Monday, February 28, 2005

There's oil down there--I think

Peak Oil Optimist has a nice dissection of the latest call to water down SEC standards for reporting oil reserves. Right now the SEC forces companies to report proven reserves. These are reserves you can pull out of the ground and sell profitably at current prices using current technology. Careful investors have always known that oil and mining companies have another category of resources called "probable." And, these investors have invested in companies that had large probable reserves with a note of caution. After Shell startled investors with big reductions in its reserves recently, it seems advisable for the watchdog for investors to continue to insist on a conservative definition of reserves. Let the savvy investors take risks on what is probable, not average Joes.

But, the real agenda it seems is to get the unsuspecting and naive involved in what is a truly risky game and thereby pump up prices for the savvy players (to sell into, naturally). It's always important to ask whose ox is getting gored.

If one of the aims (and this seems doubtful) is to assess world oil reserves for international energy planning purposes, there are better ways to do this that don't involve putting investors at risk.

(Via Flying Talking Donkey)

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

The 'soft' collapse

WorldChanging has a worthwhile piece on Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond and the notion of societal collapse. While there is much to provoke thought in this essay entitled "Collapsing Upwards", I think it wrongly conflates current geopolitical laments (i.e., the reckless foreign policy of the American Empire) and the proposed solution (i.e., more cooperation and less arrogance) with the notion of the collapse of complex societies. The United States could (and should, in my opinion) pursue a more multilateral and humble foreign policy. The rich nations could pursue a more magnanimous role in helping the poor nations. But, it is not any one of these societies which is in danger of collapse. It is the entire complex worldwide system of resource exploitation and trade which is in danger. Tainter is explicit about this. The world is now one interconnected complex global society, and the next collapse won't be one isolated to a particular region or country, but rather will involve the entire world. The writer acknowledges this.

But, then he makes the case for more egalitarian relations between countries. It seems to me quite pausible that 20 or 30 years hence nation-states won't have much significance. Our relations with one another will be region to region or locality to locality. Creating better relations between nation-states is a helpful notion now, but I'm not sure how applicable it will be in the future.

That brings me to my second point. The piece also confuses "centralized" with "complex." It's true that the world economic system is highly decentralized. In a sense, that's what makes it robust. No central administration stands in the way of allocating resources to their most profitable use. (Notice that I didn't say best use.) But, that same system is highly complex and highly sensitive to moderate perturbations. It depends literally on billions of connections to function properly every day in order for it to work. Its highly sensitive nature would be quickly demonstrated by an oil price of $150 a barrel. Shortages of key minerals would shut down factories worldwide. A major grain harvest failure in the United States and Canada would result in widespread starvation. So, while the operation of the worldwide economic system is decentralized, its functioning remains highly vulnerable because of its interconnectedness and complexity. A decentralized system doesn't necessarily imply a system of low complexity. But, I would contend that a reduction in scale almost always means lower complexity, and that is where I believe we are headed.

The writer properly points out some strategies for reducing complexity in a way that would not lead to a sudden and catastrophic collapse. But, those strategies mean a major downsizing of the world trade system, one that is unlikely to happen except in the face of a crisis. Even then, we may be able to employ strategies for a more localized economy, but it will, of course, be under duress that we do it. Some people are getting a head start by promoting more local agriculture, retail, food processing, renewable energy production, and even handicrafts and manufacturing. What we learn from these efforts now will become the most precious knowledge on the planet in the face of a worldwide energy challenge that forces us to live simpler lives in a simpler society.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

What if the Bush administration gave a party and nobody came?

I noted earlier the curious news that oil companies were dropping out of a coalition which is lobbying to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. This piece in The New York Times confirms my suspicions that the major oil companies don't think there is enough oil in the refuge to fight for it. No doubt the Bush administration will push ahead with the yearly ritual of trying to open ANWR to drilling anyway. Could environmentalists count it a victory if the administration got its way and nobody wanted to drill?

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Can organic agriculture feed the world?

Now that the agricultural chemical industry isn't getting any traction from saying that pesticides don't hurt you, they have turned to another line of attack on organic agriculture: It can't feed the world. Never mind that in many places where farmers can't afford expensive chemicals it does feed the world. But the question needs to be taken seriously by organic enthusiasts. If turning every farm in the world into an organic farm tomorrow were to result in widespread starvation, few people would embrace such a move. That's why it is important to study whether yields can be made comparable. Already it's clear that profits for organic farmers can be higher since they don't have the huge input costs associated with artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The lower costs and the premium prices for organic crops and animal products can make them quite lucrative even when yields are smaller.

The smattering of studies done so far offers hope on the question of yields. Click here, here and here to get a general idea of the research. The usual pattern is that yields fall initially, but over time as the soil is improved yields begin to improve, sometimes dramatically. Organic farming is something people learn to do by doing it. Like anything, they get better at it over time by paying careful attention to the soil, the insects and the crops themselves. An organic beef farmer I know claims he hasn't had a sick animal since 1986. He said his crop yields are comparable to conventional farming, and he gets very little loss to insects. The secret: The return of biodiversity in the fields naturally controls insect pests and the enrichment of the soil helps to create healthy crops that resist disease.

It's time to prove what many people know anecdotally in a way that is incontrovertible.

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Even a skeptic recommends cutting greenhouse gases

John Walsh is a bona fide climate scientist from the University of Alaska--Fairbanks, he helped to write the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment for the International Arctic Council which was much in the news late last year, and he's a global warming skeptic. After saying that the warming we see might still be the result of natural variation, he admits that the evidence is building up that humans are part of the cause of global warming. While not convinced, he says at the very end of this interview that the prudent thing to do would be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now.

If this is what a self-styled skeptic who is a genuine climate scientist thinks, what are we waiting for?

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The fight over the meaning of organic continues

Large industrial farms are finding the profit margins associated with the organic label just too tempting. As a result they are creating split operations--part conventional (pesticide- and antibiotic-laden) agriculture and part organic. Trouble is, they want to run the organic part more or less they way they run the conventional part.

In comes the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group, to complain that some organic dairy farms are not providing pasture for their dairy herds as is required by the national organic standards. While there are no explicit restrictions on the size of an organic operation, some of the regulations make it impossible to run industrial-size farms. Apparently that doesn't bother several unscrupulous operators who are only in it for the money.

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Environmental destruction through debt

Debt foisted on so-called developing countries by rich ones has forced them to hand over their natural resources at an ever-increasing pace to service that debt. More often than not the projects for which the money is lent are environmentally destructive. The PoloNoreste Project in the Brazilian Amazon which built a 930-mile road to open up the rainforest to settlement comes to mine. Noreena Hertz says that the environmental hazards that have resulted are coming home to haunt the industrialized world in the form of global warming, toxic chemicals in imported foods, depleted fishstocks, a huge destruction of species and virulent diseases creeping ever closer to the border. And, where developing countries have the desire to enforce high environmental standards, they lack money.

Their fate is slowly becoming our fate. Will we do anything about it for their sake and ours?

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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Stupid beyond belief

The Bush Administration has proposed eliminating funding for Amtrak starting in October of this year. It admitted doing this as a ploy to get Congress to focus on its "reform" plan which turns much of burden of Amtrak funding over to the states. Of course, the Republican tax-cutters have been busy in the states as well leaving state government bereft of adequate funding even for basic public services. The only conclusion one can come to is that the Bush Administration's announced ploy is not its real ploy. Forcing states to shoulder most of the responsibility for Amtrak would be the same as ending the vast majority of Amtrak service, and that's what the adminstration really wants to do.

Consider that this is the administration that came into office talking about America's "energy crisis." What it meant, of course, was that oil and utility interests didn't have enough power. So, as has become the administration's pattern, it seized on a false crisis (the false electricity shortage in California brought to you by Enron and others) and then offered a solution that is what they wanted to do anyway: drill for oil everywhere in the United States. But, wait! The administration actually did stumble onto a real crisis without knowing it. Energy supplies are strained worldwide. Natural gas production is peaking in North America right now. Some experts say we have already reached peak world oil production and others say we'll be there within the next 10 to 15 years. Not much time to prepare.

So, one of the first orders of business, you might think, would be to build a decent mass transit system with an expanding intercity train service at its center. Not so. The feckless secretary of transportation, Norman Mineta, thinks that Amtrak should be run on a corporate model. Funny, he doesn't think the nation's highways should be run this way. But, then there are no huge contractors providing big campaign contributions for laying and maintaining Amtrak's right-of-way, are there?

No public rail system in the world runs at a profit. All of them are part of an integrated transportation system that offer options to people and create efficiencies in the movement of people and the use of fuel and resources. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that we will be needing a lot more rail service in the coming decades, not a lot less.

Amtrak has never been able to prosper because it has gotten too little money not too much. It has been forced to defer maintenance and investment just to keep daily operations going. Mineta tries to make Amtrak's decision to do this look like bad management. The bad management came from the transportation department and Congress.

But one thing is certain: This op-ed piece by Mineta in The New York Times has the right headline. Would Mineta do the same to the roadbuilding lobby, or say, his own children?

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

It's gross, but it works

A process called thermal depolymerization can turn just about any kind of waste into oil, minerals and water and in the process rearrange many bothersome chemicals into harmless molecules. The linked article shows how the process is used on waste from a turkey processing plant. The lead picture is not for the fainthearted.

(Thanks to Flying Talking Donkey for spotting this story.)

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On not seeing your national parks

A federal appeals courts sided with polluters to strike down a plan to improve the air and visibility in several national parks and wilderness areas in western states. Now the EPA has to go back to the drawing board. In the meantime, you might as well look at pictures before you go to many of our national parks because you may not see very much when you get there.

(Thanks to The People's Parks for sighting this story.)

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"Let the bastards freeze in the dark"

A reputed oil industry insider, a petroleum geologist to judge by the style and references, writes that peak world oil production is an accomplished fact. He submitted his observations anonymously, but his analysis is too subtle to be that of an amateur. He focuses not on the geological constraints, but on the infrastructure constraints that have led, in his opinion, to peak oil production. His churlishness comes from the low regard of the public for oil companies. After having been maligned for so long, he says that the consensus in the oil industry is, "Let the bastards freeze in the dark."

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Monday, February 21, 2005

Matthew Simmons grows more pessimistic

Matthew Simmons, a Houston energy investment banker, used to take on faith what everyone seemed to know was true: the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, in particular, have all the oil we'll need to keep the world growing for the next 50 years. Then, he looked into it himself. After reviewing all of the available journal articles and scouring other sources, he came to a disturbing conclusion: There is no evidence supporting the notion that the Middle East will be able to increase production in a big way. He asked the Saudis for more information. So far, all they've offered are hollow assurances, but not a speck of proof. No one has been allowed to audit their records or their fields since the late 1970s. Simmons had been saying that the lack of information prevents us from understanding the true picture of worldwide oil reserves. He concluded that we may be at or near a peak in world production, but without more information it's difficult say for sure.

Now, he's gone further in this interview with the much-maligned Aljazeera news network. "We may have already passed peak oil," Simmons told the network. He believes that the evidence supports the idea that the Saudis have damaged their oil fields by overpumping. (Overpumping reduces the total output of an oil field over its life and can lead to sudden, unexpected drops in production.) That would spell a peak for Saudi Arabia and perhaps the world.

Simmons lays out his concerns in visual form in a slide presentation on his company's website. It's worth looking at if you know little about the peak oil debate.

(Thanks to Peak Energy for pointing out the Aljazeera interview.)

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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Weekly Briefs

From Bad to Worse. Ethanol is a huge vote-getter in farm states even if it's an economic and energy loser for the rest of us. So it's no surprise that Congress wants to require that refiners double the amount of ethanol in gasoline, and that means double the current taxpayer subsidy, one that goes primarily to a handful of powerfully connected companies, NOT to farmers.

The Oilmen Cometh. ChevronTexaco's chief executive became the third oil company executive to sidle up to, if not outright join, the peak oil bandwagon. Dave O'Reilly told an audience at a recent conference, "The time when we could count on cheap oil and even cheaper natural gas is clearly ending." He said a global bidding war will likely erupt for remaining oil and gas reserves. O'Reilly joins two other oil executives, BP's Frances Harper and legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens who have in recent months predicted that a peak in world oil production is either imminent (Pickens) or likely within the next 10 years (Harper).

Global Warming Debate "Over." Rarely do scientists make unequivocal statements. They prefer to couch their conclusions in terms of probabilities and percentages and then wait for more data. This week a piece of data--the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back--is now in on the global warming debate. Long after the debate about whether there is global warming was over, industry flacks continued to pretend that it wasn't happening and that if (hypothetically) it were happening, humans had nothing to do with it. Now, a new study of the warming of the oceans has put the final nail in the coffin of such arguments. "If you take this data and combine it with a decade of earlier results, the debate about whether or not there is a global warming signal here and now is over at least for rational people," the study's lead author said. Only human activities such as the industrial release of carbon dioxide explain that warming, he added.

The Day After Tomorrow Scenario. In this overhyped Hollywood thriller, the ocean currents that warm the northern latitudes of Europe and North America cease which turns both into icy wastelands within seven days. No one is predicting anything that sudden, but scientists are increasingly worried that ocean currents which carry warmth to these areas may be slowing, the result of increased fresh water flows due to global warming. Recent findings detailed here and here are cause for alarm. The Ocean and Climate Change Institute shows how this sudden cooling is consistent with overall warming using animation to illustrate the paths of the oceans' great underwater rivers.

Speak No Evil. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), who relies on fantasy science to reinforce his belief that global warming is a hoax, has requested the financial records of two organizations that appeared before his committee opposing President Bush's air quality destruction bill (given the Orwellian title of "Clear Skies"). Usually such records are examined with an eye toward revoking the nonprofit status of an organization. But Inhofe says he not trying to intimidate anyone. The names of the organizations--State and Territorial Air Pollution Program Administrators and the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials. Some real rabble rousers, or maybe they just make Inhofe look like a kook.

Ocean Trashman. Some U. S. senators want to spend $50 million picking up trash on the country's shorelines. Maybe they could pass a no littering ordinance for the sea while they're at it.

Interconnected. Global warming combined with overpumping of aquifers will disrupt water supplies and agriculture and likely lead to food shortages in the coming decades, according to the Earth Policy Insitute. “In recent months, rising oil prices have focused the world’s attention on the depletion of oil reserves. But the depletion of underground water resources from overpumping is a far more serious issue,” says Lester R. Brown in his new book, Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures.

Trading Places. Greenpeace protestors disrupted trading at London's International Petroleum Exchange when they slipped onto the trading floor, made lots of noise and soon found themselves in a brawl with agitated traders. I'm afraid this symbolic protest on the day the Kyoto Protocol went into effect served little purpose. We need to focus on lowering the use of petroleum, not on the people who merely trade it. (Thanks to Mobjectivist for noticing this news item.)

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Saturday, February 19, 2005

Red State Blues: How Red America Became an Economic Backwater

After the presidential election last year I began thinking about how far the newly empowered right-wing evangelical politicians and their supporters might go and how that might affect the economic life of the so-called "Red States." I put down my imaginings in the form of a letter from the future. As I view what has happened already, I think I may actually have been too restrained in my thinking. With this post I depart from the main focus of this blog, but I will note that the anti-science trajectory of the Red States will have profound implications for all of us when it comes to discussing and proposing solutions for energy issues, global warming, industrial agriculture and water pollution, just to name a few key environmental topics. Here is the essay:

************
December 3, 2018

Dear Robert,

As I write to you, Governor Tom Delay is about to start his fourth term, and he's pretty much turned Texas into the biblically-inspired "paradise" that he always wanted the whole country to be.

I think his administration is part of the reason my company is moving to Chicago. Top management says we need to have our key people in a place where we can continue to attract first-rate talent. Houston, it seems, has dropped off the map as a place where the very best recruits want to live.

As I look back over my time here, I should have seen this coming sooner. In fact, now that I've had time to reflect on it, I can't figure out why the company waited so long.

What's happened, of course, is that Delay and his overwhelming Republican majority in the legislature have put through law after law that create a climate that is very unattractive to today's savvy scientists, engineers, artists, business-school graduates and the like. Houston has always competed with places such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Boston for talent. Now, of course, we compete with Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Seoul, too.

Our troubles really all started after the U. S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It didn't take Tom Delay and the legislature five minutes to pass a bill banning most abortions. That was back in 2009, shortly after Jeb Bush followed his brother into the presidency. But, of course, all the court did was kick the issue back to the states. The third President Bush swore he'd pass a nationwide ban. But, the Democrats swore they'd read from the New York City telephone directory for as long as necessary to filibuster such a bill. It's all moot anyway since the Democrats have maintained effective control of the Senate for the last 10 years with the help of several former Republican senators who are now, as you know, independents.

Of course, there was nothing to stop the other states in the old Confederacy plus Kentucky from quickly following Texas' example. Only Virginia hesitated and then passed a very mild bill banning abortion with an exception for the health of the mother, a loophole that everyone knew would make the law toothless.

Soon afterwards Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana all passed bans. Indiana toyed with a ban, but the politicians decided it would be bad for business, a prescient call as it turns out.

It all seems darkly comical now as I think back on that time. In the very next election in Texas a whole new crew of Republicans ran for state legislature in the Republican primaries, ousting nearly every incumbent. Only the candidates who pledged to remove all exceptions to abortion--for rape and incest and yes, the life of the mother--won their primaries. Of course, once these people got into the legislature, they put up a bill that did just what they promised.

Well, an older and wiser Tom Delay tried to tie the bill up in committee so he'd never have to sign it. The business lobby had begun to tire of Delay's biblical vision and told him so. But, the legislature ended up passing the bill by veto-proof majorities, and Delay went ahead and signed it since a veto would have been pointless.

Of course, it wasn't too long afterwards--sometime in 2010, I think--that the U. S. Supreme Court decided to uphold state constitutional amendments and laws banning gay marriage and civil unions. But, to add insult to injury, the court went out of its way to say that the states had the right to regulate the sexual behavior of consenting adults.

It was like throwing fresh meat into a tank of piranhas. The Texas legislature immediately proposed a bill to make sodomy illegal with jail terms of up to 10 years for violations. Few of us in Houston gave it much thought. We imagined that such a ban would be unenforceable, even if the crazies in Austin passed it. Well, they did pass it, again by veto-proof majorities.

Then, only a few days after the law went into effect, some small-town police department arrested a gay couple at their home where they had lived peacefully for 25 years. The judge later dismissed the charges due to lack of evidence. But, the point got made. If you were gay, you could be dragged out of your house at two in the morning and locked up.

The Houston police chief announced publicly that he would not enforce the ban. But, the gay community felt it would only be safe so long as that particular chief stayed on the job. And, traveling outside of Houston now posed special dangers. Thus began the great gay exodus from Texas. I am certain that at least four of the people the company lost shortly afterwards were part of that exodus, and there must have been many more that I didn't know personally.

Of course, most of the other southern states followed suit with their own sodomy laws. Mississippi's law included life imprisonment for a third violation. By this time, however, it didn't seem like any gay man was going to stay around long enough to violate Mississippi's sodomy laws three times.

But, many other states that had passed abortion bans hesitated. Only Wyoming and Idaho passed sodomy bans. Governors in the rest of the states found ways to kill such bills. The governor of North Dakota got the sodomy ban amended to include a mandatory death penalty for a third offense and then vetoed it, calling it too harsh.

Just having those bills come up in the legislature, however, put a chill in the gay community. So, the trickle of gay men who had been leaving the Great Plains and the Mountain West for some time now turned into a torrent.

Oddly, lesbians were rarely mentioned in the debate. For some reason they don't seem to inspire the kind of fear and loathing that gay men do.

As I remember, that was the year several big companies moved their headquarters out of Houston. They always said they were doing it for strategic business reasons. And, I see now that they were doing what my company has only just decided to do. Who wants to live in a place that is so backward looking? Certainly, neither America's nor the world's best and brightest.

The following year Alabama led the way with a measure outlawing the teaching of evolution in the public schools. The teachers there were very upset, and some of them vowed to disregard the law. Once again, I underestimated the will of the politicians. A few of the teachers were arrested. The whole country came down on Alabama. For a week television, radio and newspapers were filled with nothing but stories on the fate of 18 teachers who had decided to defy the ban and were now sitting in jail. You probably remember this because it was as if we were getting hourly reports about a mine rescue.

Several cable networks changed their schedules to run all three film versions of "Inherit the Wind," the ones with Spencer Tracy and Jack Lemmon, and the more recent one with Tom Cruise. Even President Jeb Bush asked the governor to release the teachers and called for repeal of the law.

Well, Alabama did let the teachers go and repeal the law. But, the Alabama legislature replaced the offending statute with another one that mandated the teaching of so-called "intelligent design" alongside the theory of evolution. That compromise seemed to satisfy the nation, I think, only because the first law had been so extreme. As expected, all the other states of the old Confederacy plus Kentucky adopted similar laws. But, that's where it stopped.

As I've talked to teachers here in Texas, they've told me that support for science education had already been in decline for years before the Alabama "Scopes 2" incident, as it's come to be known. They said that the entire South had become anti-science in a way, and that that attitude was now starting to trickle up into the university system. Southern legislatures were much more inclined to put money into religious study programs than they were into new science and engineering labs. So now, increasingly, the most talented engineering and science students are leaving the South and going elsewhere. In fact, I believe it was around the time of "Scopes 2" that the long entrenched migration from north to south began to reverse itself.

Speaking of religion, it was only last week that the Supreme Court handed Alabama a victory for its school prayer law. In 2014 the state passed a bill mandating the daily recitation of a non-denominational prayer in the public schools. The bill even included a sample prayer which, when you read it, seemed pretty innocuous. But, everyone knew the ACLU would challenge the law the minute it went into effect. Not surprisingly, this Supreme Court said that such matters were for the states to decide. So, as you might expect, several state legislatures including Texas now have school prayer bills before them.

Until now, I hadn't really reflected much on how all of this was affecting people. I knew it was a negative for us at the company. Last year we tried to hire three top engineering graduates from Stanford, but all of them slipped away. Two of them ended up in Boston and the other, I think, stayed in California.

Yesterday, our local newspaper announced that Exxon International (the old ExxonMobil) is moving its headquarters to London to take better advantage of international markets. Well, that's got to be code for not being able to get anybody who's worth a damn to come to Houston anymore.

I have to say that I'm usually the last one to get in on any trend, but I have the feeling that the exodus is only beginning. Many of the young women employees who moved here from out of state have found Houston less appealing than they'd hoped. Some confided to me that they were already looking to transfer to another location within the company. And, I'm forced to agree that Houston isn't nearly as much fun as it used to be.

But, getting back to the move. You know, when a company announces that its headquarters is moving, that usually spells a bunch of somber faces on those who don't want to go. I've seen it many times in this town before. So, when I arrived at the office last week and found out about the move, I decided to take an informal mental poll. I was surprised to find that 70 percent of the people I had contact with in the office that day had smiles on their faces. And, as for the young women employees I told you about--well, they invited a number of us from the office to join them for a getting-the-hell-out-of-Houston party that night at a nearby restaurant. We all had a lot of fun.

Afterwards, I talked with one of the women, and she told me that she and her boyfriend are both thrilled about the move. They are planning to get married soon and want to raise a family. But, they both agree that they don't want their children to grow up in the unhealthy and backward environment that Texas is becoming.

They have a point. In my trips to New York and Chicago and San Francisco, I feel I can breathe more easily and speak more freely than I do at home. Those places always seem like they're moving forward, whereas when I'm in Houston, I feel like I'm running in place.

Robert, I think writing this letter has really helped me solidify my decision to move with the company to Chicago. And, I have you to thank for making me think through my vague discontent. When you're surrounded by something, you often get used to it without knowing that it's bothering you. Unfortunately for Houston and much of the South, I suspect that most people (and companies, for that matter) will now have second thoughts about moving here.

Well, I have to go. I'll contact you when Alice and I arrive in Chicago. (I know you won't be surprised that she's been the biggest cheerleader in our household for this move.) Let's have dinner so you can fill the two of us in on all the great things that are happening in the Windy City.

Best regards,

Phillip

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Oil sands: An environmental train wreck

Past Peak has a recent post on the environmental and resource constraints on the production crude oil from Canada's vast oil sands deposits. You can't just drill a hole in the ground to get this stuff. It requires huge amounts of sand and clay to be removed from the earth and processed using vast amounts of water. Then, you don't even have oil. You need to add hydrogen taken from natural gas. The scope of the resources needed is mind-boggling. It seems doubtful to me that these deposits will ever play a major role in the oil markets and over time may even become prohibative to produce for both economic and environmental reasons. For more on oil sands, a.k.a. tar sands, see my previous post on the topic.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Could Cuba be the future?

It's a shocking thought. But, in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed, subsidized oil shipments to Cuba, its longtime ally, ceased. The Cubans went through a terrible period. Food and fuel were scarce, and the average Cuban adult lost 20 pounds. But in the next decade Cubans reshaped their economy to use much less oil. How did they do it? They organized public transport using available vehicles. Personal cars have virtually disappeared. The country diversified its agriculture (which was so heavily focused on sugar) and essentially went back to organic means of production. (Modern industrial farming is heavily dependent on oil and natural gas for pesticides and fertilizers not to mention the fuel for machinery, processing and transport.) Many people returned to the land to grow food. Those who stayed in the cities set up gardens everywhere. Today everyone learns how to grow food. The country is also reforesting knowing that this is essential if it wants to maintain the fertility of its soils. (For an audio interview that goes into more detail, click here.)

Today Cuba's citizens enjoy surprisingly good health with some key measures exceeding those of Americans. If peak oil production comes soon, we may be forced to look to a longtime enemy for at least some answers on how to adjust without tearing our society apart. That's really the most shocking thought of all!

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Windmills: NIMBY won't get it

Sustainablog noticed this piece by Bill McKibben in The New York Times on resistance to the siting of power generating windmills. Wind power is probably the most efficient renewable source for the generation of electricity. We can't afford to slow down its deployment as I discussed in this post.

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The precautionary principle and peak oil

In my previous post entitled Should we be concerned about peak oil now? In a word, yes I asked whether we should start preparing now even though we don't know the exact timing of world peak oil production. My answer, of course, is in the title. This article picks up that theme. It asks the question in almost the same way. Are the risks of doing nothing too great? Are the costs of doing something now too wasteful when a peak may not occur for two or three decades? Both I and the author of the linked piece answer "yes" and "no" respectively to these questions.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

How about contests for alternative energy and environmental fixes?

Last year a husband and wife team of venture capitalists ponied up the bulk of a $10 million reward for the first successful flight of a privately-built spacecraft. Since then I've been thinking that prizes for alternative energy and environmental fixes might be one way to address problems in those areas. Now, something like this is happening. The National Academy of Engineers is offering a $1 million prize for an inexpensive, small-scale technique for removing arsenic from drinking water.

Admittedly, such prizes would really only focus on technical fixes. Nobody's going to give out a prize for "Best Plan for Getting People to Stop Buying SUVs" or "Best Approach to Convincing People to Live Less Affluently and Be Satisfied with That." But, when it comes to alternative energy, in particular, technical fixes are going to be part of the solution in the short run. How about a prize for building affordable, attractive, compact solar panels for retrofitting historic homes in a way that doesn't ruin their character? How about one for windmills that could be used to power neighborhood-level grids to be constructed and run by neighborhood associations? There are people far more qualified than I who are capable of thinking of discrete projects that would be feasible and have a great deal of impact. Of course, it would be pointless to offer a prize for something that private industry is going to do anyway. So, does anyone have ideas for projects the marketplace won't bother with right now, but that would make a dent in our energy and environmental problems?

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Well-insulated (from the truth)

Archeologists often use monuments to tell them the condition of a society over time. If the society is properous and produces a lot of surplus food, there's more than enough to feed artisans and builders who themselves produce no food at all. Lots of monuments get built under these conditions. In the case of the ancient Mayans, the last known monument is dated more than a century after the beginning of a long dry period punctuated by three decade-long severe droughts. Shortly after this last monument was completed Mayan civilization disappeared altogether. The question arises, if things were so bad by that point, why would anyone in his right mind think it wise to set aside food and labor to build one more monument, the last one as it turns out, before the collapse of his civilization?

Joseph Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies," offers an explanation. The elites are often protected from the difficulties encountered by the rest of society during an ongoing collapse. They fail to respond to it because from where they sit nothing appears to be wrong. They are comfortable, they have plenty of food, the servants are still being fed, and the work on monuments in still proceeding even as the marginal death is occuring in the countryside (or perhaps a faraway country in our case).

So, it should come as little surprise to us that the managers of ExxonMobil, Monsanto and other hubs of environmental disinformation should think that nothing is wrong. Their surroundings, their wealth, the ease with which they go through life betrays no signal of distress. I used to think that such people were merely greedy, that is, dark-hearted and cruel. They know full well the damage they are doing to the environment and they don't care, I told myself. They don't even care about their own children and grandchildren who will have to live with the consequences.

Tainter's explanation brings the issue into better focus. He makes clear why the power elite can calmly hire public relations specialists and pseudo-scientists to tell us with straight faces that global warming isn't occurring or that humans have nothing to do with it if it is, and many other fibs as well. This elite views real scientists and environmentalists as simply reformers trying to diminish their wealth and power. The world the members of this elite move in is filled to overflowing with whatever they want. And, their certitude is reinforced by an army of well-paid sycophants telling them that the future will be just like the past, only better.

Believing that the powerful were merely cynical convinced me that they shared my views on the dangers of their policies and actions for the environment. I assumed they were merely trying to hang on to power a bit longer by denying the truth. What I realize now is much more alarming: They have a different truth. It's not just a question of exposing them; it's a question of convincing them. That's going to make progress on environmental and energy issues much more difficult than I ever imagined.

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Not with a bang, but a whimper

Several blogs have noticed a post called "The Slow Crash" on a blog by Ran Prieur. (Thanks to Flying Talking Donkey and How to Save the World.) In it Prieur posits a gradual degradation of the world's infrastructure and its political and social institutions under the pressure of energy shortages with crises followed by recoveries, followed by yet more crises. A "slow crash" could lead to two outcomes which are hinted at in his piece. The bad one is that we and our governments desperately try to maintain a centralized system of control. This implies a great deal of violence. The good one is that we come to realize that a decentralized system with lower energy requirements needs to be constructed and we set about creating just that. We may get some of both.

It's a bit of a disappointment for those looking for the apocalypse, environmental or religious; but, it's also more unnerving because it presumes that the signals given to society from its financial markets and its social and physical conditions will be ambiguous at first. There will be no handbook that tells us what they mean. If the energy crunch comes before we are ready, will we know how to intrepret the signals in front of us?

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The 12-step program for oil

CHICAGO, Illinois, February 14, 2005 (ENS) - A new organization is being founded this month in cities across the Midwest - Oil Addicts Anonymous - modeled after the multitude of successful 12 step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Organizers say, "The first step on the road to recovery is simple: admitting we have a problem. Join hundreds of patriotic citizens by taking the first step together."

The first chapter was founded in Madison, Wisconsin on Wednesday by citizens who said they came together to admit that "we as Americans are addicted to oil" and are "ready to take responsibility for this harmful addiction."

"My name is Austin King and I'm an oil addict,” declared Madison, Wisconsin Alderman Austin King. “Having recognized that we all have a problem here, we must work vigilantly to kick the habit. At the national level, we must hold corporations like Bank One and Ford accountable for keeping us hooked and enabling our oil addiction. At the local level we need to must work to stop suburban sprawl, support walkable infill development, and invest in public transportation, bicycle accommodations, and pedestrian safety."
Sometimes the news is so crystal clear that even a blogger has nothing to add. Read the entire article here.

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Monday, February 14, 2005

Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin' eyes?

George Monbiot has it just about right. On global warming, the environmental movement is trumped by mild winters and early springs. "What's so bad about that?" those who live in formerly snow-covered climes will say. The future catastrophe so often predicted by environmental doomsters is unfolding as a delightfully warm day in February. And, if our senses were not deceiving us, we can also listen to bought and paid for public relations specialists posing as experts who tell us that it's all a hoax and that even if it isn't a hoax, it's not that bad. So don't worry, be happy! How can disaster be around the corner when it's 60 degrees in February?

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Biofuels: Are they really helping us?

A number of people picked up on my post lambasting biofuels, Like Easter Island, only with cars. I'm going to add to this analysis by turning to perhaps the main skeptic of the biofuels story, David Pimentel, a Cornell University scientist, and his take on ethanol. (Thanks to Mobjectivist for pointing me in this direction.)

Pimentel's 2003 survey of ethanol energy studies demonstrates among other things that ethanol is a big net energy loser. It takes 123,696 BTUs to make one gallon of ethanol which contains only 99,119 BTUs of energy. Pimentel observes in another piece on his work that if ethanol were a big net energy gainer, then it would make economic sense to run the plants that make it on ethanol. Of course, all those plants are run on fossil fuels, either directly through burning or indirectly through the production of electricity. And, even the latest estimates that Pimentel presents don't include the energy costs of building ethanol plants (something his critics also leave out of their calculations). Pimentel also assumes that the energy value of co-products such as animal feed which are left over from the production process are probably negated by the pollution associated with that production. Even when their energy value is included, ethanol moves from an energy loss of 29% to a loss of 20%, hardly the answer to our energy future. Finally, he makes a compelling case that corn--at least the way we currently produce it--is not a renewable source of anything in the long run when you consider soil erosion and degradation, water pollution from pesticides and fertilizers, and widespread irrigation which will ultimately use up groundwater in the Plains states while increasing soil salinity to the point where soils become barren (a growing problem throughout the farm belt). He adds that a substantial increase in acreage for corn devoted to ethanol would have profound effects on food production and prices.

To give you an idea of how ethanol proponents think, in a 1995 USDA study the authors seem to be aiming at a different mark. They claim that ethanol will replace 7 gallons of imported crude oil for every gallon of ethanol produced. This is because they estimate that 85 percent of the energy needed to produce ethanol comes from domestic sources such as coal and natural gas. This may be an argument for energy independence, but it's not one for energy efficiency. The authors estimate that with co-products ethanol provides 1.24 units of energy for every unit expended to make it. Without figuring the co-products the number is 1.01.

First, the co-products may be useful, but they aren't fuel. Second, we ought to consider that the energy profit ratio for oil, which ethanol is supposed to replace, is about 20-1 for old discoveries and about 8-1 for new discoveries. (The energy profit ratio is the ratio of energy output for each unit of energy input.) This is what we run our economy on. If we expect to replace it and continue on the economic growth trajectory the world is currently on, it stands to reason that we will need to find something that provides a similar energy profit ratio or become 8 to 20 times more efficient in our use of fuels or a combination of both. And, we would need to start making this transition very soon in order to prepare our whole transportation fleet in order to head off emerging energy shortages.

Now, back to reality. Even if we were to concede that ethanol and other biofuels are net energy sources, an energy profit ratio of 1.01 or 1.24 just won't get it. We'll be much better off creating genuinely renewable energy; making our households, our transportation system and our businesses much more energy efficient; and downscaling all of our institutions so that we will be able to live and work in a more localized, lower energy-intensive economy.

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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Weekly Briefs

I've decided to try putting a series of small items together this week, rather than posting them separately. Here they are:

Terminal Illness. Greenpeace Mexico and other organizations are lining up to fight a liquified natural gas terminal planned for Coronado Island near Tijuana. As I discussed in Terminals, terminals everywhere, natural gas production is near a peak in North America, and a gas-hungry continent will now seek to import the stuff. There's only one way to do that and that's in liquid form using special tankers. It means many more fights to come throughout Mexico, the United States and Canada over the citing of these terminals. The main concern: If any of them blow up, it'll be as bad as a nuclear blast.

Plugged In. The Alternative Energy Blog has a lengthy piece on plug-in hybrids, that is, hybrids with an extra battery that allow owners to make most local trips without ever using the gas engine. Prius hybrids sold in the United States can be converted now, but owners may be risking their warranty. Some are choosing to make the conversion anyway. In The answer is blowin' in the wind I discussed how such plug-in hybrids could be a key strategy for making an energy transition.

Recycle or else. Seattle is currently transitioning to mandatory recycling. Right now people who don't follow the rules get a warning, but starting in 2006 they can get fines. As landfills become more scarce and materials prices rise, more municipalities are likely to follow suit.

Dirty alternative energy. "Waste coal," the stuff that's left over from coal mining that isn't worth transporting, has for decades fouled waters and land. Now in Pennsylvania huge piles of the waste are being burned for electricity in state-of-the-art facilities with all the newest pollution control. It takes care of an environmental problem, but it isn't really a solution to our long-term energy needs. The waste coal is still fossil fuel and it's still emitting carbon dioxide, lots of it. Beware of the term "alternative energy." Ask who is using it and how.

Not as advertised. When oil was discovered in and around the Caspian Sea, energy analysts predicted a bonanza totaling 200 billion barrels. Now, the evidence is trickling in. ExxonMobil has announced it will abandon one and possibly two major fields without producing a drop of oil. The trend is not new as this article from 2002 demonstrates. Mid-range estimates put the total reserves in the Caspian region at about 70 billion barrels, quite a bit, but hardly the new Saudi Arabia as has been claimed. (Thanks to Flying Talking Donkey for spotting this one.)

As free as the wind. This piece in The New York Times shows how competitive wind power is becoming. Two problems remain. First, wind is intermittent and so utilities have to keep their coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear plants on line all the time to make sure they can meet demand. Second, there's is currently no cost-effective way to store wind energy for times of peak use. Fuel cells, if they become much cheaper, might be one way. Wind energy could also be stored in the form of water pumped behind a dam which is then released through generating turbines as needed. (This, of course, calls for the availability of such locations.)

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Like Easter Island, only with cars

When European sailors first reached the shores of Easter Island in the middle of the Pacific, all they saw were a huge expanse of grass and some curious stone statues. The people who had once lived there were long gone. The sailors wondered how such massive pieces of stone could have been moved and placed upright without the use of timbers as levers. They correctly deduced that the island had once had trees. Much later, archeologists discovered that all of the trees had been felled for fuel and buildings and to clear land for agriculture, and that after the last tree was gone, the people who lived there eventually perished in a final frenzy of cannibalism.

Now a modern wise man, a university scientist, seems to have recaptured the spirit of Easter Island. He has given us the latest way to use trees: to make ethanol. It's touted as a renewable fuel; but presumably, if we had to fuel America's fleet of SUVs and minivans with trees, our landscape would start to resemble that of the ill-fated Pacific island.

Now, let me pause here to say something: "STOP WITH THE BIOFUELS, ALREADY!" First, many crops, such as the corn used to make ethanol, require huge petroleum and natural gas inputs in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and fuel for machinery. There is simply no net energy gained by fermenting corn grown this way to make ethanol. (And don't tell me you are going to grow organic corn for this purpose!) Second, please note at the bottom of the linked article that the remaining wood fiber is burned. When you ferment and/or burn biofuels, you produce carbon dioxide. I am certain we already have enough of that particular greenhouse gas. Third, the way we manage forests for wood products in NOT sustainable in the least.

Yes, this new process may be a way to get more product out of trees and to use materials that might otherwise be wasted. But, it's not a solution to anything except to increasing the profits of forestry and chemical giants. Biofuels are not the answer to our transportation fuel needs. Instead, if we're not careful, they could become part of the problem.

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Jiminy Cricket and "the long emergency"

"We suffer from a kind of Jiminy Cricket syndrome in this country. We believe that if you wish for something, it will come true. Right now a lot of people - including people who ought to know better - are wishing for some miracle technology to save our collective ass."
So says James Howard Kunstler in a recent speech about what he calls "the long emergency." He outlines the case for an early date for world peak oil production and the implications it has for the way we live. It will mean downscaling all the institutions of daily life including transportation, education, retail, agriculture and food processing to name a few. The global economy, so utterly a product of the "20-year-final-blowout of cheap oil," will essentially cease to function as fuel costs rise to unimaginable heights. And, it is cheap transportation, above all, which has made the global economy possible.

The techno-fixes are fantasy, he says. What he doesn't explain in this speech is that while the techno-fixes are, in fact, technically feasible, they either could never be scaled to the proportions needed to make up for the loss of oil or that scaling would be self-defeating. For example, as David Goodstein, author of "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil" explained in this interview, it would take 10,000 of the largest nuclear power plants to replace our use of fossil fuels. Even if they could be built, the uranium needed to run them would last for 10 to 20 years at most.

But can't we rely on a combination of alternative technologies such as wind, solar, and biomass as well as nuclear? The answer is yes and no. Biomass, as Kunstler states in his speech, "is a joke." It takes so much petroleum to raise crops for burning or converting that the process more often than not is a net energy loser. Wind and solar will be important, but again, they simply can't be scaled to the point where they will completely make up for the loss of oil. This is particularly true when it comes to providing fuel for transportation.

As of now, barring some miracle or a much longer wait than expected for an oil peak, we will soon have to live on considerably less energy. Kunstler suggests that we start preparing now.

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The peak oil Cassandras

If people call you a Cassandra, they often mean you make catastrophic predictions that never come true. This points with certitude to their ignorance of her, but not necessarily of you. As it turns out, when Cassandra refused Apollo's love, he cursed her with the gift of unerring prophesy. She is known especially for her empassioned, but unheeded warnings about the impending fall of Troy. (Why was her talent for prophesy a curse? Read through to the end.)

And, so we come to Colin Campbell, founder of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and longtime "Cassandra" about world peak oil production. Which way should we take the characterization, the naive way or the one that comes from a thorough study of Greek mythology? We'll know in a couple of years for Campbell has reaffirmed his prediction of a disturbingly imminent worldwide peak in 2007 in the association's latest newsletter. In addition, a recent study prepared for the Oil Depletion Analysis Center and conducted by the editor of the respected Petroleum Review concludes that after 2007 supplies from new oil projects are likely to drop off sharply. This is in the face of accelerating depletion rates from existing fields and rising demand from places such as India and China. (A serious economic recession would, of course, reduce demand and push back the peak.)

There are multiple ways that the world can get to an ultimate production peak. They involve a complex mix of economic, geopolitical, geological, infrastructure, and business factors. (See my post Drilling on Wall Street for some insight on why the current strategy of the oil majors may be bringing the peak forward.) So, it's not surprising that peak oil estimates are easy to challenge on a number of grounds. But, the fact of a peak remains. No serious scientist disputes that there will be one. The only question is when.

As to why Cassandra's gift of prophecy was a curse--well, Apollo also included one condition, namely, that Cassandra would never be believed.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The terminator is back, maybe

When Monsanto announced that it was ready to release so-called "terminator" seeds, that is, seeds that grow crops which are sterile and therefore cannot reproduce, the public outcry was so great that it put its plans on hold. There has been a de facto moratorium on creating and using such seeds ever since. But a Canadian group has learned that the Canadian government plans to seek a lifting of this moratorium at an upcoming United Nations meeting.

The problem with such seeds is that they make farmers completely dependent on multinational corporations since the crops don't produce any usable seed. My reading also leads me to conclude that the terminator gene could migrate into wild cousins of commonly grown crops and into non-GMO varieties with unpredictable and possibly catastrophic results. If anyone knows more about the genetic migration problem and where I could find additional information, please leave a comment or contact me by email.

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Bumpy ride

That's what this financial writer predicts for 2005 and beyond. His main evidence for this is near the bottom of the piece where he details the decreasing number of large oil finds and the consistent gap between consumption and discovery since the 1980s. If you want to understand why, in the face of all our technology, discoveries are declining, read my previous post, Faith-based economics II: The case of oil's sudden scarcity.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Clueless

President Bush recently told The Wall Street Journal that nuclear power is a "renewable source of energy." (For the full interview go to the bottom of the linked article.) One might think that he got such an impression from reading the Journal's editorial page, a strong booster of nuclear energy and a world-renown source of misinformation, pure fantasy, and outright lies. But, since the president has already told us that he doesn't read newspapers, I think I'll chalk his mistake up to the fact that he's just plain clueless.

To assist the ongoing project of orienting the president to reality a group of 48 organizations sent him a short letter explaining his error. Perhaps someone on his staff will read it to him.

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Report from New Zealand: How to wreck paradise

Family members of mine have lived in or made long visits to New Zealand, and they have always been completely taken with its charm: the friendly people, the slower pace of life, the egalitarian society, the clean environment, and the breathtaking natural beauty. But that was quite a while ago. New Zealand's embrace of the global economy is quickly destroying what had been the country's greatest assets. New Zealanders have now firmly joined the rest of the world on an unsustainable path as they buy more SUVs, build more suburbs and country palaces, and adopt the shop-til-you-drop attitude so prevalent in other consumer societies.

The author of the linked article reports that New Zealand officials dismiss talk of an impending peak in world oil production. They insist that huge oil finds are ahead that will push the peak back to 2067. Even if they are right (and this seems highly doubtful), what sense does it make to continue down a path that will lead to your own petroleum-inspired doom?

Perhaps the most telling thing in this piece is its discussion of local government, a discussion that points to a possible way to begin moving politically toward a more sustainable society. National governments in New Zealand and elsewhere seem incapable of even considering the possibility that their current joint trajectory might really be a suicide pact.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

The answer is blowin' in the wind

Lester Brown offers a doable strategy for cutting gasoline consumption by 70 percent: wind power combined with hybrid vehicles that have a second battery which allow local trips to be entirely electric. As I've been saying, wind power seems to be the most likely candidate to become a major source of renewable electricity. The problem in transportation has been that you can't power a car or truck with a windmill, or can you? That's really what Brown is suggesting; it's simply being done through the power grid rather than directly.

He admits that not everyone will welcome wind turbines in their communities, but he adds that rural populations, especially farmers and ranchers are finding them an excellent way to enhance their livelihoods.

Could Brown's vision work? I say, yes. Will we embrace it? The jury is out, but the robust sales of hybrid cars are a good leading indicator.

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Sunday, February 06, 2005

It's nice to share

The G-7 nations are suddenly eager to see information on actual oil reserves in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela where state-owned oil companies dominate. A Saudi spokesman responded, "Data on reserves is information and information is power.'' Why give away that power? The spokesman apparently couldn't think of a good reason.

More important, however, is that fact that the G-7 is requesting reserve data for the first time ever so far as I can tell. Don't they believe that the marketplace will take care of imbalances in oil supply and demand? After years of low oil prices, are they afraid that OPEC has the upper hand? Or could they be looking for information about when a possible peak in world oil production might occur?

There's also a call to reduce "barriers to investment," codespeak for opening up state-owned oil lands to foreign oil companies who will have incentives to pump the oil more quickly than their state-run counterparts. For more on why private companies tend to produce more oil faster, see my post Faith-based economics III: Why the market price doesn't tell us the true state of oil reserves.

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Friday, February 04, 2005

It depends on what the meaning of "organic" is

Arthur Harvey, an organic blueberry farmer in Maine, thought the National Organic Program (NOP), the arm of the USDA that oversees the organic label, had gone too far in diluting and weakening the act governing the label. In October 2003 he sued the agency. His claims were rejected by a federal district court, but last week an appeals court accepted some of Harvey's arguments and has directed that changes be made in the NOP. Organic Business News, a monthly newsletter, (sorry, it's only available by mail) summarized Harvey's concerns in its December issue as follows:

1. NOP cannot grant a blanket exemption from the National List [of allowed synthetic substances] for "any non-organically produced agricultural product" when it is not commercially available.

2. The NOP cannot allow the certification of products with less than 95% organic ingredients.

3. The NOP cannot allow synthetic ingredients in organically-labeled processed foods when OFPA (the Organic Foods Production Act) forbids the addition of synthetic ingredients to processed foods.

4. Wholesalers and distributors who meet the definition of handlers and handling operations in OFPA cannot be excluded from the law.

5. Certifiers should be allowed to give free advice to their clients to help them overcome barriers to certification, even though they receive money from the clients. [The regulation against this was promulgated to prevent a conflict of interest among those who certify organic status for farming and processing operations. Private consultants who have no say over certification currently do the bulk of the advice-giving.]

6. Dairy animals cannot be fed 80% organic feed for the first nine months of the year prior to being sold as organic, because the law says that dairy animals must be fed organically produced feed for not less than 12 months prior to sale.

7. Certifiers should be allowed to use their own private certification seals when their standards exceed those of the USDA.
The appeals court agreed with Harvey on three issues:
1. The NOP had no authority to allow some 38 synthetic ingredients into the processing and handling of organic foods.

2. Dairy herds must be fed 100 percent organic feed during the required 12-month conversion process.

3. Proposals to use non-organic agricultural ingredients in food labelled organic will have to be reviewed in each case for each processor to determine whether an organic version is not commercially available. No blanket exemptions are allowed.
Few people took Harvey seriously until his suit was joined by the Organic Consumers Association, Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Inc., NOFA-Mass, Greenpeace USA, Waterkeeper Alliance and prominent individuals in the organic community. With their help he continued to pursue the case. The case might still be appealed, and the district court is being asked to clarify issues surrounding the blanket exemption issue.

Unfortunately, the case is just another example of how lawyers rather than farmers will now be fighting over what it means for something to be organic. This is what Dennis Blank, editor and publisher of Organic Business News, told me he feared would happen. When the lawyers get a hold of the law, it won't be about what's organic anymore. It'll be about who has the best lawyers. The organic community got lucky this time. Will they be so lucky in the future?

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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Life imitates art: Three Days of the Condor

Perhaps some of you will remember the 1975 movie "Three Days of the Condor" with Robert Redford as a young CIA analyst who discovers an unauthorized plan by a rogue group inside the CIA to take over Middle East oilfields. That such a plan would be unauthorized and even scandalous must certainly seem quaint to us now. I was thinking about the final scene of the movie recently and found this script of it online. Redford plays "Turner," the CIA analyst. Cliff Robertson plays "Higgins," the CIA's New York chief, who is trying to hunt down Turner when Turner surprises him on the street. The scene now seems eerily prescient:

TURNER
Do we have plans to invade the Middle East?

HIGGINS
Are you crazy?

TURNER
Am I?

HIGGINS
Look, Turner...

TURNER
Do we have plans?

HIGGINS
No. Absolutely not.
(then)
We have games. That's all. We play games. "What if?", "How many men?", "What would it take?", "Is there a cheaper way of destabilizing the regime?"
(quieter)
That's what we're paid to do.

TURNER
So...Atwood just took the games too seriously. He was really going to do it...wasn't he?

HIGGINS
It was a renegade operation! Atwood knew 54/12 could never authorize it: not with all the heat on the company.
TURNER
Suppose there'd been no heat? And I hadn't stumbled on the plan? Nobody had?

HIGGINS
(shrugs)
Different ballgame. The fact is, it wasn't a bad plan. It could've worked.

TURNER
Jesus--What is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same as telling the truth.

HIGGINS
It's simple economics, Turner...There's no argument. Oil now, 10 or 15 years, it'll be food, or plutonium. Maybe sooner than that. What do you think the people will want us to do then?

TURNER
Ask them!

HIGGINS
Now?
(shakes head)
Huh-uh. Ask them when they're running out. When it's cold at home and the engines stop and people who aren't used to hunger...go hungry! They won't want us to ask...
(quiet savagery:)
They'll just want us to get it for them.


How sadly, darkly true.

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The hydrogen economy: It's really a nuclear economy

For those who maintain visions of a hydrogen economy delivering us from the evils of petroleum, there is one currently available solution: nuclear power. As you've been reminded over and over again on this blog, hydrogen is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier. That means it has to be extracted from somewhere else (probably water) using a genuine energy source, a process that requires considerably more energy input than the hydrogen will yield. This piece outlines what it would take to do it with nuclear power and why other avenues are simply not feasible. The writer admits that he is not even going to attempt to deal with the nuclear waste problem. But, that comes as no surprise. Nobody wants to deal with it.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2005

We'll figure that out later

The nuclear power industry is abandoning its long-held position that a permanent nuclear waste disposal site must be approved before a new nuclear plant can be built. Now that energy prices are high and the administration in the White House is friendly to nuclear power, the industry is ready to move ahead. But, as usual, the great believers in the free market want handouts in the form of subsidies and insurance guarantees. (No insurance company in its right mind will insure a nuclear power plant without a government guarantee or legal limitation and right now that limit for payouts is $560 million.) This quote from The New York Times piece cited above shows that the industry is quite matter-of-fact about its desire to spread its costs to the public at large:

A spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying group, Steven Kerekes, said, "We believe it's the government's job to find a solution, whether that be Yucca Mountain or somewhere else."
I wonder if the nuclear industry will also be eager to spreads its profits around to the public as well. I kind of doubt it.

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