The Big Squeeze: Peak Oil and the Global Climate
Al Gore's documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, is bringing the word to many Americans about something of which there is little dispute in the scientific community: global climate change can no longer just be called a threat; rather, it is real and its impact is both apparent and profound. Last year, the hydrocarbon energy industry through it's lobbying force and the Bush Administration was unsuccessful in its attempt to silence one of the government's chief climatologists on the subject of Global Warming. We had the chance to hear him --he, by the way, is James Hansen, Director of NOAA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies-- not too long ago at the Sustainable Energy Forum 2006 Conference in DC "Peak Oil and the Environment", offer his stark prediction that unless we reverse the emission of greenhouse gases (produced mainly through our consumption of carbon-based fuel), the world will reach a point of no return on global warming within a decade. And just yesterday, we got official confirmation from another government agency, the National Research Council, that the last two decades were Earth's hottest for at least the last 400 years and possibly since Nero recited poetry in the glow of a burning Rome. The study was done at Congress's request and relied on scientific data derived from tree rings and ice core samplings.
Already there is a growing consensus that warming oceans are to blame for a growing trend in climate turbulence. But the accelerating shrinking of glaciers from the Alps to Kilimanjaro to the polar regions portends even greater dangers, particularly to coastal regions where rising water levels will impact hundreds of millions of people.
For most of us, the problem alone, given the global cooperation required to alter it, seems daunting if not intractable. But that intractability, put into the context of the greatest geopolitical crisis of out time, something called Peak Oil, may just be insurmountable. Oil, and its twin underground energy resource, natural gas, emit carbon dioxide when they are converted to energy. However, they are both relatively clean fuels that can be consumed in highly efficient manners. Now imagine a Peak Oil/Gas world in which oil and gas grows ever more costly as the market absorbs the implications of a supply that is already half exhausted at the same time as two thirds of the population has the expectation that they too will achieve a standard of living that has been built on the premise of an unending supply of cheap energy.
Carbon dioxide emission (C02} is the major greenhouse gas component) is a growing worldwide phenomenon but the developed world, and particularly the US are critical to the present state of affairs. Today the US represents just 4% of the world's population but it, alone, consumes 25% of the world's energy production.
And energy is the world's largest economic sector. Last year, just petroleum --not the service or chemical industries around it nor other forms of energy-- accounted for sales of $3 trillion. Put in prospective, the US economy, the world's largest, (GDP) was $11.3 trillion and the next largest economy, that of Japan was $4.3 trillion.
For contemporary economies, there is a direct correlation between energy consumption and economic expansion. If present economic trends continue --and that, of course, is a huge if, given the pitfalls that lie ahead-- by mid-century a recent Goldman Sachs study projects that the 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians will have a economies totaling twice the US's projected $36 trillion ($44.5 and $27.8 trillion, respectively). The implication is that the world will be consuming four times the amount of energy it consumes today in order to merely meet a steady level of growth in energy demand.
In contrast, according to the World-Watch Institute oil extraction has already exceeded discoveries of new oil by a factor of three over the past two decades. It's not only the constant growth in the consumption in energy that mirrors world economic growth but the resulting emission of greenhouse gases.
Peak Oil, describes the moment we find ourselves increasing our rate of consumption faster than our rate of discovery. For the US, that tipping point is now estimated to have occurred somewhere in the early 1970's, very close to the timeline predicted by the legendary oil industry geologist, M. King Hubbert. Since then, the US has increasingly become a net importer. It is also no coincidence that US geopolitical involvement in the Persian Gulf greatly increased in the same period.
Kenneth Deffeyes, is a Professor Emeritus at Princeton who has authored several books on Hubbert. Using Hubbert's methods --which, contrary to the common wisdom of the day turned out to be uncannily accurate-- Diffeyes has projected that global Peak Oil occurred some time in 2005. Diffeyes is one of only a handful of scientists world wide who have long focused on the ins and outs of proven petroleum reserves. More optimistic projections put global peak oil occurring somewhere between today and the year 2020. Deffeyes also related at the Sustainable Energy forum, several interesting facts; Diffeyes points out the astounding, at least to us, revelation that most of the publicly available information on "proven" oil reserves can only be properly listed as "estimates", mainly from some pretty shaky and biased sources. Most oil producing countries, including the principal suppliers like Saudi Arabia and Russia, regard that information a state secret; on the public data side, over the last few years, stockholders have been informed by Shell, an oil giant second only to Exxon, in its Annual Reports that its own calculations of proven reserves are anything but sure. In essence, Shell has had to admit three years running to its own investors that it has less "proven" oil reserves than it reported it had the prior year.
In this financially and politically charged atmosphere of secrecy a number of misconceptions have been allowed to flourish. Up until a few short years ago, industry pundits through the media often alluded to an abundance of natural gas both in the US and around the world. In this regard, it's significant that Deffeyes also believes that we have reached global peak in natural gas. Despite what we hear from some optimistic analysts, it seems that on the defining issue of our day, we are flying in the dark when it comes to how much oil and gas might be still tappable!
A hydrocarbon squeeze, that is, a coming world in which oil and gas rise considerably, could be considered a good thing for those worrying about global climate change, since it provides a firmer economic basis for investments into alternative energy sources, including clean renewables. But there is a more formidable looming danger to the environment, Coal, and coal is cheap and still relatively abundant. The recent rash of coal mine accidents is all too clear a symptom of what's happening here in the US on that front. Smaller, less productive, lower quality mines are being rushed into production and crews are already working around the clock to mine the rock carbon. In contrast to the carbon based petroleum and natural gas fuels that have been in use in this country over most of the last century for heating, electricity generation and transportation, coal is, of course, a much dirtier alternative. Not only does coal produce greenhouse gases at nearly twice the volume, it also produces a number of other pollutants, mainly absent in oil and gas, that are dangerous to be flora and fauna populations and to the environment as a whole. In the last week the New York Times has run an article on Chinese coal production and its environmental impact: Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow and another on Europe's growing use of coal: Europe's Image Clashes With Reliance on Coal:
Europe likes to think of itself as a place that has moved beyond its sooty industrial past, with energy that comes from the windmills that dot the Dutch countryside and the Danish coastline or the carbon-free nuclear plants that dominate France's power industry.
But with oil prices soaring and worries rising about the reliability of gas piped from Russia, Europe must depend heavily on that great industrial-age relic, coal: a cheap, plentiful fuel, but one that emits twice the carbon dioxide of natural gas. Coal-fired plants generated half the power in Germany and Britain during the chilly winter just past.
Ironically the burning of "dirty" fuels might even initially mitigate global warming through a process called global dimming --something that was measurable --by its absence--in the week after 9/11 when planes were forced out of US skies-- but the damage of a corrosive atmosphere produced by burning coal will only multiply climatic problems. There are coal advocates who argue that coal can be scrubbed and that even the production of carbon dioxide can be mitigated by storing the gas in the underground caverns left by abandoned mines. The danger is that the "stored" gases will eventually find their way into the atmosphere. The short time fix would just push another problem down to the next generations
Another area for disinformation swirls around ethanol and biomass. Ethanol made from corn is being heavily touted in the US. Superficially, corn-based ethanol might seem attractive, but unfortunately its main momentum comes from its boon to farm state politicians. However, it's estimated, generously it seems, that it takes a gallon of petroleum to produce 1.2 gallons of ethanol and that ethanol burns at about 80% of the efficiency of petroleum. Corn ethanol is being subsidized by tax breaks. But the ethanol equation, unless we are talking about certain natural biomass byproducts, has some serious environmental pitfalls. Agricultural production, be it corn or more efficient crops, eventually leads to a host of other emerging societal problems like food shortages, soil depletion, pesticide pollution. Industrial style agriculture also relies on petroleum-based fertilizers. Farming, particularly in marginal areas, is a massive consumer of water. In many parts of the US and the world, there is already a growing struggle over the availability of usable water. Growing populations are also putting pressure on that limited resource.
There are other biomass products that may be more economical than cultivated crops of corn, rapeseed or even sugar. There is growing interest in wild grasses or even certain hardwoods. However, it's notable that none of the Sustainable Energy Forum speakers believes we will be able to grow our way out of this conundrum. At best, efficient biomass conversion will be one component in a combination of technologies.
There's also renewed talk about restarting up nuclear energy production in the US and abroad. Nuclear also has big business proponents who give it a particular boost. They argue that because nuclear produces no greenhouse gases it thus becomes an apparent solution to both the energy problem and global warming. But as we are well aware nuclear --as its used at its best today-- comes with its own very heavy environmental baggage mainly associated with sie and operation safety and particularly the disposal of the highly poisonous wastes that are its main byproduct. The giant nuclear dump that has been built at enormous expense and against growingly rigid public resistance at Yucca Flats has not yet been opened despite the overflow crisis in "temporary" storage methods but it is already projected that Yucca Flats will be full within the first decade of operation. That means the US taxpayer --and not the industry itself, by the way-- will have to locate and get local and state permissions to go ahead with another "suitable" site Getting another suitable site for the dump in the contiguous 48 will be hard enough but nuclear waste has to be transported from the reactor sites to the dump which means a difficult and dangerous process of handling and transporting on public byways. Imagine the throughways and railroads packed with containers of this most toxic of stuff. With all this movement it is not only probable that serious accidents will happen but it's also possible that the materials will get into the hands of malevolent forces who could, at the very least, exact great leverage with a technically easy to make, dirty bomb. Nuclear reactors also have to be built near water sources. How many communities today in a Homer Simpson world are ready to accept the presence of a nuclear plant?
Claudio Filippone, a physicist at the University Maryland argues against the feasibility of going ahead with conventional nuclear plants as we know them today. He does believe, however, that future breakthroughs can be made in alternative methods of producing nuclear energy that all but eliminate the waste problem. Other major technological breakthroughs in fields as related or varied as photovoltaics, materials science, electricity storage, and nanotechnology will no doubt appear on the horizon.
But given this fast emerging dilemma we're calling the "twin peaks", it is hard to find many optimists in the field. People like Michael Klare --another Peak Oil and the Environment conference speaker- for example, have focused on the geopolitical stresses that Peak Oil brings on and that many believe are already in full evidence in US/Iraq and US/Iran interactivities. Klare's most recent book is called Blood and Oil.
To understand what's at play, ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas believes that in the case of Iraq, which officially claims 112 billion barrels of reserves, there are probably reserves of 80 billion barrels. At today's price, that's $5 trillion. Iraq is one of the big pools left but put in prospective, at today's rates, the world consumes about 85 million barrels a day. Just as the global problems of HIV Aids or the portent of a deadly flu pandemic are played out against a background of geopolitics, it's important not to underestimate what stresses on the system peak oil and global climate change pose in an already fragile, highly suspicious world.
Not everyone in the long-time environmental community is wholly pessimistic. One exception, is Lester Brown, who has received a MacArthur Fellowship and 20 honorary degrees for his work on environmentalism. Brown believes that we already have sufficient technology and firm economic motivation to pursue a path that quite rapidly leads us out of our dependence on a carbon-based energy economy. He points to a history of thirty odd years of development in alternative energy technology that he believes provides a sufficient foundation for the advances that can be made in the next few years. Brown believes that a combination of solar, hydro and wind power along with behavioral changes is well within our powers of achievement.
Christopher Flavin, the President of the WorldWatch Institute argues that " The same technological revolution that created the Internet and so many other 21st Century wonders can be used to efficiently harness the world's vast supplies of wind, biomass and other forms of solar energy --which are 6,000 times greater on an annual basis than the fossil resources we now rely upon. Technologies such as solar cells, fuel cells, biorefineries and wind turbines are in about the same place today that the internal combustion engine and electromagnetic generator occupied in 1905. These key enabling technologies have already been developed and commercialized, but they are just now entering the world's largest markets.........Roughly $30 billion was invested in advanced biofuels, giant windfarms, solar manufacturing plants and other technologies in 2004.
In Gore's powerpoint that he has given thousands of times over the last few years, he equates our present predicament to that of a frog in a heating pot. As the water gradually warms, the frog's senses adapt, it continues to swim around right up until it gets cooked. Bending to some feedback he got from his audiences, Gore now plucks the amphibian out of the hot water just in time!
The clear consensus at the Sustainable Energy Forum 2006, Peak Oil and the Environment was that wind power, an inherently clean technology, holds the greatest immediate potential to fill a significant portion of the gap as new technologies come into play. Unfortunately, along with the opposition to nuclear, even windfarms pose difficult political problems. Take environmentally friendly Massachusetts, where a proposed off-coast wind farm has been bitterly opposed by a constituency full of donors to environmentally friendly causes. Other proposed wind farms around the country have also raised the fears of bird and bat lovers.
Inexpensive solar collectors are another area of hope. Just this week a Palo Alto based company announced that it was building the largest solar cell production facility in the country using a technology it compared to "printing" the cells. Present solar technology relies on silicon wafers that are much more costly to produce. Recently, there's been a shortage of these wafers even as demand mounts.
However, if Jim Hansen is right about the tipping point, and more coal in the mix will only accelerate that date, those folks up around Hyannisport better stop worrying about their binocular views. They might want to visit the Netherlands or New Orleans for a look at what their future might look like, close-up.