Peak Oil Panic - Phase 1  

Posted by Big Gav

There seems to be a lot of ranting going on down here in the political arena lately - it seems I can't turn on the TV or open a paper without seeing someone blabbering away about ethanol (and its drawbacks) or compressed natural gas or petrol prices , not to mention that old magical elixir hydrogen and life after the oil runs out - and we've still got ages before the next election.

North American readers will probably be amused to note that the US ethanol production system is being held up as a model that we should envy.

I think the steadily rising oil prices associated with the onset of the peak (whenever that may be - The Oil Drum has a graph which says it may have passed, Yergin at CERA is still saying we'll be producing 110 million barrels a day in 2015 and that gas is more of a concern) will prompt a variety of responses in a largely predictable order - first more drilling / exploration, then a frantic surge towards biofuels (which we're now seeing), flirtations with dodgy alternatives (tar sands, oil shale) and finally a push for coal-to-liquids plants.

Once the dust has started to settle on all this activity and it becomes clear that we've at best reached a plateau of liquid fuels production (and, assuming China and India are still industrialising, demand is still rising) governments will finally start making a concerted push for fuel efficiency (and energy efficiency in general) and electrification of our transport systems (combined with big investments in renewables, in more enlightened cases, and nuclear, in others).

The debate has changed from whether we use the biofuel to when and how to increase its use.

THE businessman Trevor Bourne has $1 billion to spend making ethanol. His Brisbane company - Global Ethanol Holdings - will be listed publicly in Sydney on Friday with hopes of raising $400 million to buy two plants and build three others which, when completed in two years, will pump almost 3 billion litres of biofuel into a market hungry for alternatives to oil. The numbers sound astonishing but more telling is that Bourne is not investing in Australia, but in four US states - Michigan, Iowa, Illinois and Washington.

Speaking from San Francisco last night, the former jet pilot and Multiplex manager who set up his business a year ago when petrol prices on the Gold Coast hit $1 a litre, shook his head at news that the Howard Government was fast-tracking plans to subsidise the use of alternative fuels such as ethanol in the wake of anger over high petrol prices. "It's not before time," he said wryly. "Why am I in the US and not Australia? Because the Australian Government doesn't get it. This is the future."

Public opinion about ethanol - an alcohol made by fermenting and distilling simple sugars from crops such as wheat, corn and sugarcane - has moved sharply since 2002, when the Government offered huge subsidies to ethanol producers to increase the use of biofuel. The ensuing row centred first on the Prime Minister's relationship with Dick Honan, the head of Australia's largest ethanol producer, Manildra, but then swung to the product itself.

While Brazil and the US were embracing the technology, Australia became locked in a debate over whether the blended fuel was damaging to cars, even though it had been marketed in NSW since 1994 and in Queensland since the 1920s.

Confusion surrounded warranties offered by car manufacturers. It wasn't until late last year that a biofuel taskforce set up by the Government decreed that most cars can run perfectly well on a blend of 90 per cent unleaded petrol and 10 per cent ethanol - commonly known as E10. The exceptions are mainly cars made before 1986 and a number of prestige European makes whose owners probably shy away from even regular unleaded petrol.

The debate has now moved to when and how to increase ethanol use, but it's a dither rather than a dash compared to Brazil, which has already replaced 40 per cent of its demand for petrol and now insists that all fuel sold is at least 25 per cent blended.

Ross Gittins has a well timed economics lesson in The Herald on traffic congestion.
ONE thing I hate about politicians is the way they pretend to indulge us rather than level with us. They rarely tell us the unvarnished truth about what problems they can fix and what they can't, preferring to string us along. They act as though they can fix everything, which encourages a culture of complaint and a focus on the alleviation of symptoms rather than a search for fundamental solutions.

Take all the whingeing about the price of petrol. No pollie's prepared to tell us that since the problem is a global shortage of oil, the rise in price is a healthy development because, by encouraging both producers and consumers to adjust their behaviour accordingly, it offers the best solution to the problem.

Fortunately, neither side of politics is silly enough to embrace the populist cry for the temporary relief of symptoms that would come from cutting the tax on petrol - which would increase local demand without adding to supply.

A related issue on which the pollies have always lacked frankness is traffic congestion. They won't admit there are no painless answers to peak-hour delays.

It's not practically possible to eliminate congestion. The best we could hope for is to slow down the rate at which it's getting worse.

In his book Still Stuck in Traffic, Anthony Downs of the Brookings Institution in Washington reveals just how ignorant of the nature of the problem politicians have allowed us to be.

He argues that traffic congestion isn't the problem. Actually, it's the solution to the problem - the only solution the public finds acceptable.

Enviromissions Solar Tower project - the eternal chimea of the borderlands - has gained more press recently - must be time for another capital raising. I would like to be more positive about this plan, but so far it seems to have consumed a lot of cash without anything actually happening...
Rattling down a red dirt road on the edge of the Australian outback, Roger Davey hits the brakes and hops out of a rented Corolla. With a sweep of his arm, he surveys his domain - 24,000 acres of emptiness stretching toward the horizon, the landscape bare but for clumps of scrubby eucalyptus trees and an occasional sheep.

It usually costs big money to assess the viability of potential wind farm sites. Windlab Systems, a Canberra startup spun out of CSIRO, reduces that risk for its investment bank clients with its sophisticated virtual wind-farm software. The technology creates an information-rich map of a wind farm site, detailing everything from weather patterns to the impact of the terrain on airflows and identifying local transmission grids, roadways, and land ownership patterns. "As we keep adding layers to the data,'' says Windlab's Keith Ayotte, "we eventually get to a point where bankers can assess the risks sufficiently enough to wade into the fray."

It's a dead-calm antipodean winter's day, the silence of this vast ranch called Tapio Station broken only by the cry of a currawong bird. Davey, chief executive of Melbourne renewable-energy company EnviroMission, aims to break ground here early next year on the world's first commercial "solar tower" power station.

"The tower will be over there," Davey says, pointing to a spot a mile distant where a 1,600-foot structure will rise from the ocher-colored earth. Picture a 260-foot-diameter cylinder taller than the Sears Tower encircled by a two-mile-diameter transparent canopy at ground level. About 8 feet tall at the perimeter, where Davey has his feet planted, the solar collector will gradually slope up to a height of 50 to 60 feet at the tower's base.

Acting as a giant greenhouse, the solar collector will superheat the air with radiation from the sun. Hot air rises, naturally, and the tower will operate as a giant vacuum. As the air is sucked into the tower, it will produce wind to power an array of turbine generators clustered around the structure.

The result: enough clean, green electricity to power some 100,000 homes without producing a particle of pollution or a wisp of planet-warming gases.

While ole "Ironbar" Tuckey is spouting off about hydrogen being the future and indulging in a bit of verbal sparring with a visibly deflating Kim Beazley (better than beating up drunks, or other people, I guess) on the steps of Parliament House, Rob at Entropy Production is pointing out that the death knell may be sounding for the hydrogen economy. Maybe its time Wilson started taking his tablets again (its also time for Kim to learn from his more verbally adept predecessors, who really knew how to deliver a good insult - I had a chuckle reading through the Paul Keating insult archive today - maybe Kim should have reused Keating's old line to Tuckey - "Shut up! Sit down and shut up, you pig!").
There are three major shortcomings of the hydrogen economy concept:

1. Production.
2. Storage.
3. Distribution.

Distribution is basically a chicken and egg problem. No one wants to buy a hydrogen car until there are fueling stations available and no corporation wants to invest in hydrogen fueling stations until there are customers on the road. Building the hydrogen economy would require an absolutely massive capital investment. For example, none of our current natural gas pipelines are capable of handling hydrogen because it’s a highly corrosive substance.

The storage problem is partly technological and partly the laws of physics. The basic difficulty comes from the fact that hydrogen has an extremely low density: liquid hydrogen a density of only 80 k/m3. In order to get hydrogen from a lighter than air gas to some usable stored form it needs to be compressed, liquefied, or chemically bonded. All of these means need to consume a large fraction of the energy of the hydrogen to get it to that state. Hydrogen is not like gasoline. You cannot pull up to a station and pump your tank full in a couple of minutes. A lot of people don't realize that pumping up a high-pressure compressed hydrogen tank can easily take 30 - 60 minutes.

The last problem is that of production; it is the most fundamental problem and it’s the basis of the schism that's occurred at the Lucerne Fuel Cell Forum. Unlike fossil fuels hydrogen doesn't exist in nature on Earth − we can't poke a hole in the ground and pump out hydrogen formed from long-dead plants. Hydrogen isn't an energy source; it's an energy currency, like electricity. Elemental hydrogen has to be produced from other compounds such as water or hydrocarbons.

Putting gas and hot air aside, there is plenty of oil news around - the BP pipeline shutdown in Alaska has gotten so much attention that I won't quote any particular articles (I will note it spawned the widest range of energy releated conspiracy theories I've seen in a while, ranging from hard core doomer "Prudhoe Bay is out of oil" rants to endless cynics claiming BP did it deliberately to help push prices up).

Rigzone has articles on more oil worker kidnappings in Nigeria, the completion of China's first strategic oil reserve and the launch of BP and BHP's huge Atlantis oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
BP's 58,700 metric ton semisubmersible Atlantis platform sets sail for its permanent location in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. Designed to process 200,000 barrels of oil and 180 million cubic feet of gas per day, Atlantis will be the deepest moored floating production facility in the world in 7,074 ft of water.

Discovered in 1998, the Atlantis Field development is designed to utilize the deepest moored semi submersible platform in the world. The water depth at the semi (PQ) location is 7,074 ft (2,156 m). It is designed to process 200,000 b/d and 180 mmcf/d. First oil is expected in 2007. Oil and gas will be transported to existing shelf and onshore interconnections via the Mardi Gras Transportation System.

Wired's Autopia blog has a post on George Pataki's plan for reducing oil consumption and encouraging alternative fuels.
New York governor and 2008 presidential candidate George Pataki laid out an aggressive plan for reducing our petroleum consumption by 25 percent within 10 years. The plan (as quoted by the Green Car Congress) is full of specific initiatives that reduce taxes on alternative fuel while requiring the government to slash petroleum use.

Pataki said he signed an order requiring that his state government purchase only alternative fuel vehicles, with emergency vehicles exempted. He also outlined incentives for fuel station owners to add alternative fuel pumps as well as for the auto industry to produce fuel efficient vehicles.

Should Pataki win the presidency and implement these broad initiatives, the auto industry would have no choice but to snap to and produce fuel efficient transportation. Pataki wants to raise the CAFE standards by more than 50 percent, and would likely establish a federal renewable fuel portfolio standard.

Our fuel taxes should be based on carbon emissions since that is part of their true cost. Also, if we cut oil imports even by a few percentage points that should be enough to lower the price of gasoline for everyone, so there will be a payback.

With Pataki (or Gore for that matter) in the Oval Office we could be looking at an entirely different energy policy by 2009. Oh wait, is that the sun coming out from behind the clouds?

Malcolm Gladwell's Dad has gone over the energy tipping point and installed a ground heat pump to heat (and cool) his home (which Malcolm has somewhat misleadingly named geothermal energy).
Obviously geothermal doesn’t work for everyone. My father has a luxury of a large backyard, so he could fit all that piping easily into shallow trenches. If you don’t have that much room, as he points out, you have to dig down—and that’s obviously more expensive. I’m not suggesting, in other words, that this is going to solve the energy crisis. But surely there are lots of lots of houses—as well as commercial buildings (like malls, with huge parking lots) that could easily install geothermal systems, and even a modest application of technologies like this could begin to make a real difference in our energy problems.

I think it is also worth noting how absurdly low-tech the system is. It is pvc pipes and a compressor. My father lives in Ontario, where the winters can be vicious, and has thrown out his furnace! The other noteworthy fact is how (relatively) inexpensive the system is. For an investment of $25,000, my father saves, conservatively, $2000 a year (remember; he wasn’t running air conditioning in the summer before this, so the financial benefits of his system are substantially understated.

One of the frustrating things about the current discussion over our dependence on imported oil is the persistent notion that real solutions will require some future technological breakthrough. I think we have a lot of the answers. We just haven’t made consumers and public officials aware of them.

Maybe this "urban mole" is also on a ground heat pump construction binge ?
This guy has been digging huge tunnels under his house in London, and beyond to the neighbours house and under the road, for 45 years and the council are stepping in to fill them with concrete. Nobody's quite sure how far they stretch but in 2001 the pavement collapsed and you could see a few tunnels veering off underground. He's certainly got down to the water table.

Apparently global warming is at risk of crippling the NSA - maybe now those dickheads in Washington may feel the need to do something about it - can't have Big Brother going down for a while, can we !
The National Security Agency -- the super secret eavesdropping arm of the military charged with keeping tabs on the communications of the nation's enemies, allies and for the last four years, American citizens -- is facing a power crunch, according to the Baltimore Sun's Siobhan Gorman.
The demand for electricity to operate its expanding intelligence systems has left the high-tech eavesdropping agency on the verge of exceeding its power supply, the lifeblood of its sprawling 350-acre Fort Meade headquarters, according to current and former intelligence officials.

Agency officials anticipated the problem nearly a decade ago as they looked ahead at the technology needs of the agency, sources said, but it was never made a priority, and now the agency's ability to keep its operations going is threatened. The NSA is already unable to install some costly and sophisticated new equipment, including two new supercomputers, for fear of blowing out the electrical infrastructure, they said.

In response, the NSA is quietly sending pleas to its targets via pre-recorded phone calls, text messages and its super-secret microwave "power of suggestion" feature to voluntarily reduce their volume of communications. (You can activate this at home by pressing the "defrost" button.)

They also asked people to:

* Turn off any encryption, at least until September brings cooler weather to the East Coast.
* Make overseas calls at non-peak hours.
* Directly CC: for only the most essential terrorist plotting emails
* Try to avoid, in conversation or written communications, any non-relevant uses of the phrases 'jihad,' 'pipe bomb' and 'this country is run by incompetent, ideological nincompoops'

The note closes with my favorite of their slogans: "Help the NSA Help You."

I like to poke fun at the propaganda and disinformation that we're fed, usually regarding the "war" on "terror" and global warming denial - but I coccasionally feel guilty that this is almost entirely "anti american" (it isn't anti-american at all of course, even if the wingnut world would like to paint it that way) - so here's a tale of a Russian disinformation operation out of Crooked Timber (with the catchy title "Wikipedia imitates Pynchon").
Two very interesting articles in the Economist this week on disinformation and the Internet From the first:
Russia’s interests are once again being promoted by information sources that look plausible, at least until you look closely at their antecedents. Take, for example, the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS), a grand-sounding outfit that says it works on “result-oriented nation-building for new and emerging states”. … the ICDISS … has no address and no telephone number. Although its website, and an entry on a write-it-yourself encyclopedia, Wikipedia, claim that it was founded in 1999, there is no trace of its activities, or of its supposed staff members, in news databases or the internet before January this year. Since then, it seems to be solely involved in promoting Transdniestria. …One plausible conclusion is that the Kremlin is engaged in a new push to support Transdniestria and three similar statelets.

The second goes into more detail about this mysterious organization, which claims to run conferences involving well known diplomats and academics, but only appears to exist in references from web pages.
The Wikipedia entry’s history shows that some unkind person has tried to change it, to say that the ICDISS is based not in Washington, DC but in the Transdniestrian capital, Tiraspol, and is made up not of 60 diplomats and specialists, but four officers of the ministry of state security there.

Since the publication of the article, the relevant Wikipedia entry has been put under consideration for deletion; the Economist journalist who wrote the expose (or, if you want to be careful, someone who appears to be the Economist journal who wrote the expose), is engaged in a debate on the Talk page with a veteran Wikipedia contributor (who appears to have been highly active on the Transdniestria page) who claims to have been at one of their conferences. Curiouser and curiouser.

I'll close with some tinfoil from RI, this one on a new ambassador to Australia, who apparently has some skeletons in his closet (presumably an unpleasant form of "intelligence", ie blackmail fodder, gathering - I wonder if any locals have been caught in his web yet ?). The quote is from the comments, purely because the Tolkein reference caught my eye.
Jon made a very interesting point when he said:

"There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a *real* footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion [or, for our purposes, magic] suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant for it to come to *that*! Worse still, supposing he found us?"

I was immediately reminded of two things. First was that Tolkien, despite owing his literary fame to C.S. Lewis' persistent nagging, practically "forcing" him to submit The Lord of The Ring for publication, and also despite being Lewis' very good friend, hated Lewis' fiction, especially The Screwtape Letters, because he believed that a writer, as a person who creates, should never look too closely at evil. The (unintended) consequences, Tolkien maintained, were both unknown and potentially terrible, as demons could either be invited into this world, or created out of whole cloth, on the spot.

No one took Tolkien seriously on this, of course, and ascribed his peculiar views on the subject as the product of the vivid imagination of an arcane Catholic visionary who lived more in the world of dead and invented languages than among us, the rational living folk, but he never backed down from this stance. This is why he made Sauron and Morgoth so flat, so two-dimensional: he couldn't stand to look too closely into the mind of evil, and he didn't want us to, either.

The second thing this reminds me of is Jeff's take on the "mistake" made by Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard in his epic post The Occult History of the National Security State:
What is known is that the Magickal Portal first created by Crowley - and which originally let Lam into the earth-world - was reestablished with considerable intensity by Parsons and Hubbard. From the diaries of the participants, it is also clear that they were not as adept as Crowley in the closings of portals. What they seemed to have accomplished was the drastic enlargement and ripping of an existing Magickal Portal and the subsequent non-closure of it. Perhaps the rip they created was not possible to close. In any event, the modern UFO era began exactly a year and a half later on June 24th, 1947, with Kenneth Arnold's sighting over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State.

Errr - what's the significance of "exactly a year and a half later" ?

Finally, Stephen Colbert has declared that we're "on notice".


So the NSA needs to conserve energy by reducing their byte count?

"Take all the whingeing about the price of petrol."

I would recommend conserving by removing the "ge", but that would be too much whining I guess. :)

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