a bridge fuel out to 2035 [?] in both absolute and relative terms. There is 15% greater gas consumption in the 2 degrees Celsius global warming scenario than in the 4 degrees Celsius global warming scenario. Part of the reason is that under the 4 degrees Celsius scenario, Compressed Natural Gas vehicles are popular, but a lot less useful under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario [where hydrogen and other fuels are brought into play].

There are multiple caveats on these outcomes. The bridging period is strictly time-limited. Some sectors need to sharply reduce consumption [such as building heating by Natural Gas boilers, which can be achieved by mass insulation projects]. Coal must be curtailed, but coal-for-gas substitution alone is not sufficient. Need a convincing narrative about how coal can be curtailed. In an absence of a global binding climate deal we will get consumption increases in both coal and gas. In the model, gas is offsetting 15% of coal by 2020, and 85% by 2030. With Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), gas’s role is drastically reduced – after 2025 dropping by 2% a year [of permitted gas use]. Not all regions of the world can use gas as a bridge. [Reading from the chart : with CCS, gas is a strong bridging fuel in the China, EU, India, Japan and South Korea regions, but without CCS, gas is only strong in China. With CCS, gas’s bridging role is good in Australasia, ODA presumably “Offical Development Assistance” countries and USA. Without CCS, gas is good for Africa, Australasia, EU, India, Japan, South Korea, ODA and USA.]

In the UK, despite the current reliance on coal, there is little scope to use it as a transition fuel. Gas is unlikely to be removed from UK energy system by 2050.

[Question from the floor] The logic of gas price indexation with the oil price ?

[CM] If maintain oil indexation, exports will reduce as countries turn more towards indigenous at-home production of gas for their domestic demand. This would not be completely counter-balanced by higher oil and therefore gas prices, which should stimulate more exports.

[Point from the floor] This assumes logical behaviour…

[Question from the floor] [Question about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)]

[CM] The model does anticipate more CCS – which permits some extra coal consumption [at the end of the modelling period]. Gas-CCS [gas-fired power generation with CCS attached] is always going to generate less emissions than coal-CCS [coal-fired power generation with CCS attached] – so the model prefers gas-CCS.

[to be continued…]