Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tech Talk - of oil, water and the age of Stone.

There seems to be an assumed correlation between those who have some concerns over the accuracy of the theories of climate change (shall we call them the doubters for today’s discussion) and those who believe that there is a plentiful amount of fossil fuel available that will see us properly provided for well into the future. This is in contrast with those who are actively pushing the agenda associated with remedial matters that might affect the climate, and who also assume that there remains a plentiful sufficiency of fossil fuels, but are anxious for the world to change to alternate sustainable and renewable fuels to reduce our dependency on fuels that generate carbon dioxide.

Discussions of peak oil, the limits to natural gas production, and concerns as to when, this century the currently abundant coal reserves (not to mention the resources beyond them) will run out are dealt with as an increasingly irrelevant topic for discussion. The current adequacy of supplies is assumed as likely to persist, and neither camp is much inclined to argue the issue. Which is unfortunate, since this lack of real interest is taking place at a time when the dominoes are lining up toward a series of cascading falls, when the rather glib commentaries of the past will lie forgotten, and concerns over national fuel resources will be topics for discussion in many more nations around the world than now even talk about it.

One of the most quoted remarks that epitomizes the blindness of many to the coming problems is that of Sheik Yamani "The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil.". Unfortunately for the applicability of this analogy, we have seen, in the past, times where technology disappeared under the assaults of external forces, wiping out civilizations around the world.

I recently mentioned the book "1491" by Charles C. Mann – who covers some of the civilizations that thrived and fell in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. At some point or other some resource, vital at the time to each civilization proved inadequate. For example the Mayan Civilization collapse has been blamed on a prolonged series of droughts that made the centralized city life impractical. Richardson Gill, for example, in “The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life and Death” points out how very short a distance a city worker can travel to find food for his family, if he has to go on foot. It is an argument that likely also held true, in its time, in Mesapotamia. Yet, in the short term, there was nothing apparently that the rulers of the time could do to achieve an adequate supply of water. The transient shortages were, however, sufficient to doom those civilizations that suffered (and that includes those along the West Coast of the United States in about the same period). We still have to rely on water, but that doesn’t mean that the times where it fell short were not locally catastrophic and destructive of civilization.

And that is the problem with Sheik Yamani’s analogy between the supply of liquid fuels and the Stone Age. We can look outside and see stone in abundance all around us. Yet we have moved on to rely on other materials. Even in a drought in California, they have a huge amount of water right beside them. It is merely the wrong sort (sea water) and they are only slowly coming to recognize that perhaps they are going to have to bite the bullet of desalination, if the problem is not going to get recursively worse.

There will always be some form of energy available. We have, in large measure, moved away from dung fires for heating and cooking in North America and Europe and it is unlikely we will return to those days. But what is often missed in the assumption that we can switch from one resource to another in times of shortage, is the time that it takes to make the change. That wasn’t too hard to do, if the switch was from gathering dung to gathering wood, but it gets more complicated if the two alternatives are coal and, for the sake of discussion, wind energy.

When coal-fired power stations are closed and demolished they cannot be turned back on if wind energy proves to be an inadequate reserve. Arranging for coal mines that will supply the coal, railways to ship it, and power companies to acquire the permits to build and then burn it takes years. Nuclear power takes even longer, and even running a new pipeline can (in the case of Keystone) drag on for seemingly ever without a decision. The changing picture of energy subsidies for wind and solar are also raising concerns over the reliability of return on investment in those industries. Small, local solar operations (as with the dung fire) can move relatively quickly. Individual houses can be retrofitted within a few months – but for an effort with national impact, the small-scale is likely to be inadequate in overall size to match the power output from major coal-fired stations now on the block.

We are marching to a set of drums that beats out the message that there is no problem, even as the signs of a slowing oil production increase are appearing, and none of the global signals is very reassuring. Those European nations dependent on Russian oil and gas are discovering that, perhaps there really isn’t a practical alternative to that supply, and so speak more quietly about Ukraine and the Baltics. Any tightening of global supplies (a likely event in the next couple of years) will only make that situation worse for those customer nations, and serve to strengthen the national stature of the Russian President.

It is worth remembering that those of us who talk about peak oil are not talking about a resource that will suddenly disappear. No, we are merely projecting that sometime in the near future there will come a time when that year’s overall crude oil production will be a little less than the year before, and similarly in the following years. (Projections for future drilling operations in North America are receiving increasing scrutiny). There will still be a lot of oil around, but as demand exists so the price will start to steadily increase in an continuing rebalancing of price, cost and supply that will increasingly roil the global marketplace. Unfortunately in an increasing number of cases the need for money is an upfront and increasingly expensive one, to pay for the exploration and development, with only some assurance of a payback. And as more money goes into a smaller return in volume, the mandatory prices needed to continue that progression will continue to rise, even as gains diminish.

In the interim the EPA has cut the targeted production of cellulosic-ethanol yet again.


  1. It would be one thing if we were discussing the need to retain the capacity to exploit fossil fuels in concert with a robust transition away from them. It is quite another when we continue to do so, and actively increase our abilities in this regard, as a means of 'solving' our energy problem. This, as you suggest, is utter lunacy, even in the absence of environmental factors.

    We are so far away from this, that even someone who points this out, and is in most other respects entirely reasonable (the 'clean' nature of coal a glaring exception) thinks it reasonable to paint those who insist on recognizing indisputable facts as having an agenda, whilst those who wish to ignore same are "doubters."

    What is it, exactly, that you doubt? Do you doubt the carbon emissions associated with fossil fuel burning? this has been directly measured in the atmosphere for decades, and indirectly going back millennia. Do you doubt that CO2 is a heat trapping gas? this has been known for two hundred years, and direct measurement from space confirms spectrally the change in Earth's infrared signature. Do you doubt the physics which relate this signature to a precise number of Watts/Meter^2 in additional energy trapped beneath the atmosphere? perhaps you could begin expressing vague doubts on the laws of thermodynamics for an encore? Do you doubt the chemistry which explains the carbon cycle, and the persistence of the effects of atmospheric CO2? Do you doubt that such an increase in energy will have no appreciable effect, despite the effects we are already seeing?

    I'm not even getting to the acidification of the oceans, the changes in temperature which already are effecting, in a directly measurable way, the currents and aeration of the oceans. The exact nature of the effects of warming are, indeed, unknown. This is and should be the subject of study and debate. The idea that any reasonable person can express '"doubt" about the magnitude of this largely unknown impending change is ludicrous.

  2. Well there is no doubt, historically, that there was a Little Ice Age, and prior to that - logically and again as a matter of historical fact, the planet was warmer.

    Until we can explain why the Earth got warmer, then cooler, then warmer again, and has been doing this in thousand year cycles for a while and in which pattern the current warming fits, then it becomes difficult to decide how much of global warming is natural and how much anthropogenic - hence the doubts about blaming it all on CO2.
    The strongly activists suggest that most of the warming is due to greenhouse gases, yet the concentration has only been significantly rising for a short while, prior to which the temperature was already going up, and at the current end of which it has been stalled for almost 20 years. The theories on which all the projections are based are beginning to look a little dubious as to their predictive ability.