Sunday, July 20, 2014

Taking a short break--no post his week

I'm taking a short break. I expect to post again on Sunday, July 27.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Orwellian Newspeak and the oil industry's fake abundance story

When what you are saying is so obviously at odds with the plain truth, it is useful to choose your words carefully to obscure this fact. This was the strategy of the Ministry of Truth, the propaganda arm of the authoritarian government depicted in George Orwell's novel 1984. The altered language was called Newspeak, a variant of standard English.

The oil industry's fake abundance story is so full of verbal legerdemain that it has become a sort of lexicon of Newspeak for oil. The public relations firms and fake think tanks behind this Newspeak have already achieved a notable goal, one styled as "doublethink" in Orwell's 1984. In an afterword to the edition I have social psychologist Erich Fromm explains the essence of doublethink: "[I]n a successful manipulation of the mind the person is no longer saying the opposite of what he thinks, but he thinks the opposite of what it true."

We now have nearly an entire population in the United States and nearly an entire media establishment that believes that oil is abundant--not because of the objective facts, but because of the oil industry's highly successful public relations campaign, a campaign that is still underway. The reason it is still underway is that it is essential to repeat the fake abundance story again and again in order to drown out any possibility that contrary facts will make their way into the public mind.

Just to assure you that there are contrary facts, let me list two key ones:

  1. Growth in world oil production (defined as crude plus lease condensate) in the eight years from the end of 1997 to the end of 2005 was 10.1 percent according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). During the eight-year period from the end of 2005 (an important inflection point) through 2013 that growth was 3.0 percent. The dramatic slowdown in the rate of growth occurred despite the wide deployment of new technology (such as high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing), record average daily prices (based on the world benchmark Brent Crude) and record oil industry spending on exploration and development. All of these things would have dramatically increased production if we weren't facing limits on what is cost-effective to extract.


  2. From its secular low of $9.10 per barrel on December 10, 1998, the Brent Crude spot price has leapt to $107.51 as of the close on Friday. That's a 1,081 percent increase in the last 15 years. The average daily spot price of Brent Crude reached two successive records in 2011 ($111.26) and 2012 ($111.63) before dipping slightly in 2013 ($108.56). So far in 2014 through July 7, the average daily price has been $108.95. All this price data (except the Friday close) is available here from the EIA. The price of commodities that are abundant tend to fall, not rise sharply. The sharp rise indicates that buyers are competing vigorously for constrained supplies.

These two facts will give us a start on oil Newspeak. Those of you who have read 1984 will recall that the ruling party in the country depicted in the book has three simple slogans: War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Appropriately, the Ministry of Peace wages war, the Ministry of Love oversees the internal security forces and conducts torture when necessary, and the Ministry of Truth, mentioned above, rewrites history and journalistic accounts of the past to conform with current positions of the ruling party.

When it comes to oil, however, we won't find the oil publicists saying things so obviously ridiculous as "low growth means plenty" or "high prices spell abundance." Instead, the oil PR machine has deftly ignored worldwide developments to focus only on the United States where oil production has been rising in the last several years. Had it not been rising, world production might well have begun to decline or at least stalled.

This PR machine likes to use the word "abundant" as much as possible. Yet, saying "abundant" won't change the fact that the average U.S. gasoline price for all grades has moved from a secular low of 95 cents per gallon in February 1999 to $3.75 as of July 7. That's an advance of 295 percent. For comparison inflation as calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics during that period was 43 percent.

Another useful oil Newspeak word is "resources." The word has a well-known meaning within the industry, namely, a preliminary estimate based on sketchy data (which, incidentally, is almost meaningless for determining the rate of flow). Outside the industry, however, most people conflate "resources" with "reserves." In this case ignorance is indeed strength, or at least it strengthens the persuasive power of the industry by keeping the public in the dark. (Reserves, by the way, are only the tiny fraction of resources that have been proven to exist by the drill bit and are economical to extract at current prices.)

The industry loves to say that the world's resources of oil are huge. But in recent years its spokespersons have shied away from using the word "reserves" since oil reserves (crude plus condensate) at the major oil companies have been falling in aggregate. And, not surprisingly, so has their so-called liquids production (which includes oil), about 12.4 percent from 2009 to 2013.

This has resulted in a series of oil Newspeak terms designed, so to speak, to put lipstick on a pig. Oil companies now report reserves as "barrels of oil-equivalent" or boe. They calculate the energy content of their natural gas reserves, convert that to its equivalent in oil and then add that number to their oil reserves. If we had to compose a slogan for this in Orwell's 1984 that is consistent with such gems as "war is peace" we might say: A gas is a liquid. But, of course, it's not. And natural gas sells for considerably less per unit of energy than oil. So, the entire picture misleads those investors who don't know how to read between the lines. It's another case where ignorance (on the part of investors) is strength for the company.

But perhaps the most audacious oil Newspeak term ever is now emerging just as the conflating of oil and natural gas reserves fails to spark enthusiasm in investors anymore. "Return on invested capital," not profits, not reserves, is the Newspeak term being marketed to investors as the proper indicator of a shrinking oil company's success. (Of course, the word "shrinking" would never be uttered by oil company representatives with proper Newspeak credentials.)

As the majors cut back on exploration and development expenses, they hope to increase their "return on invested capital." That sounds much better than saying that it has simply gotten too expensive in many places to find and extract oil. The easy stuff is gone; now only the hard-to-get, expensive stuff is left, and no one can make a profit on it or only a very meager one. How much better it sounds to investors who've been told for years that oil reserves are what to watch (and then boe) that companies are now pursuing "return on invested capital."

One bit of oil Newspeak appears almost singlehandedly to be keeping oil supplies growing even though they may not be. "Total oil supply" is being treated as interchangeable with "total liquids supply." To see what I mean, check out this page of oil statistics on the EIA website. Click on the dropdown menu for "product" which by default reads "total oil supply" and see what's actually included.

Beneath the words "total oil supply" (and sometimes "total liquids supply" in other sources) lie substances which simply cannot be sold as oil on the world market, substances such as natural gas plant liquids, condensate, and biofuels. There is also a mysterious liquid called "refinery processing gain" which conjures additional fuel volumes (but no more actual energy) because crude oil inputs expand when separated into their constituent parts during the refining process.

Without these additions to the oil supply statistics, it is a good bet that the trend in worldwide oil production would be reported as nearly flat from about 2005 onward. Despite this (or maybe because of this), both the industry and the government seemingly without embarrassment spout an oil Newspeak phrase that Orwell's Ministry of Truth might have authored: Total liquids supply is total oil supply.

Perhaps the most obviously ridiculous piece of oil Newspeak is "U.S. oil exports." Now, if I have to buy (read: import) 10 steaks from the store and I give three to you, I suppose you could say that I'm exporting my steaks to you. But, once I've eaten my steaks, if I want to replenish my supply, I must go to the store and buy some steaks again and then import those steaks into my freezer (from where I can export them to you once again, perhaps after I grill them for you).This is essentially what those in the industry who are calling for an end to the ban on U.S. oil exports are advocating.*

With just a few mouse clicks, however, any curious person could arrive at the EIA's U.S. oil import and export statistics and see that we are a long way from ever becoming a net exporter of oil. By asking the right questions, such a person might arrive at the most recent projections by the agency which have U.S. oil production peaking and then declining after 2020 at a level far below anything that would allow the country to export more than it imports. In keeping with Orwell, perhaps we could style this as "exports equal freedom." It makes about sense as what the industry is saying.

If you want to corrupt a people, corrupt the language. I'm not sure who said that, maybe me. Once it becomes impossible to say the truth with the language we have, it will ultimately be impossible for us to adapt and survive. That's almost certainly what we risk as we slide down the oil Newspeak slope unable to understand what is actually happening to global society's most critical commodity.

___________________________________________________________

*There is an argument for lifting the U.S. ban on oil exports that has to do with maximizing market efficiency, getting the right grades of oil to the refineries best suited to refine them (and thus willing to pay more for them) wherever those refineries are in world. But this isn't the argument the industry is making to the public since the effect of allowing such exports would be to raise domestic oil prices and thus lift profits for domestic oil producers, not exactly a winning argument with the American public.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Freedom in a full world

The Independence Day holiday in the United States has people here thinking about fireworks, parades and eating lots of barbequed meat. There will be many speeches on the gift of freedom which America helped to spread across the world. But there will be almost no introspection about what that word means.

Freedom is one of those abstract words that politicians love to use in speeches because doing so allows everyone listening to project their own meaning onto the word (and to identify the politician as someone who shares their values).

To some people freedom might mean freedom of conscience, to live by religious or moral tenets free from coercion by the state or the community. To others it might mean freedom of action to determine what course we want to take in life and to have the freedom to pursue it. But for many it has now become an amorphous rallying cry whenever patriotism is invoked--we are fighting for freedom, aren't we? But is it the freedom for each to think and act as he or she pleases no matter what?

Economist Herman Daly popularized the idea that we are living in what he calls a "full world." By this he means that the influence of humans in the biosphere has become so large that we can no longer ignore how we are changing it. Perhaps the biggest and most dangerous threat is climate change, the result of human activities that include the burning of fossil fuels, the clearing of land and the use and release of novel man-made gaseous chemicals that in some cases are many thousands of times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.

We know the world is "full" because our actions are noticeably changing the composition of the atmosphere, the oceans and the soil. The effects of our actions are now so large that they risk flipping the planet into a different climate state; are depleting presumably renewable resources such as forests and fish which can no longer replenish themselves as fast as we harvest them; and are poisoning our air, water and food all the way to the poles with made-man toxins produced by the modern chemical industry.

Here I must journey back to a time when slavery was legal and being a free man or woman had a very specific meaning. Being free meant you weren't owned by somebody else and therefore could not be treated as property. Legally sanctioned slavery no longer exists. So, what does it mean to be free now?

There are political freedoms: the right to choose our leaders, to speak our mind without fear of arrest, to be left alone by the state in our private affairs. There are economic freedoms: the right to choose one's employment, to engage in commerce with whomever we wish (even those on the other side of the globe), to invest and spend our savings as we wish, to acquire and own property including that used for business purposes. But are these economic freedoms separate from the material prosperity of the modern age, an energy-rich era which is transforming the biosphere in all its aspects?

It seems that political freedoms are possible without the specific economic conditions of our era though those freedoms had been notably absent prior to the modern age. But economic freedoms depend almost entirely on the what we can extract from the physical world and turn to our use. In a world that was not yet "full," humans could essentially take whatever they could get their hands on through ingenuity and hard work. When forests were gone in one area, humans moved onto other areas. When fishing declined in one fishery, they found another. And, while this progressive harvesting of resources sometimes had terrible local effects, it did not threaten every human nor every organism on the planet.

Now that our activities are collectively having effects at the planetary scale, we can no longer just keep moving on, harvesting ever larger quantities of resources without creating even larger effects. The economic freedoms we have enjoyed in the last 500 years are being curtailed--by nature.

So, while many rail against increasing government regulation of human affairs, and they especially rail against doing anything to about climate change, they do not seem to understand that the ultimate regulator of our affairs is nature.

My disagreement with them is not over whether humans as animals on planet Earth should be able to seek their material needs in order to live happy, healthy lives. My disagreement with them is whether nature itself is the regulator of our destiny, whether nature itself defines limits within which we must stay in order to survive and thrive as a species.

The fossil record is littered with creatures who could not adapt quickly enough to changing conditions and thus went extinct. In our case, we are the cause of the quickly changing conditions around us and thus have the power to moderate those changes. Anyone who believes otherwise is being willfully blind or cynical.

It is a cliché to say that with freedom comes responsibility. Yes, we are a free to make whatever choices we can think of and implement. But we are not free from the side effects and unintended consequences of our actions, actions which more and more have global rather than merely local effects. Just how do we take responsibility under these circumstances?

Freedom is often lost by those who do not use it wisely. In this case it is nature itself which will narrow our options as climate change reduces crop yields and alters rain patterns--producing prolonged drought in some places and heavy floods in others. It will strand some cities without water due to drought or due to lack of snowmelt in the mountains that supply them with water. It will narrow our options for nutrition as one fishery after another collapses. It will narrow our options for the treatment of disease as antibiotics--which we've overused--can no longer treat formerly trivial infections because the pathogens have become resistant.

Freedom in the modern age has been reinterpreted as the right to grow our economy and maximize our extractions from the biosphere--and ignore the future consequences for Earth's living systems in whatever we do. We have embraced this growth as the solution to practically every social ill including poverty, disease, pollution (the environmental Kuznets curve), and even overpopulation (demographic transition).

In a full world, that kind of freedom cannot last. And that means we must now find a new definition of freedom that includes the best of the modern world, particularly its political and social freedoms, while correcting the excesses of the freedoms we have enjoyed economically in a world that was previously not full.

After the partying dies down this Independence Day weekend and the fireworks are grounded, try to imagine a new definition of freedom that will allow us to thrive in a full world. If we don't devise one ourselves, nature will do it for us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sleeper agents in the (somewhat) enchanted biosphere

When I was a young boy, I was afraid of creatures I called "hoppers" who I believed lurked under my bed. They were patterned after leaping animated cartoon figures appearing in the closing credits of "Fractured Fairytales," a segment of the popular children's television program "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show." My bedroom had to be checked each night for these creatures before I could enter and go to sleep.

Of course, over time, the hoppers disappeared from under my bed. But, the world never quite lost its enchanted if sometimes menacing quality. Though only vaguely aware of it, I continued to react to animals, plants and just plain objects of all kinds as if they had unusual potency in the affairs of humans--potency with malevolent possibilities.

As a young man in my 20s this peculiar version of reality became conscious to me when I read Swiss psychologist Carl Jung's essay entitled "General Description of Types." Since that day I have learned to sift carefully through my experience and thoughts for the undue influence of this psychological disposition and rigorously question any overly positive or negative conclusions that might have been influenced by it.

Still, the enchanted world of the introverted sensation type (which is clearly my personality type) has never been fully extinguished from my awareness. Jung explains the psychology of the purest form of this type:

[The pure type] lives in a mythological world, where men, animals, locomotives, houses, rivers and mountains appear either as benevolent deities or as malevolent demons. That they appear thus to him never enters his head, though that is just the effect they have on his judgments and actions. He judges and acts as though he had such powers to deal with.

Now every modern, up-to-date, educated person will scoff at such a way of encountering the world. To the extent that any of us remain unconscious of the effects of this kind of archaic psychology in our own thinking, we are slaves to forces that can cloud clear thinking. But, my question is this: Do such psychological forces always cloud clear thinking or can they, when properly understood, be a gateway into a deeper understanding of the world around us?

A modern, up-to-date, educated person has usually been convinced that humans are the only agents in the world. Humans consciously manipulate the world to their benefit. Only humans can actually "manage" planet Earth. Everything else acts by dumb instinct or physical laws. The question becomes: Are those instincts and physical laws "dumb"? That is, are they merely mechanical repetitions of innate patterns or do they display an intelligence all their own?

Perhaps the purest modern manifestation of the idea that the Earth's systems as a whole display intelligence comes not from a poet, but from a renown scientist, James Lovelock. Lovelock posited a superorganism called "Gaia" (after the Greek goddess of Earth) which maintains habitable conditions on Earth for all its living organisms through the interaction of both living and nonliving systems. Lovelock's idea was popularized by his 1979 book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.

The respected scientist was widely criticized for being nonscientific. But his theory spawned subsequent research that unlocked the broad interactions of the living and nonliving worlds and their relationship to the creation of a stable living environment for Earth's organisms.

Now, it stands to reason that every living organism is attempting to ensure its own survival and the continuation of its kind. While the evolution and everyday life of organisms are chiefly determined by their environment, each organism also ACTS UPON the environment in attempting to achieve its goals. In other words, it competes (and sometimes cooperates) with other organisms to obtain food, water, space, heat and light. And, in doing so it interacts with the nonliving world of minerals, air and water.

That means that all organisms on Earth are active agents within Earth's natural systems, both living and nonliving. Humans and every other living organism on the globe are co-evolving in an endlessly complex web of interactions.

This is the web of interactions which we modern humans believe we can "manage" to our benefit without catastrophic effects.

Lovelock disagrees. He wrote a second book entitled The Revenge of Gaia. His thesis: The living world system has been provoked by overuse of fossil fuels, land clearing and other human activities and now has a fever which we call climate change. But, we humans have done other things also touched on in one way or another in the book that threaten their own future: overharvesting of fisheries and forests, soil degradation from industrial farming and the poisoning of air, water and soil with novel toxic chemicals, just to name a few.

Now, we are seeing the world's natural systems "fight back." It is as if sleeper agents in the biosphere have been activated for the battle and created conditions increasingly dangerous to humans (and unfortunately, many other organisms). How can I justify using such words? Because it is conceivable that these trends, if uninterrupted, will lead to dramatic reductions in human population.

The biosphere would thus be destroying the main cause of the problems listed above. I'm not assigning consciousness to the biosphere, but I am assigning agency and intelligence. Before you criticize, remember Friedrich Nietzsche's dictum: "What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent."

The biosphere is vastly more complex than our limited human intelligence can comprehend. To those who believe we can simply manage our way out of our current set of predicaments, I respond (with apologies to Dr. Phil): "How's that workin' for ya?"

It is a conceit that we can manage planet Earth in a way that will allow us to continue business as usual. Our management to date has brought us to this point of peril. Wasn't it Einstein who said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity? Managers and would-be managers of planet Earth, take note.

It turns out that my childhood perception of the world as a place full of organisms and objects with agency and intelligence and the potential for malevolence was not entirely incorrect. But we moderns believe we need to divorce ourselves from such perceptions in order to become rational, right-thinking, scientifically bounded adults. In doing so, we divorce ourselves from the world of agents all around us who act and strive in ways surprisingly similar to our own.

Our task then is not to suppress such perceptions, but to transcend our childish interpretations of them--putting these perceptions into the proper framework for acting and living in a world that is very much more alive, intelligent and full of agency than we have been led to believe.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Taking a short break--No post this week

I'm taking a short break and expect to post again on Sunday, June 29.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

We will never run out of oil (which is entirely beside the point)

Harvard economist Morris Adelman, famous for saying that we will never run out of oil, died last month. What followed the announcement of his death was a predictable set of encomiums like this one from defenders of the oil industry extolling Adelman's infinite wisdom.

Some (including my father, it seems) were so caught up in the odd celebratory mood--one that resurfaces every time people contemplate just how much stuff there is in the universe--that Adelman's rather narrow and almost meaningless dictum was being offered as the basis for a complete energy policy. (And, never mind that that energy policy makes absolutely no mention of climate change.)

All of this makes sense only if you keep yourself from thinking about it. But a simple illustration will show just how meaningless the notion that we will never run out of oil is. Imagine for a moment that starting tomorrow one-half of the oil that human society normally consumes each day is no longer available and that this goes on for several months.

This certainly would not mean that we have run out. We'd simply be getting significantly less oil than our current global system is designed to run on. The result would surely be a global economic depression. That's how dependent we are on the current RATE of oil production. That's how important the continuous input of high-quality energy from oil is to our collective well-being. This explains the concern of those who believe a decline in the worldwide rate of oil production may be coming within the next decade.

And, no one in this group has ever said that we will run out of oil. That's a canard used to confuse people about the real issue which is the RATE of production.

But, that's not reflected in Adelman's often truncated observation. Furthermore, what he actually said was that oil would never run out so long as technology advanced and prices were high enough to justify its extraction. Within the very narrow confines of this rather wishy-washy and almost tautological statement Adelman is right. The key word in this statement, however, is "enough."

What if technology does advance, but not enough, and what if the price of oil is high, but not high enough to justify bringing it out of the ground at the RATE required for the smooth functioning of global society? What then?

The irony is that while those allied with the oil industry are praising the honored dead, the oil industry itself is pulling back on investment in oil exploration and development even in the face of near record average daily prices for world crude. The reason: a five-fold increase in so-called upstream capital expenditures for exploration and development by the major oil companies since 2000 resulted in only a tiny increase in oil production at those companies. Even with oil prices above $100, the cost of and paltry return on exploration and development is forcing majors to cut back on their previous lavish expenditures.

All this can only mean one thing: less oil delivered in the future. And, all this runs contrary to Adelman's observation. Technological advances continue to be deployed by the industry including so-called high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling used to extract oil from deep shale deposits that were previously inaccessible. And, while these techniques have lifted production significantly in the United States, growth in overall world production in the seven years from 2005 to 2012 has actually slowed dramatically to about one-quarter of the pace of the previous seven years. And, this is in an era of new technologies, record high average daily prices, and, until now, record exploration and development expenditures by oil companies.

Yes, Adelman's conditions--high prices and advancing technology--have prevented us from running out. But that's hardly the point. These conditions should have produced a glut and low prices. They have failed to do so for one simple reason. In the race between the ever more challenging geology and locations of the world's remaining oil resources and the ever advancing technology of the oil industry, geology and locations are winning. And, they've actually been winning for quite a while as discoveries badly lag consumption. That means we are living on borrowed time using up easy-to-get reserves discovered long ago--and hoping against hope that somehow, new technologies will get the upper hand before actual declines in production set in.

This makes for very poor energy policy. Harvard economists would like to think that the world obeys a few simple principles that apply always and everywhere. But actually the world is far more complex than anything these economists imagine. Since we as humans are only privy to a very small portion of that complexity, humility and caution ought to be our watchwords when addressing momentous issues such as energy policy.

Major forecasts in the year 2000 from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the International Energy Agency, and the National Intelligence Council (which serves the U.S. intelligence agencies) confidently proclaimed that oil production would soar in the next decade to meet rising demand and that prices would stay low. Bewitched by the simple but flawed logic of Adelman and others, they missed badly on production numbers--they were all far too optimistic--and even more so on prices predicting an average price of about $28 per barrel in 2010 when daily prices averaged close to $80.

Psychologists have learned from studies that even when people know that overly confident forecasters have been mostly wrong in the past, they will choose to believe them because of their confident presentation. And, people, in general, won't believe tentative presenters even if those people know that the tentative presenters have been more accurate in the past.

Adelman and his acolytes have delivered simple but misleading ideas confidently--and ones that are in line with what many people want to believe. Such ideologues will never be seen retracting their ideas when the facts prove them wrong. They'll just ignore the facts. And, they'll hope that you ignore the facts, too.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Talkin' trash: Are we literally throwing away energy?

Philipp Schmidt-Pathmann wakes up every day thinking about trash. What got him thinking about it in the first place is how much of it is simply dumped into landfills across America when most of what is not recyclable could instead be turned into energy for homes and businesses everywhere.

Schmidt-Pathmann has seen a better approach in his native Germany where only about 1 percent of all municipal waste goes into landfills. This compares with about 68 percent in the United States of the 400 million tons discarded annually, he explains. (Exact numbers are hard to come by, but he prefers figures collected by Biocycle Magazine.) Germans recycle almost 70 percent of their municipal waste and burn almost all the rest to turn it into energy.

Schmidt-Pathmann is founder and executive director of the Zero Landfill Initiative based in Seattle. He says that the United States could add 12 gigawatts (billions of watts) of electricity generation by expanding waste-to-energy facilities even if the country upped its percentage of recycling to that of Germany's. The United States currently recycles about 25 percent of its waste. Burning all the landfill waste currently available would provide an extra 33 gigawatts. That would be the equivalent of 33 large electricity generating plants.

But, Schmidt-Pathmann thinks he knows why there is so much resistance to the German model in the United States.

First, Americans still believe that burning waste is a dirty business, giving off toxic fumes and plumes of smoke. But modern waste-to-energy facilities produce little in the way of air pollution using up-to-date technology to reduce emissions to a minimum. High-temperature burning breaks apart the bonds of toxic chemicals.

Schmidt-Pathmann says that we should think about the advances in waste-to-energy plants over the last thirty years in the same way we think about advances in computers from the first floppy disk operated ones in the early 1980s to the supercomputers of today.

Second, landfills used to be controlled mostly by municipalities. Now the vast majority of them in the United States are owned by private waste haulers who in turn haul 80 percent of the municipal waste in the country. It's currently cheaper for those haulers to dump the waste remaining after recycling into their landfills than to burn or recycle more carefully what's left.

In Germany it became government policy to reduce landfill disposal and therefore the government made it very expensive to use landfills. There is so far no such policy in America. In addition, there is far more land in America for creating landfills than in Germany making it cheaper to build them.

Third, Americans somehow believe that waste-to-energy facilities will result in less recycling. But a recent survey demonstrated that communities with waste-to-energy facilities actually recycle slightly MORE material than those without. This may be due to the fact that such communities tend to be leaders in waste handling and so have well-established recycling programs.

Moreover, waste-to-energy facilities recycle large amounts of metal that remain after the waste is burned. One company, Covanta, operating across the United States recovers the equivalent of five to six Golden Gate bridges of metals each year from the ash that remains after combustion.

Still, what's so bad about putting trash in a landfill? Here's what's bad about it according to Schmidt-Pathmann. Even though landfills produce methane that can be gathered and used to power generating plants, a portion of that methane--a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide--still leaks into the atmosphere. Beside this, much more energy with fewer greenhouse gas emissions could be produced from the buried trash if it were instead burned.

Also, it turns out that private landfill operators are only responsible for their landfills for 30 years after closing. After that, society at large becomes responsible for the care and monitoring of those landfills which will remain hazardous for thousands of years. When these costs are added to the costs of landfilling, it becomes obvious why burning what can't be recycled makes economic as well as environmental health sense. And, it makes all the more clear why Pathmann believes that zero landfill should be our goal.

How could waste-to-energy and near zero landfill become the norm in America? It will only happen when landfilling becomes more expensive than the alternatives or when government forces it to happen.

Currently, Schmidt-Pathmann explains, the private waste haulers in the United States are politically powerful and quite understandably don't want their huge investment in landfills and the surrounding waste transportation infrastructure to become worthless. One way change could occur is if waste haulers were somehow reimbursed over time for what would become their stranded landfill assets in a manner similar to the way utilities are reimbursed through rate hikes for the mothballing of generating plants that become useless for regulatory or economic reasons.

Higher waste disposal rates would certainly be unpopular, but they could lead to a much safer future with cleaner energy and more recycling. Despite the higher cost, this might turn out to be a better course than containing and cleaning up ever expanding landfills indefinitely or hoping in vain that private waste haulers will voluntarily abandon their costly landfill infrastructure without compensation in favor of what's best for society.

There is one other possibility. Municipalities typically have waste hauling franchise agreements with private haulers that allow them access to residents. Those contracts often permit municipalities to divert waste to better uses such as recycling and energy production so long as at least some waste continues to go to landfills according the Schmidt-Pathmann. Whether municipalities have the will to go down this road--essentially starving the haulers of trash for their landfills--seems doubtful. The politically connected haulers will be unlikely to stand still as their businesses shrink for lack of trash.

Right now the United States produces 1 million football fields of trash 6 feet deep each year. We'd like to think that once we throw something away, we don't have to think about it anymore. But, unless we start doing things differently in the United States, we'll actually end up having to think about our trash for a very, very long time to come.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.