Greg Muttitt: Whatever Happened to Iraqi Oil?  

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TomDispatch has an update on Iraq's oil - Greg Muttitt, Whatever Happened to Iraqi Oil?.

In 2011, after nearly nine years of war and occupation, U.S. troops finally left Iraq. In their place, Big Oil is now present in force and the country’s oil output, crippled for decades, is growing again. Iraq recently reclaimed the number two position in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), overtaking oil-sanctioned Iran. Now, there’s talk of a new world petroleum glut. So is this finally mission accomplished?

Well, not exactly. In fact, any oil company victory in Iraq is likely to prove as temporary as George W. Bush’s triumph in 2003. The main reason is yet another of those stories the mainstream media didn’t quite find room for: the role of Iraqi civil society. But before telling that story, let’s look at what’s happening to Iraqi oil today, and how we got from the “no blood for oil” global protests of 2003 to the present moment.

Here, as a start, is a little scorecard of what’s gone on in Iraq since Big Oil arrived two and a half years ago: corruption’s skyrocketed; two Western oil companies are being investigated for either giving or receiving bribes; the Iraqi government is paying oil companies a per-barrel fee according to wildly unrealistic production targets they’ve set, whether or not they deliver that number of barrels; contractors are heavily over-charging for drilling wells, which the companies don’t mind since the Iraqi government picks up the tab.

Meanwhile, to protect the oil giants from dissent and protest, trade union offices have been raided, computers seized and equipment smashed, leaders arrested and prosecuted. And that’s just in the oil-rich southern part of the country.

In Kurdistan in the north, the regional government awards contracts on land outside its jurisdiction, contracts which permit the government to transfer its stake in the oil projects -- up to 25% -- to private companies of its choice. Fuel is smuggled across the border to the tune of hundreds of tankers a day.

In Kurdistan, at least the approach is deliberate: the two ruling families of the region, the Barzanis and Talabanis, know that they can do whatever they like, since their Peshmerga militia control the territory. In contrast, the Iraqi federal government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has little control over anything. As a result, in the rest of the country the oil industry operates, gold-rush-style, in an almost complete absence of oversight or regulation.

Oil companies differ as to which of these two Iraqs they prefer to operate in. BP and Shell have opted to rush for black gold in the super-giant oilfields of southern Iraq. Exxon has hedged its bets by investing in both options. This summer, Chevron and the French oil company Total voted for the Kurdish approach, trading smaller oil fields for better terms and a bit more stability.

Keep in mind that the incapacity of the Iraqi government is hardly limited to the oil business: stagnation hangs over its every institution. Iraqis still have an average of just five hours of electricity a day, which in 130-degree heat causes tempers to boil over regularly. The country’s two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, which watered the cradle of civilization 5,000 years ago, are drying up. This is largely due to the inability of the government to engage in effective regional diplomacy that would control upstream dam-building by Turkey.

After elections in 2010, the country’s leading politicians couldn’t even agree on how to form a government until the Iraqi Supreme Court forced them to. This record of haplessness, along with rampant corruption, significant repression, and a revival of sectarianism can all be traced back to American decisions in the occupation years. Tragically, these persistent ills have manifested themselves in a recent spate of car-bombings and other bloody attacks.

Washington’s Yen for Oil

In the period before and around the invasion, the Bush administration barely mentioned Iraqi oil, describing it reverently only as that country’s “patrimony.” As for the reasons for war, the administration insisted that it had barely noticed Iraq had one-tenth of the world’s oil reserves. But my new book reveals documents I received, marked SECRET/NOFORN, that laid out for the first time pre-war oil plans hatched in the Pentagon by arch-neoconservative Douglas Feith’s Energy Infrastructure Planning Group (EIPG).

In November 2002, four months before the invasion, that planning group came up with a novel idea: it proposed that any American occupation authority not repair war damage to the country’s oil infrastructure, as doing so “could discourage private sector involvement.” In other words, it suggested that the landscape should be cleared of Iraq’s homegrown oil industry to make room for Big Oil.

When the administration worried that this might disrupt oil markets, EIPG came up with a new strategy under which initial repairs would be carried out by KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. Long-term contracts with multinational companies, awarded by the U.S. occupation authority, would follow. International law notwithstanding, the EIPG documents noted cheerily that such an approach would put “long-term downward pressure on [the oil] price” and force “questions about Iraq’s future relations with OPEC.”

At the same time, the Pentagon planning group recommended that Washington state that its policy was “not to prejudice Iraq’s future decisions regarding its oil development policies.” Here, in writing, was the approach adopted in the years to come by the Bush administration and the occupation authorities: lie to the public while secretly planning to hand Iraq over to Big Oil.

There turned out, however, to be a small kink in the plan: the oil companies declined the American-awarded contracts, fearing that they would not stand up in international courts and so prove illegitimate. They wanted Iraq first to have an elected permanent government that would arrive at the same results. The question then became how to get the required results with the Iraqis nominally in charge. The answer: install a friendly government and destroy the Iraqi oil industry.

In July 2003, the U.S. occupation established the Iraqi Governing Council, a quasi-governmental body led by friendly Iraqi exiles who had been out of the country for the previous few decades. They would be housed in an area of Baghdad isolated from the Iraqi population by concrete blast walls and machine gun towers, and dubbed the Green Zone. There, the politicians would feast, oblivious to and unconcerned with the suffering of the rest of the population.

The first post-invasion Oil Minister was Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, a man who held the country’s homegrown oil expertise in open contempt. He quickly set about sacking the technicians and managers who had built the industry following nationalization in the 1970s and had kept it running through wars and sanctions. He replaced them with friends and fellow party members. One typical replacement was a former pizza chef.

The resulting damage to the oil industry exceeded anything caused by missiles and tanks. As a result the country found itself -- as Washington had hoped -- dependent on the expertise of foreign companies. Meanwhile, not only did the Coalition Provisional authority (CPA) that oversaw the occupation lose $6.6 billion of Iraqi money, it effectively suggested corruption wasn't something to worry about. A December 2003 CPA policy document recommended that Iraq follow the lead of Azerbaijan, where the government had attracted oil multinationals despite an atmosphere of staggering corruption (“less attractive governance”) simply by offering highly profitable deals.

Now, so many years later, the corruption is all-pervasive and the multinationals continue to operate without oversight, since the country’s ministry is run by the equivalent of pizza chefs.

The first permanent government was formed under Prime Minister Maliki in May 2006. In the preceding months, the American and British governments made sure the candidates for prime minister knew what their first priority had to be: to pass a law legalizing the return of the foreign multinationals -- tossed out of the country in the 1970s -- to run the oil sector.

The law was drafted within weeks, dutifully shown to U.S. officials within days, and to oil multinationals not long after. Members of the Iraqi parliament, however, had to wait seven months to see the text.

How Temporary the Victory of Big Oil?

The trouble was: getting it through that parliament proved far more difficult than Washington or its officials in Iraq had anticipated. In January 2007, an impatient President Bush announced a “surge” of 30,000 U.S. troops into the country, by then wracked by a bloody civil war. Compliant journalists accepted the story of a gamble by General David Petraeus to bring peace to warring Iraqis.

In fact, those troops spearheaded a strategy with rather less altruistic objectives: first, broker a new political deal among U.S. allies, who were the most sectarian and corrupt of Iraq’s politicians (hence, with the irony characteristic of American foreign policy, regularly described as “moderates”); second, pressure them to deliver on political objectives set in Washington and known as “benchmarks” -- of which passing the oil law was the only one ever really talked about: in President Bush’s biweekly video conferences with Maliki, in almost daily meetings of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, and in frequent visits by senior administration officials.

On this issue, the Democrats, by then increasingly against the Iraq War but still pro-Big Oil, lent a helping hand to a Republican administration. Having failed to end the war, the newly Democrat-controlled Congress passed an appropriations bill that would cut off reconstruction funds to Iraq if the oil law weren’t passed. Generals warned that without an oil law Prime Minister Maliki would lose their support, which he knew well would mean losing his job. And to ramp up the pressure further, the U.S. set a deadline of September 2007 to pass the law or face the consequences.

It was then that things started going really wrong for Bush and company. In December 2006, I was at a meeting where leaders of Iraq’s trade unions decided to fight the oil law. One of them summed up the general sentiment this way: “We do not need thieves to take us back to the middle ages.” So they began organizing. They printed pamphlets, held public meetings and conferences, staged protests, and watched support for their movement grow.

Most Iraqis feel strongly that the country’s oil reserves belong in the public sector, to be developed to benefit them, not foreign energy companies. And so word spread fast -- and with it, popular anger. Iraq’s oil professionals and various civil society groups denounced the law. Preachers railed against it in Friday sermons. Demonstrations were held in Baghdad and elsewhere, and as Washington ratcheted up the pressure, members of the Iraqi parliament started to see political opportunity in aligning themselves with this ever more popular cause. Even some U.S. allies in Parliament confided in diplomats at the American embassy that it would be political suicide to vote for the law.

By the September deadline, a majority of the parliament was against the law and -- a remarkable victory for the trade unions -- it was not passed. It’s still not passed today.

Given the political capital the Bush administration had invested in the passage of the oil law, its failure offered Iraqis a glimpse of the limits of U.S. power, and from that moment on, Washington’s influence began to wane.

Things changed again in 2009 when the Maliki government, eager for oil revenues, began awarding contracts to them even without an oil law in place. As a result, however, the victory of Big Oil is likely to be a temporary one: the present contracts are illegal, and so they will last only as long as there’s a government in Baghdad that supports them.

Korean plans for more nuclear power plants delayed or scrapped  

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The Korea Herald reports that a swathe of nuclear power plants have been cancelled or delayed in South Korea as part of the anti-nuclear backlash following the Fukushima disaster (and the Inchon tidal power project has been delayed for 3 years as well) - Plans for more power plants delayed or scrapped.

The construction of 10 nuclear power plants and one tidal power plant scheduled to be completed between 2013 and 2027 has been either put off or canceled, plant operators said, fanning concerns about power shortages.

The 11 plants, if completed, altogether could have produced about 12.7 million kilowatts of electricity, which accounts for about 6.4 percent of the nation’s power supply.

“We have postponed or canceled some plant construction deals because the government has become more careful about giving out approval after the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” said an official of the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co.

Nuclear plant Sinuljin-1 and Sinuljin-2, originally set to be completed in June 2016 and June 2017 respectively, had their completion date postponed by at least 10 months, after failing to obtain the government approval on time.

The completion date of Sinuljin-3, Sinuljin-4, Sinkori-5 and Sinkori-6 were postponed by one year for failing to obtain the state approval, and Sinkori-7 and Sinkori-8 construction projects were canceled as the company faced difficulties in securing land for the construction site.

The KHNP decided to put off Incheon tidal power plant by about three years to June, 2020, the officials said.

Peak cheap oil is an incontrovertible fact  

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I'm always a little dubious about Ambrose Evans-Pritchard but this column (wondering about the hype over Maugeri's mistaken analysis of peak oil) is worth a read - Peak cheap oil is an incontrovertible fact.

Brent crude jumped to $115 a barrel last week. Petrol costs in Germany and across much of Europe are now at record levels in local currencies. Diesel is above the political pain threshold of $4 a gallon in the US, hence reports circulating last week that the International Energy Agency (IEA) is preparing to release strategic reserves.

Barclays Capital expects a “monster” effect this quarter as the crude market tightens by 2.4m barrels a day (bpd), with little extra supply in sight. Goldman Sachs said the industry is chronically incapable of meeting global needs. “It is only a matter of time before inventories and OPEC spare capacity become effectively exhausted, requiring higher oil prices to restrain demand,” said its oil guru David Greely.

This is a remarkable state of affairs given the world economy is close to a double-dip slump right now, the latest relapse in our contained global depression. ...

So we face a world where Brent crude trades at over $100 even in recession. Fears of an Israeli strike on Iran may have spiked the price a bit, though Intrade’s contract for an attack is well below levels earlier this year. Iranian sanctions may have cut supply by more than the extra 900,000 bpd pumped by Saudi Arabia. Japan’s increased reliance on oil since switching off most of its nuclear reactors has played its part.

Yet the deeper force at work is the relentless fall in output from the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, endless disappointment in Russia because of Kremlin pricing policies, and the escalating cost of extraction from deep sea fields.

Nothing has really changed since the IEA warned four years ago that the world must invest $20 trillion in energy projects over the next 25 years to feed the industrial revolutions of Asia and head off an almighty crunch. The urgency has merely been disguised by the Long Slump.

We learned in the 2006-2008 blow-off that China is now the key driver of global oil prices, with consumption rising each year by 0.5m bpd -- now a total 9.2m bpd in a world market of 90m bpd. Demand is broadly flat in Europe and America.

So what will happen when China latest spending blitz gains traction? The regions have unveiled a colossal new spree on airports, roads, aeronautics, and industrial parks: a purported $240bn each for Tianjin and Chongqing, $160bn for Guangdong, $130bn for Changsha, and so forth. Sleepy Guizhou has trumped them all with $470bn. Your mind goes numb.

What will happen too when car sales in China surpass 20m next year, as expected by the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers? ...

World opinion has swung a little too cavalierly from the Peak Oil panic four years ago to a new consensus that America’s shale revolution -- and what it promises for China, Argentina, and Europe -- has largely solved the problem.

Much has been made of “Oil: The Next Revolution” by Harvard’s Leonardo Maugeri, who forecasts an era of bountiful supply and cheap oil as global output capacity rises by almost 18m bpd to 110m bpd by 2020.

Sadad al-Huseini, former vice-president of Saudi Aramco, has a written a testy rebuttal, arguing that Dr Maugeri assumes a global decline rate of 2pc a year from oil fields compared to the IEA’s estimate of 6.7pc. There alone lies the gap between crunch and glut. ...

The shale revolution has profound implications for America’s role in the world and the global balance of power, but let us not get carried away. Oil experts noticed how many crews in the Bakken field were told to stand down when crude prices dipped earlier this summer. “Supposedly cheap shale turned out to be rather expensive shale in that, as soon as Brent fell to $90 per barrel, a large proportion of US shale oil in key regions seemed to lose all its rent,” said Paul Horsnell from Barclays Capital.

Prichard's column points to this article by Sadad al-Huseini - Don't Count on Revolution in Oil Supply.
Leonardo Maugeri's recent paper Oil: The Next Revolution on the presumed future abundance of oil supplies rejects the pessimistic outlook of limited increases in oil capacity over the next decade. It suggests global oil capacity will exceed 110 million barrels per day by the end of the decade, putting an immediate end to concerns regarding constrained long-term oil supplies. This conclusion is based on an assessment of new projects with a reported capacity of 49 million b/d before a downward adjustment to 29 million b/d to allow for completion risks and reserves depletion. Maugeri holds two PhDs, one in Political Science and one in Economics, and has extensive executive experience with ENI in strategies and developments and in petrochemicals.

In putting forth this optimistic thesis, Maugeri apparently sets aside a variety of technical realities, including the difference between natural gas liquids (NGLs) and conventional oil, reserves depletion versus capacity declines, and proven reserves as opposed to speculative resources.

The report mixes NGLs, which feed petrochemicals and domestic or industrial fuel applications, with conventional oil, which is the main source for transportation fuels. When fractionated, NGLs yield propane, butane and light naphtha. These products cannot replace oil distillates such as gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

For example, NGLs grew from 7 million b/d in 2003 to an estimated 12 million b/d in 2011 but provided no relief to the demand for transportation fuels, which was surging across those years. The growth in NGLs is now forecast by the IEA to reach an ambitious 20 million b/d by 2030. Impressive as this may be, NGLs will remain at best marginally relevant to transportation applications until widespread changes occur in the technology and infrastructure of the auto and trucking industries. Given cost and complexities, there is no evidence that this is likely to happen within this decade.

In regard to capacity declines, the report appears to confuse oil reserves depletion with capacity declines. In the world of petroleum engineering, depletion quantifies residual reserves in the ground, while declines define a reservoir's ability to sustain a given level of production over time. Incremental reserves in modern discoveries are added early in a discovery's life while production declines are a subsequent development related to reservoir factors including changing fluid compositions and diminishing reservoir energy. Maugeri's suggestion that incremental reserves may offset capacity declines mixes up speculative exploration variables with reservoir engineering realities.

The report takes exception to the IEA's 2008 estimate of an average 6.7% global oil capacity decline and offers an equivalent estimate of less than 2% per year. This low estimate is apparently based on the observation of historical production rates from major oil producing countries. It is not clear how the author extracted the convoluted effects of offsetting market volatility, spare capacity utilization, natural production declines, and ongoing new capacity investments from such historical trends.

The IEA’s 2008 study, on the other hand, applies well-established petroleum engineering principles to 800 post-peak fields that make up the majority of global oil supplies. The natural decline rates of these fields were reported to average 3.4% for 54 supergiant fields, 6.5% for scores of giant fields and the 10.4% decline rate for hundreds of large fields. At the IEA's 6.7% level of capacity declines, the current 74 million b/d of conventional oil supplies (which exclude NGLs, biofuels, nonconventionals and various other liquids) would require 5 million b/d of supplemental new capacity annually just to maintain a flat level of supply. Based on these assessments, Maugeri’s 29 million b/d of "risked" new capacity would only replace declines through 2017. Even the full 49 million b/d of new projects would only extend current liquids production on a flat trajectory to 2021.

Overstretching the Australian LNG Industry  

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Paddy Manning has an article on the SMH on the Australian LNG boom (starting the gas age) - Too much too soon has left LNG industry overstretched.

The proponents of Australia's massive liquefied natural gas boom are doing the hard yards.

Seven enormous projects worth more than $US172 billion ($165 billion) combined are under construction all at once. Already this year two operators - BG Group and Santos - have announced cost blowouts, of $US5 billion and $US2.5 billion, at their respective coal seam gas projects - Queensland Curtis LNG and Gladstone LNG.

Santos's efforts to window-dress the announcement, as a pull-forward of upstream capital expenditure scheduled for post-2015, fell flat.

In the last fortnight, in quarterly earnings calls, Chevron admitted it faced rising costs on its $US43 billion Gorgon project on Barrow Island, and its budget and schedule were under review, and Shell flagged it could delay Australian LNG projects worth $US17 billion.

The head of global gas for energy analyst Wood Mackenzie, the Edinburgh-based Noel Tomnay, says Australia will be ''one big bad news story for the next couple of years, with delays to projects and cost over-runs. It seems inevitable.''

Australia's strong dollar, rising labour and compliance costs are being blamed for the pressures, and competition from lower-cost countries is causing investors to think twice about Australian LNG.

Tomnay says this year's cost blowouts are unlikely to be the last announcements. ''With that in mind, it would be a brave board that went out to investors right now with an investment decision on another Australian LNG project,'' he says. ''Would the market reward another announcement? Probably not. It would be more pragmatic to announce a breather. 'Annual capital expenditure on Australian LNG is going from $US10 billion to $US40 billion, which is highly inflationary. There has to be a hiatus.''

Why The Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral Matters  

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Climate Progress has an update on the slow demise of arctic sea ice - Why The Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral Matters.

In the past week the Arctic sea ice cover reached an all-time low, several weeks before previous records, several weeks before the end of the melting season. The long-term decline of Arctic sea ice has been incredibly fast, and at this point a sudden reversal of events doesn’t seem likely. The question no longer seems to be “will we see an ice-free Arctic?” but “how soon will we see it?”. By running the Arctic Sea Ice blog for the past three years I’ve learned much about the importance of Arctic sea ice. With the help of Kevin McKinney I’ve written the piece below, which is a summary of all the potential consequences of disappearing Arctic sea ice.

Arctic sea ice became a recurrent feature on planet Earth around 47 million years ago. Since the start of the current ice age, about 2.5 million years ago, the Arctic Ocean has been completely covered with sea ice. Only during interglacials, like the one we are in now, does some of the sea ice melt during summer, when the top of the planet is oriented a bit more towards the Sun and receives large amounts of sunlight for several summer months. Even then, when winter starts, the ice-free portion of the Arctic Ocean freezes over again with a new layer of sea ice.

Since the dawn of human civilization, 5000 to 8000 years ago, this annual ebb and flow of melting and freezing Arctic sea ice has been more or less consistent. There were periods when more ice melted during summer, and periods when less melted. However, a radical shift has occurred in recent times. Ever since satellites allowed a detailed view of the Arctic and its ice, a pronounced decrease in summer sea ice cover has been observed (with this year setting a new record low). When the IPCC released its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, it was generally thought that the Arctic could become ice-free somewhere near the end of this century. But changes in the Arctic have progressed at such speed that most experts now think 2030 might see an ice-free Arctic for the first time. Some say it could even happen this decade.

Talison snapped up on bet of a battery-charged future  

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Renew Economy reports that WA based lithium miner Talison has been taken over - Talison snapped up on bet of a battery-charged future.

Three years after it was forced to pull an Australian stock market float due to a lack of interest from local investors, the Australian-based Talison Lithium (TLH:TSX) – the world’s largest producer of lithium ore – has been snapped up in a deal that values it at more than twice the price.

Talison, which has been producing lithium at its Greenbushes mine in Western Australia for more than 25 years, and accounts for one-third of the global market in lithium ore, has agreed to a buyout by US-based materials group Rockwood Holdings for $C724 million ($704 million).

Lithium is the key ingredient used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries – one of the favoured technologies in the so-called “secondary” or “rechargeable” battery market. The batteries are used in mobile phones, laptops, tablets and the like, but are also expected to gain a major share of the electric vehicle market, and play a key role in the development of solar energy storage and in grid stabilisation.

The purchase comes just after Talison doubled production at its main mine in anticipation of a boom in demand of lithium-ion batteries, and secured a 15 per cent increase in prices – taking its price increases for calendar 2012 to date to 25 per cent.

“Talison was, and remains of the view that lithium will be a major part of the world’s new energy future, not just for mobile electronics such as iPads, but electric vehicles, grid stabilisation batteries, and solar storage,” chairman Peter Robinson said at the opening of the expanded operations earlier this month.

According to a recent presentation by Talison, demand for lithium-ion batteries has been growing by more than 20 per cent a year since 2000, and this is expected to surge from around 2015, as the rollout of electric vehicles takes off, and as lithium-ion batteries are deployed in large format basis in electricity grids and for storing solar energy.

And then there is the boom in smart phones and tablets. This graph below indicates anticipated demand over the next decade.

The storm blows in the crazies to GOP-land  

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Crikey's Guy Rundle reports that the Ron Paul era is coming to an end - The storm blows in the crazies to GOP-land.

Tossed palms at the street corners, the fraying and fading porches of Californian bungalows stretching back for kilometres, a low grey sky, and a foul tropical wind … St Petersburg has seen better days.

The city across the bay from Tampa was a product of the Florida land boom of the ’20s, sprawling across the peninsula, grid block after grid block. The boom laid down houses in their tens of thousands, bungalows with Japanese-style roofs and stone pillars, suggesting a new order of healthful nature, exotica, painted yellows and pinks and browns. Shops and garages at each corner, in art deco style — curved lines like cruise liners and seaplane wings, round windows, cherry-red light fittings, the streamlined and moderne, the past’s idea of the future. The city was the place to be in the ’20s. Then the Depression hit, and it’s been going quietly downhill ever since.

Some bungalows have been lovingly restored; others, houses that would give no change from a cool million in Melbourne or Sydney, rot away in the sea air. The shops on the boulevard have long glass display frontages, half-empty, or crowded with faded haberdashery and handicrafts. They make one tired merely by looking at them. At every intersection, they’ve punched in a shopping centre of the current style — dull-brown, slab-tilt, every sign — Walmart, Goodwill, Payless Shoes — general issue, undifferentiated, monopoly capital leaching away the sole virtue of the market, its exuberance. People drive up and haul away, as if at depots.

Today it’s bottled water. They’re coming out of the Walmart, loaded into carts, on palettes, going into the back of SUVs. The shelves near the registers are cleared of batteries, and torches are gone. Hurricane Isaac is coming, has hit the Florida Keys by now, and cities to the north are battening down. Tampa has already been entirely disrupted for the convention, the city criss-crossed with street-closures, concrete bollards pulled across, cyclone fencing around police stations. Casualty departments have been rehearsing decontamination scenarios. Everything has been oriented to the big gig at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the hot centre of the city for three days.

In Tropicana Field, St Petersburg’s forlorn sports stadium, the opening party of the convention is going ahead tonight, but the convention proper has been put back a day to start Tuesday, in case Isaac — currently heading towards New Orleans — adopts the style of the moment and takes a sudden right turn and hits us with full force two. Delicious irony.

Should the Republicans fail to gain Florida — and hence lose the election — it will be because the Democrats managed to turn out the Jewish vote on the east coast. Was someone in the National Weather Service having a sly laugh when they named it such? Why did they not simply call it Barack and have done with it?

Last time the Republicans gathered, in the unlikely province of St Paul, Minnesota, they were pumped. The Democrats had held their convention, but they’d lost the news cycle almost immediately as the Republicans had announced their vice-presidential choice the day after, and Sarah Palin had set the country aflame, for a moment trumping the Obamamania. The financial crisis had not yet hit, and John McCain had not yet made a fool of himself by announcing that he was suspending his campaign and returning to Washington to sort it all out. Palin had not yet been, well, Sarah Palin, and the tales of a frontier state governor who could shoot a moose, and sold the governor’s jet on eBay had sent a shiver up the backs of the great and good.

That was a long long time ago, and the part is older and a little wiser, at least as far as VP choice is concerned. They have as their candidate Mitt Romney, a man who excites no one, not even Mitt Romney. To appease the base, but purportedly avoid the bad craziness of the Palin trip, they have chosen Paul Ryan, a thoroughly competent, highly intelligent, utterly lunatic Ayn Randian manorexic from Wisconsin. That may or may not work — Ryan has already been implicated in the Todd Akin “r-pe doesn’t cause pregnancy” scandal. Nevertheless, he’s not the type to say that he understands NAFTA because he can see Canada from Milwaukee, and that’s why he’s there.

But that doesn’t make for much of a party, and the gathering at Tropicana was, well, not subdued — the Republicans are too batshit crazy to be subdued — but lacking a certain genuine zest of yesteryear. “I cannot believe that the American people will re-elect a man who knows nothing about what America is,” said Jim, a huge man, near spherical, in a blue blazer and tan slacks. He was from Iowa, from whose name he removed the sole vowel, rendering it as “Ow”, like a cry of pain. He was angry with the media, which had been grudgingly admitted. His wife, Maeve, a delicately boned woman in a lace dress, was more conciliatory.

“You’re from Australia? Do you know about Barack Obama and what’s he done?” She peeked out from behind her husband, orbiting him like a moon. Did they think Romney would win? “Yessir, but it’s a battle,” said Jim. Maeve: “What with the liberal media …”

They had no doubt that Romney would win, but there was no swagger in their voice. In 2008, they could not believe that Obama would win. Hardly an extreme judgement — after all, in early 2008, the Democrats didn’t believe that Obama could win. Now that he was the President, that fact was a little harder to ignore. They had a candidate they liked better than John McCain, who had troubling inclinations towards bipartisanship, and a veep candidate they loved, a man who wanted to reduce government share of GDP spending to 3.75% (from around 24%, itself one of the lowest figures in the OECD).

Yet they had no air about them that commonsense and sanity would be restored. They were waiting to find out what their country would become — or in their minds, if it would exist at all after January 2013.The feeling spread across the vast St Petersburg-Tampa conurbation today, for over at the other corner, at the University of South Florida, Ron Paul was holding a one-day counter-convention, a second instalment on the “Paulapalooza” event he had held in Minneapolis in ‘08. This one was a little more subdued, if only because, in true form, there had been a split in the Ron Paul forces — with his more outre group staging a two-day “Festival of Paul” beforehand, at the fairgrounds, in which radical right-wing libertarianism mingled with heavy metal and the hardcore paranoia of the John Birch Society.

Paul skipped the fairgrounds fiasco — showing a circumspection he has not always displayed — and the split was significant, for it showed that the weird mix of boring Austrian economics and counter-cultural brouhaha that Paul’s supporters had pioneered, was coming apart at the seams. The crazies and the comb-overs were drifting back apart.

Paul himself is retiring, and his son Rand, a Kentucky senator, is taking over the family franchise. But he has nothing of Paul’s wiry charisma, and he is angling for a long career at the heart of the Republican Party, so he is toning down the one thing that has given the movement a broad appeal — Ron Paul’s uncompromising opposition to foreign adventures, and a US empire. Whether the Republicans win or lose in November, the Paul movement has peaked, and has started to fade.

Should the party win, many Paulites will happily fold into a fudged-up right-wing Romney era, satisfied that they have seen off an alien presence. The others will simply spin off into space, or into whatever bizarre movement endtimes American culture can come up with next.

But one way or another, the storm is coming in. You come out of an air-conditioned building, feeling like an iceberg lettuce, and into the hot wind twisting between the bungalows. There will be no relief, even should the storm come. The heat will not break, and so the whole city is held in suspension, but with no suggestion of what might end it, of what could.

Or of what would stop the slow wearing away, the flaking of paint, the salt air eating into the frame, that is now so all-pervasive in America as to be barely recognised.

Water shortages hit US power supply  

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New Scientist has a look at the impact the ongoing drought in the US is having on power generation - Water shortages hit US power supply.

As the United States' extended heat wave and drought threaten to raise global food prices, energy production is also feeling the pressure. Across the nation, power plants are becoming overheated and shutting down or running at lower capacity; drilling operations struggle to get the water they need, and crops that would become biofuel are withering.

While analysts say the US should survive this year without major blackouts, more frequent droughts and increased population size will continue to strain power generation in the future.

Power plants are a hidden casualty of droughts, says Barbara Carney of the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) in Morgantown, West Virginia, because they are completely dependent on water for cooling and make up about half the water usage in the US. That makes them vulnerable in a heat wave. If water levels in the rivers that cool them drop too low, the power plant – already overworked from the heat – won't be able to draw in enough water. In addition, if the cooling water discharged from a plant raises already-hot river temperatures above certain thresholds, environmental regulations require the plant to shut down.

One nuclear plant in Connecticut recently had to shut down because the sea water used for cooling was too warm. Nationwide, nuclear generation is at its lowest in a decade, with the plants operating at only 93 per cent of capacity.

Nuclear is the thirstiest power source. According to NETL, the average nuclear plant that generates 12.2 million megawatt hours of electricity requires far more water to cool its turbines than other power plants. Nuclear plants need 2725 litres of water per megawatt hour for cooling. Coal or natural gas plants need, on average, only 1890 and 719 litres respectively to produce the same amount of energy.

Shale Gas Assets - Overpriced Or a Liquid Turn for Mining Giant BHP?  

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The Oil Drum has a look at BHP's expensive foray into North American shale gas production - Shale Gas Assets - Overpriced Or a Liquid Turn for Mining Giant BHP?.

Australian mining giant BHP has lost a quarter of its former market capitalization since its acquisition of US shale acreage from Petrohawk and Chesapeake last year. The company is keen to point out that worldwide economic conditions have impacted the price and volume of the commodities that BHP extracts and sells on a global basis. BHP’s US shale gas assets are part of its declining performance. Having paid a whopping $19bn for the shale plays in 2011, BHP now faces serious write downs. Ruud Weijermars and Matthew Hulbert ask the serious question whether the lost value simply is a result of changed market conditions - or was the acreage already worth much less at the actual time of its purchase by BHP?

BHP management concedes it is currently assessing the near-term gas price effect on the value of its gas properties acquired last year from Chesapeake (CHK) and Petrohawk (HK). To many industry analysts this is no surprise; the economic fundamentals of US shale gas production and reserves were already questioned long before the BHP sales went through. Petrohawk had never managed to earn any operational profit from its shale gas assets over its 15 years of operations. HK sold gas below the full-cycle production cost and its accumulated losses amounted to some $1 billion when the company was bailed out by BHP last year.

In short, Petrohawk was a ‘precursor’ to Chesapeake’s recently publicized cash-flow crunch predicament. The lack of access to financing, combined with overleveraged debt and lack of operational earnings from gas wells meant one thing: sell assets quickly. One can confidently conclude that HK shareholders were remarkably lucky to receive a very handsome price – twice the market value - for their distressed gas assets in June 2011.

In our opinion, a significant portion of HK’s formerly ‘approved’ gas reserves more likely than not was overdue for downgrading to ‘contingent’ resources by the time of their sale to BHP. In ball park terms, that’s the difference between gas assets that can be produced commercially at current prices, and those which can’t ...

The core of the problem with shale acreage valuation is that the net present value of gas reserves has become as volatile as the gas price itself. But companies have been slow in exercising due diligence if not outright reluctant to depreciate assets. In spite of the low gas prices in 2009, 2010 and 2011, companies like Chesapeake and Petrohawk continued to aggressively book proved undeveloped reserves (PUDs). Both Petrohawk and Chesapeake needed these new reserves on their balance sheets - without these reserve additions, they would have landed into collateral default. And although SEC rules mandate companies must duly impair PUDs when overall project cost have become uneconomic, PUDs now account for nearly half of CHK’s (and former HK’s) proved reserves. Chesapeake’s reported proved reserves comprised 42% PUDs in 2009, and the proportion grew to 47% in 2010, and settled at 46% in 2011.

Oddly enough, once a company has sunken the cost for well development of a PUD, the developed proved reserves need only be impaired if the annual cash flow turns negative, which would require gas sales to dip below operating expenses. In the well’s subsequent life-cycle, SEC rules leave room for continued classification of a well’s resources as reserves, as long as annualized cash flows remain positive. This encouraged companies to continue quickly sinking cost in wells that may not, in fact, ever have been economic (on a full cost basis) in the first place. By doing so, companies quickly 'prove' the reserves of a new shale gas play, and the acreage value rises. This also means that many US shale gas companies have essentially ignored full cycle economics. The sunk cost game continues even today.

Investors still appear prepared to bear the cost, but may not be fully aware of the additional risk.

With gas prices plummeting, the SECs former ’premium label’ of proved reserves has lost its stable foundation. In fact, full cycle economics for the majority of US shale gas plays has been largely negative for the past four years. The SEC has been lenient and one might speculate that overly aggressive reserve reporting appeared an affordable governance risk for shale gas operators. There has been no favourable gas price for adding proved reserves, yet unconventional gas companies have booked reserves by operating aggressively on a sunk cost basis. As a result, US shale gas investments have now become less secure than the reported reserves suggest – something investors seem to haven glossed over far too lightly.

Santos produces first shale gas in Australia  

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The Business Spectator reports that Santos are getting some positive market feedback after expanding into shale gas in inland Australia (supplementing their natural gas and coal seam gas production) - Santos pins hopes on first shale gas.

Oil and gas producer Santos says Australia's first commercial shale gas well is ready to go into production, helping to boost supply and keep prices stable in eastern Australia.

Santos said its Moomba-191 well in the Cooper Basin was now producing dry gas after the company reported an increase in underlying first half profit and maintained its full-year production guidance on Friday. ...

Chief executive David Knox said shale gas flows from the Moomba well were a significant milestone in the company's program to unlock the vast unconventional gas potential of the Cooper Basin that straddles the South Australian and Queensland border.

"The shale well result has been an outstanding result for us and potentially for eastern Australia for the very long-term future," Mr Knox told analysts on Friday. ...

"The share price is up because of the surprisingly good flow rate that they're getting at their Moomba 191 shale gas well," Mr Wood said. "You can start to talk about some very large numbers on the back of that, but it's very early days. Certainly this flow rate was better than we were expecting."

Scotland to Build World's First Community-Owned Tidal Turbine  

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Inhabitat has a post on a new tidal power project in Scotland - Scotland to Build World's First Community-Owned Tidal Turbine.

As a country, Scotland has some of the most aggressive renewable energy targets in the world – the entire nation is working to be completely independent of fossil fuels in the next decade, and has pledged to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. You don’t have to be an energy expert to know that’s no small goal, so it’s no surprise that Scotland is embracing practically every clean energy technology it can find. The country recently announced plans to build the world’s first community-owned tidal turbine. The turbine will be deployed in the Bluemull Sound between the islands of Yell and Unst, and used to power a local ice plant and industrial estate. It will be owned by the North Yell community.

US Lower Class Grateful It Not Part Of Nation's Middle Class  

Posted by Big Gav

The Onion has an article about the declining fortunes of America's middle class - Nation's Lower Class At Least Grateful It Not Part Of Nation's Middle Class.

A survey released Wednesday by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that despite the many challenges they face, the nation's lowest-income individuals are nonetheless thankful they don't have to endure the unique hardships of the nation's long-suffering middle class.

According to the report, the 46 million Americans who fall below the federal poverty line, though struggling mightily, are at least glad they don't have to live up to some rapidly vanishing American dream of advancing in their career, making more money, and improving their lifestyle, the way their middle-income counterparts do.

"The unrealistic expectations and false hope they experience must be unbearable," Camden, NJ hotel clerk Allison Jacobsen told researchers, noting that while her $22,000 annual salary barely covers her rent and groceries each month, at least she doesn't operate under the flawed assumption that her situation will ever improve. "A life spent constantly stressing out over a dead-end job or struggling to pay off a fixed 30-year mortgage on a continuously depreciating three-bedroom townhouse? It's horrific."

"Can you believe people actually have to live like that?" Jacobsen added. "I feel just awful for them."

Welcome to Dystopia: the dangerous food and energy crises  

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Renew Economy has an article on Jeremy Grantham's latest musing on resource constraints - Welcome to Dystopia: the dangerous food and energy crises.

Jeremy Grantham, the former chairman and chief investment strategist for the $100 billion funds manager GMO Capital is known as a contrarian. But his quarterly investment newsletters are eagerly awaited, because they usually give some fascinating insight into some of the big themes that affect investments.

His latest, distributed to his investors in July but only recently publicly released, is worth a read in full. It focuses on the impending food crisis, and also how the climate issues and the energy issues are interlinked.

It’s a long document, so here we are just going to excerpt some of the key points he makes about energy. Remember, Grantham has no particular interest in one energy source of another, nor does he belong to any think tank that has a particular ideological bent. He is just responsible for $100 billion of someone else’s money and wants to know the best place to put it. (The answer appears to be farming stocks and other resources, if only for the anticipated price spikes).

One of his key themes is that the shale gas boom may buy some time, mainly for the US, but “seems more likely to create complacency” and continued dependence on hydrocarbons. He says this will have a slip-back effect in the longer term, because it will lead to yet higher prices and shortages that will impact global growth and even the viability of modern, rather fragile, economies.

“On paper… the energy problem can be relatively easily addressed through very large investments in renewables and smart grids,” he writes. “Those countries that do this will, in several decades, eventually emerge with large advantages in lower marginal costs and in energy security. Most countries including the US will not muster the political will to overcome inertia, wishful thinking, and the enormous political power of the energy interests to embark on these expensive programs. They risk being left behind in competitiveness.”

That seems a pretty clear message, and maybe one that Australia’s politicians should absorb. But while the energy problem make seem simple to solve on paper, in reality it is a different prospect.

“All it takes is real leadership from our leaders; common sense from the general public; a willingness of hydrocarbon interests to back off from politics and propaganda and a herd of flying pigs! We need to build a very large, very smart grid, covering the whole of the US and one day perhaps including Canada. Among many tricks, it needs to be able to reach into smart homes and turn off the refrigerators and so on for a few minutes when needed.

“It is, in fact, all state-of-the-art already and in the 10 or 20 years it would take to build, the technology and engineering would no doubt greatly improve, given the great scale, helping to drive down the cost. Behind the grid we would need a truly massive investment in storage technologies and all renewables, especially solar and wind power. Solar costs have unexpectedly crashed in the last three years, down by over two-thirds, and finally today, in ideal conditions (even without coal carrying its full environmental costs), solar is competitive.’

Grantham says that, in a happy variant of Moore’s Law, this fall in solar costs will continue. So will the fall in wind power costs. But the costs of hydrocarbon energy of all kinds will rise. The cost of a new grid would be cheaper as a percentage of GDP than the Manhattan project, and even if it took 20-30 years to build, the marginal costs of operating and maintaining such a system would cross the rising costs of the current grid long before then.

“By 2050,” he says, “cheap hydrocarbon sources will be a distant memory. Electric grids based solely on hydrocarbons would by then, after desperate struggles and brownouts, likely have turned totally black and economies based on such grids would be under very severe stress. If I’m wrong in this assertion for some countries, simply add 10 or 20 years onto the timeframe.”

The danger of complacency driven by the new reserves of natural gas and extra oil from new drilling technology could allow Germany and others, possibly including China, to forge ahead with renewables until they dominate these new, relatively job-intensive industries and eventually end up with much lower marginal costs. “The major disadvantage of all of these extra (oil and gas) reserves, though, is that they will give us more rope with which to hang ourselves by frying the planet.”

He notes recent estimates by Cornell University, which he hopes are preliminary and mis-measured, of almost 8 per cent of fracking gas leaks from drill to stove burner. Anything more than 4 per cent (and it may be as little as 3 per cent) makes natural gas even more dangerous to a warming planet than coal. “Unlike other environmentalists, I worry less about other of the several negative effects of fracking: boiling the planet makes other negatives seem to me relatively inconsequential.”

He says China has been in a “class of its own” in taking seriously this topic of future availability of resources. “It has a long Confucian tradition of thinking very long term and its politicians do not have to worry about being re-elected or about voters and funders as much as ours do. My colleagues worry that the Chinese save and invest too much, approximately half of all their income, a level never before reached in history.

“But for undertaking a completely renewable energy system, what a set-up! If the Chinese feel they must maintain a 50 per cent capital spending ratio (or at least come down gracefully to avoid an outright depression), there are few projects big enough to both absorb the giant quantities of money available and have a good return on investment at the societal level in the long term. Building a renewable energy system achieves both aims.

“As a first mover they would quickly be able to build fewer coal utilities and, eventually, none. In 30 or 40 years they could phase out the last of them and stop slowly poisoning their urban residents while at the same time helping to stop slowly cooking the Earth.

The Chinese are already becoming leaders in wind and solar power construction and research. At much higher scale, their cost advantages would be hard to match, and if a renewable energy system were to be completed, their biggest long-term worry of all – energy security – would be gone. ...

Severn Tidal Power Project A Possibility Once More ?  

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The Independent reports that the on-again, off-again Severn tidal power project is under consideration again in the UK as the government searches for infrastructure projects to restart the economy - No 10 asks ministers: Can we now support £30bn Severn barrage?.

David Cameron has ordered ministers to consider backing a £30bn project to harness the tidal power of the Severn estuary, as the Government scrambles to find big infrastructure projects that could help kick-start growth. ...

With the potential to create 20,000 jobs, it is exactly the sort of big-ticket construction project that the coalition needs to find as George Osborne faces a growing clamour to change economic course.

Mr Davey is to consider the details of the Severn barrage plan. However, The Independent on Sunday has learnt that the Liberal Democrats, uneasy about the lack of growth, are to call on the Chancellor to authorise additional public borrowing to fund a wide range of green-energy schemes. Mr Davey's aide, Duncan Hames, has drawn up a policy to this effect.

The idea of a Severn barrage was rejected by the coalition in 2010, which argued there was "no strategic case at this time for public funding of a scheme to generate energy in the Severn estuary".

But Mr Cameron has been persuaded that the long-debated idea of a barrage is worth reconsidering, because the consortium Corlan Hafren says no state funding is required. Instead, investors from Kuwait, Qatar and a number of sovereign wealth funds have expressed support for the idea. ...

Securing government support is crucial, because time would need to be found for legislation to pass through Parliament. Peter Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister, quit his frontbench role earlier this year to champion the project. He has offered to pilot a bill through the Commons, which Mr Cameron has agreed to study.

"Tidal power is the only lunar energy source," Mr Hain said in a letter to Mr Cameron. "Tides can be forecast for years in advance, and therefore tidal power is highly predictable and consistent."

Stretching up to 18 kilometres from Brean on the north Somerset coast to Lavernock Point in South Wales, the scheme, Corlan Hafren claims, could provide 5 per cent of the UK's energy needs, saving one million tonnes of carbon every year. ...

The project is thought to include 1,000 turbines. The Severn estuary has a tidal range of 14 metres, which engineers have contemplated harnessing since the middle of the 19th century.

The Assange Saga Continues  

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Guy Rundle at Crikey has an update on the Julian Assange saga, following Ecuador's decision to grant him asylum and his recent press conference - Rundle: Assange as Poppins meets HR Pufnstuff. It was interesting to see that Wikileaks' recent publishing of an email archive from Stratfor prompted a concerted denial of service attack on the site (along with a flurry of articles about a surveillance system called Trapwire) - which probably just gave the release more publicity.
Thus began the return of Julian Assange to public appearance, after a two-month enforced absence, hunkered down in the embassy — and by agreement with the Ecuadorians, refraining from overt political statements and appearances. It had been announced late last week, when it was suggested that Assange would appear “in front” of the embassy, a few hours after it had been announced that he had been granted diplomatic asylum. This led to renewed speculation as to his possible arrest, etc — the topic of feverish debate around town. Would he allow himself to be arrested, having made his point? Would a fast motorbike etc? Or, by contrast, would he address everyone by video link, having already escaped to Quito?

We waited to see, but first there were the warm-up acts — Assange’s international lawyer Baltasar Garzon, who spoke mostly in Spanish, venerable street-fighting man Tariq Ali, and then Craig Murray, former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, who gave a roaring denunciation of large sections of the UK diplomatic apparatus, while also pointing out that he had used the UK embassy to harbour Uzbek dissidents, so the UK’s huffing and puffing about “no diplomatic asylum” came and went a bit.

Then there was a bit of faffing around with a microphone on the small corner balcony, and through the crowd, distributing red, yellow and blue (colours of Ecuador) helium balloons, “to be released when Julian finishes speaking”. It’s stuff like this that makes you cringe a little in matters Assange, although it was quickly defeated by the balloons clumping together and people losing hold of them anyway. Then there was a highly engineered roar, and Assange appeared, in clipped white hair, blue shirt, a maroon tie and a sheaf of papers, all the world like he was about to process your home loan.

His speech was brief and circumspect — apparently there were still agreements with Ecuador that he wouldn’t call for the overthrow of all governments. He referred to the solidarity of South American nations, in resisting the UK government’s blundering threat of invading an embassy, expressed gratitude to his supporters, and most importantly called on President Obama to “end the witch-hunt against WikiLeaks” and persecution of all whistleblowers. He gave a shout-out to Pussy Riot, the recently convicted Russian punk band, defying those who thought that his alliance with the state-controlled Russia Today channel would preclude any sort of mention. There was no account of the Swedish accusations, his view of them or the rationale for taking asylum.

It was a dignified speech, and he avoided the inevitable Evita comparisons with the whole Italianate balcony thing, but it was a close run.

Assange’s getting of asylum has coincided with a further backlash against Assange — one curiously, which did not emerge when he spent two years fighting extradition through the courts. Centre-left figures have always lined themselves up against Assange and the WikiLeaks project, which they find to be a disruption to business as usual. ...

Assange’s genius, from WikiLeaks to here, has been to use small interruptions in power processes to create major conflicts, which expose power relations, and alter them. Given that he set all this out in a couple of short papers at the beginning of the WikiLeaks project — that by releasing secret information in large amounts, one causes states and suprastates to lose their advantage and unity as conspiracies — it is surprising that people are surprised at every new twist.

His response to the extradition request has seen the European Arrest Warrant — the linchpin of a post-democratic EU, more so than the euro — subject to its most fundamental challenge in the UK courts to date, the case itself has shattered the easy “cultural left” refusal to examine the politics of sex, and sexual coercion. Now, his asylum request has done the same thing. It was inevitable that the UK would make secret threats to a smaller, “Third World” nation, and that Ecuador, in the WikiLeaks spirit, would release the memo, thus exposing implicit power relations and assumptions.

Now, that process is in play. Ecuador has appealed to leftist South America — through the OAS, and the smaller UNASUR (a South American nations group, which thus excludes Canada and the US) — to condemn the UK’s implicitly colonialist mindset.

The OAS will be meeting on August 24, in DC of all places, to consider a motion to censure the UK’s blatant disregard of diplomatic principles, and UNASUR agreed one today, with the foreign ministers of the continent linking hands as the resolution was met with cheers. In a sense, Assange’s initiative and British blundering has put the facade of international political equality right up front.

Whether that helps Assange get out of 3 Hans Crescent, remains to be seen. We await the next move. To add to my previous suggestions, the balcony speech gave me another idea. Helicopters can fly to 152 metres (500 feet) in London, with a general authorisation. Diplomatic vehicles are exempt under the Vienna Convention, and nothing in it says they can’t fly. So — a helicopter, a winch, and then a flight outside the 12-mile coastal waters limit. By the time it had happened, Assange would be on a yacht in the Channel.

Gas projects to push up Australian electricity prices  

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The SMH reports that natural gas prices are on the rise in Australia (as expected as LNG export projects close the gap between local prices and those in Asian export markets) - Gas projects to push up electricity prices.
Wholesale electricity prices will remain weak for the next couple of years, but domestic gas prices are expected to surge in the future, pushing up electricity bills, as Queensland's export gas projects come on stream.

Speaking at a conference earlier today, TruEnergy managing director Richard McIndoe made the forecast, although he expects that eventually the development of shale gas reserves will help contain electricity prices towards the end of the decade.

Weak wholesale prices are a mixed blessing for the large generators and retailers such as AGL, Origin Energy and TruEnergy, since it depresses the profits of their generation units, although it helps to give their retail arms greater flexibility to discount prices to maintain margins and protect their competitive position in the retail market. ...

Over the next three to five years, the launch of export gas projects in Queensland will see domestic gas prices rise, which will push up wholesale electricity prices, he said and it will ‘‘drive the bidding practices of coal-fired generators’’.

Additionally, strong Asian demand for coal, especially from India in the coming years, will keep coal prices high ‘‘and set wholesale [electricity] prices higher’’, he said. These pressures will be especially notable as low-priced coal contracts in NSW roll-off, he said. But further out ‘‘solar and shale gas may bring prices down’’, he said.

Earlier this week, the Australian Energy Markets Operator slashed forecasts for new power generation capacity.

In recent trading, the wholesale electricity price has been holding at around $30 a megawatt hour, and has changed little over the past 15 years.

India’s Living Bridges  

Posted by Big Gav

The Long Now has a look at some amazing natural bridges in India - India’s Living Bridges.

Mitt Romney: peak oiler?  

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Ugo Bardi has an interesting post on some of Mitt Romney's past statements on peak oil - Mitt Romney: peak oiler?. Of course, Mitt has flip-flopped on pretty much every issue going so its unlikely he will stay the course on this one...

I was surprised to read what Cory Suter in "Polycimic" reports about Mitt Romney's 2010 book "No Apology; The Case for American Greatness. " In the book Romney speaks about Peak Oil, cites Matt Simmons's book "Twilight in the desert" and says that, "whether the peak is already past or will be reached within a few years, world oil supply will decline at some point." And then he doesn't say that the solution is just drilling more. He says that using less oil and in finding alternatives for it are just as important as solutions.

Did any other presidential candidate with serious chances to win ever say something like that? I haven't checked the whole history of the US elections, but I can tell you that once I asked personally to Al Gore (after his unsuccessful run for president) what he knew about Peak Oil and he seemed to me less knowledgeable than Mitt Romney appears to be in his book.

On the other hand, regarding Mitt Romney there is always the joke that says (h/t "Jules Burn"):

A conservative, a moderate, and a liberal walk into a bar. The bartender says "Hi Mitt!"

At least, you can say that the guy is flexible. Anyway, here are the paragraphs about peak oil reported by Cory Suter from Romney's book (note that I can't check the original book, but this information seems to be reliable).

“Our own policies interfere with free-market mechanisms. We subsidize domestic oil and gas production with generous tax breaks, penalize sugar-based ethanol from Brazil, and block investment in nuclear energy. Our navy assumes the prime responsibility for securing the oil routes from the Middle East, effectively subsidizing its cost. Thus, we don’t pay the full cost of Middle East oil, either at the oil-company level or at the pump.” (232)

“Market economists also identify a number of externalities – real costs that aren’t captured in the price of fuel – the most frequently cited of which are the health-care costs of pollution and the climate costs of greenhouse gases. There is a further externality: potentially leaving the next generation in the lurch by using so much oil and energy ourselves – domestic and imported – that our children face severe oil shortages, prohibitively expensive fuel, a crippled economy, and dominion of energy by Russia and other oil-rich states. No matter how you price it, oil is expensive to use; we should be encouraging our citizens to use less of it, our scientists to find alternatives for it, and our producers to find more of it here at home.”

“Many analysts predict that the world’s production of oil will peak in the next ten to twenty years, but oil expert Matt Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy, presents a compelling case that Middle Eastern oil production may have already reached its peak. Simmons bases his contention on his investigation into the highly secretive matter of the level of reserves in the Saudi oil fields. But whether the peak is already past or will be reached within a few years, world oil supply will decline at some point, and no one predicts a corresponding decline in demand. If we want America to remain strong and wish to ensure that future generations have secure and prosperous lives, we must consider our current energy policies in the light of how these policies will affect our grandchildren.” (233)

Chart of the day: High Frequency Trading  

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Reuters has a great little animation showing the rise of high frequency trading on the stock exchange (published pretty much everywhere a week or two ago) - Chart of the day, HFT edition.

This astonishing GIF comes from Nanex, and shows the amount of high-frequency trading in the stock market from January 2007 to January 2012. (Which means that the Knightmare craziness of last week is not included.)

The various colors, as identified in the legend on the right, are all the different US stock exchanges. You might think there are only two stock exchanges in the US, but you’d be wrong: there are only two exchanges where stocks are listed. There are many, many more exchanges where stocks are traded.

What we see here is relatively low levels of high-frequency trading through all of 2007. Then, in 2008, a pattern starts to emerge: a big spike right at the close, at 4pm, which is soon mirrored by another spike at the open. This is the era of traders going off to play golf in the middle of the day, because nothing interesting happens except at the beginning and the end of the trading day. But it doesn’t last long.

By the end of 2008, odd spikes in trading activity show up in the middle of the day, and of course there’s a huge flurry of activity around the time of the financial crisis. And then, after that, things just become completely unpredictable. There’s still a morning spike for most of 2009, but even that goes away eventually, to be replaced with sheer noise. Sometimes, like at the end of 2010, high-frequency trading activity is very low. At other times, like at the end of 2011, it’s incredibly high. Intraday spikes can happen at any time of day, and volumes can surge and fall back in pretty much random fashion.

It’s certainly fair to say that if you take a long, five-year view, then you can see a clear rise in trading activity. But it’s also fair to say that there’s something quite literally out of control going on here. Just as the quants at Knight found themselves unable to turn off their machines for 30 long minutes last week, the HFT world in aggregate seemingly has a mind of its own when it comes to trading patterns. Or, to put it another way, if there’s a pattern here, it’s one incomprehensible to human minds.

Back in 2007, I wasn’t a fan of a financial-transactions tax; today, I am. And this chart shows better than anything why my opinion has changed. The stock market is clearly more dangerous than it was in 2007, with much greater tail risk; meanwhile, in return for facing that danger, society as a whole has received precious little utility. Are spreads a tiny bit tighter than they might be otherwise? Perhaps. But that has no effect on stock-market returns for long-term or even medium-term investors.

The stock market today is a war zone, where algobots fight each other over pennies, millions of times a second. Sometimes, the casualties are merely companies like Knight, and few people have much sympathy for them. But inevitably, at some point in the future, significant losses will end up being borne by investors with no direct connection to the HFT world, which is so complex that its potential systemic repercussions are literally unknowable. The potential cost is huge; the short-term benefits are minuscule. Let’s give HFT the funeral it deserves.

US: 200,000 GW of solar could be installed  

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PV Magazine has a look at the latest NREL study of solar power potential in the US - US: 200,000 GW of solar could be installed (via Cryptogon).

According to a new study released by NREL, the technical potential of photovoltaics and concentrating solar power (CSP) in the U.S. amounts to just under 200,000 GW, which could generate around 399,700 TWh of energy annually.

The U.S.-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has published a new report – U.S. renewable Energy Technical Potentials: A GIS-Based Analysis – in which it says, technically, 154,864 of photovoltaics and 38,000 GW of CSP could be installed. This would mean, photovoltaics could generate around 483,600 terawatt hours (TWh) of energy annually, and CSP, 116,100. Refer to the table for a breakdown of the different solar technologies.

Overall, it believes rural utility-scale photovoltaics has more potential than any other renewable energy technology, due to the "relatively high power density, the absence of minimum resource threshold, and the availability of large swaths for development." Meanwhile, Texas is said to have the ability to account for around 14 percent of this 153 GW, or 280,600 TWh annual potential.

In terms of urban utility-scale photovoltaics, NREL says Texas and California have the highest estimated technical potential, due to both their strong solar resources and high populations. With significantly less estimated technical potential, it is thought that rooftop photovoltaics will be most successful in those states with higher population densities, like California.

David Strahan On Monbiot's Peak Oil U-Turn  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

David Strahan has a look at George Monbiot's strange about face after Leonardo Maugeri's paper on peak oil was published - MONBIOT PEAK OIL U-TURN BASED ON DUFF MATHS.

In his column of July 2nd George Monbiot recanted peak oil, claiming “the facts have changed, now we must change too”. Much of the article was spent regurgitating a recent report by Leonardo Maugeri, a former executive with the Italian oil company Eni, which Monbiot breathlessly reported “provides compelling evidence that a new oil boom has begun”.

Plenty of ink has already been spilled by oil depletion experts exposing some of the wildly optimistic assumptions contained in Maugeri’s report. More damning is that the work is shot through with crass mistakes that render its forecast worthless.

When I interviewed him, Mr Maugeri was forced to admit a mathematical howler that would disgrace the back of an envelope, and it also became clear he did not understand the work of the other forecasters he attacks. It also looks as if he has double or even triple counted a vital component of his predicted oil glut.

Maugeri forecasts the global oil supply will soar by almost 18 million barrels per day to around 111mb/d by 2020, the biggest increase in production since the 1980s, which he claims could lead to prolonged overproduction and “a significant, stable dip of oil prices”. So, arrivederci peak oil.

Maugeri claims this looming glut has three legs: booming upstream investment by the oil industry; the rise and rise of unconventional production such as US shale oil; and a tendency among forecasters to over-estimate massively the rate at which production from existing oil fields declines. The first point is uncontroversial, the second is moot, but the third is the most important; without it, Maugeri’s glut evaporates.

All oilfields eventually peak and go into decline as production is sapped by falling reservoir pressures, and as water increasingly dilutes the flow of oil from the well. Measuring the impact of these declines on aggregate oil production is a complicated business, but vital to predicting the future oil supply. There have been two primary studies of decline rates in recent years: one by the International Energy Agency in its 2008 World Energy Outlook; and another by the oil consultancy IHS-CERA.

Maugeri cherrypicks numbers from the IEA study and misrepresents them to claim that “most forecasters” work on decline rates of 6 to 10 percent. He then argues this is incompatible with the observed growth of the oil supply over the last decade – and therefore must be wrong – and uses this conclusion to justify his inflated oil production forecast. But the whole thing is a straw man; an email he sent me revealed he simply doesn’t understand the IEA numbers. The IEA’s global decline rate is actually 4.1%, and CERA’s broadly agrees, at 4.5% (see here for more detail).

Even if we were to accept his 6 to 10 percent range, Maugeri has got his sums horribly wrong. In the key section of the report, he claims that even the lower end of the range “would involve the almost complete loss of the world’s “old” production in 10 years”. But this is laughable. A 6% annual decline over 10 years leaves you with 54% of your original production, because each year’s 6% decline is smaller volumetrically than the previous one. So over a decade the decline is 46% – and very far from an “almost complete loss”.

When I put this to him, Mr Maugeri seemed genuinely confused, and tried briefly to persuade me the loss was much larger. “If you have a 6% decline each year over a 10 year period, the loss of production is close to 80%”, he said, but then the penny dropped. It looks to me as if he compounded 6% in the wrong direction – for growth, not decline. “Maybe on this you are right”, he conceded sheepishly. So by his own admission, Mr Maugeri has overestimated the alleged overestimation of production decline by almost three-quarters(1).

Nowhere in his report does Mr Maugeri explicitly state his own decline rate assumptions. The closest he gets is the unsupported claim that “I did not find evidence of a global depletion rate of crude production higher than 2-3 percent when correctly adjusted for reserve growth”. And yet his actual assumptions appear to be far lower. By analysing Maugeri’s forecasts, Steven Sorrell of the Sussex Energy Group and Christophe McGlade, a doctoral researcher at UCL Energy Institute, have shown his actual global decline rate for 2011-2020 is just 1.4% – scarcely a third of the established estimates. Replacing this implicit rate with the IEA number eliminates the Maugeri glut entirely, slashing his production forecast for 2020 to below his estimate of current production capacity. Sorrell concludes “Since most analysts expect average decline rates to increase over this period, this projection must be considered optimistic”. So, buongiorno peak oil.

When I challenged Mr Maugeri about the discrepancy between the 2-3% decline rate and the 1.4%, he said the difference was explained by reserves growth – the tendency to squeeze more oil than originally expected from existing fields, through new technology, the exploitation of secondary reservoirs and so on. But in that case he seems to have counted it twice, to judge by his quote in the paragraph above. Or possibly even three times, since the notion of reserves growth is already accounted for in the existing estimates. Both the IEA and IHS-CERA numbers are observed overall decline rates: they reflect the actual loss of production that happened after – or in spite of – all the industry’s investment to boost flagging output at existing fields.

“If Maugeri has adjusted decline rates for future reserves growth, he has either double counted, because it’s already in the existing forecasts, or assumes a massive acceleration in reserves growth in future”, explains Richard Miller, an oil consultant who previously worked for BP, and was the first to spot Maugeri’s dodgy maths. “Either way, it’s not credible”. When I emailed Mr Maugeri to check if he understood the definition of the IHS-CERA decline number he had quoted, I received no reply.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising. Maugeri is a long standing cornucopian, and has form in the slapdash stakes. In a previous article for the journal Science(2), he sought to disprove peak oil modelling using a graph of Egyptian oil production. Sadly, the graph he printed was not for Egyptian oil production. Worse, if it had been, it would have demolished the very point he was trying to make(3).

What is astonishing is that George Monbiot finds Maugeri’s work so “compelling”. How many times have I read Monbiot banging on about the importance of peer review? Strange then that he should gush that this report was “published by Harvard University” but fail to mention it had not appeared in any peer reviewed journal, and worse, had been funded by BP. I suspect both those organizations may live to regret their involvement. What about Monbiot? If he is as intellectually rigorous as he likes to make out, he will perform not one peak oil u-turn this month, but two.

The Tell-all telephone  

Posted by Big Gav in

Der Spiegel has a great little animation showing some of the data trail your phone leaves behind over a period of time - Tell-all telephone. Obviously a good tracking system would supplement this with data from your online activity (web sites visited, emails etc), your financial transactions, the locations your car goes etc - I imagine those who track everyone's comings and goings have a better memory of what people have been up to than they do themselves.

Green party politician Malte Spitz sued to have German telecoms giant Deutsche Telekom hand over six months of his phone data that he then made available to ZEIT ONLINE. We combined this geolocation data with information relating to his life as a politician, such as Twitter feeds, blog entries and websites, all of which is all freely available on the internet.

By pushing the play button, you will set off on a trip through Malte Spitz's life. The speed controller allows you to adjust how fast you travel, the pause button will let you stop at interesting points. In addition, a calendar at the bottom shows when he was in a particular location and can be used to jump to a specific time period. Each column corresponds to one day.

Climate results convert sceptic: 'let the evidence change our minds'  

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I'm way behind on posting (even more than usual that is) so much of what gets posted over the next month is probably somewhat dated. I did enjoy this story of a Koch funded global warming skeptic deciding that after much study global warming is both real and human caused - Climate results convert sceptic: 'let the evidence change our minds'.

THE earth's land has warmed by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years and "humans are almost entirely the cause", according to a scientific study set up to address climate sceptic concerns about whether human-induced global warming is occurring.

Richard Muller, a climate sceptic physicist who founded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, said he was "surprised" by the findings. "We were not expecting this, but as scientists, it is our duty to let the evidence change our minds."

He said he considered himself a "converted sceptic" and his views had received a "total turnaround" in a short space of time.

"Our results show that the average temperature of the earth's land has risen by 2½ degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of 1½ degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases," Professor Muller wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times.

The team of scientists based at the University of California, Berkeley, gathered and merged 14.4 million land temperature observations from 44,455 sites across the world dating back to 1753. Previous datasets created by NASA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Britain's Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit had gone back only to the mid-1800s and used five times fewer weather station records.

The funding for the project included $US150,000 from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, set up by the billionaire US coal magnate who is a key backer of the climate sceptic Heartland Institute think tank. The research also received $US100,000 from the Fund for Innovative climate and Energy Research, created by Bill Gates.

Unlike previous efforts, the temperature data from various sources was not "homogenised" by hand - a key criticism by climate sceptics - but, instead was "completely automated to reduce human bias". The BEST team's findings, despite their deeper analysis, closely matched the previous temperature reconstructions, "but with reduced uncertainty".

Last October, the BEST team published results that showed the average global land temperature has risen by about 1 degree Celsius since the mid-1950s. But the team did not look for possible "fingerprints" to explain this warming.

The latest data analysis reached much further back in time but, crucially, also searched for the most likely cause for this rise in land temperature by plotting the upward temperature curve against suspected "forcings". It analysed the warming impact of solar activity - a popular theory among climate sceptics - but found that, over the past 250 years, the contribution of the sun is "consistent with zero".

Volcanic eruptions were found to have caused "short dips" in the temperature rise in the period from 1750 to 1850, but "only weak analogs" in the 20th century.

"Much to my surprise, by far the best match came to the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide, measured from atmospheric samples and air trapped in polar ice," Professor Muller said. "While this doesn't prove that global warming is caused by human greenhouse gases, it is currently the best explanation we have found, and sets the bar for alternative explanations."

Professor Muller said his team's findings went further and were "stronger" than the latest report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

620 million without power: India's energy crisis as grids collapse  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The SMH has a reports on the impact of poor rains and high temperatures on India's overloaded power grid - 620 million without power: India's energy crisis as grids collapse.

India's energy crisis cascaded over half the country on Tuesday when three of its regional grids collapsed, leaving 620 million people without government-supplied electricity for several hours in, by far, the world's biggest blackout. ...

The new power failure affected 620 million people across 20 of India's 28 states - about double the population of the United States. The blackout was unusual in its reach, stretching from the border with Myanmar in the northeast to the Pakistani border about 3000 kilometres away. Its impact, however, was softened by Indians' familiarity with frequent blackouts and the widespread use of backup generators for major businesses and key facilities such as hospitals and airports. ...

Tuesday's blackout eclipsed Monday's in India, which covered territory including 370 million people. The third largest blackout affected 100 million people in Indonesia in 2005, according to reports by The Associated Press.

India's demand for electricity has soared along with its economy in recent years, but utilities have been unable to meet the growing needs. India's Central Electricity Authority reported power deficits of more than 8 per cent in recent months.

In addition, vast amounts of power are pirated through unauthorized wiring that taps into the electrical system.

The power deficit was worsened by a weak monsoon that lowered hydroelectric generation and kept temperatures higher, further increasing electricity usage as people seek to cool off.

A climate risk to nuclear power  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Climate Central has a look at the problem posed to nuclear power plants by rising temperatures - A climate risk to nuclear power.

Compared to coal and natural gas, nuclear power plants offer a significant advantage when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions – they don't emit any. However, in an ironic twist, it seems that climate change is increasingly causing problems for operators of nuclear plants.

Like coal-fired power plants, nuclear facilities use large amounts of water for cooling purposes. After water has cycled through the plant, it is discharged back into a nearby waterway, usually a lake or a river, at a higher temperature. US state regulations prohibit nuclear plants from operating once water temperatures go above a certain threshold, in part because it could compromise the safe operation of the facility, and also because discharging very warm water can kill fish and other marine life.

According to the New York Times' Matthew L. Wald, the Braidwood Generating Station, located about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, was recently granted a waiver to continue operating despite the fact that the unusually hot and dry summer had heated the water it was taking in to a toasty 102 degrees Fahrenheit – 2 degrees above the legal operating limit for the plant.

Like much of the country, Illinois has had an extremely hot summer. In fact, Illinois had its warmest January-to-June period on record.

According to Wald's story, operators of the Braidwood plant have been hit by the combination of extremely hot days and very warm nights. Nationally, thousands of daily high temperature records and warm overnight low temperature records have been set this summer.

The Times quoted Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon, Braidwood's operator:

"Asked whether he viewed Braidwood’s difficulties as a byproduct of global warming, Mr Nesbit said: “I’m not a climatologist. But clearly the calculations when the plant was first operated in 1986 are not what is sufficient today, not all the time.”

Climate Central's Alyson Kenward reported on the threat that climate change poses to electricity generation in 2011, when she detailed problems that a 2010 heat wave caused for operators of the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Alabama.

"With river water so warm, the nuclear plant couldn’t draw in as much water as usual to cool the facility's three reactors, or else the water it pumped back into the river could be hot enough to harm the local ecosystem, says Golden. But for every day that the Browns Ferry plant ran at 50 per cent of its maximum output, the TVA had to spend $1 million more than usual to purchase power from somewhere else, he says.

What happened in northern Alabama last summer, at the largest of TVA's nuclear power plants, did not present a human safety concern. Operators knew there was never a risk of an explosion or nuclear meltdown, nor was there a threat of leaking radioactive material. But the prolonged spell of hot weather put the TVA at risk of violating environmental permits, with hefty fines as one consequence and potential harm to the Tennessee River ecosystem as another.

It’s not the first time high temperatures have affected the performance of the Browns Ferry plant, and extreme heat is a growing concern for power plant operators across the Southeast."

With global warming already increasing the odds of extreme heat events, the challenges faced at Braidwood and Browns Ferry are likely to become more common in the coming years. It's an open question as to whether the nuclear industry is prepared for this. As the Union of Concerned Scientists' David Lochbaum told the Times, “Nuclear plants like Goldilocks weather – not too hot, not too cold, but just right." Such weather is getting harder and harder to come by.

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