Merry Christmas  

Posted by Big Gav

I'm going to be offline for the next 2-3 weeks, so if you are looking for peak oil and related news then the "Essential Peak Oil" links to the right are the place to go.

Given that the festive season is approaching, I may as well launch into a brief rant about one toxic meme which appears around this time of year and is becoming increasingly annoying - the one which goes something like "such and such a group is trying to abolish Christmas".

While most of the TV coverage here this week has been concentrating on race riots and gang violence, the morning news still managed to get a few segments in on this theme, based on the extremely flimsy pretence of one grumpy person in Queensland who wrote to the local school complaining about them referring to Christmas too often in in the school newsletter.

So is this worthy of multiple segments on the national news ? I wouldn't think so but it appears this sort of nonsense (its not like people complaining about Christmas are easy to find, let alone in any danger of getting it abolished) is just anther facet of the culture war that Bismark launched so long ago (although it was called Kulturkampf back then).

Thom Hartmann wrote about this last year, and I've seen quite a few bloggers commenting on it this week as well - check out Digby,
Seeing the Forest, Scrutiny Hooligans, Ron Beasley and Past Peak for various examples.

Just another example of why wingnuts should be exiled to the fringes of society - you should never let the opportunistic and paranoid grab control of any sort of power, lest they end up getting to the same stage of the culture war the Germans eventually reached.

I'll close with a quote - and wish you all of you who've been reading my rantings this year a Happy Christmas or Hanukkah or Holidays or Winter / Summer Solstice festival...

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
~ H. L. Mencken, "Women as Outlaws"

The Big Chill  

Posted by Big Gav

Speculation continues to mount about the impact of natural gas shortages in the US this winter. The resulting high prices mean that its likely that the poor and industries that can't pass on cost increases will be the ones who bear the brunt of the problem.

Falling gasoline prices make it easy to believe the nation has seen the last of the energy woes that swept in behind this year's Gulf Coast hurricanes. But they don't fool an unemployed woman on the Crow Indian Reservation, using the electric oven to warm her house on increasingly crisp Montana nights because her natural-gas heat has been cut off. For brickyard workers in Mill Hall, Pa., unemployment looms after the holidays, because it will be too expensive to fire the clay kilns this winter. And one retiree in a mobile home in Millinocket plans to take her asthma medication once daily instead of three times as prescribed, to save money to pay the kerosene bills that will soar in Maine's bitter cold.

With the season's first snowfall hitting the Northeast last week, it is becoming apparent that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did far more to the nation's energy equation than spoil Labor Day vacation drives. The storms upset the already precarious balance of the nation's supply and demand for fuel. So much Gulf of Mexico oil and natural gas production remains in disarray that even with a mild winter, Americans face a Big Chill: astronomical heating bills--on average, 38 percent higher than last year's record costs for natural gas and 21 percent higher for oil.

Triple threat. That means hundreds of closed factories and enormous hardship for low-income and working poor families, who can expect scant federal government help. And if bitter cold rides in on Mother Nature's coattails, extraordinary measures will be needed to keep energy flowing, particularly in the Northeast, as natural-gas shortages spill over into oil and electricity supplies. "We pray for warm weather. We have a prayer chain going," says Diane Munns, an Iowa regulator who is president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners. "People are talking not just about high prices but actual shortages."

Adds Matthew Simmons, a prominent Houston energy investment banker, who has warned of a new era of scarcity: "We're headed into a winter that could be a real winter of discontent."

It is not just about money. Damage to rigs, pipelines, and processing facilities means a shortage of natural gas, the fuel that heats 52 percent of U.S. homes. The industry says 2.3 billion cubic feet per day, or 23 percent of the Gulf of Mexico's natural-gas production, will be offline through March. But even before the deadly storms struck, the country was consuming more natural gas than it produced and prices were at record highs.

Looking on the bright side, if oil and gas consumption is reduced, there is no chance North Americans will be succumbing to the smog the way people are in Tehran.

Bill Totten has a post up on the crisis facing car manufacturers like Ford and General Motors. While he blames "capitalist diehards" for this crisis, I think he should perhaps look at the examples of Toyota and Honda and contrast the styles of the different corporations. To a certain extent this seems to be an example of survival of the fittest - Ford and GM failed to look into the future and are paying the price, while the likes of Toyota have recognised the need to produce cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles and are reaping the benefits. Some capitalists are better than others it would seem.
General Motors, the corporation that came to symbolize the United States in the 1950s, is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Delphi Corporation, an auto parts manufacturer that GM spun off a few years ago, declared bankruptcy at the beginning of October, making it the biggest bankruptcy in the history of the auto industry. Ford is in similar straits; slumping sales in North America have forced it to announce plans to close plants and lay off thousands of employees.

In the era of cheap and abundant oil GM and Ford dominated the top industries in both the US and the world. There are various reasons why these two companies are now in crisis, but here I will focus on how difficult it will be for them to recover.

First, over half of the automobiles sold recently in America have been SUVs. These vehicles guzzle gasoline and pollute the environment horribly. Yet for several years both Ford and GM have focused on manufacturing these automobiles because they could sell them at high prices and reap huge profit margins. It will not be easy for these companies to adjust to high oil prices by converting their manufacturing facilities to produce less expensive cars yielding much thinner profit margins. If oil prices continue to remain high, consumers will continue to turn away in increasing numbers from SUVs, leaving GM and Ford the last players in a rapidly shrinking market.

Last year 77% of US consumption was financed by borrowing as spendthrift Americans mortgaged their homes to pay for consumer goods and services. Both the Federal Reserve and Freddie Mac say that nearly one-third of American consumption has been financed by such borrowing over the past decade.

...

High energy costs are affecting not only the inefficient auto and airline industries, but also have begun having an impact even on moderately efficient rail and large-scale distribution systems. As the brief (150 year) period that depended heavily on abundance of cheap fossil fuel ends, many aspects of our economy and our very lives inevitably will be affected by high and rising energy costs.

As is clear from looking at GM and Ford, the most important objective of private industry in the US is maximization of profit, immediate profit, for stockholders and for executives charged with achieving that objective. This is the ideology of America's capitalist diehards. When costs rise, the first steps taken by US capitalists is to reduce expenses by cutting wages and benefits, and to transfer the costs to consumers through higher prices while, of course, shirking their own share of society's tax burden off on those same workers and consumers.

The crisis facing the American auto industry - alongside war and prison, the very symbol of the United States - has profound significance for Japanese, both as workers and consumers of corporations addicted to the shaky US market and as subjects of an oligarchy whose only policies seem to be meekly obeying American commands and blindly aping American ways.

Elsewhere, Vietnam is considering cutting crude oil and coal exports, while Thailand is looking to build more hydropower and coal fuelled power plants to reduce their dependence on diesel.

An oil pipeline between Kazakhstan and China is now open - the first pipeline to export Kazakh oil that does not go via Russia.
Kazakhstan and China have inaugurated a 1,000km-long (620-mile) oil pipeline to supply Kazakh oil to energy-hungry western China. It will eventually export oil to feed China's booming economy from huge reserves around the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan wants to become one of the world's top oil exporters in the next decade or two.

Construction began last year on the pipeline from Atasu in central Kazakhstan to Alashankou on the Chinese border. It should be fully operational by the middle of next year, providing a new source of oil for China to develop its western Xinjiang region.

Eventually another pipeline will link up with this one from the Caspian region in west Kazakhstan, where the huge new Kashagan oilfield is being developed.

With the help of Western oil companies, Kazakhstan has doubled its production to more than a million barrels a day since the collapse of the Soviet Union. That puts it among the world's top 20 oil producers now, but Kazakhstan has ambitions to triple this amount in the next decade or two.


Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has warned of an energy crisis in Africa and urged other governments to prioritise the use of renewable energy.

The WorldWatch Institute's magazine for January is devoted to the subject of Peak Oil.
Although no one knows for sure when oil production will "peak," nearly everyone in the January/February issue of World Watch magazine's Peak Oil Forum agrees that the age of oil will end—and the time to start transitioning to alternatives is now. While industry representatives such as Red Cavaney of the American Petroleum Institute argue that failure to develop "the potentially vast oil and natural gas resources that remain in the world" will have a high economic cost, others, such as Worldwatch Institute's Christopher Flavin, argue that "the current path—continually expanding our use of oil on the assumption that the Earth will yield whatever quantity we need—is irresponsible and reckless."

A lack of transparency in the world oil market makes assessing oil reserves a guessing game, with figures in official oil reports often based as much on politics as geology: nearly three-quarters of the world's oil is controlled by state-owned companies, whose reserve figures are never audited. "We know that oil production will peak within our lifetime, we are pretty sure that market prices will not anticipate this peak, and we know that not having alternatives in place at the time of the peak will have tremendous economic and social consequences," says Robert K. Kaufmann, an energy economist at Boston University. "Doing too little now in the name of economic efficiency will appear in hindsight as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic."

While some proponents of "peak oil" like to proffer doomsday scenarios, the Peak Oil Forum participants highlight the opportunity to engage human ingenuity as one resource that won't peak. "Unless we believe, preposterously, that human inventiveness and adaptability will cease the year the world reaches the peak annual output of conventional crude oil, we should see that milestone…as a challenging opportunity rather than as a reason for cult-like worries," says Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba.

While we will never wake up to the headline, "World Runs Out of Oil," says Kaufmann, before production declines to very low levels, the peak will mark a point of no return that will affect every aspect of modern life. "As oil becomes dearer," writes Smil, "we will use it more selectively and more efficiently, and we will intensify a shift that has already begun." Says Flavin: "Roughly $30 billion was invested in advanced biofuels, giant wind farms, solar manufacturing plants, and other technologies in 2004, attracting companies such as General Electric and Shell to the fasting growing segment of the global energy business."

RealClimate has a post on "Understanding Methane Hydrates" (also explained in a less densely technical way at WorldChanging).
As bad as the more obvious effects of global warming may be (e.g., drought, rising sea levels, and the like), the less-well-known effects are the ones that could prove the most worrisome in the long run. Take frozen methane, for example. We've discussed the role of methane in climate change before -- it's 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2, but cycles out of the atmosphere far more quickly. The major risk from methane comes from large amounts being released in a relatively short period. Such large amounts exist frozen beneath the Siberian permafrost and deep in the oceans.

RealClimate explores in some detail today just how the frozen methane could melt, and what the result could be if it does so. The situation, as RealClimate sees it, could be disastrous, but there's still a great deal more research that needs to be done.

WorldChanging also has a post on "Regulations and Business Strategy" which looks at the benefit to business of cutting their carbon emissions.
Do motivations matter? Last week's BusinessWeek looks at the growing trend of large companies moving to cut their carbon footprints, not out of any concern for the environment or the planet's future, but out of fear of being caught flat-footed by regulations that they see as inevitable. Financial analysts and (in particular) insurers drive this, making it clear to corporate leaders that the more they work now to cut down on greenhouse emissions, the better off they'll be when governments begin to act.

We've covered this trend before, but it's clearly accelerating. And what's especially interesting is that some of the early-moving companies are beginning to find out that -- much as we've long contended -- working to reduce their carbon footprint doesn't hurt their bottom-line, but instead improves it.

TreeHugger has some interesing posts on BMW developing a Steam/Gas Hybrid Engine and Smart Power Strips (which I'm sure Odo will appreciate).

The BBC reports that 2005 was warmest ever year in northern hemisphere.

While traffic is trending down as the holiday season approaches (and my posting frequency and depth drops) the logs have had plenty of interesting visitors this week - lots of them are regulars I've commented on previously but I was pleased to see that the US House of Representatives is interested in efficient LED lightbulbs (hopefully they'll set a good example to us all for a change) while someone at the US Senate's Seargeant At Arms is curious about the link between Senator Inhofe and peak oil (I don't think he's known for talking about the subject, but maybe he has a conspiracy theory he can trot out in front of a committee one day helped along by a compliant fiction author). Plus the Federal Reserve Board seems to have become semi-regular lately (possibly because I've speculated about M3 a few times but maybe its just another lunch break peak oil blog watcher)...

Peak Oil Scenarios  

Posted by Big Gav

WorldChanging has a look at the scenario planning work being done on "Peak Oil in Ireland" by FEASTA and Vivid Logic. I like the closing phrase on the "dark eschatology" of most peak oil conversation (one to add to the apocaphilia and terriblisma canon).

I can think of few better topics for scenario-based analysis than peak oil. The mechanism (decline of petroleum production levels) is straightforward, but the timeline is highly uncertain; plausible results range from disastrous to transformative, with little chance that just ignoring the problem is the best path; it's arguably quite sensitive to technological development; and its impact will be felt at both the micro level of individual households and the macro level of global politics.

...

Energy Scenarios Ireland is compelling, detailed and -- like every scenario project -- wrong. As the ESI site notes, no government will be as aggressively interventionist as the Enlightened Transition scenario, nor as hands-off as the Localisation scenario. Moreover, these scenarios make some assumptions that many of us, myself included, would disagree with, including global warming having little impact other than stormier weather through 2050, and no radical leaps in technologies related to energy, manufacturing or agriculture. Of course, given the level of uncertainty in those issues, they'd have to have their own scenario workshops.

But the goal of scenario projects is not to predict the future, it's to give the present-day a way to analyze decisions. What strategies would be robust across more than one scenario? What would make the bad scenarios worse, and what could we do now to soften their blow? The truism of scenario planning is that none of the worlds will be completely accurate, but the real future will contain recognizable elements of them all. In the case of the Energy Scenarios for Ireland, the underlying purpose is even simpler: to catalyze public discussion of the issue of peak oil. FEASTA and Vivid Logic aren't declaring to the Irish public "this is what will happen," they're saying "here are some examples of what might happen, what can we do about it?"

I think this is a tremendously useful strategy for introducing the peak oil concept to a larger audience. As I've expressed before, the apocaphile tendency among some peak oilers tends to shut off discussion by declaring that we're doomed, and that's final. Instead, an approach that says "here is a range of outcomes, and they're heavily dependent upon our choices" is both more accurate and more attractive. I strongly encourage people involved in the peak oil debate undertake their own scenario workshops; information about how the process works can be found here.

The Energy Scenarios Ireland project is still a work-in-progress, and will be worth returning to in the weeks and months to come. This is a discussion that will become more heated as we get closer to the peak, and projects like ESI will help us focus on solutions. I applaud efforts to bring illumination and choice to a debate that is far too often a kind of dark eschatology.

The Hydrogen Gold Rush  

Posted by Big Gav

Wired reports on the latest scramble for subsidies and the investment funds of the scientifically illiterate.

Move over, Ben Franklin. Todd Livingstone has a plan to solve the energy crisis by capturing huge amounts of energy from lightning.

The idea itself is not new. But Livingstone, an inventor and electronics technician from Boston -- the town where Benjamin Franklin was born 300 years ago next month -- has added a unique twist. Using lasers to capture lightning bolts, he wants to channel them through a large tank of water, producing near-limitless amounts of hydrogen.

Multiple cloud-to-ground and cloud-to-cloud lightning strikes streak the sky during a nighttime thunderstorm. Todd Livingstone's small-scale prototype uses a Leiden jar and a Van de Graaff generator to demonstrate how he proposes to use lightning to produce hydrogen.

The implications, says Livingstone, are "mind-boggling." Put up a network of lasers in a lightning-prone area like Florida, he says, convert that energy into hydrogen, "and we could create more energy than the world needs."

Livingstone has a small-scale prototype of the system and a patent application on file with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He's busy negotiating with potential investors.

There's only one problem. His system, according to knowledgeable scientists, probably won't work any time soon. So far, at least, lasers can't capture lightning.

Livingstone isn't the only person with a scheme to save the world through hydrogen. The last two years has seen a boom in hydrogen investment. In 2003, President Bush announced that the federal government would invest $1.2 billion into hydrogen over the next five years. General Motors has said it is spending at least a billion dollars on hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies, and companies like BP, Chevron and Shell are also making significant investments.

All that money has spawned a gold rush of inventors, all seeking the mother lode of cheap hydrogen. There's plenty of fool's gold in the dash for the moolah, and marvelous hydrogen inventions are shaping up as the perpetual-motion machines of a new age.

"Eighty percent or more of the ideas that come directly to us violate the laws of physics," says Patrick Serfass, a spokesman for the National Hydrogen Association.

The Wizard Of Oil  

Posted by Big Gav

Grist has some links to a couple of interesting posts at Daily Kos.

Check out the collective efforts by Kossacks to develop "A Blueprint for U.S. Energy Security." They're on their fourth draft, and it's really shaping up into an impressive piece of work. I would quibble with a few details, and with the excessive focus on command-and-control regulation, but my one broad criticism is that they've ended up with a kind of melting pot of every single progressive energy idea on the planet.

As an exercise in visualization and planning, it's great, but if this is going to be picked up as an actual proposal, it's in dire need of some editing. Some tough choices need to be made. There's no way, in today's political climate -- or any I can foresee -- that this country is going to be able to process 20 major pieces of legislation all at once. Especially since for each one there's going to be a major lobbying push against it by entrenched powers.

Grist also takes a look at the revival of the nuclear power industry.
Most of us know what torture it is to be a wallflower, so it's hard not to feel at least a slight frisson of sympathy for the nuclear industry. Once considered "most likely to succeed," this promising power source found itself stumbling in the 1970s. It was bad enough after Three Mile Island in 1979 -- particularly when Jane Fonda got to work in The China Syndrome. But this wallflower status was taken to an altogether different level in 1986, in the wake of an event whose ongoing repercussions will provide some of next year's great news hooks.

After Chernobyl, nuclear folk worldwide found themselves not just wallflowers, but actively disinvited wherever people came together to dance around the subject of sustainable energy. It was rather like Cinderella's coach and horses turning back into something a lot more mundane. And when the ill-fated Chernobyl site was shut down for good in 2000, some critics hailed the closure as the beginning of the industry's end.

Was it? Hardly -- and not just because of the high-level waste that will undoubtedly outlive our civilization by several hundred thousand years. In fact, this industry that was once consigned to the corner seems set to become the belle of the business world's ball.

The sheer horror of the statistics that will no doubt be rolled out in 2006 would give even a nuclear engineer pause. Take thyroid cancer, normally a rare disease, with just one in a million children falling victim; a third of children who were younger than four when exposed in the main Chernobyl fallout zone are thought likely to develop the disease. In Belarus -- where 60 to 70 percent of the fallout landed, contaminating some 25 percent of the country's farmland and forest -- nearly 1,000 children have come down with thyroid cancer, compared to seven in the 10 years before the accident.

...

Ultimately, the swing factor in determining our energy future may not be the Lovelocks or the anti-nuclear activists of this world, but China. If Hollywood ever makes China Syndrome 2, it's conceivable that the story line would be about Chinese engineers helping to save the planet from melting down. While Western power producers continue to favor slight tweaks on conventional large-scale reactor designs -- and as a result will likely keep trying to shoehorn their big-footprint feet into environmentally constrained shoes -- China is different. With a fast-growing appetite for energy and a serious dislike of the idea of being in thrall to anyone else for access to said energy, China is beginning to develop a taste for a very different form of nuclear technology.

Get ready to hear a lot more about "pebble-bed modular reactor" designs, either as a stepping stone or as an ultimate destination. First developed in Germany, the technology is winning growing support in countries like South Africa and France. These reactors are, among other things, a fifth the size of conventional reactors, much less capital-intensive, and much less prone to meltdowns. For countries that fear overdependence on the West, they also have the added advantage that they don't need Western-style fuels or refueling services. In short, they have all the makings of a potential Cinderella story.

The Rainwater Prophecy  

Posted by Big Gav

Richard Rainwater's tale in Fortune is probably the most entertaining of the day - even billionaires can get a bad case of peak oil fear. Of course, its a bit easier to insulate yourself from some of the prospective problems if you can afford a fully fledged self sufficient rural retreat (and presumably some people to guard it if your worst nightmares are realised). Anyway - if this wasn't just a way of pumping up the oil price then good on him for taking the risk of looking a bit nutty.

Richard Rainwater made billions by knowing how to profit from a crisis. Now he foresees the biggest one yet.

Richard Rainwater doesn't want to sound like a kook. But he's about as worried as a happily married guy with more than $2 billion and a home in Pebble Beach can get. Americans are "in the kind of trouble people shouldn't find themselves in," he says. He's just wary about being the one to sound the alarm.

Rainwater is something of a behind-the-scenes type—at least as far as alpha-male billionaires go. He counts President Bush as a personal friend but dislikes politics, and frankly, when he gets worked up, he says some pretty far-out things that could easily be taken out of context. Such as: An economic tsunami is about to hit the global economy as the world runs out of oil. Or a coalition of communist and Islamic states may decide to stop selling their precious crude to Americans any day now. Or food shortages may soon hit the U.S. Or he read on a blog last night that there's this one gargantuan chunk of ice sitting on a precipice in Antarctica that, if it falls off, will raise sea levels worldwide by two feet—and it's getting closer to the edge.... And then he'll interrupt himself: "Look, I'm not predicting anything," he'll say. "That's when you get a little kooky-sounding."

No Talk and No Action  

Posted by Big Gav

Bill McKibben reports on "Why the Montreal climate summit was too painful to watch".

I've been to climate meetings in locales that stretch from Kyoto to The Hague, Mexico City to the Maldives. It would have been awfully easy to get in the old hybrid and drive two hours north to Montreal for the big climate-change confab that wrapped up this weekend -- if nothing else, it's a city I love deeply. But I couldn't bring myself to do it in the end. I knew it was going to be too painful to watch.

Too painful because, as it has since the issue first emerged, the United States was the one blocking progress. Thirteen long years ago, in 1992, as he was setting out for the Rio de Janeiro summit that launched the international negotiations on global warming, the first President Bush announced that he might be willing to talk about such things, but "the American way of life is not up for negotiation." That was tragedy; by now it's descended into farce.

...

these are the years when we desperately need to be making progress. Eventually even we will have no choice but to start doing something about climate change. But each new issue of Science and Nature makes it clear that the important time is now -- that the climatic tipping point is nearer than we thought. More to the point, each passing year brings China and India further along their development path, using precisely the same raw material -- coal -- that we used to build our wealth. Five years ago, with incredible effort and investment, we might have nudged that trajectory in a very different direction; but last year, China added 65 gigawatts to its electric grid, twice as much as all of New England. And as that happens, the U.S. and China become each other's perfect excuse for inaction. "We won't do anything until China does." "How can we be expected to do anything if the U.S. won't even act?" Carbon dependent and co-dependent.

I guess the short version of the article is (excuse my language) "we're all fucked".

In more positive news, Grist also has a piece on energy efficiency in New York City.
With demand for electricity steadily increasing but no room for new power plants, New York City is making pioneering strides in energy efficiency; even famously eco-conscious burgs like Seattle and Portland are taking notice. New York has switched over more than 11,000 traffic lights and walk signals to light-emitting diodes that use 90 percent less energy than conventional fixtures. It's replaced more than 180,000 energy-hogging refrigerators in public housing with much more efficient models.

The city is now legally required to purchase only the most energy-efficient cars, air conditioners, and copy machines; soon, computers will join the list. And Gotham's got one of the biggest fleets of hybrid busses in the country, as well as some of the first hybrid taxis. "Eventually what happens here starts to happen around the country," says the Natural Resources Defense Council's Ashok Gupta. "The market that New Yorkers provide is clearly an important factor in moving the rest of the country."

Insurance and Climate Change  

Posted by Big Gav

Joel Makower at WorldChanging has a column that talks about something that I like to point out occasionally - the driving force behind our adoption of efforts to mitigate global warming may be the insurance industry - once they start passing on the costs of this problem to people and companies, the need to abandon fossil fuel consumption will become apparent to us all (and eventually to our benighted governments).

If government policies won't lead to aggressive action on climate change, maybe the insurance industry will.

It seems to have gone largely unreported in the U.S., but in the past week, two developments have shaken the largely staid world of insurance. On Tuesday, preliminary estimates released by the Munich Re Foundation at the international climate conference in Montreal found that world has suffered more than $200 billion in weather-related economic losses over the past year, making 2005 the costliest year on record.

Just days before, 20 leading U.S. investors urged 30 of the largest publicly-held insurance companies in North America to disclose their financial exposure from climate change and steps they are taking to reduce those financial impacts. The group cited the enormous risks that insurance companies face from escalating losses caused by extreme weather events and the financial risks and opportunities associated with climate change.

The recent talks in Montreal on the follow on treaty to replace Kyoto enabled our Environment Minister - Senator Campbell, who has recently shown some signs of understanding the problem - to indulge in some stupid politicking (although he did come up with a colourful quote, predicting the "heat death" of the world if we don't do something). While I understand the government's problem - we have a large current account deficit and coal is a major export earner for us (and I imagine coal mining companies are welcome donors to Liberal party coffers), it seems that sticking our heads in the sand and chanting "clean coal will save us" is a pretty pathetic way of remaining in denial, as well as being likely to cost us in the long run - both in terms of becoming a pariah amongst developed nations and lagging behind the rest of the world in adopting clean technologies, which means we'll be paying for technology from overseas instead of giving local industry a chance to develop. There's nothing I detest more than deliberately shortsighted people - although his bizarre attempt to paint wind as "old technology" and coal as "new technology" must deserve some sort of prize for newspeak.
The world would be condemned to a "hot death" if it did not pursue so-called clean coal technologies and attempts to tackle global warming should not come at the expense of economic growth, according to federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell. He also said there was no real upside into pumping more money into old technologies such as wind turbines.

Senator Campbell yesterday welcomed a decision by the 157 countries that have ratified the Kyoto Protocol on climate change to begin a new round of negotiations to cut greenhouse gas emissions. However, he did not budge from Australia's decision to continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels, such as coal.

"Coal and fossil fuels will still be a part of the future needs of the world in 80 years' time," Senator Campbell told The Age en route to Australia from the climate change negotiations in Montreal.

"You have to do renewables … but if you don't focus on cleaning up fossil fuels you are condemning the world to a hot death," Senator Campbell said. He said evidence that burning fossil fuels was changing the world's climate was becoming "irrefutable" but "the fact is we want strong economic growth … people want secure jobs".

Australia and the US have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, pushing instead for voluntary agreements. Last week Senator Campbell claimed Kyoto was almost buried and that other countries were realising Australia was right not to join.

However, nearly every industrialised nation agreed on Saturday to engage in talks aimed at producing a new set of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions that would take effect from 2012.

MOF has a post on the talks called "Emissions Accomplished" which notes our ingloroius spin attempts and has a brief quote from Bill Clinton showing Senator Campbell how it should be done.
International climate talks in Montreal: U.S. Delegation Walks Out. The U.S. and Australia are blocking any Kyoto successor. A decent press roundup with a debug of the Australian spin is in this WaPo World Opinion.

Flying in an ex U.S. president on short notice was a bit of a stunt, but of course it didn´t change anything:
"I think it's crazy for us to play games with our children's future," Mr. Clinton said. "We know what's happening to the climate, we have a highly predictable set of consequences if we continue to pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and we know we have an alternative that will lead us to greater prosperity."

But maybe this gave a realistic impression:
The National Environmental Trust distributed custom-printed noise-making rubber whoopee cushions printed with a caricature of President Bush and the words "Emissions Accomplished."




Grist has a couple of interesting posts on the topic - "As the World Spurns - U.S. attacked on three fronts for obstructing climate action" and "Let's Take This Slow on the Road - Campaign by right-wing U.S. group aims to derail E.U. climate policy" which looks at a campaign to try and white-ant the effort to do the only thing which may work in the long run - enforceable caps on emissions which get reduced over time rather than wishful thinking and hot-air communiques.
American lobbyist Chris Horner is trying to convince major European companies to join a campaign against the Kyoto Protocol and any future such strategies to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases -- but he's not making much headway. Horner is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the right-wing Washington think tank known for arguing against the scientific consensus on global warming -- and getting lots of funding from ExxonMobil. He's been talking to Ford Europe, German mega-utility RWE, and other E.U. firms in hopes of forming a coalition of companies, journalists, academics, and others to promote opposition to greenhouse-gas emissions caps -- similar to an industry-backed anti-Kyoto effort in the U.S. during the late 1990s. "I don't know why it's surprising [I have lobbied European companies]," he told the Independent. "What is surprising to me is why it's not working." Both Ford Europe and RWE say they don't back Horner's plan.

Elsewhere the BBC reports that the Inuit are sueing the US over their climate policy (and its resultant effects on the Inuit and other arctic inhabitants, with arctic ice rapidly disappearing).

TreeHugger has a report than Leonardo DiCaprio's latest project is a Global Warming film called "11th Hour".
Leonardo DiCaprio is teaming up with Tree Media Group to produce a documentary about global environmental issues. TMG is a production company formed with the mission to use media to support and sustain civil society. The feature length film, 11th Hour focuses on global warming and solutions to the climate change crisis. The movie is set to be released in Fall of '06.

WorldChanging has an interesting post called "Energy Efficiency and Intensity", which notes some positive trends in US carbon emission. For some reason the cynic in me wonders how much of this is attributable to US heavy industry and manufacturing moving offshore and the local economy becoming more dependent on service industry jobs. Home loan flipping is probably a bit less energy intensive than making cars.
Carbon dioxide output from the United States will peak and then begin to fall in just a few years, according to the numbers derived by John Whitehead at the Environmental Economics blog. The reason is that carbon intensity -- the amount of carbon produced per dollar of GDP -- is dropping at a rate faster than GDP is growing. At the current pace of intensity reduction, CO2 output in the US will peak in 2008, and begin a gradual decline thereafter. (We previously discussed carbon intensity here.)

This is good news for a number of reasons, not least that it suggests that the current biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect could, with a bit more effort, achieve a far more dramatic reduction in CO2. How to do this is a mainstay of discussion at WorldChanging; here's a look at some of the numbers underlying these options. CO2 intensity is a function of two components: the energy required per dollar equivalent of GDP (or use efficiency of energy); and the CO2 output per MW equivalent of energy (or carbon efficiency of energy). By taking a closer look at the data, we can see which one has mattered more -- and which could stand some improvement.

WorldChanging also has a post up on Google Transit, which makes life easier for people trying to work out how to get around (in Oregon anyway - hopefully this one quickly spreads to attain worldwide coverage).
One of the biggest obstacles to people using public transportation is learning how the system works--where to go, when to go, etc. Any transit agency worth its salt has trip-planning tools available online, but they generally suffer from poor-to-horrible interfaces, due to lack of development money. This keeps riders away due to confusion. Even if a good system exists in one city, it is always different from that of another city, and newcomers won't know where to find it. Having transit trip-planning data readable and presentable by a clean, easy-to-understand, universal tool will make a big difference. It looks like that's starting to happen.

Google now does public transit. At least, it does for Portland, Oregon.

For those who can't get used to the idea of public transport (or don't have access to any) TreeHugger has a spot on the new Camry hybrid that Toyota will be releasing shortly. TreeHugger also has a post on "Flexible, Ultra-Thin Solar Panels for Hybrids" which would help improve hybrid mileage even further.

One peak oil related note - the Narcosphere (which isn't the most mainstream of sources, though Google Alerts is happy enough to report its output) has pointed out that Latin America's oil production is past its peak (although this data is from the ASPO and doesn't include Venezuelan heavy oil).
Latin America’s production of conventional oil reached its peak during the last decade and is now in a process of inexorable decline, according to data released by ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas.

Considering all of Latin America, ASPO’s data points out that the region reached its oil production peak in 1998, while the peak of oil discovery came in 1977. Normally, any oil producing region, be it a single field or an entire continent, reaches its peak production rate some time after discoveries reach their maximum. ASPO’s data is consistent with that methodology.

While the data relies on public sources and is subject to rounding, ASPO claims that its compilation is a useful tool to determine the general oil production trend. Latin America’s oil deposits are depleting at a rate of 3.3% per annum, according to the data.

Taken together, Latin American countries produce approximately 7.5 million barrels of oil per day. ASPO estimates that the region held 192 billion barrels before exploration began, of which 110 billion have been extracted so far.

The leading producer, Mexico, produced in 2004 about 3.5 million barrels per day and had an annual depletion rate of 5.0%. Venezuela produced about 2 million barrels per day with an annual depletion rate of 3.2%

Earlier this year various publications, including the Mexican daily La Jornada, reported that Mexico’s biggest oil field, the supergiant Cantarell in Campeche Sound, had reached its production peak.

And to close, I may as well mention this weekend's ugly events from Sydney's southern beaches. Crikey's Stephen Feneley wonders if our new anti-terror laws will be invoked against those responsible (the rioters, not the tabloids and talk show hosts):
It seems those anti-terror laws were passed just in the nick of time. All those cosmopolitan elites who said we didn't need laws against the incitement of racial violence should be hanging their heads in shame over their skinny decaf lattes today in the wake of the outbreak of Skip-on-Leb violence on Sydney's beaches. How shameful that anyone could have questioned the Attorney General's determination to rush these laws through Parliament.

The awful violence at Cronulla and Maroubra was proof of the threat posed to our democracy by evil forces (in this case pissed white Cronulla home-boys) determined to stir up hatred against people for no other reason than their suspected ethnicity or religion. No doubt federal authorities – armed with the new anti-terror laws and with the full backing of Mr Ruddock – will move swiftly to track down and prosecute the malevolent ringleaders responsible for sending those text messages that drew the rioting yobs to the beach yesterday afternoons.

I am joking of course. It's unlikely Ruddock would want the laws used in this case, although it might have been different had those text messages originated from a mobile belonging to someone of middle-eastern appearance. Even though the anti-incitement provisions of the legislation are ideally suited for this event, it's a safe bet no one in the Government ever thought a situation would arise where the wrong-doers would fit the profile of Howard battlers.

Before Paul Sheahan of the Sydney Morning Herald accuses me of turning a blind eye to the behaviour of people he refers to as Lebanese gangstas, I am not excusing violence perpetrated by anyone. The people who beat up on the lifeguards at Cronulla on the previous weekend should be caught and prosecuted.

However there seems little doubt that the incitement of yesterday's violence was the the work of people who regard themselves as true blue Aussies. This kind of white-bread fundamentalism wasn't in the Ruddock/Howard script when they whipped up hysteria about the threat lurking within our midst in order to justify their stupid and contemptible laws.

Dark clouds ahead ?

Canadian Oil: At What Price?  

Posted by Big Gav

TreeHugger has a post on the environmental costs of mining tar sands in Canada (which I've droned on about at length previously). They don't mention future possibilities like putting a nuclear plant in the region to keep the tar flowing once natural gas supplies start disappearing.

Most of you are already aware of the damage caused by the burning and the extraction of oil (like the apprehended damage caused by extraction in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, for example). But what about the famous Canadian tar sands? After only two years of digging for bitumen near Fort McMurray in Alberta, Shell has already dug up a pit that is as much as three miles wide and 200 feet deep. 400-ton trucks, said to be the largest in the world, are used to move around all that dirt, and it takes a lot of it since on average 2 tons of tar sand are required to make 1 barrel of oil.
The oil operation has been a boon for Fort McMurray and its people. But some observers are worried about the facility's impact on the environment.

After processing the sand to extract its oily component, the gigantic holes dug in the earth are refilled and planted with trees. But the refilled mine pits rarely match the original terrain, and replanting programs so far have resulted in forests that resemble Christmas tree farms.

So much for repairing the damage done.

But companies are now moving away from these huge pits; a new technique allows them to inject steam directly into the soil to melt the tar enough so that it can be pumped back to the surface.
Whatever the process used, it takes a great deal of energy to recover bitumen and turn it into oil. An enormous amount of greenhouse gases are released in the process.

In fact, making oil from tar sands produces two or three times more greenhouse gases than producing conventional oil.

How do they produce so much energy? With natural gas, of course. It is one of the main reasons why Canada has so much trouble meeting its obligations under the Kyoto treaty.

Because the cost of natural gas has quadrupled in recent times and with the coming of peak natural gas, the Canadian tar sands should become more and more expensive as time goes on (most companies there have already run way over their predicted costs), both in monetary and environmental costs.



WorldChanging has a post on Geothermal heat pumps - the cheapest (and least energy intensive) way of cooling or heating homes.
It's a little odd to think about, but you're probably standing on one of the best possible resources for home heating and cooling.

Although temperatures in the atmosphere can vary considerably over the course of a year (or even a day), the temperature underground remains fairly constant. At about six feet under, the soil measures from 45 degrees to 75 degrees fahrenheit, depending upon latitude. And this consistency, it turns out, can be a resource for keeping one's home warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Geothermal heat pumps move heat from one place to another via the circulation of a refrigerant fluid. They have a number of advantages over traditional heating and cooling systems, including low noise and essentially no maintenance. Most importantly, they use significantly less energy than traditional gas, electric or oil-based heating & cooling systems.

Tom Wipple's latest peak oil article in the Falls Church News Press takes a look at what is happening with the Gulf stream.
A couple of months back I discussed the North Atlantic Oscillation and how the British Meteorological Office was very concerned a flattening of the Atlantic's high and low pressure areas was going to make for an exceptionally cold winter in Northern Europe. This phenomenon also allows frigid Canadian air to make its way into the northeastern US resulting in higher prices for heating oil, diesel, gasoline, natural gas and nearly everything else. Winter is now two weeks away, and the British Meteorologists are still holding to their forecast of an unusually cold winter.

Last week, however, a new and more disturbing report was published by the Southampton Oceanography Centre in the UK concerning the stability of the Gulf Stream — a major heat source keeping Northern Europe from becoming Northern Siberia . It seems that since the last time they took measurements 12 years ago, the flow of fresh water from the melting of the north polar ice cap has interfered significantly with the Gulf Stream . Some 30 percent of the Stream’s warm water is no longer making it to the vicinity of Northern Europe , but is being diverted back towards the equator.

A drop of 30 percent in the flow should have been enough to cause an as-yet-to-happen drop in the average North European temperature. Some suggest the increasing world wide average temperature— global warming— is enough to offset the loss of heat from the Gulf Stream as far as Europe is concerned.

All this may only be an interesting (or perhaps not) academic debate, as not much seems to have happened to Northern Europe , as yet. However, what happens to the 30 percent of the warm water no longer making it to the North Atlantic ? I would like to thank Stuart Staniford of the web site The Oil Drum for explaining in detail that vast quantities of warm water are now flowing southward towards those regions of the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico where the hurricanes spawn.

Last week, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) held a press conference on the 2005 Hurricane season. As we all suspected, the season shattered nearly every record ever kept about hurricanes. In short, it was two hurricane seasons rolled into one.

Moreover, NOAA says there is no relief in sight. The forecasters believe we are at the beginning of a 20-30 year era of increased hurricane activity. Now, if we learned anything from listening to those meteorologists describe the approach of all those hurricanes this year, it’s that warm water makes hurricanes and that very warm water makes very strong hurricanes.

In the last 15 months, three major hurricanes have slammed into our oil production facilities in the Gulf causing extensive damage. Six weeks after the last hurricane, about one third of Gulf oil production is still out of service. This new report that massive amounts of warm water are now flowing into the southward not only suggests, but screams, there are major troubles ahead.

TomPaine notes that there are some moves in the US to start taking an active (instead of blocking) role in dealing with global warming as the follow up to the Kyoto treaty is negotiated - a sign that Exxon's "climate change" denial camp is slowly falling apart.
The editors at The Economist got religion this week. The release of a report in the journal Nature , by Harry Bryden of the National Oceanography Centre in Southhampton, Britain, provided the first compelling evidence that global warming threatens more significant near-term effects—the rapid cooling of the British Isles and Northern Europe—than previously thought credible. In short, global warming is melting Arctic ice at such a rate that it has reduced the Atlantic currents that warm Europe—by 30 percent.

And that figure reminds us of the Pentagon-sponsored study looking into just this scenario, called Abrupt Climate Change . The scenario makes it clear that if the Atlantic heat conveyor shuts down, Northern Europe goes into a deep freeze, requiring a lot more imported energy to stay warm and dramatically disrupting local food supplies. Now that climate change is getting personal, The Economist appears ready to accept the science. All climate politics is local, it seems.

The Nature report and The Economist's response could not have been better timed. In Montreal, the world is gathering to discuss, among other climate change issues, the future of the Kyoto Protocol after it expires in 2012. Significantly, the Bush administration chose to avoid the talks, having thrown its weight behind its own creation, a voluntary emission-reduction program that combines the U.S., China and Australia, among others.

We don't yet know what the Atlantic revelations will do to the debate. Politicians have a really hard time dealing with the potential collapse of a non-linear system—whether it is the housing bubble or the ecosystem. But two statements by Democratic senators made it clear this week that U.S. obstructionism will not last too much longer.

Writing in the Financial Times today, Sen. Joe Biden stood up to say that he accepts the climate science, that we have to act, and that there exists a great opportunity that doing right by climate change will do well for the American economy. Therefore, Biden said America has to lead: "Without U.S. leadership and participation, there is no way to stabilise global greenhouse gases before irreparable harm is done." Biden and his GOP colleague Richard Lugar have submitted a bill to force the White House to act.

Sen. Jeff Bingamon of New Mexico delivered a similar message to the delegates in Montreal in person. According to an account in Environment and Energy Daily , Bingamon told the world's representatives to continue to push forward with post-Kyoto negotiations. Bingamon believes that the Senate is nearing a bipartisan compromise on how to implement climate change language passed this past summer and that soon we will be back at the table. "We should step up and have a significant role in whatever agreements are being designed for the period following the Kyoto Protocol," Bingamon said.

What's really happening is the undermining of the climate deniers' position. Led by ExxonMobil , which funded millions of dollars of spurious science and congressional lobbying, climate deniers are becoming more and more marginalized, in part because the American 80 percent of the American public wants something done on global warming, and in part because other elites are recognizing the threat, like The Economist this week.

Jeff Vail has another oil related post up, this one noting that the M3 money supply indicator (which is probably the best guide to the effects of the Iranian oil bourse opening on the strength of the petro-dollar) is being discontinued (something which got quite a lot of attention in bearish parts of the economic analysis world a few months back) next March (the same time the bourse is due to open). He also notes that Ariel Sharon has ordered Israel's military to be ready to strike Iran's nuclear facilities by March as well. It will be interesting to see how much anti-Iranian noise we see getting generated in coming months. I for one won't be keeping much money in the markets (oil and gold price leveraged stuff excepted of course) once February arrives if the war drums are beating.

I might note that religious fundamentalists are right at the top of my list of things I don't like, and most press reports would tend to place Iran's new President firmly in that category, with all sorts of absolutely outrageously anti-semitic quotes being attributed to him that no one in their right mind would defend (though the Heritage Foundation might try perhaps, if that link is to be believed).

However, given my cynicism about manipulation of the media and the convenient nature of this particular leader fitting so neatly our stereotype of evil islamic fundamentalists, I found this note over at Moon of Alabama quite troubling - is it possible we're just being fed another nightmare vision which isn't entirely true ?

George Monbiot took a mirror along to the Climate March last weekend and identified the problem - us - in "The Struggle Against Ourselves".
I want to take a moment to remind you of where we have come from.

For the first three million years of human history, we lived according to circumstance. Our lives were ruled by the happenstances of ecology. We existed, as all animals do, in fear of hunger, predation, weather and disease.

For the following few thousand years, after we had grasped the rudiments of agriculture and crop storage, we enjoyed greater food security, and soon destroyed most of our non-human predators. But our lives were ruled by the sword, the axe and the spear. The primary struggle was for land. We needed it not just to grow our crops but also to provide our sources of energy – grazing for our horses and bullocks, wood for our fires.

Then we discovered fossil fuels, and everything changed. No longer were we constrained by the need to live on ambient energy; we could support ourselves by means of the sunlight stored over the preceding 350 million years. The new sources of energy permitted the economy to grow – to grow sufficiently to absorb some of the people expelled by the previous era’s land disputes. Fossil fuels allowed both industry and cities to expand, which permitted the workers to organise and to force the despots to loosen their grip on power.

Fossil fuels helped us fight wars of a horror never contemplated before, but they also reduced the need for war. For the first time in human history, indeed for the first time in biological history, there was a surplus of available energy. We could keep body and soul together without having to fight someone else for the energy we needed. Agricultural productivity rose 10 or 20 fold. Economic productivity rose 100 fold. Most of us could live as no one had ever lived before.

And everything you see around you results from that. We have been able to assemble here from all corners of the country because of fossil fuels. We have not been charged and cut down by the yeomanry – or not yet at any rate – because of fossil fuels. Our freedoms, our comforts, our prosperity are all the result of fossil fuels.

Ours are the most fortunate generations that have ever lived. Ours are the most fortunate generations that ever will. We inhabit the brief historical interlude between ecological constraint and ecological catastrophe.

I don’t have to remind you of the two forces which are converging on our lives. We are faced with an impending shortage of the source of energy which is hardest to replace – liquid fossil fuels. And we are faced with the environmental consequences of the fossil fuel burning which has permitted us to be standing here now. The structure, the complexity, the diversity of our lives, everything we know, everything that we have taken for granted, that looked solid and non-negotiable, suddenly looks contingent. All this is a great tottering pile balanced on a ball, a ball that is about to start rolling downhill.

I hear people talking about the carbon cuts they would like to see. I am not interested in what people would like to see. I am interesed in what the science says. And the science is clear. We need not a 20% cut by 2020; not a 60% cut by 2050, but a 90% cut by 2030. Only then do we stand a good chance of keeping carbon concentrations in the atmosphere below 430 parts per million, which means that only then do we stand a good chance of preventing some of the threatened positive feedbacks. If we let it get beyond that point there is nothing we can do. The biosphere takes over as the primary source of carbon. It is out of our hands.

WorldChanging had an interesting post last week called "Europe 2005: The Ecological Footprint" which noted that we are well into overshoot, depleting renewable resources 23% faster than they are being regenerated.
The European Environment Agency, working with the World Wildlife Foundation and the Global Footprint Network, has produced a 2005 Edition of the National Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity Accounts showing that, as of 2002, "humanity's demand on the biosphere, its global Ecological Footprint, was 13.7 billion global hectares, or 2.2 global hectares per person."
Thus in 2002, humanity's Ecological Footprint exceeded global biocapacity by 0.4 global hectares per person, or 23 percent. This finding indicates that the human economy is in ecological overshoot: the planet's ecological stocks are being depleted faster than nature can regenerate them. This means that we are eroding the future supply of ecological resources and operating at the risk of environmental collapse.

WorldChanging also had an interesting post on "Things That Should Exist" - in this case "Energy Banks".
One of the obstacles facing energy-saving retrofits or construction of manufacturing systems and buildings is that up-front costs are often high, even when money is saved in the long run. But if you install a solar array that has a five-year payback time, it has a 20% annual return on investment; this far higher than the return of most stocks, and it is risk-free, since electricity prices are not going to go down--it can only get better than 20%. The same is even more true for gas-saving investments, where price volatility can be high.

Clearly there are good investments to be made here. Someone create an "Energy Bank" to make good money while helping people get over their up-front cost paranoia or genuine lack of capital. It would be slightly different from a normal bank, with less risk for the borrower and more profit for the lender. An energy bank would give people the money for their energy-efficient / on-site generation systems, and in return would get paid not a flat rate but a chunk of the energy-cost savings. The exact terms could be anything--maybe the bank gets paid 80% of the customer's resulting energy cost savings for several years until the "loan" is paid off at a profitable rate, maybe the bank gets 40% of the customer's energy cost savings in perpetuity, whatever the market will bear. Energy savings would be easy to measure for retrofits (just compare to historical usage and current energy prices), and for new construction they could be compared to national averages or other benchmarks.

The customer would be at less risk because they would only pay if they got a financial benefit from the installation, and would always get more benefit than they had to pay out. The bank would make more money than a normal loan because they could have very long-term income and because many efficiency measures are known to give great returns on investment at low risk.

Finally - one more piece from TreeHugger - this one on "The Loon" - a Solar-Powered pontoon boat.
Six-day boating cruise along Ontario's scenic Trent-Severn Waterway: "Cost of fuel for the 100-mile cruise? Zero. Amount of air and water pollution? Zero. Number of stares from other boaters? Countless." Monte Gisborne is a mechanical engineer who built The Loon, a solar-powered pontoon boat. "A guy with a 45-foot powerboat said his fuel costs were $5 a mile. I can do 10 miles a day for free with the sun [and 30 to 40 miles with batteries]," Gisborne said.

The Loon is 20 feet long and is topped by a custom 738 watt solar panel. Since most recreational boating is done when the weather is nice, solar power is particularly well adapted to the task.


To the Victor Go the Oils  

Posted by Big Gav

Grist has an excellent review of Syriana which opened in the US recently, although it hasn't made its way down here yet (Super G at the Oil Drum has also posted his thoughts on the movie, as have Mobjectivist and Digby).

The movie is neither a melodrama nor a didactic sermon about the evils of Big Oil, but an almost obsessive work of observation. It contains a wealth of detail, reflecting Gaghan's meticulous research (drawing heavily on See No Evil, the tell-all book by ex-CIA agent Robert Baer). Milieus most Westerners know only from media caricature -- the debauched underground nightclubs of Tehran, the madrassas of Pakistan, the inner warrens of Beirut, the palaces of Middle Eastern emirs -- are depicted here with an unflashy documentary realism.

More than anything, Gaghan seems eager simply to show us: here it is. All that stuff you've heard so much about, the subject of so much charged rhetoric and political grandstanding: here are those people and places. Take a look.

There isn't a false note struck along the way, but special notice must be given to George Clooney, whose jaunty charisma is utterly submerged under a scruffy beard, paunchy gut, and morose mien. Clooney's CIA agent is slowly becoming aware that he's a relic of a former age, soon to be discarded, and the actor carries the weight with quiet, understated accuracy. After Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana, Clooney has shaken his playboy image -- or at least enriched it -- by becoming a champion of serious, socially conscious cinema.

Over a Barrel

Grist readers will no doubt be curious about the environmental lessons of the movie. They may be disappointed to hear that there aren't any, at least in the traditional sense. There is no mention, even in passing, of global warming or air pollution.

I don't know if this is deliberate, but regardless, it serves as an indirect illustration of what I took to be Syriana's central message, which might be summarized thusly:

There is only the fight for resources.

All else is ephemera: The rule of law in the U.S. Transparent democratic government. International treaties. Reform in the Middle East. Even our most cherished ideals, our most personal relationships. These are bourgeois preoccupations that crumble like dust when they come between the powerful nations of the world and the resources that fuel them. Oil is running out, and the only law left is the law of the jungle.

...

There is an odd and rather glaring omission. Gaghan follows a long, grim chain of greed, corruption, and deceit, but he doesn't trace it to its terminus: the folks using the oil. Us. The viewers of his movie. Conspicuous U.S. consumption serves as his unquestioned backdrop -- and his silence about us ultimately reveals his fatalism about the fortunes of democracy.

Is there really so little spark left in the American experiment that public acquiescence to escalating global resource struggles is a fait accompli? There's no chance we could self-organize to use less, and twist the arms of our elected representatives until they help us? Are we so apathetic, so powerless?

I'm not ready to give up that hope. Not yet.

Digby's post is worth reading as it stresses one important aspect of the movie - it may make more people aware of what Iraq is really about. He also asks a question which is one I'm fond of posing (though i don't know the answer) - what would happen if the reality of the situation was expressed clearly to everyone instead of being hidden under endless layers of nonsense ?
The powers that be in the US (and the United Kingdom of British Petroleum) believe they must control this region's valuable resource. Indeed, some of the big thinkers like Zbigniew Brzezinski (in "The Grand Chessboard") and the PNAC nuts believe that the US must control "Eurasia" or risk being shut out of the future. There is nothing new under the sun and the pursuit of precious necessary resources that belong to others has been going on forever.

Oil is certainly not the only reason we are in this mess. It is, perhaps, the fundamental reason we are in this mess. And it's the reason that this mess isn't going to be solved by either bringing the boys home or creating a "democracy" in the middle east. We may leave Iraq as an occupying force due to a lack of domestic support, or we might be chased from the region by violent events. But if we have any illusions that the United States is not going to be deeply involved in the middle east for the forseeable future, we need to wake up. Sadly, whether we know it or not, by our blind and profligate actions the American people lend credence to the insane ramblings of that miniskirted harpy, Ann Coulter:

"Why not go to war just for oil? We need oil."

Why not, indeed? I wonder what would happen if the question was posed just that starkly? At this point, the Great Game players, the oil companies and the politicians who dance to their tune are unwilling to put it that way. They work to keep citizens in the dark about what is at stake, encouraging them to guzzle cheap gasoline at a fantastic pace while droning out messianic statements about good and evil and spreading freedom.

Syriana's "confusing" plot speaks to that. It's conveys the sense of drugged vagueness we all feel when we try to unravel the motivations behind these actions. There are a thousand different reasons why we could be doing what we are doing, but nobody knows for sure what is the real one.

There is only one character in the film who holds all the disparate threads in his hands --- the James Baker (Christopher Plummer) character who walks freely among the politicians, the oil companies, the ruling sheiks, the spooks and the regional puppets. He is the Grand Master of the Great Game. He ensures that none of the players know what the others are doing, each kept in the dark, flailing about with everything from torture to idealism to pragmatic everyday power politics without ever knowing that they are being manipulated by greater forces.

I suppose that we could prosaically assume that he represents a worldly reality like The Carlyle Group (or in an earlier time, The Trilateral Commission.) But I think he simply symbolises Power and Arrogance. He is fundamentally anti-democratic, amoral and relentless in his quest for more of what he is made of. He is America's id, perfectly represented as an elderly Texan with his steely talons dug deeply into every consequential player in the New Great Game.

The only character who sees through the subterfuge is the ex-CIA agent, abandoned by his country, whose life of dirty deeds on behalf of The Company prepares him alone to understand his role and dig his way out. That is the most out-of-sync Hollywood moment in an otherwise completely cynical film. (But then, it's George Clooney who can't help but be seen as a hero.) In reality, there can be no such neat denouement. The claws would turn deadly if he were to do what he does.

I've read a number of reviews in which the writer finds this movie a simple-minded portrayal of evil corporate masters holding the puppet strings of great nations and vast empires. It's the same complaint about the slogan "No blood for oil", as if those who see our presence in the mideast in such terms are silly dupes and fools. But I would submit that it is the jaded sophisticates who are missing the point. "Syriana", for all its "confusion" really does get to the heart of the matter and forces you to deal with the one simple fact that nobody wants to accept. This planet really is running out of oil --- and we are entering an era in which our nation is going to be asserting our power to get it.

Rather than finding "Syriana's" plot confounding, by the end I thought its multiple plotlines led to a bracing clarity: Oil. I don't know that it's all that important to understand anything else and if America sees this movie and comes away with that understanding then I think it succeeds as both a film and a political statement.

George Clooney also has an interview in this weekend's Sydney Morning Herald, where he talks about Syriana and his other new movie "Good Night and Good Luck" which opens here next weekend (though I was lucky enough to score a preview ticket from Crikey so I'm off to watch it tomorrow).
The triumph of the Clooney star persona is clearest in the press discussion of his films, which are invariably described as mainstream. The first film he directed was Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a challenging, inconclusive story of a TV game-show host who may or may not have been a spy. And there is nothing mainstream about Good Night, and Good Luck, a black-and-white film that meticulously describes a small political episode that took place more than 50 years ago.

Clooney is in it, but almost unrecognisable behind glasses and acquired jowls, as television producer Fred Friendly. Murrow is played (with uncanny verisimilitude) by David Strathairn, an art-house actor known chiefly for his work with maverick director John Sayles.

No one plays McCarthy; his presence is suggested through the clever use of historical footage. "As George has said, if you had to hire an actor today to play Joseph R. McCarthy, no one would ever believe in him, because he would be too vaudevillian, too monstrous," Strathairn says. Like Murrow, who decided the best way to deal with McCarthy's politics of hate was to get him on air so people could hear what he was really like, Clooney wanted him to be a victim of his own words. That is certainly not the sort of thing you find in a mainstream film. Hollywood would have them going head to head.

Good Night, and Good Luck - the words were Murrow's signature sign-off - has won prizes at the Venice and New York film festivals, which is not surprising, but even the chatroom crowd, mostly teenagers with a weakness for action, are transfixed by it.

The US reviews have been rapturous. "The most compelling American movie of the year so far," Newsweek said. The Village Voice saw it not only as a wake-up call to the media, but to a memory of civilised values.

It depicts, wrote Michael Atkinson, "a more sophisticated yesteryear [that may be] something of an eye-opener for culturati born since the Nixon administration, for whom an anchorman who speaks in multiple clauses, who quotes from Shakespeare and whose basic righteousness dictated his actions is as familiar as a politician with respect for his constituents".

Next up is Syriana. "Wait until you see it," Clooney says. "This film is like a little ice-cream and Syriana is the steak." Is it political? "Oh, my God!" says Clooney, grinning mischievously.

The production company, Section Eight, he formed with Steven Soderbergh is behind Syriana, the first film by Traffic screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, which is a thriller about the intrigues in the oil industry. Clooney plays a character based on CIA agent Robert Baer, who wrote the book on which the film is based.

Controversially, the script parallels its account of intrigue at the big-money end of oil with a sympathetic view of a burgeoning terrorist in Pakistan. It has been screening in the US for the past fortnight and seems to be attracting just as much enthusiasm as Good Night, and Good Luck. "It shakes us up and prompts us to question world policies," said a USA Today critic. "We need more movies like this." No wonder Clooney insists that the political tide is slowly turning in the US.

Moving away from a dramatised account of the oil wars to a real one, Jeff Vail has an interesting post on his fear of fusion (which probably isn't a particularly common malady) which includes an interesting snippet of his experiences seizing Iraqi oil infrastructure during the invasion.
I will admit that I am more than a little eager to see the peak of oil come and go. Because when it does, if nothing else, it will prevent the development of a fusion, a modern "Pharo Maker" as i've written about before in "Energy, Society & Hierarchy."

Coincidentally, take a look at the cover graphic on Amidon's JFQ article. Despite what the caption says, the cover graphic is one of the offshore Gas & Oil terminals in the al-Faw complex. It was one of the least-publicized operations of the Iraq War, but the very first land operation was a seizure of two of these platforms, as well as three other key oil infrastructure installations in al-Faw by a Seal Team 3 and the Royal Marines' 40th Commando Brigade. My role in it was relatively small: I planned the electronic warfare component, consisting of jamming support from EC-130H Compass Call and E/A-6B Prowlers to ensure that the SEAL assault on the offshore platforms would not tip off the Iraqi land forces in Al Faw of the coming invasion, even though they hit the platforms about 2o minutes before the Royal Marines hit the beach.

What did strike me as interesting about the operation was how aggressively it was marketed as an effort to prevent an environmental disaster, because by capturing the oil infrastructure before the Iraqis could sabotage it would, of course, avert a major oil spill in the Gulf. So, naturally, given the Bush administration's strong environmental credentials, it was worth the lives of the dozens of US/UK forces killed in the "unexpectedly fierce" resistance in Um Qasr (because we used up our one time shot at a surprise operation in al-Faw) in order to prevent an oil spill. Sure thing boss, whatever you say...

I'll close with a snippet from Crikey which I would just dismiss as idle speculation except that it follows on from a similar (but slightly more generalised) prediction made by the Kokoda Foundation in recent months - about the possibility of Australian involvement in a land war in China.
Hugo Kelly writes:

Today's announcement that Australian troops will stay in Iraq to protect the Japanese contingent will soak up the headlines. But some more significant defence strategy happened last week when Defence Minister Hill let it be known the government would be expanding the army by 2500 to form "armoured groups." He set a target date, for what is essentially a major re-armament, of 2012.

The significance here is that it has been unofficially known for some time that the USA expects, in the event of a war with China, that Australia will contribute an armoured division to the invasion of mainland China.

As Australia did not have anything approaching an armoured division, this was not considered an overly likely scenario.

But if Defence does achieve this build up, and scrape together everything they plan to have (and this is Defence, so we won't be holding our breath) by 2012, then it might just pass muster as at least a mechanised division.

So last week Robert Hill was effectively setting a 2012 re-armament date for a war with China. Wars tend to arrive a few years before the target re-armament dates, so our Defence source advises us to get out of the Shanghai real-estate market by around 2009.

I really hope these predictions aren't accurate - how on earth does anyone plan fighting a land war against a nuclear power ?

The obvious interpretation if you look at it with peak oil lenses on is that the US may be anticipating some Chinese resistance to having their oil flow throttled back in the event global production does start declining (in some ways that would be an echo of the start of the Pacific part of World War II, when Japan had its oil flow cut off).

No doubt most people would consider this reasoning tinfoil but I can't think of a more likely explanation off hand (suggestions are welcome), as I doubt the Chinese would deliberately provoke a war by invading Taiwan and to a certain extent I'm not sure it would be worth fighting over if they did (though the bastards should Free Tibet, as I've grumpily noted before, as it was never part of China).

On a final note, I'll randomly add that the conspiracy theory world has a special place in its heart for the year 2012, as there are all sorts of predictions that 2012 is the year the world ends. This belief seems to originate with the Mayans, whose calendar didn't extend beyond 2012 for that reason (the last day is December 21, for those of a millenialist disposition who like to fixate on exact dates).

The Backup Plan  

Posted by Big Gav

Technology Review has an interesting little article on a hydrogen fuel cell company that set out to make that holy grail of the "smart grid" future - an affordable energy storage device that can fit into a house or a car. They failed, but they are making slowly making progress by taking a different tack.

Of course, that still leaves the "how to cheaply and sustainably create hydrogen" problem, but there are a few semi-promising methods around.


BHP Billiton did an interesting presentation on the effects of the hurricanes on their Gulf of Mexico projects - Typhoon may be abandoned and Atalantis and Mad Dog are delayed. Global warming one, BHP nill.
Anglo-Australian resources group BHP Billiton has warned that fallout from the ferocious hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year could delay the startup of its US$1.1 billion Atlantis oil and gas development, the Australian Financial Review reported Monday.

The newspaper said Phil Aiken, head of the group's petroleum division, told sell-side analysts at a briefing Friday that hurricanes Rita and Katrina resulted in equipment and personnel delays for the project, which had been scheduled to start in the third quarter of 2006. He told investors he remains confident that startup will occur on schedule, but many in the market expect the delays will put the project's startup date back by up to six months, prompting a series of downgrades to earnings and production estimates.

The Australian Financial Review also said Aiken indicated the potential for a write-off of the Typhoon oil platform, operated by Chevron, which was severely damaged in the storms.

He also said the ramp-up of the group's Mad Dog project has been delayed by around three months due to the failure of one of the wells, which has to be redrilled, while approval for its Shenzi project has slipped to the first quarter of 2006 as the company reassesses the tension-leg platform technology that was used in the Typhoon platform.

Hurricane season should be over, though records still keep getting broken - WorldChanging has a little note on the mysterious Hurricane Epsilon.
In other BHP news, they have announced a big increase in their Bass Strait gas reserves.
Gas reserves at the Bass Strait operations of BHP Billiton and Esso Australia Resources have been boosted by 700 billion cubic feet, further extending the life of the long-running project. The new find adds to the estimated six trillion cubic feet of gas remaining at the Gippsland Basin joint venture.

The extra gas can be extracted and transferred by the joint venture's existing infrastructure in Bass Strait, which includes 21 offshore platforms. The 50/50 joint venture between the world's biggest miner and the petroleum giant has dominated Bass Strait oil and gas for 40 years. Since the pair began operations in 1966 they have extracted about five trillion cubic feet of gas.

I once read a Credit Suisse First Boston report on global warming that kicked off with the analyst wondering where he would go skiing when Europe's glaciers had disappeared (he was obviously assuming that the Gulf stream wouldn't fail, in which case lack of snow wouldn't be the problem). WorldChanging has a short post up on "A World Without Snow".
One of the many troubling aspects of global warming is the possibility of feedback effects, where changes resulting from a warming atmosphere serve to further exacerbate the warming. An example of how this could work is the interaction between warming and snow cover. According to Stephan Vavrus at the Unversity of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Climate Research, if global warming manages to melt off the current snow cover in the far north -- a distinct possibility -- the result would be a further increase in temperature of close to another degree (which would, in turn, further accelerate other effects of temperature increases).

The snow itself does more than reflect the sun's heat; it also serves as insulation for the ground, so that snow-covered soil is warmer than it would be otherwise. As a result, regions now covered in snow would instead see an expansion of permafrost, with resulting damage to structures and roadways in places like Alaska. Of course, as temperatures continue to climb, even that permafrost won't be so permanent...

Worse Than Fossil Fuel  

Posted by Big Gav

George Monbiot has never been too optimistic about biofuels and his latest column is fairly damning on the whole idea.

I've tended to flip-flop a bit on the whole biofuel issue. While I've got little enthusiasm for or faith in a traditional methods of producing biodiesel or ethanol, I still tend to think that there is some useful biofuel production that can be done - using waste biomass (as in some of the cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel production processes I've linked to in the last 6 months) or more adventurous techniques like biodiesel from algae (take 2) (take 3).

Biofuels won't replace oil but they could help to miigate the effects of depletion. The real problem raised by Monbiot is that rich car drivers may crowd out poor hungry people in the competition for biofuel inputs if the output of vast tracts of cropland is used exclusively for biofuel production - and I'm not so sure that problem can be resolved.

Over the past two years I have made an uncomfortable discovery. Like most environmentalists, I have been as blind to the constraints affecting our energy supply as my opponents have been to climate change. I now realise that I have entertained a belief in magic.

In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota.” In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries’ worth of plants and animals.

The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy – and the extraordinary power densities it gives us – with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere. They are being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal, by states – such as ours – which seek to avoid the hard decisions climate change demands. And at least one of them is worse than the fossil fuel burning it replaces.

The last time I drew attention to the hazards of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse as I have ever been sent by the supporters of the Iraq war. The biodiesel missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous column was wrong. But they’re not going to like it. I was wrong because I underestimated the fuel’s destructive impact.

Before I go any further, I should make it clear that turning used chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing. The people slithering around all day in vats of filth are perfoming a service to society. But there is enough waste cooking oil in the UK to meet one 380th of our demand for road transport fuel. Beyond that, the trouble begins.

When I wrote about it last year, I thought that the biggest problem caused by biodiesel was that it set up a competition for land. Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food would instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find that something even worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has accidentally invented the world’s most carbon-intensive fuel.

In promoting biodiesel – as the European Union, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do – you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.

Last week, the chairman of Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority announced that he was about to build a new biodiesel plant. His was the ninth such decision in four months. Four new refineries are being built in Peninsula Malaysia, one in Sarawak and two in Rotterdam. Two foreign consortia – one German, one American – are setting up rival plants in Singapore. All of them will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.

“The demand for biodiesel,” the Malaysian Star reports, “will come from the European Community … This fresh demand … would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia’s crude palm oil inventories”. Why? Because it’s cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

Past Peak makes some pertinent comments:
This story illustrates how the free market is often the worst arbiter imaginable when it comes to decisions regarding the environment: the market often leads individuals acting in their own self-interest to undertake actions that are suicidal for humanity as a whole. It illustrates as well how reckless and destructive our collective behavior is likely to become as world oil/gas production peaks and starts to decline. Rising fuel prices will make biosphere destruction an increasingly profitable business. And it illustrates how so-called free trade agreements have handcuffed nations at just the wrong time in history. England cannot ban the importation of palm oil biodiesel because that would be an unfair restriction of trade under GATT.

The fundamental problem with letting the market make large-scale environmental decisions is that environmental costs are not reflected in the prices for anything, so decisions made on the basis of price are necessarily faulty. By insisting on an unregulated pursuit of profit, we dig our own graves.

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