Drought, Interrupted  

Posted by Big Gav

Talk about drought down here will probably quieten down for a few months, with a deluge leaving parts of the state underwater - as yet its made little impact on dam levels though (but if every house had a rainwater tank, that wouldn't matter so much).

Meanwhile, evacuations are under way in Lismore as flood waters threaten to breach 11-metre high levees. Emergency service personnel are warning people in the Lismore CBD, south Lismore and north Lismore to evacuate their homes and businesses as rain continues to bucket down in the Northern Rivers area. About 3000 people are affected by the evacuation, State Emergency Service spokesman, Phil Campbell said. Earlier, the SES said 6000 people were being evacuated. "It's a very big evacuation," Mr Campbell said.

Some residents may be able to move to the second storey of their properties but others were being asked to head to the Southern Cross University evacuation centre, he said. People in the town of Mullumbimby were also being evacuated but numbers were unclear at this stage, he said.

Smart Rainwater Guttering  

Posted by Big Gav

TreeHugger has a post up about a new design for roof guttering that is optimised for the capture of rainwater into rainwater tanks. Given the need to conserve water here (especially with water prices increasing and water restrictions in place in most major cities), household rainwater tanks (like these) have become quite popular - a lot of states (such as NSW and WA even have rebate schemes to encourage the purchase of them. Some areas are even looking at mandating that they be included in new housing developments.

Our recent Eco-Tips on saving water has readers reaching for their personal best and there were some beauties. With Australia currently in the grip of what is being termed ‘a hundred year drought’ such discussions are now everyday conversation. It has focused attention, like never before, on household rainwater tanks.

Smartflo have developed an innovative form of guttering to direct rainwater to tanks. As this blueprint image indicates, the gutter in profile has an integral cover, which is specifically curved to allow wind to blow leaves clear of the gutter. This has two immediate benefits. It eliminates 94% of debris and pollutants from rainwater. And it reduces the accumulation of leaf matter, which is a major cause of combustion in the advent of a bushfire.

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Lots Of Hot Air But Not Enough Wind  

Posted by Big Gav

A visiting Greenpeace honcho has noted the obvious problem with the MRET - it's not big enough.

Greenpeace International's climate policy director, Steve Sawyer, currently visiting Australia, warned that without legislated targets to achieve 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020, Australia's clean energy industry would not be able to compete with those in China, Europe and the United States, where similar targets are in place.

Mr Sawyer said Australia had tremendous clean energy resources in wind, solar, wave and bioenergy. "Yet the industry expansion in countries like Germany, the UK and China outstrips Australia's because of supportive government policies," he said.

"In 2004, Australia's installed wind power almost doubled, and there are projects approved or under construction that will quadruple it again. Once completed, wind will be supplying enough energy to power some 750,000 homes. Yet government incentives are running out fast, with the pitifully low federal clean energy target almost reached three years ahead of schedule."

Mr Sawyer said Wind Force 12 was a global industry blueprint which demonstrated there were no technical, economic or resource barriers to supplying 12 per cent of the world's electricity needs with wind power alone by 2020. "But the report also explains that, for the industry to achieve its real potential, governments must introduce policies to remove obstacles and market distortions that currently constrain it."

Meanwhile, in England, the BBC reports that the cost of nuclear power has been underestimated compared to that of renewables.
The cost of new nuclear power has been underestimated by a factor of three, according to a British think tank. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) says existing estimates do not allow for the cost of building novel technologies and expensive time delays in construction. They claim that renewable energy sources like wind and solar should be relied upon instead of nuclear power.

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Living In A Fuel's Paradise  

Posted by Big Gav

Hugh Saddler writes in today's Herald that the calls to cut taxes on fuel as prices rise should be ignored and that the correct response is to provide better public transport.

Most oil experts think that over the longer term there are few if any untapped resources that are large enough to support a substantial and prolonged increase in supply. This means that the present price levels are more likely than not to be the norm, unless or until the world as a whole substantially reduces its demand for oil (a most unlikely prospect).

In these circumstances, cutting petroleum product excise to reduce the retail price of petrol sends the very worst kind of signal to consumers, and is the very worst kind of short-term policy populism. Governments should recognise that for some, perhaps many, years there will be no easy technical fix to provide an alternative to petroleum as the main energy source for road and air transport.

What they need to do is help consumers to adjust to higher prices and use less oil, by using more efficient road transport and by changing their travel behaviour. It is important to realise that road transport accounts for 56 per cent of Australian petroleum use and more than half of road transport fuel use is in private cars and light commercial vehicles in urban areas. So transport in our major cities needs to be the focus of policy change.

The Commonwealth should change its taxes which favour large four-wheel-drive vehicles over smaller cars, and private and road transport over public and rail transport. State governments should spend relatively less on roads, much more on providing effective public transport alternatives to private car use and explore other options to reduce people's dependence on individual use of private cars. What will be good for Sydney will also be good for the country and the world.

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Gas News  

Posted by Big Gav

Woodside is in the press a bit today, having lost the contract to supply gas to Alcan's alumina refinery at Gove (which means the Blacktip project gets halted). There is some news with a positive spin from the US though, with the odds on them getting a Californian LNG terminal apparently improving - although at this point the announcement is simply that they will be altering their current proposal.

Woodside Energy (USA) and Crystal Energy have agreed to end a heads of agreement for the development of the proposed Clearwater port.

Under the heads of agreement, signed in October 2004, Woodside agreed to provide technical expertise and funding to progress project approvals for the development of Clearwater Port in return for preferential negotiation rights to access the terminal's capacity.

Both companies will continue discussions over the supply of LNG to Clearwater Port, although Woodside will concurrently consider the possible development of its own LNG receiving terminal off California.

The Alcan refinery looks like it will get it's gas from the Oil Search / Exxon fields in Papua New Guinea (assuming that project ever gets the final go ahead) - I haven't seen a map of the proposed pipelines but connecting PNG to both Gove in the Northern Territory and South East Queensland seems like a big job.

Looking at the bigger picture, as very heavy users of electricity I imagine alumina and aluminium plants are going to be in trouble over time as they compete for energy with other uses. Having dedicated pipelines and long term gas supply contracts probably does lower this risk in the medium term though.

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Solar Paths  

Posted by Big Gav

These things are a great idea - solar powered bricks that light up at night. If I ruled the development I live in I'd take down all the electric lights around all the paths and replace them with these purely on aesthetic grounds...

Grab a bunch of light emitting diodes (LEDs) connect them to some solar panels and wrap them in some tough polycarbonate plastic and you get Solarbricks. Can be used like pavers in the ground, allowing 2 tonne trucks to drive over them. Or place them vertically in posts. 6 colours, 2 sizes and a variety of shapes. If given 1 hour of direct sunlight, they will illuminate a pathway for about 3 nights or 12 hours, automatically turning on as darkness approaches. Under conditions of cloud, rain or shade 6-8 hours is required for a full charge. A maintenance free life of about 10 years is forecast.

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Italy's Grid Manager - No Risk Of Electricity Cuts From Hot Weather  

Posted by Big Gav

Here's another example of the risk to power generation from global warming - this time from Italy. I'm sure Richard Duncan didn't imagine this but it seems to be an increasingly common occurrence :

* hotter weather -> higher power consumption
* hotter weather -> less rain
* less rain -> less hydro power
* less rain -> limits on cooling for other types of generation

Italy's grid manager, the GRTN, sees no risk at present of cuts in the electricity supply because of hot weather, which boosts electricity consumption, said a GRTN spokesman. A report in La Repubblica said recent hot weather could put under pressure water resources in the north of the country, which are used for hydroelectric power and for cooling conventional plants.

'There is no risk of power cuts because production is under control. There is not a problem,' said the spokesman. He was unable, however, to give a forecast on production if the hot weather continues for several weeks.

In 2003, there were planned power cuts because of hot weather. Since then, the margin of reserve between available supply and demand has been increased to 12 pct from 2, he said. This has been done by postponing maintenance on plants from the summer, when air conditioning and freezers push up demand and by introducing new generating plants.

On hydro production, the spokesman said waters 'at the moment are sufficient', while he was not able to comment on production at Italy's largest plant Porto Tolle, near Venice, which produces 2,600 MW. In 2003, production was reduced at Porto Tolle because there was insufficient water in the river Po to cool the plant.

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First ITERation Of Fusion Power  

Posted by Big Gav

The BBC reports the ITER experimental fusion reactor location has finally been chosen after an eternity of wrangling. Fusion may be a pipe dream it's certainly the solution to all energy problems (and my blog title would become obsolete) should it ever work. And as an added benefit humanity would be able to lose the "detritovore" label given to us by William Catton.

France will get to host the project to build a 10bn-euro (£6.6bn) nuclear fusion reactor, in the face of strong competition from Japan. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (Iter) will be the most expensive joint scientific project after the International Space Station. The Iter programme was held up for over 18 months as parties tried to broker a deal between the two rivals.

Nuclear fusion taps energy from reactions like those that heat the Sun. Nuclear fusion is seen as a cleaner approach to power production than nuclear fission and fossil fuels.

Officials from a six-party consortium signed the deal in Moscow on Tuesday, for the reactor's location at the Cadarache site in southern France. The Cadarache site lies about 60km (37 miles) inland from Marseille, and has been a nuclear research centre ever since president Charles de Gaulle launched France's atomic energy programme in 1959.

However, some environmental groups are doubtful about the viability of nuclear fusion, and have warned that Cadarache lies on a known earthquake faultline. The management at Cadarache insists there is no risk to existing or future installations.

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Solar Rechargers  

Posted by Big Gav

On a random impulse today I decided I wanted a solar power gizmo recharger (as plugging the phone, iPod, Archos and other bits and pieces into the wall each night seems rather wasteful of CO2 emitting power generation). The nearby electronic shops all failed to provide, but after a bit of surfing I found myself at the ever-reliable TreeHugger, who had slipped this item past me somehow a week or so ago.

The only problem is they don't seem to be on sale anywhere yet, but hopefully that will soon be corrected (apparently Vodafone is doing a trial here in Sydney but information is difficult to find on how you go about getting one).

If this gizmo works as well as the promo blurb says, then Soldius, of the Netherlands, are on to a good thing. Applying a mysterious, unexplained technology called Maximum Solar Power Tracking (MSPT), the Soldius1 is apparently capable of charging a mobile phone in just 2 to 3 hours. This is much faster than the previously reviewed Solio.

The Politics Of Survival  

Posted by Big Gav

For those who haven't seen it, Kurt has another thoughful post up at Resource Insights, this time looking at the potential for peak oil to collapse the distinction between left and right. I agree that the issue is one which will concern people of all political persuasions (as you can often see in the wide range of people interested in the subject) - I'm not so sure that awareness will always result in cooperation and pragmatic approaches though (an alternative being the widely held fear of the revival of fascism in some peak oil circles).

I'm glad Kurt is encountering people who are willing to put their political differences aside and work towards a positive outcome - hopefully its something we'll see more of.

It is a sign of the times that a former energy analyst turned radical advocate for depaving the world would be quoted on the floor of the U. S. House of Representatives by a self-described "very conservative Republican" congressman while the congressman lectured the country about the dangers of world peak oil production. Just so you don't think this was a fluke, I give you exhibit number two: An investment banker who specializes in energy--a Bush supporter and former campaign advisor on energy--recently wrote a piece about the impending Saudi oil shock for Counterpunch, a left-wing, muckraking newsletter that is proud of its "radical attitude" and its freedom from corporate influence.

What we are witnessing is the collapse of the politics of left and right and the replacement of those politics with what I call the politics of survival. Those who come to understand the gravity of our energy situation quickly abandon their previous political views and instead focus pragmatically on how we can make a successful energy transition.

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Nuclear Confusion  

Posted by Big Gav

David Fleming continued the nuclear debate in this weekend's Financial Review (which I failed to notice while over-focussing on the oil market), this time raising the "peak uranium" issue and quoting the same sources that the Herald did earlier (via Energy Bulletin). After several rounds of back-and-forth on this subject I'm still leaning towards the belief that this is a real problem (in addition to the usual concerns about waste disposal, accidents etc).

The solutions offered don't really seem credible (breeder reactors don't seem to be a reliable solution, if thorium could replace uranium we'd just extend the peak out a bit and uranium from seawater sounds like a pipe-dream - no disrespect to the Engineer-Poet, but I'm not convinced by the arguments I've seen for this).

The graph below shows one analysis of the depletion curve for uranium along with demand, though like everything to do with the peak uranium topic, I'm not very confident it's entirely accurate (either as a representation of the past or as something that could be extrapolated into the future - given that the lack of nuclear plant construction for the past 20 years meant there was plenty of over-supply for uranium that has only recently disappeared).

There are two things to be said for nuclear power. It is based on an energy process which does not produce carbon dioxide. And it is a way of generating energy which is not directly at risk from the looming scarcities affecting oil and gas. These two killer arguments tend to be conflated into one persuasive and rhetorical question: "What's the alternative?"

There are arguments against it too, and most of them are well known. It is expensive and, without hefty government subsidy, offers little potential for profit. It leaks low-level carcinogenic wastes into the air and water. It produces high-level radioactive waste, requiring standards of treatment and storage which are seldom met. It produces the materials for nuclear proliferation. Its accidents can potentially devastate continents.

But there are two other arguments against nuclear power that are not so well recognised. The first is that nuclear power actually produces quite a lot of carbon dioxide: every stage in the process uses fossil fuels (oil and gas) - with the exception of fission itself. Uranium ore has to be mined and then milled to extract the uranium oxide from the surrounding rock; it has to be enriched; the wastes have to be processed and buried, safely; nuclear power stations have to be constructed, maintained and then eventually chopped into bits and stored away.

But it is the second argument which shocks: nuclear power depends on a supply of uranium ores from scarce, rich deposits, which face a depletion problem every bit as serious as that of oil and gas. That rich ore will soon no longer be available. The poorer grades of ore that would then have to be used take more energy to process than they yield.

The question of how much rich uranium ore is left would not matter if the industry were to continue on its present small scale. So the question is: what job is nuclear power likely to be asked to do? A serious contribution - enough to make a difference - might mean bringing on nuclear power to replace the gas and coal now used to generate electricity. A more ambitious one - but necessary, given the scale of our energy problem - would be to provide the primary energy to generate the hydrogen that we would need to replace the use of petrol and diesel on road and rail. If nuclear power did all that, then gas could be reserved for the jobs it does best - providing fuel for industry and households. If applied worldwide, this would, in principle, solve the energy problem for some years to come.


All this would bring forward the point at which the industry would be forced to use ever poorer uranium ores as the richer ones were depleted - and its need for energy from fossil fuels to extract the uranium would start to rise quickly.

It is not the mining process that makes the really serious demands for energy, but the milling. All too soon, it would be necessary to mill hard ores with a uranium oxide content of 0.02per cent - that is, one part in 5000: for every tonne of uranium oxide they extracted, the industry's raw material suppliers would have to mine, mill and dispose of some 5000tonnes of granite. At the same time, it would be reduced to milling soft ores (sandstone) with a uranium oxide content of just 0.01 per cent - 10,000 tonnes of ore to be mined, milled and disposed of for every tonne of uranium oxide extracted.

It is with ores at these grades that nuclear power hits its limits; this is where the energy balance turns against it. If ores any poorer than this were to be used, while at the same time maintaining proper standards of waste control in all operations, nuclear power production would go into energy deficit.


Most of the analysis in this field is being done by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, both nuclear scientists at the end of distinguished careers, now free of the need to appease any institution, and with the courage to cope with a great deal of criticism and worse.


Just at the moment, we have an opportunity. Very efficient, manageable, small-scale solutions - focused on renewables and conservation technologies comprehensively applied - do exist. They need single-minded planning, big investment and training programs; but they have the advantage that, unlike any other option, they are feasible; and they do not conceal within them some terrible snag that no one dares talk about. There could be real solutions to the rapidly unfolding energy crisis. If sacrifices are now made to the voracious demands of nuclear power, that chance will be lost.

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Power and PU238  

Posted by Big Gav

A few people have noted the US has restarted production of PU238, which is apparently most useful for delivering heat (and thus power) for a number of years, rather than for nuclear power.

What would they want to do with it ? Speculation ranges from use by special forces in remote areas, to powering remote unmanned sensing devices or even an off-grid power source for Dick Cheney's lair if the unthinkable happens...

The Bush administration is planning the government's first production of plutonium 238 - a highly radioactive substance valued as a power source - since the Cold War, stirring debate over the risks and benefits of the deadly material. It is hot enough to melt plastic and so dangerous that a speck can cause cancer. Federal officials say the program would produce a total of 330 pounds, or 150 kilograms, over 30 years at the Idaho National Laboratory, a sprawling site outside Idaho Falls some 100 miles, or 160 kilometers, to the west and upwind of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

The program could cost $1.5 billion and generate more than 50,000 drums of hazardous and radioactive waste. Project managers say that most if not all of the new plutonium is intended for secret missions and declined to divulge any details. "The real reason we're starting production is for national security," Timothy Frazier, head of radioisotope power systems at the Department of Energy, said at the end of a recent interview. He vigorously denied that any of the classified missions would involve nuclear arms, satellites or weapons in space. Plutonium 238 has no central role in nuclear arms. Instead, it is valued for its steady heat, which can be turned into electricity.

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End-Time for U.S.A. Upon Oil Collapse  

Posted by Big Gav

Jan Lundberg's analysis at Culture Change is getting grimmer by the month, with his latest article being a pretty dystopian look at the current state of affairs.

After the devastation of the petroleum-powered civilization and its broken, smoldering aftermath, there will not be any other choice than sharing the world. If not, and sustainable models do not become the rule, then humanity will not pull through to keep evolving biologically. We are flirting with extinction in several ways: climate change, nuclear holocaust, and infertility from plastics, pesticides and other threats. Only with careful, respectful "precision living" that corrects all past mistakes of significance, can the human race endure -- given we are not already too far along in bringing about extinction of other species as a prelude to our own extinction.

As soon as people try to rebuild life as working members of a community, because they found right away that they needed each other to grow, gather, hunt and prepare food, a quasi tribal social system will form that looks out for members and maintains armed defense. However, after the rediscovered practices of mutual aid and cooperation bear fruit, there is too much proof of the value of solidarity and sharing resources and skills for there to be a serious threat from the outside. Die off will have taken care of even desperados who scrounged as lone wolves for a while. Life will for a long time not be much better for members of community, as they must eat strangely such as vermin for protein, perhaps cooked over furniture fires.

Bart makes some good comments following the piece on Energy Bulletin (see below). Personally I prefer Alex Steffen's "Post Oil Megacity" vision to Jay's "Dieoff" vision, but it is worth keep both extremes in mind (which is why I bring up Jay and Dieoff every now and then in between my more frequent Viridian notes), especially as we don't seem to be making much of an effort to solve the problem as yet.

I'm also reading Catton's "Overshoot" at the moment, which does tend to bring Jay's thoughts to the front of ones mind all too often (as it was probably a major influence on them).
Jan Lundberg has been a long-time writer and activist opposing the baleful influence of petroleum and automobiles on society. I've read his Culture Change newsletters and been influenced by him. I'm sorry to see him take up the thesis of Die-off. It's quite a jump from saying that our high-energy consumerism isn't sustainable, to saying that 95% of the population will die of starvation. (Fortunately, the rest of Jan's essay is vintage Lundberg, alternately acerbic and hopeful.) The Die-off concept is brilliantly documented on the dieoff.org website and is discussed on multiple forums such as peakoil.com . As the peak-oil idea becomes diffused, the Die-off idea won't be far behind.

To my mind, Die-off is bad analysis, based on fear and escapism. The fatalism and hysteria implicit in Die-off lead to very bad politics. Desperate people do not make wise choices, nor will they take part in the the co-operative efforts necessary to re-create our civilization after Peak Oil. I'm not sure why people in the richest, most technically advanced societies ever known on the planet are attracted to the fatalism of Die-off. Difficult times are coming, but humans have confronted difficult times before. Is there an element of self-pity in our fatalism? I think of France in 1939, with a World War raging and a Nazi victory likely, when the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was writing:

Sartre teaches that we are constantly tempted to escape our responsibility for creating ourselves from what we have been made - there is something comforting, after all, in feeling that things are beyond our control. But, as he also teaches, to accept this is to enter into complicity with the powers that would dominate us. Sartre demands that we see ourselves as active agents, even when we might prefer the irresponsibility of seeing ourselves as victims.

Today Sartre is still as troubling and annoying as ever. He demands that we see a world seemingly out of control as made up of human choices and the structures these create. When he demands that we take responsibility for our lives, for the shape of our world, for the situation of the least favored - for others as well as ourselves - he is expressing decisively important conditions for learning to live as responsible citizens in this globalized world.

Ronald Aronson in the International Herald Tribune on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Sartre's birth.

Meanwhile Jay is making waves as usual over at Alas Babylon with his theories about plutocracy (feudalism ?) being the natural result of human evolution and the return of slavery being likely as we travel down the peak (I'm over-simplifying of course and no doubt he's playing games - I hope - with the readers to a certain extent).

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Building A Global Thermostat  

Posted by Big Gav

From an asylum for techno-utopian fantasists comes a novel plan for mitigating the effects of global warming - by constructing a giant ring in space to provide enough shade to cool the planet enough to compensate for greenhouse gas emissions. Maybe they should use billions of little umbrellas ? Or even better, billions of solar panels that could be hooked up to a big wire coming back down to earth. Energy problem solved - NASA, please get onto it...

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Wall Street Fantasy Land  

Posted by Big Gav

As Exxon is now the biggest company on Wall Street maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the Wall Street Journal is echoing Exxon funded propaganda about global warming. RealClimate's response is a great summary of all the artifical myths that have been propagated about global warming and their responses debunking these myths.

We are disappointed that the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has chosen to yet again distort the science behind human-caused climate change and global warming in their recent editorial "Kyoto By Degrees" (6/21/05) (subscription required).

Last week, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and 10 other leading world bodies expressed the consensus view that "there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring" and that "It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities". And just last week, USA Today editorialized that "not only is the science in, it is also overwhelming".

It is puzzling then that the WSJ editors could claim that "the scientific case....looks weaker all the time".

While we resist commenting on policy matters (e.g. the relative merits of the Kyoto Protocol or the various bills before the US Senate), we will staunchly defend the science against distortions and misrepresentations, be they intentional or not. In this spirit, we respond here to the scientifically inaccurate or incorrect assertions made in the editorial.

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Thai Up The TV  

Posted by Big Gav

Thailand is struggling with energy shortages (an early casualty of rising oil prices) and has come up with a novel way of reducing the power consumed by TV's - telling broadcasters to shutdown during the early morning hours.

No need to turn off the television in Thailand - the Government will do it for you. Amid a continuing energy crisis, TV and radio stations have been told to shut down from midnight each night voluntarily or face compulsory broadcasting bans.

The TV companies say they will comply if the Government makes it compulsory for all, but warn the broadcasting blackout will not cut power use. The turn-off is just one of the recommendations released this week by the Energy Policy and Planning Office for voluntary measures to lower energy consumption. Others include raising the temperature in government offices to 25 degrees and shutting the air-conditioning down at lunch and from 4pm to 9am; asking golf courses to switch off unnecessary lights; and urging people to use their cars less at weekends.

"It's time for a serious saving of energy consumption by all the people in the country," the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, told reporters. "I urge everyone to do their part to help conserve energy. We need to tighten our belts really hard."

Thailand's energy crisis is not about shortage of power, but its cost. The country imports 95 per cent of its oil and rising prices and high electricity demand, combined with a slowing economy, are making the problem worse. "We are addicted to oil. We consume it in many ways, household, industrial and electricity," said Suthakij Nuntavorakarn , an energy researcher at the Health Systems Research Institute, in Bangkok. "Even though the power industry is fuelled by gas and coal, the prices are linked."

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Manufacturing Uncertainty  

Posted by Big Gav

The LA Times has a good little article on the process of keeping people uncertain in the face of threats to industries that have unpleasant side effects. In this case they are talking about global warming, but I imagine peak oil denial will be a cottage industry for a few years until decline in production is obvious to all.

Manufacturing uncertainty is a business in itself. You too can launch a pretty good campaign. All you need is the money with which to hire one of the main players in the "product-defense industry," many of whose stalwarts first honed their craft defending cigarette smoke. These firms will hire the scientists, throw the mud, crank up the fog machine.

Among themselves, these product-defense lobbyists and their clients make no secret of what they're doing. Republican political consultant Frank Luntz wrote in a memo, later leaked to the press: "The scientific debate remains open…. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly."

Decades from now, this campaign to manufacture uncertainty will surely be viewed with the same dismay and outrage with which we now look back on the deceits perpetrated by the tobacco industry. But will it be too late?

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Preparing for the Next Pandemic  

Posted by Big Gav

Talk about a flu pandemic seems to be on the rise - this piece of analysis is from the world of US Homeland Security (an ugly phrase that seems to have made its way into the local lexicon down here too) via the Council on Foreign Relation's "Foreign Affairs" journal.

The arrival of a pandemic influenza would trigger a reaction that would change the world overnight. A vaccine would not be available for a number of months after the pandemic started, and there are very limited stockpiles of antiviral drugs. Plus, only a few privileged areas of the world have access to vaccine-production facilities.

Foreign trade and travel would be reduced or even ended in an attempt to stop the virus from entering new countries -- even though such efforts would probably fail given the infectiousness of influenza and the volume of illegal crossings that occur at most borders. It is likely that transportation would also be significantly curtailed domestically, as smaller communities sought to keep the disease contained. The world relies on the speedy distribution of products such as food and replacement parts for equipment. Global, regional, and national economies would come to an abrupt halt -- something that has never happened due to HIV, malaria, or TB despite their dramatic impact on the developing world.

The closest the world has come to this scenario in modern times was the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) crisis of 2003. Over a period of five months, about 8,000 people were infected by a novel human coronavirus. About ten percent of them died. The virus apparently spread to humans when infected animals were sold and slaughtered in unsanitary and crowded markets in China's Guangdong Province. Although the transmission rate of SARS paled in comparison to that of influenza, it demonstrated how quickly such an infectious agent can circle the globe, given the ease and frequency of international travel. Once SARS emerged in rural China, it spread to five countries within 24 hours and to 30 countries on six continents within several months.

Influenza vaccine is produced commercially in just nine countries: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These countries contain only 12 percent of the world's population. In the event of an influenza pandemic, they would probably nationalize their domestic production facilities, as occurred in 1976, when the United States, anticipating a pandemic of swine influenza (H1N1), refused to share its vaccine.

There seems to be quite of bit of interest in the pandemic subject in some corners of the peak oil world (besides Matt's professional interest at Code Three) - with the seeds no doubt sown by some of Jay Hanson's old predictions about the use of bioweapons in the post-peak period.

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Tomgram: Michael Klare on a Saudi Oil Bombshell  

Posted by Big Gav

TomDispatch has a new article up from Michael Klare - this one looking at the prospect of production decline in Saudi Arabia (once again drawing heavily from Matthew Simmons' "Twilight In The Desert".

The moment that Saudi production goes into permanent decline, the Petroleum Age as we know it will draw to a close. Oil will still be available on international markets, but not in the abundance to which we have become accustomed and not at a price that many of us will be able to afford. Transportation, and everything it effects -- which is to say, virtually the entire world economy -- will be much, much more costly. The cost of food will also rise, as modern agriculture relies to an extraordinary extent on petroleum products for tilling, harvesting, pest protection, processing, and delivery. Many other products made with petroleum -- paints, plastics, lubricants, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and so forth -- will also prove far more costly. Under these circumstances, a global economic contraction -- with all the individual pain and hardship that would surely produce -- appears nearly inevitable.

If Matt Simmons is right, it is only a matter of time before this scenario comes to pass. If we act now to limit our consumption of oil and develop non-petroleum energy alternatives, we can face the "twilight" of the Petroleum Age with some degree of hope; if we fail to do so, we are in for a very grim time indeed. And the longer we cling to the belief that Saudi Arabia will save us, the more painful will be our inevitable fall.

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A Call To Raise Fuel Excise  

Posted by Big Gav

While the weekend's complaints about rising petrol prices have mostly included people carping about the need for the government to lower taxes on fuel, the WA Sustainable Transport Coalition has come out and recommended the opposite - raise taxes.

“The Automobile Association’s call for the Federal Government to lower fuel excise may help Australian motorists in the short term, but we face a long term problem, which excise reductions now will make worse” Dr David Worth, Convener of the Sustainable Transport Coalition said today.

“Australia already has the lowest fuel excise in western countries, after the US, and a lower rate would only encourage motorists not to change their driving habits, such as getting more fuel-efficient cars and making greater use of public transport, cycling and walking.”

"The STC proposes that the Government should RAISE the fuel excise to encourage Australian motorists to address the higher oil prices now, rather than later (see http://www.stcwa.org.au/papers/Oil_living_with_less.doc ). Our policies would leave Australia better prepared for the looming additional rises in oil prices to US$80-100 per barrel later in the year. At a national level, these need to include being better prepared with knowledge- establish a special committee of State and Federal Transport and Planning Ministers to prepare national and state options to address 'peak oil'.

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Dry Brown Land  

Posted by Big Gav

Jared Diamond was in town a few weeks ago to give some talks as part of the Sydney Writers Festival. This transcript is from a TV panel discussion he did while he was here (focussing on the sustainability of Australian agriculture).

Tonight a special guest - internationally best selling author and environmental historian - Jared Diamond. With Australia facing a crippling drought, and a quarter of a billion dollars in extra drought relief announced yesterday, it's timely that Jared Diamond is visiting Australia. In his latest book, 'Collapse', he argues that Australia has an 'exceptionally fragile' environment. And he warns that if we don't change, we could become "doomed to a declining standard of living in a steadily deteriorating environment." There's some good news too though, as we'll find out a little later on.

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Oil At $100 A Barrel Will Do More To Save The Planet Than All The Wind Farms In The World  

Posted by Big Gav

Hamish McRae at The Independent argues that a soaring oil price is a good thing for the environment (echoing the 'early peak is a good peak' arguments made by Thom Hartmann and Noam Chomsky). Its good to see more people making the green argument that the key to dealing with the peak is continuously increasing efficiency.

The oil price is the outward and visible sign of an energy market under strain. At close to $60 a barrel, it is approaching its highest level in real terms as well as being the highest in current dollars. It may not be quite up to the $80 peak it touched in the early 1980s but the present levels look more likely to be sustained. This is because the high price is driven by strong demand rather than restrictions on supply by Opec.

You can catch some feeling for this in the new edition of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. World energy use grew by 4.3 per cent last year, which is the largest increase ever in absolute terms and the largest percentage increase since 1984.


Consider a world where oil remains not just at its present levels but rises above $100 and shows every sign of staying there. If we want to increase our living standards we would start to ask whether we want to spend our money on energy or on something more agreeable. Expensive energy would give a huge drive for people, companies and governments to save it wherever they possibly could.

More than this, if economies are to go on delivering better standards of living, the only way to do so will be to become "greener" - to do the opposite of China, which is using more energy per unit of output, by increasing output without increasing energy use.

What we cannot know is whether the oil price is already sufficiently high to force radical change. On the other hand we can be pretty sure that if it isn't, then it will go still higher. We shall, I suspect, see some brutal movements in energy prices in the next few years, particularly if the world is indeed close to the peak of its oil production.

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The Soft Landing  

Posted by Big Gav

Dave Roberts at The Gristmill has been in good form lately with a variety of energy related posts. This one outlines his thoughts on peak oil in the wake of the oil crisis exercise last week.

As I said last week, I'm not sanguine about our prospects in the face of peak oil.

It would be nice if the decline of oil supplies was slow and steady, markets adapted smoothly with the introduction of alternative fuels, and we came in for the much-touted "smooth landing." But those who envision such a scenario drastically underestimate just how delicate a situation we're in. We're trying to get from one side of a chasm (an oil-based economy) to the other (a healthy economy wherein oil is marginal) on a tightrope. While patting our head and rubbing our stomach. And reciting the alphabet backwards. Drunk. On one foot.


Nobody knows what's going to happen in the future, and anyone who predicts confidently begs to be made a fool. But we're in a tenuous balance. There are lots and lots of ways the spinning plates could start falling, setting off a cascading series of disasters.

And the path to a soft landing looks awfully narrow.

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Oil Painting By Numbers  

Posted by Big Gav

Sprott Asset Management has an interesting piece of analysis up that says that as far as they can tell, 2005 is the year (pdf) of peak oil production.

The dynamics in the oil market are changing so rapidly that it is a topic worthy of frequent visitation. The problem, as we see it, is one of mathematics – the numbers just aren’t adding up. Global oil demand is expected to increase by 1.8 million barrels per day this year (according to the IEA), and yet everywhere we look we see evidence that production is falling short of expectations. Countries that were supposed to grow production and be the “saviours” (Russia, Mexico, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia) are showing signs of peaking production, and countries that are already in decline are declining more rapidly that expected (U.K., Norway, and Indonesia). More and more experts (executives of oilfield services companies like Schlumberger and Baker Hughes for example) are now saying publicly that the average decline rate of the world’s oil wells is 8%! – a shockingly high hurdle to overcome with new production.


The prospects for global oil supply look tenuous at best, but let’s not forget the demand side of the equation. Many interesting data points can be found here too. Chinese car sales in the month of May were up 24% year-over-year, and are expected to be up at least 15% for the year as a whole. Similarly, car sales in India were up 20% in the month of May. To put a historical perspective on what this means for oil demand, back in the 1950’s and 60’s when automobiles started to become ubiquitous in the Western world, oil demand grew from 10 million barrels per day in 1950 to 50 million barrels per day by 1970. Clearly, there won’t be enough oil to go around for this kind of automobile demand in developing countries as well.

Although the world for the most part is still in denial when it comes to the pending oil crisis, the markets haven’t been oblivious to these developments. Even though we are seasonally in a low demand period, the price of oil is quickly approaching $60 as we speak – an all-time high and an increase of $12 in the past month alone. The futures price of oil is now in contango (future price higher than spot) until 2007 and, early last week before the run-up in the spot price, was in contango all the way to December 2011 (the longest contract available). A contango in the oil market was practically unheard of as recently as the beginning of this year. However, the way events are unfolding, posterity may well show that buying a 2011 barrel of oil for $55 today was the bargain of the century!

How high can oil go? In a crisis the sky’s the limit. Even the threat of a shortage can send the price parabolic. Back in 1970 when US oil production unexpectedly peaked (nobody believed Hubbert back then), the price of oil shot up from $1 per barrel in 1970 to $12 per barrel by 1973. (This all happened before the Arab oil embargo.)

Overall I thought it was a good summary of the situation - but that last paragraph makes me wary, as the price rise they mention in the early 1970's was entirely due to manipulation by the oil companies. It would be ironic indeed if they are playing the same game again (the peak must happen one day of course, but I'm sure the oil industry would love to maximise their profits in the years leading up to the peak as well as afterwards).

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The Peak Oil Library  

Posted by Big Gav

Occasionally people ask me for peak oil related books to read (or are unfortunate enough to look at my bookshelves and start browsing through some of the stuff I've collected over the years) - given that there seems to be quite a large range of relevant material around (some of it decades old) I thought I'd compile a list of the most influential and widely read books in the field.

The list has been influenced by Jay Hanson's "Dieoff Q&A Reading List" (which also suggests books in some other related fields like politics and human nature / evolutionary psychology) as well as some of the books listed at Jeff Vail's "A Theory Of Power" site and a post by Matt Savinar to ROE3 listing the books he found most important.

I haven't read every single book on the list (yet), so I'd be interested in hearing what you think of them, or if you have any other suggestions that you think are must-reads (I know there are other books out there - the list doesn't try to be exhaustive).


  • Beyond Oil: The Threat To Food And Fuel In The Coming Decades - John Gever
  • Energy and Resource Quality: The Ecology of the Economic Process - Charles Hall
  • The Curve of Binding Energy - John McPhee
  • The Prize - Daniel Yergin
  • The Control of Oil - John Blair
  • Blood and Oil - Michael Klare

Peak Oil
  • The Coming Oil Crisis - Colin Campbell
  • Beyond Oil : The View From Hubbert's Peak - Kenneth Deffeyes
  • The End of Oil - Paul Roberts
  • High Noon for Natural Gas - Julian Darley
  • Crude - Sonia Shar
  • Twilight In The Desert - Matthew Simmons
  • The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight - Thom Hartmann
  • The Party's Over - Richard Heinberg
  • Powerdown - Richard Heinberg
  • The Long Emergency - James Howard Kunstler
  • Hegemony or Survival - Noam Chomsky

Ecology, Overshoot and Collapse
  • An Essay on the Principle of Population - Thomas Malthus
  • Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Environmental Decision Making - Howard Odum
  • The Sixth Extinction - Richard Leakey
  • Limits to Growth - Dennis Meadows
  • Overshoot - William Catton
  • Our Ecological Footprint - Williams Rees
  • The Tragedy Of The Commons - Garrett Hardin
  • Mind and Nature - Gregory Bateson
  • Ishmael - Daniel Quinn
  • The Collapse of Complex Societies - Joseph Tainter
  • The Future Eaters - Tim Flannery
  • Going Native - Michael Archer
  • Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed - Jared Diamond

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Rising Petrol Prices  

Posted by Big Gav

Petrol prices led tonight's TV news, with numerous complaints from various local bodies about recent and anticipated price rises and claims that people are getting priced out of being able to drive. One body called for a reduction in petrol taxes, while the Rodent says he will be discussing oil prices with American energy industry representatives on his forthcoming visit to Washington for his latest set of instructions. Apparently he will also consult with Alan Greenspan, who will no doubt tell him to cut interest rates (the solution to everything) and give him a copy of the CERA report and a show bag of methane hydrates.

The weekend Financial Review also featured oil heavily, with articles like The good oil on rising petrol prices, Rising thirst for oil keeps profits flowing, Optimists may be in for a shock, Struggle on the street no certainty, despite $US60 crude and Oil price blackens outlook for stocks (all hidden behind their subscription wall unfortunately).

While they were happy to use peak oil as a trigger for kicking off their pro-nuclear campaign at the beginning of the year (which was replaced by the "cut greenhouse gas emissions" meme later on), they aren't so keen to relate current developments in the oil market to peak oil, with just one brief (and inaccurate) mention amid all the analysis.

The steadily rising oil price has also allowed the doomsayers to gain a new voice.

The so-called "peak oil" lobby [BG - we're a lobby ?] claims that global crude oil reserves have peaked and that steadily rising demand will outstrip the world's ability to supply, forcing prices higher.

Another interesting snippet was their take on the impact on the Australian economy as a whole. Even though our oil importation bill is rising rapidly (like our current account deficit), they tend to believe higher prices are a net positive (ignoring the possibility of these higher prices dampening growth, or worse, in China and/or the US).
Though a net oil importer, Australia is relatively rare among developed economies by being a net energy exporter - due to our reserves of natural gas and coal [BG - and uranium] - to the extent that higher oil prices are associated with higher energy prices in general, Australia's overall net income tends to rise.

In other news, apparently Arnie likes BHP's proposal for an LNG terminal offshore from Los Angeles.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has given the thumbs up to BHP Billiton's plan to build a $US4 billion ($5.2 billion) liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the coast near Los Angeles. Mr Schwarzenegger named the BHP Billiton terminal as the "safest one for California" out of four proposals.

The governor said he liked BHP Billiton's proposal because the plan involved building a floating platform about 23 kilometres off the Oxnard coastline, just north of Los Angeles. Three other terminal proposals by competing energy groups would be built closer to land and major population centres, with one in the busy port of Long Beach.

"I think the [BHP Billiton] one, for instance, at Oxnard where you build it out approximately 11 or 12 miles off the shore, could probably be the most safest one for California," the Austrian-born former actor told a press conference in Alhambra, California.

The BHP Billiton terminal, which involves shipping LNG from Australia to the US west coast terminal, will be a significant boost to the Australian energy market if it is approved. It is estimated it would be worth $15 billion in exports for Australia.

I also noticed an ad for the Federal Government's Renewable Energy Development Initiative (REDI). Although the amount of money is fairly paltry ($100 million) it is a step in the right direction. Doubling the MRET would probably be a lot more effective though, as would putting in place some sort of program to encourage constantly increasing efficiency of all types of energy consumption (another article compared electricity prices across developed nations, with Australia's coming in 3rd lowest - prices in the US are 50% higher than here, for example - although we hit a record for demand on Wednesday and prices briefly touched $9000 per MwH, so this may not be the case for too much longer).
REDI is a competitive merit-based grant program supporting Renewable Energy innovation and its commercialisation. REDI was announced on 15 June 2004 as part of the white paper, Securing Australia's Energy Future. It provides grant funding up to $100 million in competitive grants to allocate to Australian businesses over seven years. It offers grants of between $50,000 and $5 million for research and development (R&D), proof-of-concept, and early-stage commercialisation projects with high commercial and greenhouse gas abatement potential.

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Volcanoes, Oil, and Prophets  

Posted by Big Gav

Here's a Hawaiian view of the peak oil future (via FTD and Energy Bulletin).

A civilization-destroying flood or the British Empire no longer threatens us, but denial about potential dangers remains strong. According to four recent books and a growing number of scientists and writers, America and those on its industrial highway may be heading into contraction, turbulence, chaos, or even collapse.

The list of times that people were warned by credible sources or natural events about pending crises but ignored them is long. It includes the Italian town of Pompeii. An earthquake warned the people in 63 AD, but few left; most perished in the 1979 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. A Yellow Fever epidemic wiped out half of Memphis in the l870s while leaders assured people that it would not make it there from New Orleans. In Colombia, seismologists warned that a volcano would soon erupt in the l980s. Few left; thousands perished. Will this be our fate if we do not attend to early warning signals about the potential impact of peak oil?

On the other hand, history is full of prophecies that did not happen. For example, not much occurred because of the Y2K scare at the end of the millennium; most computers kept going and technological society did not collapse. Biologist Paul Ehrlich’s predictions in his 1968 “The Population Bomb” did not explode, at least not yet. So people are understandably skeptical about doom and gloom scenarios. But before quickly dismissing the multiple threats that peak oil combined with environmental degradation might present, perhaps it would be wise to consider the arguments in these authoritative books.

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An Invitation From Jay Hanson  

Posted by Big Gav

Peak Oil's original guru on the internet Jay Hanson (or as he was once dubbed, "the Internet Age’s ultimate Neo-Malthusian") has appeared on a few discussion groups lately, having obviously decided that things are getting interesting and its time to get involved again.

For those who would like to join in, check out Alas Babylon, starting Monday (or look through the past few week's messages, as he's had a couple of running debates going).

Attention Dieoff Aficionados! Starting Monday, V. Harris and I are
going to start discussing ideas on how to change our present political system in order to mitigate the worst.

If you want to participate, or just listen in, join us at

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Posted by Big Gav

Well - yesterday's Blogger disaster has prompted me to do a redesign.

The standard Blogger templates with sidebars on the right all seem to be affected by the same problem, so I've gone with one from the excellent Blogger Templates blog which is less fragile and and has a refreshing change of look.

Blogger support surprised me by actually replying to my plea for help within a few hours, which was pretty good given my expectation of getting what I pay for - they said that the development team would fix the problem shortly, but I decided to follow The Oil Drum's example and go for a new design.

Peak Oil: No Big Deal?  

Posted by Big Gav

Dave Roberts at GristMill has a post up looking at Marshall Brain's "peak oil isn't a problem" campaign.

In my more purely optimistic moments, I come close to agreeing with Marshall Brain (founder of HowStuffWorks):
As oil gets more expensive, we will replace it with less-expensive technologies in a completely natural way. Therefore, peak oil will be a non-event.

But I can't quite get there.

I share a great deal of faith in the power of markets, unlike some of my fellow-travelers, but this seems naive and flat-footed to me. Here's why:

Oil's current market dominance in the transportation and agricultural sectors is not "completely natural." It's propped up by innumerable subsidies, tax breaks, favorable trade deals, etc., etc. -- all secured as a result of its unprecedented entanglement with the ruling class. It maybe that its unnatural market position has been propped up -- or will be propped up -- past the point when a "natural" transition will be possible.


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Simulated Oil Crisis Raises Eyebrows  

Posted by Big Gav

I feel unclean linking to them, but Fox has the only report I can find on the results of the recent oil crisis simulation.

A group of former officials from both parties and the intelligence community gathered in Washington Thursday to demonstrate how the world is flirting with disaster on energy. The message in the exercise: If consumers don't like spending $2 per gallon for gasoline, they will probably like $5 per gallon even less.

In a sobering reminder of the need for a long-term energy strategy, a nonpartisan group forming the National Commission on Energy Policy held a simulated National Security Council meeting to grapple with a frightening sequence of events.

In this exercise, Nigeria (search), the fifth-largest oil supplier to the United States, suffers violent political unrest in December 2005 and U.S. oil companies evacuate, pulling 600,000 barrels a day off the global market. "As many of you know, this unrest in Nigeria could have a significant impact on the supply and price of oil," said former CIA Director Robert Gates, one of the participants in the simulation.

At about the same time, a very hard winter prompts a large increase in demand. "The cold weather, that could add another 700,000 barrels a day to daily oil demand worldwide," said former Royal Dutch/Shell Group official David Frowd, another participant.

With those two events, the world suddenly develops a 2 million barrel per day shortfall. In the scenario, President Bush's advisers consider releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve but decide the 90-day supply should be saved in case things get worse.

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Exxon says N. America Gas Production Has Peaked  

Posted by Big Gav

It seems peak natural gas has arrivd in North America. I guess this means if you live in Alaska, expect to see new pipelines appearing, and if you live on the coast, expect to see LNG terminals appearing.

All the news seems rather gloomy tonight. On the bright side, if you hold shares in Australian natural gas producers, you may soon start feeling richer for a while...

After weak prices in the 1990s due to oversupply, natural gas production in North America will probably continue to decline unless there is another big discovery, Exxon Mobil Corp.'s chief executive said on Tuesday. "Gas production has peaked in North America," Lee Raymond told reporters at the Reuters Energy Summit.

Asked whether production would continue to decline even if two huge arctic gas pipeline projects were built, Raymond said, "I think that's a fair statement, unless there's some huge find that nobody has any idea where it would be."

Exxon is a major player in the two multi-billion dollar pipeline projects that could bring stranded arctic gas to Canada and the lower 48 states.

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Indonesian Power Plants Shutting Down Due To Lack of Fuel  

Posted by Big Gav

China's Xinhua news agency reports some Indonesian power plants are having problems staying up due to fuel shortages.

A 750-megawatt power plant in Grati, Pasuruan, East Java Province of Indonesia, stopped operation on Monday as it ran out of fuel stock, the Antara news agency reported on Tuesday. As a result the Java-Bali interconnection will have a deficit of 658 MW in power supply and the stated-owned electricity company PLN will be forced to reduce power supply proportionally to various areas in Java and Bali island, including Jakarta. Those areas will have their turn of blackout at peak load, PLN said.

Meanwhile, another gas and steam powered power plant in Tambak Lorok in Semarang, in Central Java province is also facing shortage of fuel supply and may have to stop operation unless the government could cope with the fuel shortage. The 1,000 MW power plant has fuel enough only until Wednesday.

There is some discussion of this issue here. In related news, Reuters has an article talking about potential problems with coal supplies to some US plants - "US power plants could run short of coal".

It really would be most unfortunate if we fell over Duncan's Olduvai Cliff due to an inability to simply dig up coal and ship it around before we've even passed the peak oil point...

Elsewhere, the Swiss Rail Network ground to a halt for 3 hours on Wednesday due to power problems. This has been blamed partly on heat related issues (another side effect of global warming) and reputedly amplified by one of the local nuclear power stations (1165 MWatt Leibstadt) being out of service for 6 months due to a shortcircuit in the generator. Swiss trains - you used to be able to set your watch by them...

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The End of The Empire  

Posted by Big Gav

I always find America / Roman Empire comparisons interesting (like I do Bush-Hitler comparisons) - here's one from Roy Smith of Emerald City. Sound familiar ?

(Taken from the comments thread on The Oil Drum's post on Henry Liu's latest depressing epic at Asia Times).

I read this today in Thomas Cahill's book "How the Irish Saved Civilization" regarding the themes dominating the last days of the Roman Empire:
The changing character of the native population, brought about through unremarked pressures on porous borders; the creation of an increasingly unwieldy and rigid bureaucracy, whose own survival becomes its overriding goal; the despising of the military and the avoidance of its service by established families, while its offices present unprecedented opportunity for marginal men to whom its ranks had once been closed; the lip service paid to values long dead; the pretense that we still are what we once were; the increasing concentrations of the populace into richer and poorer by way of a corrupt tax system, and the desperation that inevitably follows; the aggrandizement of executive power at the expense of the legislature; ineffectual legislation promulgated with great show; the moral vocation of the man at the top to maintain order at all costs, while growing blind to the cruel dilemmas of ordinary life -- these are all themes with which our world is familiar, nor are they the God-given property of any party or political point of view, even though we often act as if they were. At least, the emperor could not heap his economic burdens on posterity by creating long-term public debt, for floating capital had not yet been conceptualized. The only kinds of wealth worth speaking of were the fruits of the earth.

Though it is easy for us to perceive the wild instability of the Roman Imperium in its final days, it was not easy for the Romans. [pp. 29-30]

The parallels between this situation and our own struck me. I think the real lesson here is that great civilizations can and do collapse, and we are not exempt from history.

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NeoFiles Interviews Jamais Cascio  

Posted by Big Gav

RU Sirius has a great interview with WorldChanging's Jamais Cascio up at NeoFiles (via TreeHugger). The interview is quite enlightening - I never realised the WorldChanging team had worked for the Whole Earth Catalogue during its final days.

He talks about energy issues at some length - with his view being summarised as "It's a three-point agenda: renewables, distribution, and efficiency". The interview even covers memetic engineering, which has been one of my quirkier interests for quite a while (peak oil being a good example of a meme that's undergoing some grassroots engineering effort, though I hope Jamais doesn't view it as necessarily toxic). Go and read the whole thing - its a lot longer than the excerpts below.

In a way, this story begins with (who else?) Stewart Brand. In 1968, he started The Whole Earth Catalogue, suggesting that rather than just bitching about "the system," countercultural and other maverick types could take up tools and information and make life solutions happen for themselves. While the Whole Earth had the funky smell of the "back to the land" movement, Brand was always open to a wide variety of inputs and solutions. "High" technology was part of the Weltanschauung.

Some thirty years later, Jamais Cascio and Alex Steffen were working guest editing an edition of that very publication (now called Whole Earth Review) when they came upon an idea that they realized could only be realized on the web. The idea was to create an open source network for problem solving on a global scale — WorldChanging.com. In the words of their mission statement: "the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us … plenty of people are working on tools for change, but the fields in which they work remain unconnected … the motive, means and opportunity for profound positive change are already present … another world is not just possible, it's here. We only need to put the pieces together."


JC: To give you a sense of the potential for renewable energy, researchers at Stanford just published a map of global wind power potential in the Journal of Geophysical Research. They found that the total wind power potential using current wind turbine technology in locations with optimal wind speeds is 72 terawatts. Last year, the planet as a whole used less than 12 terawatts. Now, nobody's going to stand for putting up wind turbines everywhere possible, but that should hint at the potential these energy sources have.

Solar has been stalled at about ~25% efficiency for a couple of decades now, but some recent nanotechnology breakthroughs look to push it well above 50% efficiency. Moreover, there have been some really interesting announcements just this last year in the production of flexible photovoltaics, from plastics to paints to even cloth. They're lower efficiency, in the 10-15% range, but enormously useful as a source of additional power. We're going to start thinking of surfaces not simply in structural terms, but in terms of energy generation potential. You aren't going to drive an electric car powered by rooftop solar cells any time soon, but the added electricity recharging the batteries of your hybrid would certainly help; same with home power — you don't get all of your power from photovoltaic paint, but it makes a significant contribution.

But I actually think that ocean power will probably be the dark horse in all of this. Tidal and wave power have some advantages over other renewables: they're less visually obtrusive than wind towers, and (unlike solar) will operate 24/7. There's enormous potential for power generation from tides and waves. One researcher figured that about 600 or so "hydrokinetic" turbines stuck in the Gulf Stream could produce sufficient power for all of the United States. Another research group calculated that wave power along the US coasts could amount to about ten times the electricity production of all dams in the country.


NF: I'm interested in the idea of toxic memes, or detoxifying memes. In some ways, World Changing seems to me to be a meme exchange, and one in which some memes are intended to be concretized as problem-solving activities. I also wonder how you contend with the attractiveness of toxic or ugly memes in a media age. As I always say, nobody wants to watch a movie about a bunch of people sitting around being tolerant. (I suppose that's two questions)

JC: There's definitely a bit of memetic engineering going on at WorldChanging, although I suppose the current vogue is to refer to it as "reframing." Negative scenarios are seductively easy to create, and it seems a particular pathology of progressives to focus on the various disastrous possibilities we may soon face. WorldChanging has at its core a drive to focus on solutions rather than the problems — there are already thousands of places to find out the myriad things wrong with the world. Moreover, we emphasize the interconnections between solution sets, the ways in which ideas from one area (say, open source) can be useful and influential in other areas (say, developing world economics).

That said, it's really hard sometimes not to dwell on the awful and the frustrating. There's a lot of crap happening, a lot of bad decisions and foolish choices being made. It would be so easy to catalog the various disasters that could hit us, the relentless march of idiocy we all see all around us. But that just makes the challenge of WorldChanging — focusing on solutions and new ideas — all the more appealing.

The way to deal with "toxic memes" and terriblisma (the attraction of the terrible) — a wonderful Renaissance Italian term Alex dug up awhile back — is not to pretend that the problems don't exist. Focusing on solutions doesn't mean living in a Panglossian illusion of being in the best of all possible worlds. We could very well fail. But pretending that there are no solutions, that our only possible futures are nasty, brutish and short is as bad as pretending that there are no problems.

Jamais also notes in the comments on TreeHugger that his example in the interview of how increasing our efficiency of energy usage can have a big payoff is needs to be corrected a little:
Thank you for linking to this. But I would be remiss if I didn't correct something in what I wrote (and you excerpted). Reviewing the data from the California Energy Commision, I discovered that I had slightly misstated the numbers. It doesn't detract from the overall point, but I want to make sure people don't miss that point because of the error. Here's how that first quoted paragraph should read:

"With 1% annual improvement, population stabilizing as around 10 billion, and overall increase in standards of living to EU levels, the globe would still be using four times as much energy in 2100 as today. By bumping up overall efficiency improvement to 2% averaged over the next century, we'd cut that down to just 40% more than the present. And if we could push to 3% averaged over the century -- still very possible, and less than we've managed in the recent past -- we'd actually end up using half our current levels of energy."

As you can see, the argument's the same -- a slight improvement in efficiency can have big results -- but the numbers are, if anything, *more* dramatic.

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The Sky Is The Limit  

Posted by Big Gav

While the Economist is now ignoring the peak oil issue - I guess a magazine that has been dedicated to globalisation for over a century may find the idea that "free" trade (and its associated cheap labour arbitrage) based on cheap transportation may come to an end is actually rather threatening to their world view - the Guardian has published an editorial on the subject (via Energy Bulletin). They may find the idea rather more palatable.

Not long ago, the notion of the price of crude oil hitting $60 a barrel would have caused apoplexy. But after two years of steadily rising prices, the fact that oil trading in New York came within 30 cents of touching the $60 mark, setting a new record in the process, passed with barely a murmur.

There are various contributory reasons for the sudden spurt in prices earlier this week, such as a threatened strike in Norway. But the underlying message is that higher oil prices are here to stay - and may rise to $100 a barrel, according to some forecasts. Even the normally bullish Lee Raymond, chief executive of ExxonMobil, the world's largest listed oil company, warned "it would take a few years to sort out where it'll all end". The US energy secretary also worries it will take many years for the sharp increases in demand, caused by growth in developing countries, to pass. Sadly, that is the optimistic scenario.

The pessimistic scenario is that the world is fast approaching "Hubbert's peak", the point at which the rate of global oil production begins to decline. In either case oil prices will keep rising. The biggest optimist cannot ignore the fact that the annual average increase in demand for oil was around 1m barrels per day from the 1970s - until 2004, when the average increase shot up to 2.5m barrels a day. According to the International Monetary Fund's forecasts, total global demand will rise from around 82m barrels a day now to nearly 140m a day by 2030. Barring a technological breakthrough in the combustion engine - which could still lead to additional consumption, an effect known to economists as Jevon's paradox - the increased demand will presumably be met by much higher prices and the exploitation of marginal reserves.

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Oil Prices Hotting Up Again  

Posted by Big Gav

The Economist has a cornucopian look at the ever rising oil price up. Peak oil and supply constraints aren't a consideration in their view, quoting the CERA report to back up this claim. Meanwhile the oil price hit US$60 overnight, which some blame on "speculators" plus concerns about upcoming demonstrations in Nigeria.

Why, then, have prices shot up in the past few weeks? There is no shortage of crude oil: the market seems well supplied for now. Look ahead a few years, say optimists, and there is little cause to worry. A provocative new report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a consulting firm, even says that there could be a glut. Having carried out a field-by-field assessment of investment already paid for and coming online, its boffins conclude that global production capacity may rise by 16m barrels per day, from roughly 85m now, by 2010.


In the end, how long today's rally lasts could depend on the final factor pushing up prices: demand. Chinese oil consumption grew by perhaps 15% last year. Although that rate has not been matched in 2005, the world as a whole has continued to guzzle oil.

At some point, of course, high prices will clobber demand and encourage efficiency, fuel switching and so on. Will that happen soon? Probably not. In a new report, Douglas Terreson of Morgan Stanley estimates that the world economy would need to see sustained prices of $85 a barrel before the current robust trend in oil consumption is derailed—and with it, the world economy. And despite the recent run-up, $85 is still far off.

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Goodbye To Cheap Oil Forever  

Posted by Big Gav

The Guardian takes a look at the oil markets. I thought the comment about Chinese buying was interesting.

t was a question of when not if for oil traders yesterday as the price of a barrel of crude threatened to burst through the $60 a barrel barrier for the first time.

News last night that the North Sea Forties oil field had been shut because of technical problems pushed an already jittery market that has jumped 11% in the last week alone, to a new record high of $59.55 for US light crude. Although BP, which operates the pipeline to the field, said the problems would be fixed by today, dealers are jumpy about any supply disruption in the face of strong global demand and in spite of promises of further output from the Opec producers' cartel.

"The market is so close to $60 it is almost bound to touch it," said analysts at consultancy Refco. "Prices look too high fundamentally, but we have to recognise even a minor supply glitch or hint of one will drive them higher."


Graham Turner, from the consultancy GFC Economics, said there had not been many indications of a slowdown in either China or the US this year. The Chinese, he said, had been particularly astute, tending to build up crude stocks each time the price dipped.

"None of the concerns from last year have really gone away. There are supply constraints and the two biggest economies are growing fast. That means you are going to have a problem with oil prices. The price of crude could go to $65-70 a barrel the way things are going."

Earlier this year, analysts at Goldman Sachs predicted that oil prices could climb above $100 a barrel if supply problems continued to interact with strong demand. That may happen, but there is an old adage in the oil business: high prices lead eventually to low prices.

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Peak Oil And Terrorism  

Posted by Big Gav

Peak Oil got a mention in the New South Wales Upper House yesterday, in the context of a response by a member of the Australian Democrats to a proposed bill (search page for "chesterfield", about 1/3 of the way in) dealing with terrorism (thanks to Dave from Sydney Peak Oil for the tip). Somehow this creepy piece of police state stuff was originally part of the "Motor Accidents Compensation Further Amendment (Terrorism) Bill" (the trend towards saddling normal and necessary legislation with these totalitarian additions shows just how unworthy they are, though at least the new bill is accurately named).

Dr Chesterfield-Evans' address goes on for a while - followed up by that neanderthal throwback of the christian right, Fred Nile, who I had thought should be well retired by now. When he isn't harrassing gays he obviously spend a fair amount of time fretting about the terrorist menace.

The Australian Democrats do not support the Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Warrants) Bill. When speaking to the Motor Accidents Compensation Further Amendment (Terrorism) Bill on 3 December 2002, I said:

The Federal Government has said that we need education on how to recognise a terrorist. I say that we need education on how to recognise a decent foreign policy. If we strut about, slavishly following the United States of America and basically blockading, with the Australian Navy, a country half a world away that had been buying our wheat we will get a reaction. We will identify ourselves as a country that is totally committed to whatever the United States of America does with its foreign policy, and we will get a response of terrorism such as only the United States of America and Israel seem to illicit.

In essence, the problem is that we have a bad foreign policy. Fundamentally, terrorism is the method that people with less power employ to attack those who have more power. Terrorism is said to be indiscriminate, but that suggests that those who bomb cities are being discriminating. The idea that cities can be bombed without harming civilians because that was not the purpose of the raid—the target was a power plant or a bridge—is fundamentally absurd and arbitrary. It is about the methods used in what is, effectively, a war.

Yesterday crossbench members received a briefing about peak oil. This is the idea that the world's supply of oil will peak sometime between 2007 and 2013, and that is as much oil as we will ever have. Our reliance on oil is increasing. The policies of this Government do nothing to identify and provide alternative fuels, and we will continue to experience problems as we build motorways instead of rail infrastructure in our cities. So the peak oil concept is important. It may be that the neo-conservatives in the United States of America are shoring up the supply of Iraqi oil, no matter what happens. That is one explanation for the rise of the neo-conservative philosophy.

Matthew Simmons, who wrote a book about Saudi Arabian oil, apparently briefed Dick Cheney, a former chief executive of the Halliburton oil services company, that Saudi drilling techniques—water and carbon dioxide is pumped into a well to push out the oil when the well begins to dry up—could cause a fall in oil production. If Matthew Simmons is correct, the world's oil supply will soon decline more quickly than ever before. So the neo-conservatives were shoring up America's oil supply through the Iraq raid, and discussions about Islam, terrorism and the appalling reign of Saddam Hussein are merely a smokescreen for that imperative.

Be that as it may, Australia has followed America uncritically, antagonising those who once simply purchased our wheat. I believe we do not have a strategic interest in what happens in Iraq in the way that the Americans do—we are not geopolitical world players. Yet we have been following a foolish foreign policy that has put us at risk. Australia has adopted a policy based on revived American McCarthyism, and this bill is just another step down that path—as defined by the Howard Government and its pro-war policy.

Up in the Queensland, State Government MP Andrew McNamara is now chairing an oil task force that will report on the state's vulnerability to oil price spikes and falling reserves.

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Oil Shockwave  

Posted by Big Gav

Continuity Central (a web site for business continuity planners) reports on operation "Oil Shockwave" - an exercise to analyse responses to an oil supply crisis.

No doubt this will set alarm bells ringing in the 911 conspiracy theory community, given the oft noted coincidental timing of airborne anti-terrorism exercises in New York on that particular day. It doesn't sound like there are any physical exercises taking place though, so it would seem unlikely anything sinister is going on - unless its D-Day in Iran of course :-)

Top former US national security officials will take part in an oil crisis simulation on Thursday 23rd June that will explore the economic and national security implications of America's dependence on oil by simulating the consequences of a major global oil supply crisis.

This executive simulation will use sophisticated video and computer modelling where participants will assume cabinet-level roles, such as Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Homeland Security, in a dynamic, unscripted, real-time environment demonstrating the impacts of major disruptions in the world's oil supply.

The event will feature three simulated global oil disruption events, with mock breaking news reports and policy briefings with participants.

Oil Shockwave will simulate a decline in world oil production due to instability and terrorism, develop likely economic and national security implications, and present the deliberations of a mock US government cabinet- level meeting whose task is to advise the president regarding a national response.

On a semi-related note, apparently the US Congress has approved legislation to quickly replace themselves if they are killed in a Sept. 11-type attack.
The House voted 268-143 to retain the plan, which was attached to a spending bill likely to be sent to President Bush within several months.

The measure, dubbed the "Doomsday" bill, requires special elections within 49 days if more than 100 of the House's 435 members are killed. Currently it can take 75 days or more for some states to hold special elections to replace a member who dies in office.

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, noted the possibility that Congress could have been a target in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. "We could have been faced with a situation where Congress would not have been able to function and we have to do everything possible to prevent this from being a possibility in the future," he said during a debate on the provision.

Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, called the measure "an invitation to one man-rule and dictatorship" because at least seven weeks could elapse before the House would be reconstituted, leaving major decisions to the president.

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California said the legislation was "a plan that will lead to martial law at exactly the time when we need Congress functioning to represent the interests of the American people."

Congress has been debating the need for new procedures since the Sept. 11 attacks when two hijacked airliners slammed into New York's World Trade Center the Pentagon. Another airliner, thought to be headed to the Capitol or White House, crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

And following on from the "dictatorship" fear expressed above, it has been noted that there is a proposal to repeal the 22nd amendment to the US constitution (which is supposedly the one limiting presidents to 2 terms) - see here and search for "22nd amendment" - by Reps HOYER, BERMAN, SENSENBRENNER, SABO, and PALLONE. So maybe Bush will be around for a lot longer than most of us hope...

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The March To Memetic Dominance  

Posted by Big Gav

Jamais at WorldChanging continues his production of novel peak oil related phrases (though his spelling of apocaphiliac is starting to wobble) with his latest note on the peak oil meme's increasing penetration of the blogosphere and general media (although blogpulse shows that peak oil and long emergency are both on the decline as far as blogosphere attention goes lately).

He then takes a look at the various methods being proposed to produce biodiesel from biomass (noted earlier here and here) and from algae (also noted earlier here and here). These tend to be my favoured biofuel production mechanisms as well, so hopefully the increasing interest in the subject results in more effort being put into research and development of these techniques.

"Peak Oil" continues its march to memetic dominance, and a greater number of pundits and politicians not previously known for talking about the environment have started to ask what happens when oil runs out. For many who embrace the "Peak Oil Is Here" idea, the answer is simple: chaos, because petroleum is at the heart of much of industrial and agricultural production, not just transportation.

But that's not the only scenario. There has been quite a bit of research into alternative means of producing the materials we now make using oil. Biomass is the top candidate for oil equivalents, and indeed biodiesel has been getting more attention of late as a renewable and low-net-carbon method of fueling vehicles, both by renewable energy advocates trying to move away from fossil fuels and by researchers trying to improve the efficiency of biodiesel production. Biomass is also being used as an experimental feedstock for chemicals now requiring petroleum. And by stretching the definition of biomass a bit, even fertilizer -- a favorite of the apocyphiles -- can be made without fossil fuels.


I don't look at these developments as being permanent substitutes for sustainability, I see them as transition technologies. Work on improving the efficiency and utility of the more sustainable practices will continue, and -- as I fully expect -- when they are recognized as being demonstrably better, large-scale adoption will follow. A world of Peak Oil crisis and conflict is far less likely to let us get to that point.

Jamais also has a post on recycling plastic to create lubricants as a substitute for the usual oil-based ones.

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