Dropping In Again  

Posted by Big Gav

Another temporary visit (I'll be back properly in 2 weeks), to note the release of the Senate inquiry into peak oil. Nigel Wilson in The Australian reports that our "Oil future raises burning questions", correctly noting that "Investment in alternative fuels may be key to self-sufficiency".

AT the height of last year's debate on oil prices, which led to governments increasing billion-dollar subsidies on LPG conversions for cars, a senate inquiry was launched into Australia's oil supply and the prospects for alternatives. The inquiry was prompted by a question posed by the Greens: whether Australia should be concerned about "peak oil", the theory that conventional oil production will reach a peak and then begin an irreversible decline.

Some would argue the world has already hit peak oil, but the consensus of peak oil theorists is that the peak will occur within the next 20 years. Of course, oil industry officials, particularly at ExxonMobil, argue that oil supply is a function of price and that for the foreseeable future there will be supplies adequate to meet demand.

But it is certainly true that oil discoveries in Australia are failing to keep up with demand. Analyst Graeme Bethune, of Energy Quest, noted last week that for two quarters last year Australia was in net energy deficit, that is, our revenue from oil, gas and coal exports was less than the cost of importing crude oil and refined petroleum products.

But the bringing into production of the Woodside-operated Enfield development on the North West Shelf brought the equation back into surplus late in the year. Incidentally, output at Enfield, which is 40 per cent owned by Mitsui, has been a lot less than predicted and Woodside has said that more wells are needed to extract the oil and lift production to 100,000 barrels a day (b/d).

The federal Government in its 2004 energy white paper acknowledged that Australia's oil discovery rate was falling and that essentially the country would have to rely on imports. It suggested that this increase in the balance of payments could be offset by high volumes of LNG exports. But what the past two years have shown is that while the price of crude oil has soared, there has not been a similar sustained increase in export LNG prices.

ASPO Australia comments:
This is the first time any Australian parliament has recognised Peak Oil as real.

The report is a most useful step forward. There is a lot of very valuable information in the depths of the report, giving a more balanced approach than the Executive Summary.

The report does follow somewhat the same path our conservative government has been taking for years with Global Warming, of tending to downplay the risks and consider only the best-case scenario.

Committee Chair, Government Senator Bill Heffernan, said in his tabling speech that Peak Oil was forecast in 20-40 years, if I recall his words correctly. This is in contrast to the many reliable forecasts that global oil production may probably peak in say 3-5 years or thereabouts. Inquiry originator, Senator Milne (Greens) was much better informed. In her summary speech she suggested that we may well be at Peak Oil now.

The report downplays the documented risks, gives high credence to biased US Government information and policies rather than to the warnings from independent petroleum scientists. The International Energy Agency is the OECD oil consuming nations’ counterbalance to the OPEC cartel, so it is far from unbiased. The IEA view is given far more credence and coverage by the Senate Committee than would be proper in an independent assessment of our oil vulnerability. However, the detailed report is more encouraging than one would assume from reading just the executive summary.

ASPO-Australia calls for an Intergovernmental Panel on Oil Depletion to be formed under the existing IPCC structure. It should provide a science-based view of the world oil production data, as free as possible from the political constraints which have influenced the Australian Senate report and also the US Government and IEA oil production estimates.

We also call on Australians to challenge the inertia and complacency of Federal and State Governments on the Peak Oil issue, just as is now happening with Climate Change. We should be preparing, well in advance, for the Petrol Droughts which are likely to come far sooner than Senator Heffernan would have us believe.

Crikey reports that Greens leader Bob Brown's proposal to ban coal exports from Australia has set the fox amongst the chickens. Hopefully they'll start to think a little more seriously about what Australia's economic future will look like in a decade's time, when king coal is getting killed off by international carbon taxes.
There's nothing better for a politician than a third party endorsement to add credence to your claims. That's especially so when the claim is that the Prime Minister is pursuing policies that will ruin the world for our children and the third party is the new Australian of the Year.

Greens Leader Bob Brown was in this position this morning when he launched into a stinging attack on both the Liberal-National Coalition and the Labor Opposition for not moving to shut down Australia’s coal industry. Senator Brown reinforced his already strong environmental credentials with support for the view of Professor Tim Flannery that it's no longer socially acceptable for Australia to keep exporting coal knowing the damage it's doing.

“Tim Flannery is right here and this is where politicians will panic, but we're exporting to the rest of the world what is effectively a deadly threat to the whole planet and to our children,” Senator Brown told Fran Kelly on Radio National.

The politicians will indeed panic - as they clamour to be the first to dismiss the notion that coal fired electricity generation be quickly phased out.

In the words of Flannery: "I think that we do need to ultimately close down those coal-fired power plants, but first we need to build the bridge to the new energy future."

Or of Senator Brown: “...We’re a rich and wealthy country, we can look after the coal miners and we can replace their fortunes with a much more job productive industry…”

Within the Labor Party there are already concerns that the party’s modest plans for more controls on carbon dioxide emissions will cost them the votes of miners and power station workers. In this morning’s Australian there was a report of nervous frontbenchers insisting “the future of the coal industry was safe.”

Those backbenchers clearly believe that Howard strikes a chord with his promise to balance climate change policies with the need to protect Australian jobs and economic growth. Advocating a phasing out of the coal industry would be impossible without splitting the Labor party so Kevin Rudd will no doubt join government ministers in dismissing Bob Brown as a crazed environmental zealot.

The Greens leader won't be concerned about that. His team don't have to worry about being seen as extremist. They're not after securing a majority of votes. A militant minority is all that's needed to elect a Green Senator in every state and Senator Brown did not miss the opportunity this morning to advocate the importance of the balance of power in the Senate being held by minor parties.

“...Labor can’t win in the senate, they can’t go from 27 to 38 or 39 seats and it’s up to the Greens to take back the balance of power….Take it [the Senate] back from being a rubber stamp for the Howard government," said Brown.

That argument will appeal to a lot of Australians and the cries of anger from industry, affected trade unions, Liberal, National and Labor won't cause any moderation of the Green view.

Expect to hear more such statements over the coming months as these from Bob Brown this morning:

BROWN: To suddenly ban coal exports would be massively dislocating [KELLY: Absolutely]… but we have to do it.. and we have to do it within a period of a government… [KELLY: within a period of one government?] ...that should be the sort of aim we’re looking at…
… the Prime Minister might say a 4 or 6 degree temperature rise, which is the upper end of expectations this century, is going to reduce the comfort level of people but in fact it's going to see massive death tolls, particularly with elderly people in Australia…massive extinction of Australia’s wildlife, it will see the Murray Darling flow shrink in a way that is almost unthinkable, water shortages for our big cities, massive dislocation of the lives and jobs of Australians and…tens of millions of people displaced around the world…

I usually retain a small amount of respect for The Rodent's large reserves of ratlike cunning, so I'm somewhat baffled by his recent initiation of hostilities with US Senator and Presidential candidate Barrack Obama, especially given his usual servile grovelling to anything that resembles political leadership from the US. I have 3 theories - first, he was so afraid of Laurie Oakes eating him that he was just gibbering in fear (seriously, has the Sphere of Influence been getting larger ? He seemed about 5 times Howard's size in their TV interview), second, he figures the Democrats hate him so much now that nothing he says will make any difference, and thirdly, that he genuinely believes the Republicans can somehow steal the next election (or Dick Cheney will just declare himself Emperor and dispense with polite fictions I guess).

Whatever the cause of this act of diplomatic stupidity (especially for someone who acts as though the US alliance is far more important than the feelings of local voters), its caused a well deserved furore, with the now resurgent Labor party getting in plenty of digs at Question Time (and the US media and various Democratic politicians getting stuck in as well - I even saw Wolf Blitzer taking some time to look at the matter, which I suspect is unusual for the utterances of Australian politicians). I think keeping the alliance on an even keel will require a change of government here before the Democrats take the White House...

From the SMH:
US presidential hopeful Barack Obama has blasted as "empty rhetoric" Australian Prime Minister John Howard's attack on Senator Obama's plan to bring US troops home from Iraq. The 45-year-old senator waded into a major foreign policy row just one day after formally announcing his candidacy, telling Mr Howard he should dispatch 20,000 Australians to Iraq if he wanted to back up his comments.

"I think it's flattering that one of George Bush's allies on the other side of the world started attacking me the day after I announced," Mr Obama told reporters in the mid-western US state of Iowa. "I would also note that we have close to 140,000 troops in Iraq, and my understanding is Mr Howard has deployed 1400, so if he is ... to fight the good fight in Iraq, I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to Iraq. "Otherwise it's just a bunch of empty rhetoric."

Mr Howard earlier attacked Senator Obama's plan to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008. The conservative leader said on commercial television that Senator Obama's pledges on Iraq were good news only for insurgents operating in the war-ravaged country. "I think he's wrong. I think that will just encourage those who want to completely destabilise and destroy Iraq, and create chaos and a victory for the terrorists to hang on and hope for an Obama victory," Mr Howard told the Nine Network. "If I were running al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying as many times as possible for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats."

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has defended his leader and dismissed Senator Obama's comments. "That would be half of our army. Australia is a much smaller country than the United States and so he might like to weigh that up," Mr Downer told ABC Radio. "It's entirely appropriate the Australian Government expresses its view in a free world. You won't get anywhere trying to close down debate."

However, both Republicans and Democrats have attacked Mr Howard's foray into their domestic affairs.

Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Convention, criticised Mr Howard's strong links to Mr Bush. "The Prime Minister has been a great friend of George Bush; he has been with him lock-step from day one on this war in Iraq," Mr McAuliffe said. "He and George Bush, they can go off and talk to each other, we don't care what he says."

Democrat senator Ron Wyden said it was hard to be polite about Mr Howard. "The most charitable thing you can say about Mr Howard's comment is bizarre," Senator Wyden said. "We'll make our own judgements in this country with respect to elections and Barack Obama is a terrific public servant."

Even Republicans have criticised Mr Howard for interfering in US domestic affairs. "I would prefer that Mr Howard stay out of our domestic politics and we will stay out of his domestic politics," Texas Republican senator John Cornyn said.

BAck to Crikey, a note on rapidly expanding local oil and gas services company Worley Parsons (one of the more successful denizens of my peak oil portfolio). One aspect of peak oil for investors to bear in mind is that the hunt for large numbers of the remaining smaller, more difficult to exploit oil fields means boom times for services companies for quite a few years to come (they'll probably be a better bet than most oil caompanies in fact).
The papers are gushing today about the $1.1 billion acquisition of Canada’s oil services company Colt Group by Perth-based engineering company WorleyParsons.

The AFR’s Street Talk column even quotes UBS, which is running the $480 million rights issue, as predicting the shares will hit $30.20. WorleyParsons shares are suspended whilst the raising is bedded down but they last traded at just $22.60.

If co-founder and CEO John Grill takes up his full entitlement and the mooted re-rating does indeed come through, he’ll quickly join the exclusive club of Australians with a paper holding exceeding $1 billion.

Richard Branson is continuing his little crusade against global warming, with the latest flurry of publicity surrounding the Virgin Earth Challenge.
Today, Sir Richard Branson and Al Gore announced the setting up of a new Global science and technology prize – The Virgin Earth Challenge – in the belief that history has shown that prizes of this nature encourage technological advancements for the good of mankind. The Virgin Earth Challenge will award $25 million to the individual or group who are able to demonstrate a commercially viable design which will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least ten years without countervailing harmful effects. This removal must have long term effects and contribute materially to the stability of the Earth’s climate.

Sir Richard also announced that he would be joined in the adjudication of the Prize by a panel of five judges - all world authorities in their respective fields: Al Gore, Sir Crispin Tickell, Tim Flannery, Jim Hansen and James Lovelock. The panel of judges will be assisted in their deliberations by The Climate Group and Special Advisor to The Virgin Earth Prize Judges, Steve Howard (see Editors notes for biographies).

The timing of the announcement of the Virgin Earth Challenge was particularly apt given the recent findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes, which last week announced that temperatures on earth could increase by as much as 6.4C by the end of this Century.

The report, the most comprehensive to date from a UN Agency detailed the catastrophe results which even seemingly small temperature raises could have on our planet: at + 2.4C coral reefs around the world would become extinct; + 3.4C would result in the rain forests becoming deserts; an increase of + 4.4C would result in the ice caps melting and severe heat waves across the globe displacing millions; the IPCC further predicted that sea levels could rise by 5 metres if temperatures reached + 5.4C which would result in ten of millions of climate refugees.

For the first time ever a 6.4C raise was mentioned within UN predictions. If this were to occur it would result in most of life on our planet being exterminated.

Sir Richard Branson commented: “We all now know that something radical has got to be done to turn back the tide of global warming. By launching the $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge, the largest ever science and technology prize to be offered in history, we want to encourage scientists and individuals from around the world to come up with a way of removing lethal carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere. By competing for this prize they will follow in the footsteps of many of history’s greatest inventors and innovators. But in this case potentially save the planet. It is our hope and belief that the winner of The Virgin Earth Challenge will help to reverse the collision course our beautiful world is currently on. They will not only make history but preserve history for many, many generations to come.

However, it is important to remember that there is a real possibility that no one will win this prize. Governments, and their people, must continue to use every effort to radically reduce CO2 emissions. “

A Titan Arum has flowered mid-winter at the Eden Project in Cornwall, giving off its customary Bush-like stench.
Unseasonably warm weather may have tricked the world's smelliest plant into blooming in the middle of the northern hemisphere winter, botanists at the Eden Project where the native of Sumatra is housed, told Reuters.

The warmth of 2006 and mild winter to date have encouraged the Titan Arum or Corpse Flower into a phenomenal growth spurt and into flower - an event that usually happens only once every six to nine years.

"The Titan, standing at 164 cms tall is now giving off a revolting stink," said curator Don Murray. "It is a cross between rotten cheese, dog poo and something dead. Tonight the flowers will be in full bloom - as will the stench - and that will last through Tuesday and Wednesday. But by Thursday it will have started to die back," he told Reuters from the project in Cornwall, southwest of London.

Murray said it was highly abnormal for the plant to flower in winter. "Last year's unprecedented warm temperatures and high sunshine levels and the extremely mild winter we are currently experiencing have to be considered as a factor in this rare occurrence," he said.

On an off topic note, I've been following the various afflictions the bee population has been suffering in recent years (something far more important than might be immediately apparent, given their crucial role in keeping the world's plant life breeding. The latest adversary is Colony Collapse Disorder.

A mysterious illness is killing tens of thousands of honeybee colonies across the country, threatening honey production, the livelihood of beekeepers and possibly crops that need bees for pollination. Researchers are scrambling to find the cause of the ailment, called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Reports of unusual colony deaths have come from at least 22 states. Some affected commercial beekeepers _ who often keep thousands of colonies _ have reported losing more than 50 percent of their bees. A colony can have roughly 20,000 bees in the winter, and up to 60,000 in the summer. "We have seen a lot of things happen in 40 years, but this is the epitome of it all," Dave Hackenberg, of Lewisburg-based Hackenberg Apiaries, said by phone from Fort Meade, Fla., where he was working with his bees.

The country's bee population had already been shocked in recent years by a tiny, parasitic bug called the varroa mite, which has destroyed more than half of some beekeepers' hives and devastated most wild honeybee populations.

Along with being producers of honey, commercial bee colonies are important to agriculture as pollinators, along with some birds, bats and other insects. A recent report by the National Research Council noted that in order to bear fruit, three-quarters of all flowering plants _ including most food crops and some that provide fiber, drugs and fuel _ rely on pollinators for fertilization.

Hackenberg, 58, was first to report Colony Collapse Disorder to bee researchers at Penn State University. He notified them in November when he was down to about 1,000 colonies _ after having started the fall with 2,900. "We are going to take bees we got and make more bees ... but it's costly," he said. "We are talking about major bucks. You can only take so many blows so many times."

One beekeeper who traveled with two truckloads of bees to California to help pollinate almond trees found nearly all of his bees dead upon arrival, said Dennis vanEnglesdorp, acting state apiarist for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "I would characterize it as serious," said Daniel Weaver, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. "Whether it threatens the apiculture industry in the United States or not, that's up in the air."

Scientists at Penn State, the University of Montana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are among the quickly growing group of researchers and industry officials trying to solve the mystery.

Technology Review has good news for birds about the impact of offshore wind farms.
Uncertainty surrounding wind power's impact on wildlife--particularly the potential for deadly collisions between birds and turbines--has tarnished its image and even delayed some wind farms. Indeed, the first large offshore wind farm proposed for U.S. waters--the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts's Nantucket Sound--has been held up in part by concerns that its 130 turbines could kill thousands of seabirds annually. Now a simple infrared collision-detection system developed by Denmark's National Environmental Research Institute is helping clear the air.

The Thermal Animal Detection System (TADS) is essentially a heat-activated infrared video camera that watches a wind turbine around the clock, recording deadly collisions much as a security camera captures crimes. The first results, released this winter as part of a comprehensive $15 million study of Denmark's large offshore wind farms, show seabirds to be remarkably adept at avoiding offshore installations. "There had been suggestions that enormous numbers of birds would be killed," says Robert Furness, a seabird specialist at the University of Glasgow, who chaired the study's scientific advisory panel. "There's a greater feeling now among European politicians that marine wind farms are not going to be a major ecological problem, and therefore going ahead with construction is not going to raise lots of political difficulties."

The Danish findings are also resonating across the Atlantic, casting doubt on worst-case scenarios presented by Cape Wind's opponents. "The results make us guardedly optimistic," says Taber Allison, vice president for conservation science at the Lincoln, MA-based conservation group Mass Audubon and an outspoken critic of ecological studies by Boston-based Cape Wind Associates.

TADS was developed to solve a problem specific to monitoring bird collisions at offshore wind farms, in this case the 80-turbine Horns Rev wind farm off Denmark's North Sea coast and the 72-turbine Nysted wind farm in the Baltic. The Danish researchers at Horns Rev and Nysted used visual monitoring and radar tracking, which showed that most birds avoided the farms altogether or flew down the half-kilometer-wide gaps between the wind farms' orderly rows of turbines. But the researchers still could not rule out the possibility that some birds were flying close enough to strike the turbine blades, which spin as fast as 80 meters per second at the tip. Of particular concern were larger seabirds, especially the common eiders that migrate through the area. "We were concerned that these large, rather clumsy birds might not be able to maneuver around the turbines," says Danish environmental institute researcher Mark Desholm, who designed TADS.

What makes TADS practical for continuous operation is software Desholm wrote to activate recording when a warm object enters the video camera's field of vision. According to Furness, the need to sift through thousands of hours of film was a major limitation for researchers who had previously tried infrared monitoring. He says that other automated collision monitoring that relies on vibration sensors on the blades and towers has failed to produce a reliable system. "This is the first system which has really functioned," says Furness.

WorldChanging has some good news from Niger, which is managing to make the desert greener.
Last year, Alex wrote a piece about the importance of climate foresight for subsistence farmers in drought-prone areas like the Sahel. Desertification and rainfall variation, along with the resulting loss of topsoil and land productivity, pose a tremendous threat to those already living at the edge of survival on arid farmland. At the same time, significant population growth places added stress on scarce food sources and unpredictable crop yields.

But in the face of these unpromising odds, Niger has in fact become more green in the last few decades, with more than 7.4 million formerly barren acres of the countryside now covered in trees, a feat "achieved largely without relying on the large-scale planting of trees or other expensive methods often advocated by African politicians and aid groups for halting desertification, the process by which soil loses its fertility."

Geoff Manaugh covered this citizen-driven restoration about four months ago when the New Scientist mentioned the unexpected green resurgence. Given that we've just been handed proof of human accountability in causing climate change, it's a timely moment to learn that humans are also ameliorating dire regional conditions, essentially establishing an emergency preparedness plan even without the advantages of high-tech foresight methods.
Today, the success in growing new trees suggests that the harm to much of the Sahel may not have been permanent, but a temporary loss of fertility. The evidence, scientists say, demonstrates how relatively small changes in human behavior can transform the regional ecology, restoring its biodiversity and productivity.

It's hard to trust the words "temporary" and "permanent" in the context of absolutely unpredictable planetary shifts, but the idea that people can heal as well as harm offers a seed of hope. The farmers simply chose to start tending to saplings in the cultivation of their land, allowing them to grow amongst the staple sorghum, millet, peanuts and beans instead of clearing them. The resulting benefits for rural farmers touch every facet of life. Not only do the trees provide additional nutrition sources, they fix and fertilize soil, hold moisture in the ground, and create the possibility of extra income.

The Energy Blog has a post on the use of lightweight plastics in the design of the new GM Volt electric car (yes - its just a GE press release but it shows Amory Lovins' vision for vehicles is slowly coming true, contrary to the assertions of one recent ill-informed commenter).
GE Plastics’ differentiated technologies helped reduce the Volt weight and optimize its fuel efficiency so that drivers can now skip the pump to extend their mileage and increase savings. GE fuel saving technologies showcased on the Chevy Volt include:

* Roof made with Lexan™ GLX resins and Exatec™ Coating Technology
* Rear Deck Lid and Fixed Side Glazing made with Lexan™ GLX resins and Exatec™ Coating Technology
* Doors and Hood made with Xenoy™ iQ High Performance ThermoPlastic Composites (HPPC)
* Global energy absorber and hybrid rear energy absorbers with Xenoy iQ resins
* Steering Wheel and Instrument Panel with integrated airbag chute made with Lexan™ EXL resins
* Front Fenders made with Noryl GTX™ resins
* Wire Coating made with Flexible Noryl™ resins

These plastic materials allow for less fuel consumption, fewer carbon dioxide emissions, and improved overall performance.

The BBC has a report on the new controls on information access in Windows Vista - apparently its an energy sapper as well as a tool for big brother...
The launch of Windows Vista last week was accompanied by widespread criticism from advocates of open systems, open networks and the free flow of information.
Particular attention was lavished on the digital rights management (DRM) features of the new operating system, the tools that determine whether you can play or copy video or audio on your computer.

Vista's DRM even aroused the wrath of the Green Party, which condemned it for requiring "more expensive and energy-hungry hardware". It claimed that "there will be thousands of tonnes of dumped monitors, video cards and whole computers that are perfectly capable of running Vista - except for the fact they lack the paranoid lock down mechanisms Vista forces you to use". ...

It is also as easy for an oppressive, illiberal and authoritarian government to make use of the network as it is for a liberal social democratic administration, as we see in China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Yet now governments and corporations around the world are making a concerted effort to dismantle the open internet and replace it with a regulated and regulable one that will allow them to impose an "architecture of control".

The freedom of expression that was once available to users of the Internet Protocol is being stripped away. Our freedom to play, experiment, share and seek inspiration from the creative works of others is increasingly restricted so that large companies can lock our culture down for their own profit. If a closed network is built then the losers will be those who want to use the net freely, to share information across borders, to explore ideas or challenge institutions. ...

Microsoft's Vista will be used in millions of homes, and people will find it simpler, easier, safer and more stable than previous versions of Windows. They will appreciate the effort that went into developing the "Aero" user interface, the new security features that protect them more effectively from spam and viruses, and the way lots of things just work, like the improved wireless networking.

They will rarely notice the limitations, because they are not the sort of people who download films from the net or try to make copies of their DVDs. But the day will come when they do notice. It is not that the features built into Windows are evil, as some of the more hyperbolic bloggers claim, nor even that they are unnecessary.

It is that they change the way our computers work and the way they relate to the network, and those changes could be used to take away our freedoms. Thanks to the internet we are seeing an unprecedented shift of power from the centre to the people, a shift that we observe in the media, in politics and in the way large companies respond to their customers.

We need to ensure that the freedoms we currently enjoy online are preserved as the network evolves, or this shift could easily end up as minor historical footnote

The war drums are beating ever louder in preparation for the attack on Iran - the big link farms are full of articles either highlighting the work of the propaganda machine or analysing what is going on in and around the gulf.

The Australian is always the best local place to get the party line, with Iran being blamed for US casualties in Iraq (cassus beli number 1). I love the way these briefings are always made anonymously - why can't they trot out Colin Powell to run us through the evidence again. Moon Of Alabama (Billmon may be gone but his fans live on) is continuing to cast a cynical eye over the news flow.

SOPHISTICATED Iranian-built bombs smuggled into Iraq have killed at least 170 US and allied soldiers since June 2004, senior US defence officials have said, amid ongoing carnage.

The allegation that Iran is backing Shi'ite extremists came as suspected Sunni insurgents killed more than 30 people, most of them members of the security forces, in a spate of bomb and gun attacks in northern Iraq. US defence officials presented their evidence yesterday at a background briefing in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, after Washington stepped up criticism of Iran.

The allegations will feed a fierce international debate over relations with the Islamic republic, whose nuclear program is already at the centre of mounting tension amid reports that the US is readying air strikes. "Iran is involved in supplying explosively formed projectiles or EFPs and other material to Iraqi extremist groups," a senior official from the US-led multinational coalition told journalists.

Three coalition officials met reporters to point the finger at the Al-Qods Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, part of Tehran's elite forces accused of links with foreign militants. "The Qods Force arms extremists and insurgents to carry out terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare," he said. "The Qods Force provides advice, training and weapons to proxy forces in Iraq." The men spoke on condition of anonymity for their security and cameras and recording devices were barred from the briefing, where an array of mortar shells and booby traps were laid out for inspection.

Reporters were issued with a disc containing photographs of alleged Iranian weapons seized in Iraq - a Misagh-1 ground-to-air missile, EFPs and mortar shells - showing manufacturing dates in late 2006.

A senior defence analyst said US-led forces had evidence that Iran had stepped up shipments of EFPs, factory-built explosives designed to cut through armour, to armed Iraqi Shiite groups. He said five Iranians arrested in January in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil were Al-Qods force officers who had no diplomatic cover and had tried to flush documents down a toilet as they were arrested. "We assess that these activities are coming from the senior levels of the Iranian government," he said, noting that the Al-Qods brigade reports to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.

The senior official said Iran's involvement was being revealed as a "force protection measure". "They're pretty devastating," he said of the EFPs, holding up a lump of melted metal that he said had been fired through a US vehicle. More than 170 US and coalition troops have been killed by these things, and 620 wounded. There was a significant increase in their use over the past six months," he added.

MOA has a post wondering where the missiles that have downing US choppers in Iraq are coming from. I'll add another contender to the list of possible suspects - parts of the Russian military that remember their own disaster in Afghanistan, in a angry kind of way...
In Iraq the U.S. today lost its fifth helicopter in just 18 days.

It took them a while, but now the resistance claims to have received new weapons. Man-portable-air-defense-systems (MANPADS) like the Stinger or the equivalent Russian model Strela-2(SA-7).
In December, a spokesman for Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath party, Khudair al-Murshidi, told The Associated Press in Damascus, Syria, that Sunni insurgents had received shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and "we are going to surprise them," meaning U.S. forces.

In their war in Afghanistan the then surprised Sowjets lost hundreds of helicopters after the U.S. equipped the Taliban with such weapons.

Over the years, the U.S. tried to minimize using roads to transport personnal in Iraq and switched to more air transport. The roads became too dangerous.

Expensive new devices were developed and deployed against IEDs. Bush's new budget requests another $2.4 billion for anti-IED technology.

But while the U.S. upgrades its equipment, the resistance downgrades to cheaper and less complicate technology. Instead of radio or infrared controlled bombs, they now use simple pressure switches, baking tray mines and they doubled the numbers of deployed IEDs.

With both means of transport now equally endangered and a surge plan that emphasizes more and smaller bases, the U.S. casualty rate will jump upwards.

Next to transport, another major use of helicopters is direct fire support for ground troops. If helicopters are not able to provide that anymore, the alternative is less precise bombing from fixed wing aircraft or heavy artillery. Both are less precise. The result will be more collateral Iraqi casualties.

As the Sunni (and Al-Qaida in Iraq) claim to have received these weapons, and the helos downed over Anbar support that claim, it is unlikely that their Iranian arch-enemies have supplied these. More likely are Egyptian and Saudi origin and supply lines through Jordan. But those are moderate countries while Syria and Iran are extremist and U.S. propaganda will therefore claim the weapons came from there.

But if the resistance is can acquire a warehouse full of U.S. uniforms and equipment, "enough to supply a whole army battalion," their real supplier might still be somewhere else.

Noam Chomsky has an article in The Independent on the Iraq occupation and once again mentioning the Chinese plan for an Asian Energy Grid.
There was unprecedented élite condemnation of the plans to invade Iraq. Sensible analysts were able to perceive that the enterprise carried significant risks for US interests, however conceived. Phrases thrown in by the official Presidential Directive from the standard boilerplate about freedom that accompany every action, and are close to a historical universal, were dismissed as meaningless by reasonable people. Global opposition was utterly overwhelming, and the likely costs to the US were apparent, though the catastrophe created by the invasion went far beyond anyone's worst expectations. It's amusing to watch the lying as the strongest supporters of the war try to deny what they very clearly said.

On the US motives for staying in Iraq, I can only repeat what I've been saying for years. A sovereign Iraq, partially democratic, could well be a disaster for US planners. With a Shia majority, it is likely to continue improving relations with Iran. There is a Shia population right across the border in Saudi Arabia, bitterly oppressed by the US-backed tyranny. Any step towards sovereignty in Iraq encourages activism there for human rights and a degree of autonomy - and that happens to be where most of Saudi oil is.

Sovereignty in Iraq might well lead to a loose Shia alliance controlling most of the world's petroleum resources and independent of the US, undermining a primary goal of US foreign policy since it became the world-dominant power after the Second World War. Worse yet, though the US can intimidate Europe, it cannot intimidate China, which blithely goes its own way, even in Saudi Arabia, the jewel in the crown - the primary reason why China is considered a leading threat. An independent energy bloc in the Gulf area is likely to link up with the China-based Asian Energy Security Grid and Shanghai Cooperation Council, with Russia (which has its own huge resources) as an integral part, and with the Central Asian states (already members), possibly India. Iran is already associated with them, and a Shia-dominated bloc in the Arab states might well go along. All of that would be a nightmare for US planners and their Western allies.

There are, then, very powerful reasons why the US and UK are likely to try in every possible way to maintain effective control over Iraq. The US is not constructing a palatial embassy, by far the largest in the world and virtually a separate city within Baghdad, and pouring money into military bases, with the intention of leaving Iraq to Iraqis. All of this is quite separate from the expectations that matters can be arranged so that US corporations profit from the vast riches of Iraq.

These topics, though high on the agenda of planners, are not within the realm of discussion, as can easily be determined. That is only to be expected. These considerations violate the fundamental doctrine that state power has noble objectives, and while it may make terrible blunders, it can have no crass motives and is not influenced by domestic concentrations of private power. Any questioning of these Higher Truths is either ignored or bitterly denounced, also for good reasons: allowing them to be discussed could undermine power and privilege. ...

On withdrawal proposals from élite circles, however, I think one should be cautious. Some may be so deeply indoctrinated that they cannot allow themselves to think about the reasons for the invasion or the insistence on maintaining the occupation, in one or another form. Others may have in mind more effective techniques of control by redeploying US military forces in bases in Iraq and in the region, making sure to control logistics and support for client forces in Iraq, air power in the style of the destruction of much of Indochina after the business community turned against the war, and so on.

As to the consequences of a US withdrawal, we are entitled to have our personal judgements, all of them as uninformed and dubious as those of US intelligence. But they do not matter. What matters is what Iraqis think. Or rather, that is what should matter, and we learn a lot about the character and moral level of the reigning intellectual culture from the fact that the question of what the victims want barely even arises. ...

US policy should be that of all aggressors: (1) pay reparations; (2) attend to the will of the victims; (3) hold the guilty parties accountable, in accord with the Nuremberg principles, the UN Charter, and other international instruments. A more practical proposal is to work to change the domestic society and culture substantially enough so that what should be done can at least become a topic for discussion. That is a large task, not only on this issue, though I think élite opposition is far more ferocious than that of the general public.

The Washington Post has an article by a man who worked as a US interrogator in Iraq about his recurring nightmares.
A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.

That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah. I was one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The man, whose name I've long since forgotten, was a suspected associate of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Baath Party leader in Anbar province who had been captured two months earlier.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

American authorities continue to insist that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident in an otherwise well-run detention system. That insistence, however, stands in sharp contrast to my own experiences as an interrogator in Iraq. I watched as detainees were forced to stand naked all night, shivering in their cold cells and pleading with their captors for help. Others were subjected to long periods of isolation in pitch-black rooms. Food and sleep deprivation were common, along with a variety of physical abuse, including punching and kicking. Aggressive, and in many ways abusive, techniques were used daily in Iraq, all in the name of acquiring the intelligence necessary to bring an end to the insurgency. The violence raging there today is evidence that those tactics never worked. My memories are evidence that those tactics were terribly wrong.

While I was appalled by the conduct of my friends and colleagues, I lacked the courage to challenge the status quo. That was a failure of character and in many ways made me complicit in what went on. I'm ashamed of that failure, but as time passes, and as the memories of what I saw in Iraq continue to infect my every thought, I'm becoming more ashamed of my silence.

Some may suggest there is no reason to revive the story of abuse in Iraq. Rehashing such mistakes will only harm our country, they will say. But history suggests we should examine such missteps carefully. Oppressive prison environments have created some of the most determined opponents. The British learned that lesson from Napoleon, the French from Ho Chi Minh, Europe from Hitler. The world is learning that lesson again from Ayman al-Zawahiri. What will be the legacy of abusive prisons in Iraq?

We have failed to properly address the abuse of Iraqi detainees. Men like me have refused to tell our stories, and our leaders have refused to own up to the myriad mistakes that have been made. But if we fail to address this problem, there can be no hope of success in Iraq. Regardless of how many young Americans we send to war, or how many militia members we kill, or how many Iraqis we train, or how much money we spend on reconstruction, we will not escape the damage we have done to the people of Iraq in our prisons....

Richard Behan has an interesting analysis of the resource wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, declaring them "a colossus of failure".
The objectives of the oil wars may be non-negotiable, but that doesn't guarantee their successful achievement.

The evidence suggests the contrary.

As recently as January of 2005, the Associated Press expected construction of the Trans Afghan Pipeline to begin in 2006. So did News Central Asia. But by October of 2006, NCA was talking about construction "... as soon as there is stability in Afghanistan."

As the Taliban, the warlords, and the poppy growers reclaim control of the country, clearly there is no stability in Afghanistan, and none can be expected soon.

Unocal has been bought up by the Chevron Corporation. The Bridas Corporation is now part of BP/Amoco. Searching the companies' websites for "Afghanistan pipeline" yields, in both cases, zero results. Nothing is to be found on the sites of the prospective funding agencies. The pipeline project appears to be dead.

The Production Sharing Agreements for Iraq's oil fields cannot be signed until the country's oil policies are codified in statute. That was supposed to be done by December of 2006, but Iraq is in a state of chaotic violence. The "hydrocarbon law" is struggling along -- one report suggests it may be in place by March -- so the signing of the PSA's will be delayed at least that long.

The U.S. and British companies that stand to gain so much -- Exxon/Mobil, Chevron/Texaco, Concoco/Phillips, BP/Amoco and Royal Dutch Shell -- will stand a while longer. They may well have to stand down.

On October 31, 2006 the newspaper China Daily reported on the visit to China by Iraqi Oil Minister Hussein Shahristani. Mr. Shahristani, the story said, "welcomed Chinese oil companies to participate in the reconstruction of the Iraqi oil industry." That was alarming, but understated.

Stratfor, the American investment research service, was more directly to the point, in a report dated September 27, 2006 (a month before Minister Shahristani's visit, so it used the future tense). The Minister "... will talk to the Chinese about honoring contracts from the Saddam Hussein era. ... This announcement could change the face of energy development in the country and leave U.S. firms completely out in the cold."

The oil wars are abject failures. The Project for a New American Century wanted, in a fantasy of retrograde imperialism, to remove Saddam Hussein from power. President George Bush launched an overt act of military aggression to do so, at a cost of more than 3,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and half a trillion dollars. In the process he has exacerbated the threats from international terrorism, ravaged the Iraqi culture, ruined their economy and their public services, sent thousands of Iraqis fleeing their country as refugees, created a maelstrom of sectarian violence, dangerously destabilized the Middle East, demolished the global prestige of the United States, and defamed the American people.

Daniele Ganser (who tinfoil types will probably recognise) has some comments about peak oil and resource wars in the middle east.
Silvia Cattori: You have talked about an important emotional factor in the strategy of tension. Therefore, the terror, whose origin is vague, uncertain, the fear that it causes, all that helps to manipulate the public opinion. Are we not assisting today to the same kind of procedure? Yesterday, we fuelled the fear of communism, today aren’t we fuelling the fear of Islam?

Daniele Ganser: Yes, there is a very clear parallel. During the planning of the war in Iraq, it was said that Saddam Hussein had biological weapons in his possession, that there was a link between Iraq and the Al-Qaeda terrorists. But none of that turned out to be true. By means of these lies, it was intended to make people believe that Muslims wanted to spread terrorism all around, and that this war was necessary to fight against terror. However, the true reason for this war is the control of energy resources. This is due to the fact that the geology, the richness in gas and oil, are concentrated in the Muslim countries. He who wants to monopolize them, must hide behind this type of manipulations.

We cannot say that there is not a lot of oil left because the global production - the ’peak oil’ - is going to arrive probably before 2020, and that therefore oil must be taken from Iraq, because people would say that children must not be killed to obtain oil. And they are right. They can’t be told, either, that in the Caspian Sea there are huge reserves and that there is a plan to create a pipeline that would go to the Indian Ocean but, given that it’s is not allowed to go through the South of Iran or the North of Russia, it must pass through the East, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and therefore, this country must be under control. That is why Muslims are labelled as "terrorists". It is all a big lie, but if it is repeated a thousand times that Muslims are "terrorists", people will end up believing it and thinking that the wars against Muslims are useful; and to forget that there are several types of terrorism, that violence is not necessarily a feature of Islam.

Here are some interesting snippets of media that I came across recently:

A TED talk from Hans Rosling on development, with some great visualisations of a wide range of statistics - recommended for those afraid of the population bomb.

A great (albeit rude) karaoke song from onetime Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker on the type of people who are running the world (I once had the honour of narrowly missing being run over by Jarvis as he rode his bike down Bayswater Road in London).

A sermon from spoken word artist Henry Rollins (also slightly rude).

And to close, here's a look at some industrial history - a failed experiment called "Fordlandia" (via Energy Bulletin).
Built by Henry Ford in the 1929, Fordlandia was Henry's answer to a growing dependence on foreign rubber supply-chains that were desperately needed to produce the millions of tires demanded by the developing world of the automobile in the U.S.

As the automobile began to re-shape human settlement in North America, the industries that produced and maintained this emerging society began to reshape the lands and people who held the resources necessary to effect this change.

Henry Ford sought to control every aspect of supply and manufacture along the way. He would follow his supply lines down to the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil to begin what would be the first and last attempt at factory-style mass production of rubber, on rubber tree plantations. Unfortunately (or fortunately) he failed. There are several primary causes for this failure that I believe can serve as examples of larger trends within the dominant culture. ...


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