You are browsing the archive for Fossil Fuels.

Michael Klare: Have the Obits for Peak Oil Come Too Soon?

7:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Peak Oil chart graffiti

Is Peak Oil a myth? Or more important than ever?

So here we are in a record-breaking “polar vortex” with Florida’s Everglades going on a freeze watch and Minnesota registering wind chills of -60 degrees Fahrenheit.  This most extreme of weather systems, which should warm the hearts of climate deniers, may in fact turn out to be climate-change related (thanks to a melting Arctic warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet).  Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Australia has been experiencing a staggering heat wave, having just emerged from a year that included the hottest day, week, month, and overall average on record for that continent.

Still, give the climate deniers their due.  They have long claimed that climate science is, at best, a mistake-prone activity.  It’s a point with which Professor Steven Sherwood concurs.  He happens to be the lead author of a study that just appeared in the journal Nature, focused on future cloud cover and climate change.  It concluded that the planet will heat up faster than expected, minimally rising by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100 (which, of course, would spell unimaginable catastrophe).  Here’s his way of giving the deniers their due: “Climate skeptics like to criticize climate models for getting things wrong, and we are the first to admit they are not perfect, but what we are finding is that the mistakes are being made by those models which predict less warming, not those that predict more.”

Meanwhile, the year just past was generally a humdrum one in the new age of climate change.  Though final results won’t be in until March, it will be among the top ten warmest years since temperatures were first recorded, falling somewhere between fourth and seventh.  (By the way, the 10 hottest years have all occurred since 1998, nine in the last decade).  For the first time in history, the planet briefly and ominously topped 400 parts per million of atmospheric CO2; oceans grew more acidic; droughts and wildfires strengthened; storms raged, though only one reached epic proportions, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines; Arctic summer sea ice had a major melt (significantly above twentieth century levels, but less than in 2012); climate change media coverage rose modestly for the first time in years; and one of the climate-denial movement’s most beloved supports — the supposed “warming pause” the planet was undergoing — went down the drain.

Meanwhile, predictions are starting to come in suggesting that — if an El Niño phenomenon develops in the Pacific Ocean, as some scientists believe — 2014 could be one for the record books.

As the year begins, we know more about what’s in our future with somewhat greater certainty and, generally speaking, as record amounts of carbon dioxide continue to pour into the atmosphere, we’re doing remarkably little about it.  To adapt that classic example of free speech limits, imagine that a vast crew of scientists is now continually yelling “Fire!” in the global movie theater and, as a result, more pyromaniacs with blowtorches are arriving all the time.  After all, of those doing nothing about climate change, no one is doing more of it than the giant oil companies and the nations — from Saudi Arabia to Russia — that are in essence giant oil companies.

As Michael Klare indicates in his latest post, the urge of the oil giants and their supporters to claim that there are no limits on the future of oil and natural gas extraction is, to say the least, chilling on a heating planet.  They seem intent on giving the phrase “the sky’s the limit” grim new meaning.  Fortunately, as our resident energy expert points out, they may be in for a surprise or two themselves down the road. Tom

Peak Oil Is Dead
Long Live Peak Oil!
By Michael T. Klare

Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” — the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline — was thoroughly discredited.  The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.

As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider.  Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”

Not so fast, though.  The present round of eulogies brings to mind the Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let’s take a careful look at these assertions.  Fortunately, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that — and the results were unexpected.  While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated.  The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”

The IEA’s take on this subject is especially noteworthy because its assertion only a year earlier that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s number one oil producer sparked the “peak oil is dead” deluge in the first place.  Writing in the 2012 edition of its World Energy Outlook, the agency claimed not only that “the United States is projected to become the largest global oil producer” by around 2020, but also that with U.S. shale production and Canadian tar sands coming online, “North America becomes a net oil exporter around 2030.”

That November 2012 report highlighted the use of advanced production technologies — notably horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) — to extract oil and natural gas from once inaccessible rock, especially shale.  It also covered the accelerating exploitation of Canada’s bitumen (tar sands or oil sands), another resource previously considered too forbidding to be economical to develop.  With the output of these and other “unconventional” fuels set to explode in the years ahead, the report then suggested, the long awaited peak of world oil production could be pushed far into the future.

The release of the 2012 edition of World Energy Outlook triggered a global frenzy of speculative reporting, much of it announcing a new era of American energy abundance. “Saudi America” was the headline over one such hosanna in the Wall Street Journal.  Citing the new IEA study, that paper heralded a coming “U.S. energy boom” driven by “technological innovation and risk-taking funded by private capital.”  From then on, American energy analysts spoke rapturously of the capabilities of a set of new extractive technologies, especially fracking, to unlock oil and natural gas from hitherto inaccessible shale formations.  “This is a real energy revolution,” the Journal crowed.

But that was then. The most recent edition of World Energy Outlook, published this past November, was a lot more circumspect.  Yes, shale oil, tar sands, and other unconventional fuels will add to global supplies in the years ahead, and, yes, technology will help prolong the life of petroleum.  Nonetheless, it’s easy to forget that we are also witnessing the wholesale depletion of the world’s existing oil fields and so all these increases in shale output must be balanced against declines in conventional production.  Under ideal circumstances — high levels of investment, continuing technological progress, adequate demand and prices — it might be possible to avert an imminent peak in worldwide production, but as the latest IEA report makes clear, there is no guarantee whatsoever that this will occur.

Inching Toward the Peak

Before plunging deeper into the IEA’s assessment, let’s take a quick look at peak oil theory itself.

Read the rest of this entry →

Michael Klare: Extreme Energy Means an Extreme Planet

6:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Earth

(Photo: tonynetone/flickr)

 

If you want a particularly hard-headed assessment of how successfully Barack Obama, the most vulnerable president in memory, is pursuing his reelection campaign, don’t bother to check the polls; just read “Bibi” Netanyahu’s U.N. speech of last week.  The Israeli Prime Minister had, until then, all but campaigned for Mitt Romney, his old Boston Consulting Group pal, who claims Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus.”

Suddenly, he essentially switched sides.  Having pounded the Obama administration for weeks on its Iran nuclear policy and its need to set “red lines” before the election, having implicitly threatened an Israeli air force “October surprise,” he turned out to have a September surprise of his own. He hoisted a bizarre and confusing drawing of a cartoon bomb in front of the General Assembly and essentially announced that his red-line demands had just pinked-out, and that 2013 was time enough to worry about red-lining Iran.  (“By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage,” he explained.)

Though it’s not been treated this way, this calculated change of geopolitical heart, undoubtedly driven by a faltering Romney campaign and the fear of totally alienating an Obama heading into a second term, was also an election story about energy.  After all, whatever the talk about future U.S. “energy independence,” what happens to Middle Eastern oil is crucial to the price at the gas station nearest you (which has been on the rise all fall).  So when Netanyahu ratchets down the threats to Iran (that is, the promise of even greater chaos in the oil heartlands of the planet), he potentially does the same with oil prices.  If the Saudis suddenly decide to pump more oil into the global economy and so depress the price of oil — assumedly to similar effect before November 6th — you get another vote for the reality of Obama’s reelection.

Consider it the strangest election-season alliance of convenience around: Obama, Netanyahu, and Saudi King Abdullah.  And to this there’s a grim corollary, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left, makes clear today.  Despite a spate of proclamations that North America is heading for future energy independence, you can count on one thing energy-wise: presidential candidates in the years to come aren’t going to be worrying about the Canadian prime minister or the Brazilian president in the way they’ll continue to fret about the Israelis, Saudis, and Iranians. Tom

The New “Golden Age of Oil” That Wasn’t
Forecasts of Abundance Collide with Planetary Realities
By Michael T. Klare
Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Bill McKibben, The Great American Carbon Bomb

6:45 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

These days, even ostriches suffer from heat waves.  More than 1,000 of them reportedly died from overheating on South African farms during a 2010 drought.  As for American ostriches, the human variety anyway, at the moment it should be increasingly hard for them to avoid extreme-weather news. After all, whether you’re in sweltering heat, staggering drought, a record fire season, or a massive flood zone, most of us are living through weird weather this year.  And if you’re one of the lucky few not in an extreme-weather district of the USA, you still won’t have a problem running across hair-raising weather stories, ranging from the possible loss of one out of every ten species on this planet by century’s end to the increasing inability of the oceans to soak up more atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Then, of course, there are those other headlines.  Here’s a typical one: “As Water Rises, Florida Officials Sit on Their Hands” (a former member of the just abolished Florida Energy and Climate Commission points out that, thanks to Republican governor Rick Scott and the legislature in the part of the country most vulnerable to rising sea levels, “there is no state entity addressing climate change and its impact”).  And here’s another: “Economy Keeps Global Warming on the Back Burner for 2012” (American climate-change “skeptics” are celebrating because “the tide of the debate — at least politically — has turned in their favor” and “political experts say that… concerns over global warming won’t carry much weight in the 2012 election”).   And then there are the polls indicating Americans are confused about the unanimity of the scientific consensus on climate change, surprisingly dismissive of global-warming dangers, worry less about it than they did a decade ago, and of major environmental issues, worry least about it.

It’s true, of course, that no weird-weather incident you experience can definitively be tied to climate change and other factors are involved.  Still, are we a nation of overheating ostriches?  It’s a reasonable enough conclusion, and in a sense, not so surprising.  After all, how does anyone react upon discovering that his or her way of life is the crucial problem, that fossil fuels, which keep our civilization powered up and to which our existence is tethered, are playing havoc with the planet?

TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben, author most recently of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, is a man deeply committed to transforming us from climate-change ostriches to climate-change eagles.  Perhaps it’s time, he suggests, for the environmental movement to get one heck of a lot blunter. Tom

*****

Will North America Be the New Middle East?
It’s Yes or No For a Climate-Killing Oil Pipeline — and Obama Gets to Make the Call

By Bill McKibben

The climate problem has moved from the abstract to the very real in the last 18 months.  Instead of charts and graphs about what will happen someday, we’ve got real-time video: first Russia burning, then Texas and Arizona on fire.  First Pakistan suffered a deluge, then Queensland, Australia, went underwater, and this spring and summer, it’s the Midwest that’s flooding at historic levels.

The year 2010 saw the lowest volume of Arctic ice since scientists started to measure, more rainfall on land than any year in recorded history, and the lowest barometric pressure ever registered in the continental United States.  Measured on a planetary scale, 2010 tied 2005 as the warmest year in history.  Jeff Masters, probably the world’s most widely read meteorologist, calculated that the year featured the most extreme weather since at least 1816, when a giant volcano blew its top.

Since we’re the volcano now, and likely to keep blowing, here’s his prognosis: “The ever-increasing amounts of heat-trapping gases humans are emitting into the air put tremendous pressure on the climate system to shift to a new, radically different, warmer state, and the extreme weather of 2010-2011 suggests that the transition is already well underway.”

There’s another shift, too, and that’s in the response from climate-change activists. For the first two decades of the global-warming era, the suggested solutions to the problem had been as abstract as the science that went with it: complicated schemes like the Kyoto Protocol, or the cap-and-trade agreement that died in Congress in 2010.  These were attempts to solve the problem of climate change via complicated backstage maneuvers and manipulations of prices or regulations.  They failed in large part because the fossil-fuel industry managed, at every turn, to dilute or defang them.

Clearly the current Congress is in no mood for real regulation, so — for the moment anyway — the complicated planning is being replaced by a simpler rallying cry. When it comes to coal, oil, and natural gas, the new mantra of activists is simple, straightforward, and hard to defang: Keep it in the ground!

Two weeks ago, for instance, a few veteran environmentalists, myself included, issued a call for protest against Canada’s plans to massively expand oil imports from the tar sands regions of Alberta.  We set up a new website, tarsandsaction.org, and judging from the early response, it could result in the largest civil disobedience actions in the climate-change movement’s history on this continent, as hundreds, possibly thousands, of concerned activists converge on the White House in August. They’ll risk arrest to demand something simple and concrete from President Obama: that he refuse to grant a license for Keystone XL, a new pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico that would vastly increase the flow of tar sands oil through the U.S., ensuring that the exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands will only increase.

Forget the abstract and consider the down-and-dirty instead. You can undoubtedly guess some of the reasons for opposition to such a pipeline.  It’s wrecking native lands in Canada, and potential spills from that pipeline could pollute some of the most important ranchlands and aquifers in America. (Last week’s Yellowstone River spill was seen by many as a sign of what to expect.)

There’s an even bigger reason to oppose the pipeline, one that should be on the minds of even those of us who live thousands of miles away: Alberta’s tar sands are the continent’s biggest carbon bomb.  Indeed, they’re the second largest pool of carbon on planet Earth, following only Saudi Arabia’s slowly dwindling oilfields.

If you could burn all the oil in those tar sands, you’d run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would mean if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature. It won’t happen overnight, thank God, but according to the planet’s most important climatologist, James Hansen, burning even a substantial portion of that oil would mean it was “essentially game over” for the climate of this planet.

Halting that pipeline wouldn’t solve all tar sands problems.  The Canadians will keep trying to get it out to market, but it would definitely ensure that more of that oil will stay in the ground longer and that, at least, would be a start.  Even better, the politics of it are simple. For once, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives can’t get in the way.  The president alone decides if the pipeline is “in the national interest.” There are, however, already worrisome signs within the Obama administration.  Just this week, based on a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks, Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times reported that, in 2009, the State Department’s “energy envoy” was already instructing Alberta’s fossil-fuel barons in how to improve their “oil sands messaging,” including “increasing visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.” This is the government version of Murdochian-style enviro-hacking, and it leads many to think that the new pipeline is already a done deal. 

Still, the president can say no.  If he does, then no pipeline — and in the words of Alberta’s oil minister, his province will be “landlocked in bitumen” (the basic substance from which tar-sands oil is extracted). Even energy-hungry China, eager as it is for new sources of fossil fuels, may not be able to save him, since native tribes are doing a remarkable job of blocking another proposed pipeline to the Canadian Pacific.  Oil, oil everywhere, and nary a drop to sell. (Unfortunately that’s not quite true, but at least there won’t be a big new straw in this milkshake.)

An Obama thumbs-down on the pipeline could change the economics of the tar sands in striking ways. “Unless we get increased [market] access, like with Keystone XL, we’re going to be stuck,” said Ralph Glass, an economist and vice-president at AJM Petroleum Consultants in Calgary.

Faced with that prospect, Canada’s oilmen are growing desperate. Earlier this month, in a classic sleight of hand, they announced plans for a giant “carbon capture and sequestration” scheme at the tar sands. That’s because when it comes to global warming, tar sands oil is even worse than, say, Saudi oil because it’s a tarry muck, not a liquid, and so you have to burn a lot of natural gas to make it flow in the first place.

Now, the oil industry is proposing to capture some of the extra carbon from that cooking process and store it underground.  This is an untested method, and the accounting scheme Alberta has adopted for it may actually increase the province’s emmissions.  Even if it turns out to work perfectly and captures the carbon from that natural gas that would have escaped into the atmosphere, the oil they’re proposing to ship south for use in our gas tanks would still be exactly as bad for the atmosphere as Saudi crude. In other words, in the long run it would still be “essentially game over” for the climate.

The Saudis, of course, built their oil empire long before we knew that there was anything wrong with burning oil. The Canadians — with American help, if Obama obliges the oil lobby — are building theirs in the teeth of the greatest threat the world has ever faced. We can’t unbuild those Saudi Arabian fields, though happily their supplies are starting to slowly dwindle. What we can still do, though, is prevent North America from becoming the next Middle East.

So there will be a battle, and there will be nothing complicated or abstract about it.  It will be based on one question: Does that carbon stay in the earth, or does it pour into the atmosphere?  Given the trillions of dollars at stake it will be a hard fight, and there’s no guarantee of victory. But at least there’s no fog here, no maze of technicalities.

The last climate bill, the one the Senate punted on, was thousands of pages long. This time there’s a single sheet of paper, which Obama signs… or not.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, founder of 350.org, and a TomDispatch regular. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

Copyright 2011 Bill McKibben