Off Again  

Posted by Big Gav

I'll be offline again for a couple of days - back on Wednesday...

CNG Vehicles In The US  

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There seems to be a fair amount of enthusiasm for CNG vehicles, based on the comments I see at The Oil Drum. While I remain of the opinion that the sooner we move to an electric transport system, the better off we'll be, I thought I'd point to this article at Auto Blog Green on Natural Gas Vehicle Cooperative launches in three western states.

We know that T. Boone Pickens is a fan of natural gas, but powering vehicles with the clean-burning fossil fuel isn't exactly on the top of Americans' wishlist. The newly-formed Natural Gas Vehicle Purchasing Cooperative (NGV Co-Op), started by CALSTART and operational in three states (Arizona, Nevada and California), will help fleet managers "to quickly identify, locate, and purchase a wide range of light-, medium-, and select heavy- duty natural gas vehicles at the best prices." Most CNG vehicles available today are larger work trucks, so aiming at the fleet market makes sense. The current list of available vehicles includes the following:

* Honda Civic GX;
* Chevrolet Express Van
* Chevrolet Silverado pickup
* GMC Sierra pickup
* GMC Topkick
* Ford E-450 shuttle bus
* Ford Crown Victoria
* Ford F-150
* F-250 pickup
* Ford Van
* Ford E-350 cutaway

The types, makes and models on this list will grow as more vehicles become available, and CALSTART also wants to bring the co-operative bidding process to other locations in the future.

The Empire Strikes Back: Killing Solar Power In The US  

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While I usually figure its best just ignoring governments and getting on with fixing our problems ourselves, sometimes governments can actively work to prevent the required changes - with the US government doing its best to try to kill off large scale solar power to keep its owners in the oil, coal and nuclear industries happy.

The Bush administration has put a moratorium on new solar projects on public land pending large-scale study of their environmental impacts, a process which could take about two years. Since 2005, over 130 solar-plant proposals have been filed for large-scale solar projects that together would cover some 1 million acres of BLM land, if approved. Officials at the Interior Department have said that temporarily halting the cascade of solar power projects will give them time to develop criteria to apply to future projects, thereby potentially speeding the permitting process down the road. Many in the solar industry are incensed about the sudden solar-project stoppage, which, together with the unsure future of the renewable-energy tax credit, could slow industry growth. "It doesn't make any sense," said a solar-company exec. In contrast, the leasing process for oil and gas development on public lands has sped up significantly in recent years, with the number of permits now far outpacing the industry's drilling capacity.

Cleanbeta shows the affected tracts of land - The Heartbreaking Demise of Southwestern Solar Power.
The Bureau of Land Management said it will suspend all new solar energy projects on federal land for the next two years until it completes an environmental impact review. As discussed briefly in the preceding post, the BLM holds the country’s most valuable sites in terms of solar energy potential, which are heavily concentrated in the southwest. The federal government owns roughly 650 million acres of land - nearly 30% of its total territory. The vast majority of those lands are located in the Western states and the vast majority of federal lands in the Western states are owned by the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM’s drastic decision to suspend solar power projects on federal lands will derail the still embryonic industry at a critical phase of growth. More specifically, the moratorium will sabotage a concerted efforts by the Western Governor’s Association to bring 4,000 MW of distributed solar energy online by 2015. In a document attached below, the WGA summarized their goal in these terms:
Conclusion: Distributed Solar Can Contribute 4,000 MW of Generation and 2GWth of Solar Thermal Power by 2015 — With these programs implemented throughout the region over the next few years, we estimate that distributed PV solar can contribute 4,000 MW of the Governor’s objective of 30,000 MW of clean, diversified energy. In addition, 500,000 solar thermal systems could be installed, providing the equivalent of 2GWth of energy and saving 15 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year.

The investment money, political support and high energy prices needed to introduce a massive change like distributed solar energy is available now but might not be in two years. The BLM controls both key transmission lines that will effectively keep solar off the grid until the moratorium expires. In addition, the sheer volume of land owned by the BLM means that the solar power projects needed to meet the 4,000 MW target won’t be available. Currently, the American southwest is the only place where the U.S. can realistically sustain a solar energy on a mass scale. By barring its emergence, the BLM might have struck the industry with a lethal blow today.

Dave Roberts at Grist labels this "How to strangle an industry, the concern troll way".

Oh, now they care about careful environmental assessment? Oil and gas development is spreading over the American West like a cancer, but this, this solar stuff ... it's a bridge too far!

So Congress and the feds are going to let the solar investment tax credit lapse and institute a moratorium on deployment in the best solar states -- two body blows to an nascent clean energy industry. That is some crackerjack energy policy.

(Incidentally, it strikes me that this could actually advantage eSolar over its competitors, since it can build smaller plants on marginal land.)

Ryanair CEO Offers Blowjobs For Business Class Passengers  

Posted by Big Gav

The SMH reports that the struggle for survival the airlines are facing is leading to some unusual perks being offered to passengers paying full fare, with Ryanair leading the race to the bottom.

European budget carrier Ryanair has taken its cheeky reputation to new levels, with chief executive officer Michael O'Leary suggesting business class passengers would receive free oral sex on flights. O'Leary made the saucy remarks during a press conference in Germany about Ryanair's Trans-Atlantic flights.

Explaining that Ryanair's long-haul flights would feature a business class that went against Ryanair's typical low-budget ethos, O'Leary remarked that "in economy it will be very cheap fares, say 10 Euros, and in business class it will be bed and blowjobs".

Gordon Brown: North Sea Oil and Gas Production Has Peaked  

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The Aberdeen Press And Journal has a report on Gordon Brown's new announcement about renewable energy strategy, in which he says "the North Sea has now passed its peak of oil and gas supply".

PRIME Minister Gordon Brown vowed last night to “turn the North Sea into the equivalent for wind power of what the Gulf of Arabia is for the oil industry”.

He delivered the pledge as he outlined a £100billion green energy investment strategy.

The strategy is designed to put Britain at the forefront in the drive for low carbon energy and energy efficiency and take a disproportionate share of the jobs that will be created worldwide.

Mr Brown, speaking at a Low Carbon Economy Summit in London, said his plans would secure energy supplies, tackle climate change and form the “basis of future prosperity for our country”.

The strategy includes detailed measures to meet a target to source 15% of all energy consumption from renewables by 2020 including 7,000 new wind turbines, 4,000 onshore and 3,000 offshore, and feed-in tariffs to boost micro-renewables in homes and communities.

Mr Brown said Britain will this year surpass Denmark as the country with the highest operating offshore wind capacity in the world, at over 400megawatts, adding: “By 2020 we will have installed around 14gigawatts – that is around three thousand offshore wind turbines, meeting up to 50% of our renewable electricity.

“The North Sea has now passed its peak of oil and gas supply – but it will now embark on a new transformation into the global centre of the offshore wind industry.”

North Pole could be ice-free this summer  

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CNN is reporting the North Pole could be ice-free this summer. Looking at the NSIDC website its hard to see that we are likely to have a bigger melt than last year though - ice coverage seems to be tracking pretty close to last year's trajectory and its almost July.

The North Pole may be briefly ice-free by September as global warming melts away Arctic sea ice, according to scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Scientists say it's a 50-50 bet that the thin Arctic sea ice will completely melt away at the geographic North Pole. "We kind of have an informal betting pool going around in our center and that betting pool is 'does the North Pole melt out this summer?' and it may well," said the center's senior research scientist, Mark Serreze.

The ice retreated to a record level in September when the Northwest Passage, the sea route through the Arctic Ocean, opened briefly for the first time in recorded history. "What we've seen through the past few decades is the Arctic sea ice cover is becoming thinner and thinner as the system warms up," Serreze said.

Specific weather patterns will determine whether the North Pole's ice cover melts completely this summer, he said. "Last year, we had sort of a perfect weather pattern to get rid of ice to open up that Northwest Passage," Serreze said. "This year, a different pattern can set up. so maybe we'll preserve some ice there. We're in a wait-and-see mode right now. We'll see what happens."


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Kevin' Kelly's article on "The Technium" that I referred to recently seems to have morphed into a blog of its own now - the latest installment is on "Scenius, or Communal Genius".

Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or "scenes" can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: "Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius."

Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.

The geography of scenius is nurtured by several factors:

• Mutual appreciation -- Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
• Rapid exchange of tools and techniques -- As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
• Network effects of success -- When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
• Local tolerance for the novelties -- The local "outside" does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.

Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region. ...

I was reminded of scenius while watching a documentary about rock climbers in Yosemite. The documentary Vertical Frontiers did not make my True Films list of best-ever docs, but it did reveal a new flavor of scenius I had not known before. The particulars of this scene are a fine example of what makes scenius work. ...

Over the next 60 years this scenius would invent most of the modern techniques of rock climbing, and many innovations that would later spill into outdoor skills and gear in general.

But the geography of this scenius is unremarkable. Camp 4 is a nondescript, bland, dusty campground. Building 20 at MIT, the home of fantastic engineering exploits like the improvement of radar, was likewise architecturally boring, almost dilapidated. Soho was blocks of unwanted industrial space. Like these other places, Camp 4 was a generic space with flexibility. However Camp 4 is also a walk-in camp. You need to haul everything on your back. That immediately filters out a lot of wannabes. The absence of cars also keeps everyone around. From the outside you would never guess there was anything special about the place. I think that is true of most scenius. ...

Although many have tried many times, it is not really possible to command scenius into being. Every start up company, or university would like their offices to be an example of scenius. The number of cities in the world hoping to recreate the scenius of Silicon Valley is endless, but very few have achieved anything close. Innumerable art scenes begin and vanish quickly. The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. A place that is open, but not too open. A buffer that is tolerant of outlaws. And some flash of excitement to kick off the virtuous circle. You just can't order this.

What Camp 4 illustrated is that the best you can do is NOT KILL IT. When it pops up, don't crush it. When it starts rolling, don't formalize it. When it sparks, fan it. But don't move the scenius to better quarters. Try to keep accountants and architects and police and do-gooders away from it. Let it remain inefficient, wasteful, edgy, marginal, in the basement, downtown, in the 'burbs, in the hotel ballroom, on the fringes, out back, in Camp 4.

When it happens, honor and protect it.

A Tale Of Two Car Fleets  

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Keith Johnson at the WSJ's Environmental Capital blog has a post on the potential for the US car fleet to shrink rapidly in the coming years - Oil Shock: Analyst Predicts $7 Gas, “Mass Exodus” of U.S. Cars.

Oil at $135? That was just the opening skirmish in the “peak oil” wars. The latest smart money? $200 oil in 2010, with gasoline at $7 a gallon. And that is going to turn Americans into car-shunning Europeans once and for all—poor Americans, at least.

That’s the latest gloomy forecast from Jeff Rubin at Canadian brokerage CIBC World Markets, who just a few months ago figured $200 oil would be a thing of the distant future—like 2012.

Mr. Rubin laughs off recent attempts to take the steam out of global oil markets. Saudi production promises of 200,000 barrels a day doesn’t dent the 4 million barrel-per-day decline from aging fields every year, for starters. And it will just be “gobbled up” by increasing domestic consumption in Saudi Arabia, like other oil-producing countries that subsidize fuel.

So what about China’s flirtation with market reality by unwinding some fuel subsidies? No luck in curbing demand or prices, either. Not only does China’s recent move translate into $3.25 a gallon gas—still a steal, relatively speaking—it’s given fresh legs to beleaguered Chinese refiners who’ve been operating in the red, thanks to Chinese price controls. So now they are producing even more gasoline and fueling even more cars than they were before. The upshot?
Over the next four years, we are likely to witness the greatest mass exodus of vehicles off America’s highways in history. By 2012, there should be some 10 million fewer vehicles on American roadways than there are today—a decline that dwarfs all previous adjustments including those during the two OPEC oil shocks.

And who will be parking their cars? The 57 million American households that have both cars and access to something resembling public transit. Gasoline at $7 begins to approach prices Europeans have paid for years, meaning that chunk of America “will start to act more and more like Europeans,” Mr. Rubin says. Not soccer moms in a minivan—soccer fans, searching for tokens:
Our analysis suggests that about half of the number of cars coming off the road in the next four years will be from low income households who have access to public transit. At their current driving habits, filling up the tank will have risen from about 7% of their income to 20%, an increase that will see many start taking the bus.

Gas prices already appear to be reshaping suburbia. But what Mr. Rubin is predicting is a far bigger shock to the American system. Europe has had decades to develop a society based on expensive energy. What will happen if Americans suddenly are forced to shoulder European-style energy prices — but without the European-style society to cope with them?

The "Casey Energy Speculator" newsletter, meanwhile, reports that the Chinese car fleet (and its thirst for oil) are rapidly growing - Where have all my commodities gone ?.
Record oil prices have failed to temper the enthusiasm of Chinese auto buyers. In 2006, 6.2 million cars were sold in China, enough for the Middle Kingdom to surpass Japan for #2 in total vehicle sales (the United States still sells twice as many). In the first five months of 2008, Chinese auto sales show no signs of decelerating, up 17.4% from the same period last year.

The rise in Chinese auto sales has been so dramatic that projections by China’s government for auto sales in 2020 were already exceeded by 2005.

Millions of tons of copper, nickel, aluminum have gone into China’s car frenzy, boosting the commodity prices of every raw material involved. But the most pressing consequence of China's great leap into the culture of happy motoring is its impact on crude oil demand.

Assuming that the 7.3 million new car owners in 2008 each drive 5,000 miles a year, and they achieve 40 miles per gallon, the result would be an additional 45.6 million barrels of crude demand, equivalent to 125,000 bbl/day. In other words, new Chinese drivers will devour 25-30% of the recently promised Saudi production increase in a single year.

To those predicting an imminent decline in world oil demand, we say: don't bet on it.

Exxon Celebrates Valdez Oil Spill  

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Greg Palast reports that Exxon has escaped almost scot-free for the Valdez oil spill, successfully delaying paying up for 20 years until it found a court willing to help them avoid paying compensation to the victims.

Twenty years after Exxon Valdez slimed over one thousand miles of Alaskan beaches, the company has yet to pay the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by the jury. And now they won't have to. The Supreme Court today cut Exxon's liability by 90% to half a billion. It's so cheap, it's like a permit to spill.

Exxon knew this would happen. Right after the spill, I was brought to Alaska by the Natives whose Prince William Sound islands, livelihoods, and their food source was contaminated by Exxon crude. My assignment: to investigate oil company frauds that led to to the disaster. There were plenty.

But before we brought charges, the Natives hoped to settle with the oil company, to receive just enough compensation to buy some boats and rebuild their island villages to withstand what would be a decade of trying to survive in a polluted ecological death zone.

In San Diego, I met with Exxon's US production chief, Otto Harrison, who said, "Admit it; the oil spill's the best thing to happen" to the Natives.

His company offered the Natives pennies on the dollar. The oil men added a cruel threat: take it or leave it and wait twenty years to get even the pennies. Exxon is immortal - but Natives die. And they did. A third of the Native fishermen and seal hunters I worked with are dead. Now their families will collect one tenth of their award, two decades too late.

In today's ruling, Supreme Court Justice David Souter wrote that Exxon's recklessness was ''profitless'' - so the company shouldn't have to pay punitive damages. Profitless, Mr. Souter? Exxon and its oil shipping partners saved billions - BILLIONS - by operating for sixteen years without the oil spill safety equipment they promised, in writing, under oath and by contract.

The official story is, "Drunken Skipper Hits Reef." But don't believe it, Mr. Souter. Alaska's Native lands and coastline were destroyed by a systematic fraud motivated by profit-crazed penny-pinching.

Here's the unreported story, the one you won't get tonight on the Petroleum Broadcast System:

It begins in 1969 when big shots from Humble Oil and ARCO (now known as Exxon and British Petroleum) met with the Chugach Natives, owners of the most valuable parcel of land on the planet: Valdez Port, the only conceivable terminus for a pipeline that would handle a trillion dollars in crude oil.

These Alaskan natives ultimately agreed to sell the Exxon consortium this astronomically valuable patch of land -- for a single dollar.

The Natives refused cash. Rather, in 1969, they asked only that the oil companies promise to protect their Prince William Sound fishing and seal hunting grounds from oil.

In 1971, Exxon and partners agreed to place the Natives' specific list of safeguards into federal law. These commitments to safety reassured enough Congressmen for the oil group to win, by one vote, the right to ship oil from Valdez. The oil companies repeated their promises under oath to the US Congress.

The spill disaster was the result of Exxon and partners breaking every one of those promises - cynically, systematically, disastrously, in the fifteen years leading up to the spill. ...

The cover story of the Drunken Captain serves the oil industry well. It falsely presents America's greatest environmental disaster as a tale of human frailty, a one-time accident. But broken radar, missing equipment, phantom spill teams, faked tests -- the profit-driven disregard of the law -- made the spill an inevitability, not an accident.

Yet Big Oil tells us, as they plead to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, as Senator John McCain calls for drilling off the shores of the Lower 48, it can't happen again.

They promise.

Five Myths About the New Wiretapping Law  

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Slate has a look at the latest US wiretapping law that Bush and his successors will need to ignore before violating it - Five Myths About the New Wiretapping Law - Why it's a lot worse than you think..

Sometime today, the Senate is likely to approve the most comprehensive overhaul of American surveillance law since the Watergate era. Unless you're a government lawyer, a legal scholar, a masochist, or an insomniac, chances are you haven't read the 114-page bill. Don't beat yourself up: Neither have most of the 293 House members who voted for it last week. Ditto the mainstream press, who seem to have relied chiefly on summaries provided by the same lawmakers who hadn't read it.

To be fair, wiretapping is so classified, and the language of the bill so opaque, that no one without a "top secret" clearance can say with any authority just how much surveillance the proposal will authorize the government to do. (The best assessment yet comes from former Justice Department official David Kris, who deems the legislation "so intricate" that it risks confusing even "the government officials who must apply it.")

Out of the echo chamber of ignorance and self-serving political cant, a number of myths have begun to emerge. We may never know for sure everything that this new legislation entails. ...

The Democrats' most pathetic bit of self-deluded posturing involves the inclusion of a clause suggesting that the new law represents the "exclusive means" by which "electronic surveillance and interception of certain communications may be conducted." According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., this means "the law is the exclusive authority and not the whim of the president." But, then, FISA always said that it was the "exclusive means." And in 2001, pretty much on a whim, the president set it aside. So for those of you keeping score back home, the Democratic leadership is patting itself on the back for including in the new law a provision that was already in the old law—and which the Bush White House chose to ignore.

Here, then, is the bitter joke of the new legislation: From 2001 to 2007, the NSA engaged in a secret program that was a straightforward violation of America's wiretapping laws. Since the program was revealed, the administration has succeeded in preventing the judiciary from making a definitive declaration that the wiretapping was a crime. Suits against the government get dismissed on state-secrets grounds, because while the program may have been illegal, it was also so highly classified that its legality can never be litigated in open court. And now suits against the telecoms will by dismissed en masse as well. Meanwhile, the new law moves the goal posts, taking illegal things the administration was doing and making them legal.

Whatever Hoyer and Pelosi—and even Obama—say, this amounts to a retroactive blessing of the illegal program, and historically it means that the country will probably be deprived of any rigorous assessment of what precisely the administration did between 2001 and 2007. No judge will have an opportunity to call the president's willful violation of a federal statute a crime, and no landmark ruling by the courts can serve as a warning for future generations about government excesses in dangerous times. What's more, because the proposal so completely plays into the Bush conception of executive power, it renders meaningless any of its own provisions. After all, if the main lesson of the wiretapping scandal is that we need more surveillance power for the government, what is to stop President Bush—or President Obama or President McCain—from one day choosing to set this new law aside, too? "How will we be judged?" Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., asked in a stirring speech deploring the legislation yesterday. "The technical argument obscures the defining question: the rule of law, or the rule of men?"

A little more big brother news comes from Orwell's homeland, via The Guardian - "Is Britain on the slippery slope to dictatorship?".
There was something extremely familiar to me about this week's events. The way they closed down the whole of Whitehall for George Bush's visit reminded me of how, in Havana, they close the main highway every time Fidel Castro crosses from one side of town to the other.

There was also something unpleasant about the way many in the BBC turned the discussion away from the loss of civil liberties in Britain and instead began to present David Davis as an egotistical oddball, pulling a clever stunt simply to spite the leader of his party. Soviet TV attacked dissidents in the same way. ...

So this is the thing. If I, as a citizen, and people like me, don't agree with the way we are being governed, where do we go to withdraw our consent to be governed? I don't want to simply switch to the Tories or Liberal Democrats, I want a new contract with my state as a citizen, one that respects my civil liberties.

Solar Cogeneration  

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Inhabitat has an interesting post on a company called Solarwall who are developing rooftop solar cogeneration systems.

Solar photovoltaics are, depending on the day, between 8-15% efficient meaning much of the sun’s energy’s is lost as heat. While solar thermal systems offer a way to harvest this heat energy for heating water or interior spaces, this option has usually displaced the electricity generating PV on rooftops. A new system from SolarWall, the SolarDuct PV/T, offers a combination of solar photovoltaic and solar thermal in one assembly providing a means to heat and power from the sun with one product.

The system is an evolution of the SolarWall system, a vertical mounted solar thermal and heat recapture system that transfers heat into or away from a building’s HVAC mechanicals depending on the season. The SolarDuct PV/T is based on the same principle of capturing heat from the sun and heat generated from excessive solar gain on buildings. The new system adds photovoltaic over thermal ducts to maximize energy efficiency.

The captured warm air can be vented into the HVAC system, preheated, to decrease the building’s energy load. The draw of air away from the photovoltaics “also enhances the electrical operating efficiency of the PV by up to 10%,” according to the manufacturer Conserval Engineering Inc. The solar thermal duct system acts as the mount for the PV, pre-angled to maximize solar gain and making it ideal for flat roof installations.

In addition to optimizing rooftop real estate with a two-in-one solar energy system, the Solar Duct PV/T seems to hold the potential to shorten the payback time on investment, since it decreases a building’s heating demand while producing electricity.

Kohler: The Age Of Oil Is Over  

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Alan Kohler's latest "KGB Report" at The Business Spectator declares the Age Of Oil is over.

On December 31, 1999, the Dow Jones closed at 11,497. Last night it closed at 11,453. That’s eight and a half years of zero capital growth by the greatest corporations in the Earth’s capitalist headquarters.

During that period three bubbles have burst – internet, housing and credit – and the United States began a War on Terror that has drained both its Treasury and its confidence.

But the immediate cause of last night’s 3 per cent fall on the Dow was that the oil price went above $US140 a barrel for the first time, just a few days after Saudi Arabia came to the rescue of consumers by announcing a production increase of 200,000 barrels a day. So that went well.

And the reason the oil price went above $US140 last night is firstly because Chakib Khelil, the president of OPEC, said it would, so it did, and secondly because Shokri Ghanem, Libya’s most senior oil official, said his country might as well cut production now because the world is so well supplied by Saudi Arabia.

Then again maybe it was because some shorts were covering their positions in the last 45 minutes of futures trading, since that’s when all the action in the price took place (don’t believe it).

As I drove to the airport this morning for a flight to Sydney for a few hours, I heard Michael Lardelli, senior lecturer in genetics at the University of Adelaide, talking on Radio National’s Perspective segment. Obviously he’s a genetics expert, not an oil expert, but he plucked at my airport-bound conscience.

“If you are listening to me now then you were born in The Age of Oil. A wondrous time when abundant energy has enabled humanity to work technological miracles. With enough energy we can solve any problem. Need to get to the other side of the world by tomorrow? Just fly! Need to sow and harvest millions of hectares of grain, or move a mountain, or build an island? Our mighty machines will do it for us. Need to drive 5 kilometres to the shop, or 50km to work? Now where did I put those car keys?”

Oh yes, it’s true. The world’s oil consumption is 85 million barrels a day, or 13.6 billion litres, and rising (entirely because of developing world demand – OECD demand is falling). Production is a bit less, and declining.

The price might fall again soon – it has been volatile this year after all – but the proposition that it is all due to speculation is the refuge of the blind optimist. As HFA’s Jonathan Pain wrote in Wednesday’s Eureka Report, the net long position of speculators, according to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, is just 12,712 contracts, equivalent to just 15 per cent of daily global consumption.

Pain, like Lardelli, says the era of cheap energy is over, and one way or another it is hard to disagree. Even if the price of fossil fuel energy falls a bit, it will have to be raised again to save the planet from greenhouse warming.

It is the bursting of the fourth bubble in a decade – the cheap oil bubble.

Nuclear not answer to Australia's energy needs: Rudd  

Posted by Big Gav

The ABC reports the Rudd government still hasn't succumbed to the lure of nuclear powered reversalism.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the country can cope with climate change without resorting to nuclear power. ...

But Mr Rudd says the Government will concentrate on more traditional energy sources. "We believe that we have a full range of energy options available to Australia beyond nuclear with which, and through, which we can respond to the climate change challenge and we are confident we can do that," Mr Rudd said.

How Clean Coal Cooks Your Brain  

Posted by Big Gav in

Great post title from WorldChanging, taking a look at the marketing of "clean coal".

Several years ago, in Gillette, Wyoming, I fell into a long conversation with the vice-president of a large American coal company about coal's public image problem. Gillette is in the center of the Powder River Basin, the epicenter of the coal boom in America, where 60 foot seams of coal lay just below the surface.

This vice president, who did not want his name to appear in print, was deeply concerned about coal's future and expressed frustration with environmental attacks on coal, suggesting that it was all a problem of perception: "People don't like coal because it's black," he told me.

"If it were white, all our problems would be solved."

Whenever one of those slick ads for "clean coal" pops up on CNN, I think about that conversation in Gillette. The $35 million "clean coal" campaign, spearheaded by a coal industry front group called American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (formerly known as Americans for Balanced Energy Choices), is nothing less than a nationwide effort to paint coal white.

And to the coal industry's credit, they're doing a pretty good job."Clean coal" is touted by Republicans and Democrats alike as the solution to America's energy troubles.

The logic is simple: America has lots of coal. We are a technologically advanced society. Ergo, we can clean up coal. What's the problem?

Well, here's one: "clean coal" is not an actual invention, a physical thing – it is an advertising slogan. Like "fat-free donuts" or "interest-free loans," "clean coal" is a phrase that embodies the Bush-era faith that there is an easy answer for every hard question in America today. We can have a war in Iraq without sacrifice. We can borrow more than we can afford without worrying about how we'll pay it back. We can end our dependency on oil by powering our SUVs with ethanol made from corn. And we can keep the lights on without superheating the climate through the magic of "clean coal."

Here's another: mining and burning coal remains one of the most destructive things human beings do on this earth. It destroys mountains, poisons water, pollutes the air, and warms the atmosphere. True, if you look at it strictly from the point of view smog-producing chemicals like sulfur dioxide, new coal plants are cleaner than the old coal burners of yore. But going from four bottles of whiskey a week down to three does not make you clean and sober.

Of course, the "clean coal" campaign is not about reality – it's about perception. It's an exercise in re-branding. Madison Ave. did it for Harley Davidson motorcycles and Converse shoes. Why not Old King Coal?

It's not a difficult trick – just whip out some slick ads with upbeat music and lots of cool 21st century technology like fighter jets and computers. Run the ads long enough, and people will believe.

But the real goal of the campaign is not simply to re-brand coal as a clean and modern fuel – it's to convince energy-illiterate TV viewers that the American way of life depends on coal. The ads remind us (accurately) that half the electricity in America comes from coal, then shows images of little girls getting tucked into bed at night or Little Leaguers playing ball under the lights.

The subtext is not simply that, without the electricity from coal, the lights will go out and your family will be plunged into darkness. It's that, without coal, civilization as we know it will come to an end. As one utility industry executive asked me while I was reporting Big Coal, "Have you ever been in a blackout? Do you remember how scary it was?"

From the coal industry's point of view, this is a brilliant way to frame the argument. If the choice is, coal or chaos, they win. ...

That's a false choice, of course.

The coal industry may not want to acknowledge it, but we're living in the 21st century now. We have indeed figured out other ways to generate electricity besides burning out 30 million year old rocks. And with each passing year, those alternatives are getting cheaper and smarter.

Wind is already less expensive than coal in many parts of the country, and so is large-scale solar thermal. Google is exploring enhanced geothermal. The creaky old electricity grid will soon morph into a system that looks more like the internet, driving big gains in efficiency and allowing for real-time pricing of a kilowatt of power.

Fueling the peak oil debate in Saudi Arabia  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Neil King at the WSJ has a look at the 2 ends of the Aramco spectrum of opinion on peak oil - Sadad al-Husseini and Nansen Saleri - in Global Oil-Supply Worries Fuel Debate in Saudi Arabia.

Sadad al-Husseini and Nansen Saleri raced up the ranks at Saudi Aramco, the world's most powerful oil company, working together for years to squeeze more crude from Saudi Arabia's massive fields. Today, the two men have staked out opposite sides of a momentous industry debate.

Mr. Husseini, Aramco's second-in-command until 2004, says the world faces a brute reality of depleting resources and ever rising prices. Mr. Saleri, until recently the company's oil-reservoir manager, insists that with enough ingenuity and investment, plenty more oil can be found.

With oil prices having doubled over the past year, political leaders, Wall Street investors, commuters, airlines and car makers are all scrambling to divine where prices will head next. The disparity of opinion between two of the most knowledgeable men in the industry shows how much fog hangs over the most basic question of all -- whether oil can be unearthed any faster than it currently is.

At the moment, Mr. Husseini's pessimistic view is clearly ascendant. Even before this year's surge in oil prices, there were gloomy industry predictions that world oil output would soon hit a ceiling. U.S. benchmark crude hit a record high on Thursday, propelled by Libyan threats of possible supply cuts, closing at $139.64 a barrel, up more than threefold since 2004. (Please see related article.)

But Mr. Saleri isn't alone in dismissing the gloom as misplaced. Optimists, from Exxon Mobil Corp. to the U.S. Energy Department, argue that high prices propel companies to innovate and invest more. As supplies rebound, prices will fall from today's levels.

Saudi Arabia itself, producer of 12% of the world's oil, has vacillated for years over whether to try to extract oil faster than it already is. Last weekend, urged on by Saudi King Abdullah, it appeared to move into Mr. Saleri's camp. Fearful that supply jitters were damaging the world economy, the kingdom said it was ready to invest tens of billions of dollars to boost its capacity to unprecedented levels -- to 15 million barrels a day over the next decade, from just over 11 million now.

Opinions within the region on the health of the Persian Gulf's remaining petroleum riches vary more widely than many realize. Messrs. Husseini and Saleri disagree over whether the new Saudi production target is either feasible or wise -- echoing a debate that has swirled behind the scenes at Aramco for years.

That the two men worked side by side at the company that controls one-quarter of the world's proven oil reserves makes their divergent outlooks all the more striking.

Mr. Husseini, now an independent consultant, has jetted around the world spreading his views, including recently over dinner with George Soros and a clutch of other top financiers. Mr. Saleri has lectured, written opinion pieces and buttonholed top oil officials from Latin America to Kuwait.

Mr. Husseini, 61 years old, lives across the street from the Saudi oil minister, Ali Naimi, in a leafy neighborhood of Dhahran, the Aramco company town on Saudi Arabia's east coast. The suave but sharply opinionated petroleum geologist says most of the big oil repositories have been found, and no amount of gadgetry will restore bubbly youth to aging fields from Indonesia to the Gulf of Mexico. War, politics and soaring costs, he adds, are slowing development in many of the most promising regions.

"The fact is, we have to work harder and harder to get the oil we need," he says. Those who contend otherwise, he insists, "claim to have some magic potion, like voodoo, that doesn't exist."

Mr. Saleri, who is a year younger, shrugs off his former boss's pessimism. A self-described "technology nut" who resigned as Aramco's top reservoir manager last fall to set up his own consulting shop in Houston, Mr. Saleri has become a vociferous opponent of the "peak oil" view, which holds that global oil production is about to enter a permanent slump due to shrinking resources and limited investment. ...

By last fall, anxiety was growing within the industry and on Wall Street over whether long-term supplies could keep pace with the rising world demand. Mr. Husseini stoked those fears at a London conference in October. The major oil-producing nations were inflating their oil reserves by as much as 300 billion barrels, about one-quarter of the world's proven reserves, he said, while the giant fields of the Persian Gulf region are 41% depleted.

Mr. Saleri, who left Aramco in September, doesn't share those worries. He has hired a half dozen former Aramco and Chevron officials and opened a business in Houston. His company, Quantum Reservoir Impact, says it has the reservoir-modeling and management know-how to revive declining oil fields. Mr. Saleri is now shopping his services to big national oil companies in Latin America and the Middle East, though he has yet to sign any contracts.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in March, he dismissed the peak-oil theory. "The world has plenty of oil," he wrote. Three weeks later, Mr. Husseini flew to New York at the invitation of a clutch of high-powered financiers, including Mr. Soros, Leucadia National Corp. Chairman Ian M. Cumming and Aubrey McClendon, the chief executive of natural-gas company Chesapeake Energy Corp.

The group of about 20 met for dinner in the 21 Club's wine cellar. Mr. Husseini declines to comment on the session. One guest says he spoke mainly about the geopolitical thunderclouds hovering over the oil market, especially the U.S. and Israeli standoff with Iran.

In a longer presentation the following morning, he argued that the world will have to work hard just to keep its oil production where it is. Conservation, not new oil discoveries, will be "the primary source of overall energy availability" going forward, he said.

He delivered the same message to oil magnate T. Boone Pickens over lunch in Chicago. "It was just two oil guys talking," says Mr. Pickens, adding that Mr. Husseini's views dovetail with his own.

Messrs. Husseini and Saleri remain collegial, though they haven't spoken for months. Both see the other's views as largely a matter of personal disposition.

"Sadad by nature sees the dark clouds overhead," says Mr. Saleri. "He's a pessimist."

His former boss laughs at the description. "The problem with Nansen," he says, "is that he loves his theories, even when they run up against reality."

Nanosolar Achieves 1GW CIGS Deposition Throughput  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

The Nanosolar company blog has a post on their fast thin-film solar printing process.

As we are busy ramping our operation, we almost forgot to recognize achieving a major milestone in solar technology: The solar industry’s first 1GW production tool. Here it is:

Most production tools in the solar industry tend to have 10-30MW in annual production capacity. How is it possible to have a single tool with Gigawatt throughput?

This feat is fundamentally enabled through the proprietary nanoparticle ink we have invested so many years developing. It allows us to deliver efficient solar cells (presently up to more than 14%) that are simply printed.

Printing is a simple, fast, and robust coating process that in particular eliminates the need for expensive high-vacuum chambers and the kinds of high-vacuum based deposition techniques from industries where there’s a lot more $/sqm available for competitive manufacturing cost.

Our 1GW CIGS coater cost $1.65 million. At the 100 feet-per-minute speed shown in the video, that’s an astonishing two orders of magnitude more capital efficient than a high-vacuum process: a twenty times slower high-vacuum tool would have cost about ten times as much per tool.

Plus if we cared to run it even faster, we could. (The same coating technique works in principle for speeds up to 2000 feet-per-minute too. In fact, it turns out the faster we run, the better the coating!)

CNet reports that IBM is also getting into the thin-film solar market, in partnership with Japanese company Tokyo Ohka Kogyo (TOK).
The computing giant on Monday is expected to announce a deal with a Japanese semiconductor equipment manufacturer to make thin-film solar cells from CIGS, a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenide.

Neither IBM nor its partner, Tokyo Ohka Kogyo (TOK), plan to manufacture cells themselves. Rather, they will develop technology that can be licensed to solar companies in two or three years, said Supratik Guha, lead scientist for photovoltaics at IBM Research.

IBM has already built a prototype device. Once made at large volumes on a glass substrate, the cells are expected to deliver electricity at less than one dollar per watt at peak times--a long-held target of many solar outfits.

"We have the skills that we have developed in other areas--standard silicon semiconductors, materials chemistry--and we're looking to utilize those skills in the photovoltaic space and develop IP (intellectual property) and know-how that other people don't have," Guha said.

Traditional solar cells are made from silicon, but alternative thin-film materials are becoming a larger share of the market. Thin-film cells are less efficient at converting sunlight to electricity than silicon, but they require much less material to produce a cell, making them cost-competitive. Solar high-flier First Solar sells thin-film cells from cadmium telluride.

CIGS is a material that a number of companies are betting on, including Nanosolar, Global Solar Energy, Miasole, and Heliovolt. These companies are not producing cells at large volumes yet, but use of CIGS is expected to catch on quickly next year as their factories come online.

"CIGS will be the big story of 2009 because we know how many companies are putting in multimegawatts of CIGS (production capacity) in 2009," predicted solar expert Travis Bradford, president of the Prometheus Institute, who spoke at a recent Greentech Media solar briefing.

IBM's CIGS manufacturing technique came out of research IBM had done about 10 years ago in flexible electronics.

It's a break with the most common CIGS manufacturing process, called co-evaporation, in which active chemicals are immersed in a solution that gets removed in a vacuum.

IBM's "solution-based processing" calls for the chemicals to be dissolved in a liquid and then dried. It does not require a vacuum, doesn't require as much energy to run, and can be done faster than co-evaporation, Guha said.

IBM is also looking to leap-frog existing CIGS manufacturers on efficiency with a target of about 15 percent.

The efficiency of the CIGS cells on the market now is at about 9 percent or 10 percent. HelioVolt recently announced that it hit 12.2 percent efficiency with a process that is faster than co-evaporation. Global Solar said it expects to get to 14 percent, eventually.

The record for efficiency was done by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Research Laboratory (NREL) earlier this year, which reached 19.9 percent efficiency through a co-evaporation process.

Big, Bad Hydro ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Forbes has a somewhat jaundiced look at the resurgence of big hydropower projects and looks at some better modern alternatives.

Chilean Patagonia is renowned for its rugged beauty: windswept Andean peaks, roaring rivers, pristine coastal rainforests. Years ago, those natural wonders inspired architect Peter Hartmann to abandon his native Santiago for Coyhaique, a small regional capital tucked away in a picturesque mountain valley.

"My family used to live near the biggest underground copper mine in the world, on the outskirts of Santiago, so I knew about environmental destruction firsthand," he says. "I came here for the forests, the lakes and the rivers--all untouched."

But the industrial world has caught up to Hartmann, and to Patagonia. To feed Santiago's growing demand for electricity, the Spanish-based energy giant Endesa (nyse: ELE - news - people ) wants to build a series of dams on two major Patagonian rivers. Endesa and the Chilean government say the $4 billion project will provide 2,430 megawatts of much-needed power to the nation's industrial north.

Hartmann and many of his neighbors are fighting the dams, claiming they would damage the southern region's ranching and tourism economies. For Hartmann, the irony is bitter: Endesa would send the power 1,500 miles north to the very mines that he came to Coyhaique to escape--and the whole thing's being done in the name of green power.

These are tough times for Hartmann and other opponents of big hydro. As the world scrambles to embrace green energy, the hydroelectric industry is enjoying a massive resurgence. American hydro is ramping up--projects totaling nearly 9,000 megawatts of capacity, much of it in next-generation wave- and tidal-power projects that convert ocean motion into electricity, are now in the permit pipeline at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The real action, though, is still in conventional dams, and it is happening abroad, mainly in Asia and Latin America. The high price of oil and surging demand for non-carbon fuels have energy executives dusting off old plans for major dams. "The last four years have been unprecedented in terms of orders for hydropower services and equipment," says Richard Taylor, executive director of the International Hydropower Association. "Our indicators are through the roof."

Here's the rub. As a green energy source, hydro is still far from perfect. In fact, it might not even be green. ...

China's Three Gorges Dam project is probably a carbon-footprint winner, because it's in a temperate climate and displaces the power of 20 coal-fired plants. Brazil's Balbina dam, completed in the late 1980s, is more questionable: Fearnside calculated that in its first three years, it emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane, four times the greenhouse gas output of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power. (The dam's CO2 and methane eventually dissipated, however, decreasing its relative footprint.)

Meanwhile, hydro comes with plenty of other problems. Because of their enormous construction costs, big dams tend to be magnets for corruption. With contracts worth billions of dollars, there's a tendency for money to leak into "well-connected" pockets--a million here, a million there. Argentina's Yacyreta Dam, budgeted in 1983 at $2.5 billion, bloated to $15 billion by the time it was done in 1994, which led then-president Carlos Menem (who knew a thing or two about graft) to declare it "a monument to corruption."

In fact, the Patagonia project exists only because Chile's notorious Gen. Augusto Pinochet, in one of the dictator's last acts of office, gave away Patagonia's water rights to a privatized energy company that was later bought by Endesa. Some anti-dam activists believe Endesa is pushing the project hard now partly out of fear that the Chilean government could wise up, and, like Bolivia, re-nationalize resources like water.

Environmental mitigation, one of the industry's proud new buzz words, is too often a Lothario promise. Companies gain approval and funding by pledging to carry out substantial eco-improvements and mitigation. But once the dam goes up--as is happening right now in Laos, Turkey and Belize--the costly eco-plans are conveniently forgotten.

While the science of methane release gets sorted out, environmental activists in places like Patagonia are left with this unambiguous conclusion: Their beloved landscapes are slated to be drowned and torn asunder in the name of saving spectacular landscapes like those which will be drowned and torn asunder. They want renewable energy, just not this kind.

"We've got incredible potential for clean green energy up and down Chile," says Juan Pablo Orrego, director of the Chilean environmental group Eco-Sistemas. "We could have solar thermal in the Atacama Desert, wind power in Patagonia and tidal energy all along the coast."

That's right: They're ready to embrace hydro in Patagonia--the next generation, that is.

Big Brother Is Driving Your Car  

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The SMH reports the NSW state government is licking its lips over an in-car GPS unit that not only tells you if you are speeding (which can be quite handy) but also slows your car down if you are - Big brother satellites to put brakes on speeders.

The next step is to have it report in on all your traffic violations and automatically issue fines. Which would be one way of solving Sydney's traffic problems...

A NEW speed detection system that acts like a police officer inside your car is being tested in NSW in the hope it will help cut the number of road fatalities.

One hundred cars in the Illawarra have been fitted with global positioning system devices that are programmed with the speed limit of every section of road in the region. By taking bearings from as many as two dozen satellites, the devices are able to determine whether the vehicles are travelling faster than the signposted limit. A warning sound alerts the drivers if they are speeding.

Forty of the trial vehicles have been equipped with a function that gradually slows the car down if it is going too fast. The trial is part of a $1 million Intelligent Speed Adaptation project run by the NSW Centre for Road Safety, which was established last year.

Technology Review has an article on "the future of the web" which includes some good comments from Bjarne Stroustrup and Richard Stallman.
Richard Stallman - Main developer of the GNU/Linux system and founder of the Free Software Movement; Cambridge, MA

"No one can see the future, because it depends on you. But I see a danger in the Web today: doing your computing on servers running software you can't change or study, and entrusting your data to U.S. companies required to give it to Big Brother without even a search warrant. Don't risk this practice!"

Bjarne Stroustrup - Professor at Texas A&M University and designer of the C++ programming language; College Station, TX

"The total end of privacy. Governments, politicians, criminals, and friends will trawl through years of accumulated data (ours and what others collected) with unbelievably sophisticated tools. Obscurity and time passed will no longer be covers."

Out of control  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

AP has a remarkably doomerish look at a country spinning "out of control", pushing the "great unravelling" idea.

Midwestern levees are bursting. Polar bears are adrift. Gas prices are skyrocketing. Home values are abysmal. Air fares, college tuition and health care border on unaffordable. Wars without end rage in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terrorism. Horatio Alger, twist in your grave.

The can-do, bootstrap approach embedded in the American psyche is under assault. Eroding it is a dour powerlessness that is chipping away at the country's sturdy conviction that destiny can be commanded with sheer courage and perseverance.

The sense of helplessness is even reflected in this year's presidential election. Each contender offers a sense of order — and hope. Republican John McCain promises an experienced hand in a frightening time. Democrat Barack Obama promises bright and shiny change, and his large crowds believe his exhortation, "Yes, we can."

Even so, a battered public seems discouraged by the onslaught of dispiriting things. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll says a barrel-scraping 17 percent of people surveyed believe the country is moving in the right direction. That is the lowest reading since the survey began in 2003.

An ABC News-Washington Post survey put that figure at 14 percent, tying the low in more than three decades of taking soundings on the national mood. "It is pretty scary," said Charles Truxal, 64, a retired corporate manager in Rochester, Minn. "People are thinking things are going to get better, and they haven't been. And then you go hide in your basement because tornadoes are coming through. If you think about things, you have very little power to make it change."

Recent natural disasters around the world dwarf anything afflicting the U.S. Consider that more than 69,000 people died in the China earthquake, and that 78,000 were killed and 56,000 missing from the Myanmar cyclone.

Americans need do no more than check the weather, look in their wallets or turn on the news for their daily reality check on a world gone haywire. Floods engulf Midwestern river towns. Is it global warming, the gradual degradation of a planet's weather that man seems powerless to stop or just a freakish late-spring deluge?

It hardly matters to those in the path. Just ask the people of New Orleans who survived Hurricane Katrina. They are living in a city where, 1,000 days after the storm, entire neighborhoods remain abandoned, a national embarrassment that evokes disbelief from visitors.

Food is becoming scarcer and more expensive on a worldwide scale, due to increased consumption in growing countries such as China and India and rising fuel costs. That can-do solution to energy needs — turning corn into fuel — is sapping fields of plenty once devoted to crops that people need to eat. Shortages have sparked riots. In the U.S., rice prices tripled and some stores rationed the staple.

Residents of the nation's capital and its suburbs repeatedly lose power for extended periods as mere thunderstorms rumble through. In California, leaders warn people to use less water in the unrelenting drought.

Want to get away from it all? The weak U.S. dollar makes travel abroad forbiddingly expensive. To add insult to injury, some airlines now charge to check luggage.

Want to escape on the couch? A writers' strike halted favorite TV shows for half a season. The newspaper on the table may soon be a relic of the Internet age. Just as video stores are falling by the wayside as people get their movies online or in the mail. ...

Why the vulnerability? After all, this is the 21st century, not a more primitive past when little in life was assured. Surely people know how to fix problems now.

Maybe. And maybe this is what the 21st century will be about — a great unraveling of some things long taken for granted.

AP also reports that the floods in the US mid-west will result in further food price inflation - Record corn prices mean more expensive meat, dairy. The FT has an article in a similar vein (via Cryptogon which has its usual spin on the subject).
Raging Midwest floodwaters that swallowed crops and sent corn and soybean prices soaring are about to give consumers more grief at the grocery store.

In the latest bout of food inflation, beef, pork, poultry and even eggs, cheese and milk are expected to get more expensive as livestock owners go out of business or are forced to slaughter more cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens to cope with rocketing costs for corn-based animal feed.

The floods engulfed an estimated 2 million or more acres of corn and soybean fields in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and other key growing states, sending world grain prices skyward on fears of a substantially smaller corn crop. The government will give a partial idea of how many corn acres were lost before the end of the month, but experts say the trickle-down effect could be more dramatic later this year, affecting everything from Thanksgiving turkeys to Christmas hams.

Rod Brenneman, president and chief executive of Seaboard Foods, a pork supplier in Sawnee Mission, Kan. that produces 4 million hogs a year, said high corn costs were already forcing producers in his industry to cut back on the number of animals they raise. “There’s definitely liquidation of livestock happening,” and that will cause meat prices to rise later this year and into 2009, said Brenneman, who is also the vice chairman of the American Meat Institute.

Brenneman’s cost for feeding a single hog has shot up $30 in the past year because of record-high prices for corn and soybeans, the main ingredients in animal feed. Passing that increase on to consumers would tack an extra 15 cents per pound onto a pork chop.

It’s a similar story for U.S. beef producers, who now spend a whopping 60-70 percent of their production costs on animal feed and are seeing that number rise daily as corn prices hover near an unprecedented $8 a bushel, up from about $4 a year ago. “This is not sustainable. The cattle industry is going to have to get smaller,” said James Herring, president and CEO of Amarillo, Tex.-based Friona Industries, which buys 20 million bushels of corn each year to feed 550,000 cattle.

Corn’s prices were already rising before the floods, driven up 80 percent over the past year as developing countries like China and India scramble for grains to feed people and livestock. U.S. production of ethanol, an alternative fuel that can be made with corn, has also pushed prices higher, prompting livestock owners to lobby Washington to roll back ethanol mandates. Before the floods, corn farmers were enjoying record profits selling the grain to feed animals and for use in cereals and as a sweetener in soda and candy. But a sharply smaller corn crop could wipe out those gains.

In Iowa, the No. 1 U.S. corn grower, floods inundated about 9 percent of corn crops, representing about 1.2 million acres — almost 1.5 percent of the country’s anticipated harvest. In Indiana, another 9 percent of corn and soybean crops were flooded, potentially costing farmers up to $840 million in lost earnings, Indiana Agriculture Director Andy Miller said.

Apparently heavy soil erosion has also occurred in the region.
Soil erosion has caused substantial damage to Iowa’s farm fields hit hard by heavy rain and flooding this spring, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said after touring two areas of the state. Heavy rains this spring came when the soil was most vulnerable to erosion - when the soil has been tilled for planting, but before plants’ root systems grow to hold it in place, he said. It isn’t known yet how much damage was done to soil conservation structures, Northey said, but he expects the state Legislature will need to provide a fresh infusion of money to repair the damage. has a great set of images of the floods.

Grist reports that "Midwest woes a boon to fertilizer companies" in "Flood money".
The recent Midwestern floods have caused all manner of misery: Burst levies, lost homes, ruined crops, higher food prices, a gusher of agrichemicals and god know what else flowing into streams. One way to soothe the sting is to own shares in giant fertilizer companies like Potash Corp. of Saskatewan and Mosaic. These companies have seen their share prices jump over the past week.

Investors may be bidding them up because the floods represent a sales opportunity. To maximize yield on what's left of the 2008 corn crop, farmers will be scrambling to reapply fertilizer to make up for what's run off and evaporated due to soggy conditions.

How much will they be laying on? I asked John Sawyer, an Iowa State University agronomist who works with farmers as an extension agent. He said it's too early to tell, because farmers are still assessing their fields to figure out what can be salvaged. He added that in salvageable fields, farmers will likely be applying about 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre. Before planting, farmers typically 150 and 170 pounds per acre. So these reapplications will likely represent a significant income boost to the fertilizer giants -- and yet another source of nutrients to leach into streams, clear down to the Mississippi.

Grist reports that extreme weather events are likely to become more common as global warming progresses - The Weather Aboveground.
North America will continue to experience more heat waves, intense rains, increased drought, and stronger hurricanes due to the worsening effects of climate change, says a new report from the U.S. federal government. The report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program is being billed as the first comprehensive federal review of climate change's effects on weather extremes in North America.

The gist: People who love watching Xtreme Weather shows will not be disappointed. "This report addresses one of the most frequently asked questions about global warming: what will happen to weather and climate extremes?" said Tom Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "This synthesis ... concludes that we are now witnessing and will increasingly experience more extreme weather and climate events."

And I'll close this little set of weather related articles with Crikey's Antidotes to Liberal climate quackery.
When Greg Hunt declares that the Coalition is behind an emissions trading scheme, he’s either lying or he’s totally out of touch with his colleagues.

If the latter, today’s Australian must be humiliating for him. With Hunt having done The 7.30 Report and other media overnight and this morning stressing that not only was the Coalition supporting a trading scheme but they hadn’t even decided if transport should be in or out, The Oz describes in gory details how Hunt’s colleagues want to significantly delay and weaken emissions trading.

It is clear that, regardless of the views of Malcolm Turnbull and Hunt, the Coalition has prepared a litany of reasons for it to back away from an emissions trading scheme. 2010 is too soon. We’ll send jobs offshore. Australia can’t solve climate change by itself. Petrol costs too much to include.

So to make life easier, Crikey is preparing a cut-out-and-keep guide to why the Coalition is hopelessly wrong. Next time you find yourself stuck at a party with a greenhouse denialist, or a Coalition MP pays a visit, or you find yourself on the bus next to Andrew Bolt, whip out this guide and have it ready for their specious arguments.

Australia’s emissions are tiny. We shouldn’t have an emissions trading scheme before other countries.

1. So what? An emissions trading scheme is good economics regardless of whether other countries do it. Reducing carbon emissions is not some act of generosity. Carbon is inflicting damage on our environment and our economies. Currently we are not paying the cost of that damage, and therefore distorting our investment, consumption and production decisions. We apply the principle of "polluter pays" elsewhere in the economy -- why not in relation to carbon?
2. Major trading partners like Europe and New Zealand have emissions trading schemes already.
3. Our emissions might be small in total but we are one of the highest per-capita emitters and major exporter of carbon-intense coal.

2010 is too soon. We need to wait.

1. Any further delay creates more uncertainty and sovereign risk for business and investors.
2. Because of the Coalition’s flatearther-like refusal to acknowledge global warming, we’ve already waited too long. The only scientifically credible dispute over global warming now is whether we’ll be totally stuffed in thirty years or fifty years. Every time the evidence is re-considered, the scenarios get worse. We don’t have time to wait.
3. As Michael Hitchens of the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network says, there’s no reason why the process of establishing an emissions trading scheme should take longer than the Government’s current timetable.
4. If the economy is not in prime position to absorb the transition costs of a trading scheme now, when will it be? We have low unemployment, businesses screaming for more workers and a struggle to contain inflation. If there are economic impacts, when would be a better time?

A trading scheme will cause jobs in energy-intensive industries to "leak" jobs offshore.

1. No it won’t. Building new facilities (e.g. an aluminium smelter) in non-trading countries requires massive investment, confidence in factors like political stability, and certainty that the destination country won’t impose a trading scheme or carbon tax for years.
2. It leaking does occur, moving energy-intensive facilities to other countries might yield environmental benefits, given Australia’s reliance on carbon-intense coal for electricity generation.
3. Energy-intensive industries form only a small part of the economy -- less than 5% of jobs.
4. Given the current skills shortage, other sectors would gratefully absorb any displaced workers.

Transport should not be included -- it is better to regulate greater transport efficiency than make people pay more for fuel, because they can’t control their fuel usage.

1. Price signals are nearly always more efficient -- and that means cheaper -- than regulation. Regulation is the command economy method of economic reform that doesn’t give consumers a choice about what they do but generates significant inefficiencies and higher costs for consumers and producers.
2. Regulating for higher motor vehicle fuel efficiency won’t compel people to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles in the absence of incentives to do so. Fuel efficiency is much higher in countries with higher fuel costs than in the US and Australia.
3. People can control their fuel usage if they have access to alternate means of transport. Our urban mass transit systems are already seeing significant increases in patronage. Greater investment in mass transit will provide more alternatives to car use.
4. Omitting transport, or any other energy-intensive sector, will just mean a higher cost across all other sectors. There’s no free lunch -- if the scheme is to be effective we have to pay one way or another.

But China and India aren’t doing anything.

1. We’ve benefited from 200 years of carbon production. We have a moral obligation to acknowledge this, especially when we can afford to do it.
2. The developed world accounts for 80% of carbon emissions. Our emissions trading scheme will strengthen our hand to argue that developing countries should join us in curbing carbon emissions. But waiting for China and India to do something about emissions will mean nothing will ever be done.

New technologies like geosequestration will fix everything.

1. This is pipedream stuff. Assuming a new technology would somehow actually address carbon emissions (and geosequestration definitely will not), by the time it is developed, proven and implemented across the world economy it’ll be 2030 and we may be facing nightmare climate change scenarios.
2. There's a wide range of existing renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies that can be a large part of the solution, just waiting to be deployed here in Australia, as they are now being deployed in many parts of the world. But these won’t work in the absence of price signals to use them.

The Significance of the Bonga Attack In Nigeria  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Jeff Vail has an interesting look at the significance of the newly emerging capability of MEND to hit offshore oil platforms in Nigeria, which they recently demonstrated by attacking Shell's Bonga platform, 120km off the coast (also at The Oil Drum).

Overnight on June 19th, militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) struck Shell’s offshore Bonga facility, resulting in Shell declaring force majeure for deliveries of 225,000 barrels per day in June and July. Bonga, the first and largest Nigerian offshore facility, is 120km offshore. Then, on June 20th, militants destroyed a key Chevron pipeline near Escravos, Nigeria, forcing Chevron to shut-in and declare force majeure on 120,000 barrels per day. This article will analyze the significance of the Bonga attack in light of Nigeria's efforts to grow its offshore oil production.

What is at Stake?

This recent attack is particularly troubling in Nigeria, where a February, 2006 Citigroup report noted that "clearly most of the (oil production) growth near-term looks to be in the Nigerian deepwater and as such should be less subject to current disruptions." While offshore production currently only accounts for 16% of Nigeria’s oil production, it is expected to account for 90% of future growth. MEND has already demonstrated its capability to shut in significant portions of Nigeria’s onshore oil production, and now it is threatening to re-attack offshore facilities, urging expatriate workers to abandon them immediately. Significantly, Nigeria’s onshore production is already mature, and government hopes of raising total production to 4 million barrels per day are entirely dependent on the success of the offshore sector. If MEND can continue to interrupt offshore production, the prospects for any increase in production from Nigeria look dim. The situation in Nigeria is particularly important as Nigeria is one of the few states with the potential to significantly increase both production and exports. The megaproject list on WikiPedia shows 345,000 bpd of offshore production set to come online in 2008 (Agbami field, Oso field); 220,000 bpd of offshore production in 2009 (Akpo field, Oyo field); 220,000 bpd of offshore production in 2010 (Bonga North, Bonga Ullage fields); 285,000 bpd of offshore production in 2011 (Bosi, Ukot, Usan fields); 250,000 pbd of offshore production in 2012 (Bonga SW, Nsiko fields); and 150,000 bpd of offshore production in 2013 (Egina field).

That’s 1.25 million barrels per day of new offshore production planned in the next 6 years. None of it was previously considered vulnerable to attack. Now it all appears to be within the demonstrated reach of MEND.

MEND: Potential for Innovation & Improved Capabilities

This most recent offshore attack also highlights significant development in MEND’s capabilities. Comments as early as 2006 noted that MEND’s offshore capabilities are continuously improving, and that facilities as far as 50-60 km offshore may be at risk. Bonga is twice that far offshore, at 120km.

I predicted a year ago that MEND would increasingly focus on Nigeria’s offshore facilities for two reasons: to differentiate their ideologically-grounded struggle from the privateers and criminal bunkering that is also interrupting Nigerian production; and as a result of the innovation that naturally results from their decentralized structure. While this most recent attack demonstrates MEND’s ability to operate in the deepwater environment, it also shows significant room for improvement. MEND’s press release stated that their goal was to gain access to and destroy the facility's main control room, but that they were unable to do so. Their failure, however, most likely provided MEND with the specifics of what capabilities, training, and equipment they will need to succeed in the future, suggesting that the improvements in capability demonstrated in this attack are part of a larger cycle of capability improvements (an OODA Loop).

Indian Boom Coming To An End ?  

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Glenn Dyer at Crikey is wondering if one of our fastest growing export markets is about to grind to a halt - Why we might not be able to count on the Indian economy.

The wheels are falling off the Indian economic boom as high oil prices and food costs send inflation soaring and interest rates higher.

India is now the poorest performing of the quartet of emerging economies called the BRICs: Brazil, Russia, India and China. The surge in Indian inflation and the jump in interest rates is a reminder to those in Australia who uncritically believe in the resources boom: it's not going to continue without a few hiccups.

Indian inflation jumped above 11% in the first week of this month to a 10-year high, and overnight the Reserve Bank of India lifted its key interest rate for a second time in two weeks to 8.50%, the highest level in six years. It also lifted the reserve asset ratio to try and cut bank lending: a step similar to what China has been doing

Two weeks ago the Indian Government took tentative steps towards lifting retail costs of oil and other fuels by allowing price rises because the country's state-owned oil companies were in danger of being bankrupted by the soaring cost of oil and the fixed retail price for its products.

Australian commentators often lump India with China as they argue for the continuation of our resources boom. Supporters point to India's rapidly growing middle class, politicians and the emergence of world scale companies in steel, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, computer services and the film industry: and it has seen rapid growth and for Australia, considerable growth in exports, cultural ties and economic and political links.

Back in 1999 India had a 1.7% share of our exports; last year that had risen to 5.2% with the fastest growth rate in those eight years of 24.7% a year. Since 2003 the Indian economy has grown at an average 8.8% a year, second only to India, hence the enthusiasm for the country in the West.

Many private analysts and those in government see further great gains to be made, but seemingly ignore the rapid emergence of financial pressures that threaten to halt the boom in a very traditional Indian fashion.

India has national elections early next year and the central Government has been trying to position itself ahead of those with some grandiose spending plans on debt relief for poor people and other aid packages. Food prices have soared, along with oil costs to the point where the Indian Government has banned the export of some types of rice, stopped futures trading in some commodities, and threatened to restrict trading in others.

The worldwide surge in steel prices, which is now accelerating in the wake of the huge iron ore and coking coal settlements Australian suppliers are winning in China, Japan and South Korea. The higher cost of coking coal is a big worry for China as is the soaring domestic cost of steel prices.

But the sharp rise in oil prices is India's biggest problem: it imports 70% of its annual consumption and the higher cost is boosting inflation. The Indian rupee has lost more than 8% in value this year and the latest rate rise won't help because foreign investors have been selling Indian shares.

The local stockmarket has fallen 30% in the past couple of months as the enthusiasts for the Indian story get a dose of reality.

Low Cost CSP  

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The Boston Herald has a report on some MIT students making low cost solar thermal dishes. Whether or not they can outcompete Ausra and co is another question, but it shows how easy it is to put together this sort of technology.

Ahrens, Ritter and the other people who helped create the solar-powered dish that harnessed the sunlight that eventually burned the wood say they’ve just created the world’s most cost-efficient solar power system. They also say these dishes may revolutionize global energy production. “You can stick these things wherever there is a piece of sunlight, and power a home or an industrial plant,” said Ahrens, who just received his master’s degree from MIT.

Since January, he’s been working with Ritter, an Olin College student; Micah Sze, a recent graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management; University of California-Berkeley graduate and Broad Institute engineer Eva Markiewicz and MIT materials science student Anna Bershteyn.

Together, they built a 12-foot wide solar panel by piecing together lightweight aluminum tubes to make the frame. Inside, they arranged a series of mirrors and then attached a water-filled coil at the bottom of the frame. When the frame is properly positioned, the mirrors will direct concentrated sunlight toward the coil.

As the water heats up, it is converted to steam, and that steam, the creators say, can be used to generate electricity to heat and cool homes and power machines. They now say its design is so simple, it can be built and placed just about anywhere the sun shines. “We made it by hand and transported the parts by car or by bike,” Ritter said.

The crew spent about $5,000 to build the dish, and according to MIT Sloan School of Management lecturer David Pelly, it is the cheapest way he’s seen to harness that much sun power. “I’ve looked for years at a variety of solar approaches, and this is the cheapest I’ve seen,” he said.

Ahrens, Ritter and the others are now packing up and moving to California, where they plan to mass-produce the dishes, probably for less than it cost to build the first one.

Prices Go Up, Demand Falls  

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The ABC reports that the rising price of fuel is having an impact on demand - Oil imports fall as drivers change road behaviour. Demand clearly isn't as inelastic as some believe.

The rising cost of fuel is forcing drivers to find more fuel-efficient modes of transport or go off the road altogether, according to the latest petroleum import figures. The fall in petroleum imports is paralleled by other trends, such as growing demand for smaller vehicles, hybrids and gas-powered engines, and growing numbers opting to catch or train or take a bus.

The figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that the rising cost of motoring is forcing people to drive less and use more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Petroleum imports in May were 28 per cent lower than a year earlier, casting doubt on the long-held view that Australians are unable to kick their "addiction" to fuel-guzzling cars. The broad numbers include a category that breaks down petroleum imports by litres, to control for price effects.

Economist Craig James from CommSec told ABC Radio's PM program the latest falls are dramatic, even though oil imports have been slowing for six months. "What we saw in May is that the amount of petroleum that we've imported is 28 per cent lower than what it was a year ago," he said. "This is the biggest fall that we've seen in over four years, and it certainly shows that the higher prices are having an impact on people's behaviours."

He said the figures disabuse people of the notion that demand for petrol was non-elastic and that people kept on demanding petrol no matter what the price. He said that confirms a basic rule of economics; that prices influence behaviour. ...

He says in a world choking on fossil fuel pollution, reducing vehicle use is not necessarily a bad thing. "The simple fact is that the world is running out of oil. We're trying to develop alternatives, whether it's bio-fuels, whether it's hybrid vehicles or the like," he said. "Prices are going to rise over time and people have to adjust to it.

"If you have the Government providing incentives, giving money back through excise or whatever it happened to be, that might be nice in the short term but over time we are going to be paying more for our petrol and we need to be adapting to those higher prices."

The ABC also reports that there is a move to more efficient transport mechanisms for goods - Rail, sea urged to replace road freight.
The freight industry is being urged to move away from road transport because of spiralling fuel prices. An International Cargo Handing Coordination Association meeting in Adelaide has been told the use of trucks for freight movement cannot be sustained.

Civil engineer and economist Scott Elaurant says, unless the world cuts its oil consumption by six per cent by 2012, demand will exceed supply. He says it could be possible to reduce demand for oil by focusing on sea and rail as freight options.

"With reasonable reliability that the supply isn't going to go up, we need to do things to bring the demand down," he said. "If we succeed in that then there's no reason the price to rise necessarily in real terms very much further than it has."

Adelaide-Darwin rail operator FreightLink says demand for its service is rising and it will start running a sixth weekly rail service across Australia from this week.

McKinsey On The economics of solar power  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The latest McKinsey Quarterly has an interesting look at the economics and growth rates of solar PV production - The economics of solar power. Note the excellent graphic showing when PV will reach grid parity in different regions.

A new era for solar power is approaching. Long derided as uneconomic, it is gaining ground as technologies improve and the cost of traditional energy sources rises. Within three to seven years, unsubsidized solar power could cost no more to end customers in many markets, such as California and Italy, than electricity generated by fossil fuels or by renewable alternatives to solar. By 2020, global installed solar capacity could be 20 to 40 times its level today.

But make no mistake, the sector is still in its infancy. Even if all of the forecast growth occurs, solar energy will represent only about 3 to 6 percent of installed electricity generation capacity, or 1.5 to 3 percent of output in 2020. While solar power can certainly help to satisfy the desire for more electricity and lower carbon emissions, it is just one piece of the puzzle. ...

Even in the most favorable regions, solar power is still a few years away from true “grid parity”—the point when the price of solar electricity is on par with that of conventional sources of electricity on the power grid. The time frame is considerably longer in countries such as China and India, whose electricity needs will require large amounts of new generating capacity in the years ahead and whose cheap power from coal makes grid parity a more elusive goal. ...

Government subsidies have played a prominent role in the growth of solar power. Producers of renewable energy in the United States receive tax credits, for example, and Germany requires electricity distributors to pay above-market rates for electricity generated from renewable sources. Without such policies, the high cost of generating solar power would prevent it from competing with electricity from traditional fossil-fuel sources in most regions.

But the sector’s economics are changing. Over the last two decades, the cost of manufacturing and installing a photovoltaic solar-power system has decreased by about 20 percent with every doubling of installed capacity. The cost of generating electricity from conventional sources, by contrast, has been rising along with the price of natural gas, which heavily influences electricity prices in regions that have large numbers of gas-fired power plants. These regions include California, the Northeast, and Texas (in the United States), as well as Italy, Japan, and Spain.

As a result, solar power has been creeping toward cost competitiveness in some areas. California, for example, combines abundant sunshine with retail electricity prices that, partly as a result of the state’s policies, are among the highest in the United States—up to 36 cents per kilowatt-hour for residential users. Unsubsidized solar power costs 36 cents per kilowatt-hour. Support from the California Solar Initiative2 cuts the price customers pay to 27 cents. Rising natural-gas prices, state regulations aiming to limit greenhouse gas emissions, and the need to build more power plants to keep up with growing demand could push the cost of conventional electricity higher.

During the next three to seven years, solar energy’s unsubsidized cost to end customers should equal the cost of conventional electricity in parts of the United States (California and the Southwest) and in Italy, Japan, and Spain. These markets have in common relatively strong solar radiation (or insolation), high electricity prices, and supportive regulatory regimes that stimulate the solar-capacity growth needed to drive further cost reductions. These conditions set in motion a virtuous cycle: growing demand for solar power creates more opportunities for companies to reduce production costs by improving solar-cell designs and manufacturing processes, to introduce new solar technologies, and to enjoy lower prices from raw-material and component suppliers competing for market share.

The Future Of Qantas And Virgin Blue  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Cameron Leckie of ASPO Australia has a post at TOD ANZ looking at the financial future for Australian air carriers Qantas and Virgin Blue under a variety of scenarios - A Tale of Profit and Loss - The Future of Air Travel – Part 2.

This post will examine in some detail Australia’s two largest airlines with the aim to establish how long they will remain profitable in an era of high oil prices. The approach taken is to develop growth figures across a number of categories based on the airlines historical data. The data has been obtained from the financial reports of both airlines. The time frame that has been used is from FY 2003/04 through to 2006/07. The historical growth rates will then be projected forward until 2018. After developing the base case, a number of differing scenarios will be developed that will provide an indication of how long we can expect the airlines to remain profitable. ...

The scenarios that will be used are described below:

* Scenario one. Revenue, fuel costs and capacity growth continues to grow at historical rates whilst on-fuel costs reduce.
* Scenario two. Revenue and fuel costs continues to grow at historical rates (calculated according to provided capacity), whilst non-fuel costs and capacity reduce.
* Scenario three. Fuel costs continues to grow at historical rates (calculated according to provided capacity) whilst revenue, non-fuel costs and capacity reduce.
* Scenario four. Fuel costs remain constant relative to capacity whilst revenue, non-fuel costs and capacity reduce.
* Scenario five. Fuel costs remain constant relative to capacity whilst revenue, non-fuel costs and capacity increase at historical rates.

2% per annum has been used as the figure declining costs, capacity growth and revenue. Obviously, higher or lower figures will result in changes to the predictions developed.

Some of these scenario’s assume that the airlines can increase revenue and reduce non fuel operating costs in an era of high oil prices. Oil prices have been negatively impacting airlines for some years now. For example in the QANTAS annual report of 2005 it stated that ‘Qantas’ greatest challenge remains the cost of fuel, which we believe will stay at the current high levels. As a result airlines for a number of years have been reducing costs. The easy cost saving options have already implemented, meaning that to further reduce costs will be increasingly difficult. The airlines will no doubt continue to raise fuel surcharges in an effort to increase revenue. Unfortunately for the airlines, each fare increase will result in fewer passengers, meaning that their Revenue Seat Factor or Load factor will fall, leading to further capacity reduction. ...

This analysis provides some very worrying findings. Both of Australia’s major airlines could become unprofitable within a couple of years if current trends continue and unviable at some point shortly after that. There is some hope that a reduction in capacity and non-fuel operating costs with a steadying of fuel costs may allow the airlines to remain profitable, but with peak exports likely past and peak oil in the not to distant future, this is a slim hope.

From a risk management perspective, the collapse of airlines would have a major negative impact on the Australia economy. Based on this analysis, it is almost certain that the airlines will collapse, it is only a matter of time unless fuel prices are reduced, and quickly, to a more manageable level over the long term. Declining exports and discoveries whilst demand continues to increase, means that it is unlikely that this will occur. The net result is that Australia faces an extreme level of risk.

With so much at stake, it would be reasonable to expect that our nation’s leaders would be doing everything in their power to prepare the nation for a new age of higher oil prices. Over recent weeks, there has been much discussion by the major political parties on issues such as FuelWatch6 and reducing either the GST or excise on petrol, but very little on practical methods of reducing our dependence on oil. I will leave it to you to decide how well we are being served by our leaders on an issue of such vital importance to the future of our nation.


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