Sunday, June 24, 2007

The difference between hypocrisy and unilateral disarmament

A charge of hypocrisy always carries with it the Biblical echo of Matthew 23 and thus seems like a weighty and serious condemnation coming directly from God. That is why it is a favorite among those who have lost an argument on its merits and who must now resort to ad hominem attacks.

Such was the case with attacks on Al Gore's personal energy use earlier this year which, in some instances, found their way into major media including USA Today. Gore has responded to some of the attacks, and I'll let you judge his effectiveness.

But it is undeniable that we would not even be discussing Al Gore's energy use today had he not crisscrossed the globe in jet aircraft to make his global warming slideshow presentation more than 2000 times. Nearly everyone now alive is enmeshed in systems that rely heavily on fossil fuels. Even simple household tasks such as cooking and mowing the lawn use fossil fuels. Even if you have a push lawn mower, fossil fuels were used to make it and ship it. Gore's point, of course, is that we have to change the system so that it doesn't run on fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Naturally, it would be very hard for him to advocate for such a change while living in a lean-to in the forest. And so, Gore uses the tools available to hydrocarbon man: air travel, slideshows, microphones, television and radio appearances, the Internet, and now, his film, An Inconvenient Truth.

I've never met Al Gore, but I do know many people who are trying to inform the public about the twin dangers of global warming and peak oil. Most of them think carefully about the energy they use in trying to get the message out. And, most do a balancing test that amounts to this: Does the good I'm trying to do exceed the damage I must do, say, through travel? It's not an easy judgement to make. There is no simple equation into which to plug a set of appropriate numbers. I know at least one prominent person in the peak oil movement who says he can no longer justify attending overseas conferences because of the energy used and the greenhouse gases emitted.

And yet, to forego travel and modern methods of communication altogether would be to engage in unilateral disarmament. And, isn't that what the global warming and peak oil deniers really want?

The truth is that all of us are hypocrites. None of us measures up to our own ideals unless we have set our standards so low that they don't deserve the name ideals. And, yet our ideals point the way even as we stumble toward them.

Meanwhile, the propagandists, pundits, and so-called scholars aligned with the fossil fuel industry jet about freely with their cellphones and BlackBerries in hand as they burn untold quantities of fossil fuel while spreading their disinformation. Since they've lost the scientific argument about global warming, they now turn to the savagery of personal attacks. (The peak oil debate doesn't yet have the traction of the global warming issue. But we can look forward to a similar dynamic when peak oil reaches the same level of public awareness.)

These deniers often tell us how they can respect a principled person with whom they disagree; but the one thing they can't abide is a hypocrite. Naturally, because the deniers don't believe we have a problem with global warming or fossil fuel supplies, they are free to go on gorging themselves on fossil fuels without any feelings of shame. (By that logic, it seems, they could kill people they don't like without shame as long as they believe it to be consistent with their principles.)

How convenient, then, to deny the inconvenient truths that get in the way of one's personal desires and narrow self-interest! Apparently for the deniers, all it takes to live a blameless life is to cultivate a certain state of mind that makes virtues out of all one's vices.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

See you next week

I have just returned from a week out of the country and have only started to catch up. I expect to post again Sunday, June 24.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The official story: A lesson in how to undermine it

It is now the official story in the United States that there is plenty of energy to be had in the world; it's just that energy that comes in the form of petroleum is mostly in the wrong hands, namely, OPEC-member regimes that hate us. So, now the quest is for an ever-elusive energy independence that currently involves massive subsidies to ethanol makers, soon-to-be-massive subsidies to would-be coal-to-liquids makers, imports of oil made from Canadian tar sands, oil shale, new nuclear power plants, liquified natural gas imports, and offshore drilling. There are also preposterous, but widely believed claims about the possibility of a hydrogen economy. (For a brief and intelligent explanation about why it is very unlikely to happen, read this.) The energy independence story appeals to a deeply held belief in American life: Good old American ingenuity can solve any problem.

For those concerned about world peak oil production (and peak natural gas and coal, for that matter), none of the above responses seem adequate or, in some cases, entirely ethical, especially with regard to environmental effects such as global warming. The problems with such responses have been detailed again and again on the web, in specialized publications, and in many places in the mainstream media. If this is the case, how come the peak oil story and the many warnings about such responses to our energy challenges aren't center stage in the American consciousness? There are plenty of reasons, but I propose to discuss what I think is a critical one: The peak oil movement has been focused mainly on selling a new narrative to the public without first dislodging the existing one. As long as people have faith in the existing official story about achieving American "energy independence" within the framework of a cornucopian future, it will be almost impossible to sell them on another story no matter how carefully constructed and supported.

Let me dwell for a few moments on the astonishing success of the so-called 911 truth movement. In discussing its success, I make no claims whatsoever about the validity of the movement's conclusions. I am simply interested here in understanding why it has succeeded in convincing more than one third of Americans that "federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East." In addition, 16 percent of those surveyed said that "it's 'very likely' or 'somewhat likely' that 'the collapse of the twin towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the two buildings.'" (Imagine, for a moment, where the peak oil movement would be if a third of all Americans felt that world peak oil production was, say, likely to happen within the next decade and likely to have very serious consequences.)

Given that very few of the 911 truth movement's contentions have been widely reported by mainstream sources--and when they are they are usually ridiculed--how can we account for this success? I don't believe all of it can be attributed to the power of the Internet. The peak oil movement also has a wide-ranging and intelligent Internet presence, but has not broken through in a similar way. I think we can account for the 911 truth movement's success by looking at the focus of its campaign.

That focus surprisingly has not been on replacing the official 911 story as exemplified by the 911 Commission Report, but rather on discrediting it. The strategy has been to raise as many questions as possible about the official version of events. In fact, alternative theories of the 911 attack range from careless neglect by the Bush Administration of warnings about possible terrorist threats all the way to active participation at the highest levels of the U. S. government in planning the attacks. No single narrative has been widely adopted by those who disbelieve the official story. What this shows is that a coherent alternative narrative is not needed in order to discredit an official account. All one needs is a relentless attack on the credibility of the official story.

By contrast, those in the peak oil movement generally start a conversation about oil depletion with an attempt to explain Hubbert's Peak. It is a laudable impulse to want to educate people with all the facts. But it is not necessarily the most efficient way to sway a mass audience. Keep in mind that many of those proposing the solutions outlined in the first paragraph of this piece do not dispute peak oil theory. When confronted with the Hubbert Curve, they will quite confidently respond, "Yeah, we know all about peak oil. And, the solutions are already being perfected: biofuels, coal-to-liquids, tar sands, oil shale, offshore drilling, imported LNG, electrically powered transport from new nuclear power and so on." The challenge isn't to convince people that we have a problem with oil. People know we have a problem with oil. The challenge is to convince them that we don't have the solutions, at least not ones that will allow us to go on living the way we are now.

Fortunately, the peak oil movement has a mountain of evidence with which to discredit the official story. Less fortunately, there is no single official government panel or report to focus on. About the closest thing we have in that regard is the U. S. Energy Information Administration reference case for peak oil which projects its occurrence in 2037. But, in reality, the official story is a disparate set of assumptions drawn from many areas including 1) the American historical experience (for example, winning World War II and resuming business as usual after the oil shocks of the 1970s); 2) the cornucopian ideological backlash led by people such as Julian Simon; 3) the relentless infiltration of neoclassical economics into popular discourse, particularly notions of substitutability; 4) continuing technological progress in many highly visible areas such as medicine and electronics; 5) the combination of the Gulf War, Iraq War and the 911 attacks which have brought into focus American dependence on oil imports; 6) the highly publicized boom in biofuels; and 7) the heavily hyped promise of hydrogen cars.

This makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to mount a campaign to discredit bogus solutions for addressing energy depletion. However, it is not necessary to demolish every single argument supporting a seamless transition to a cornucopian future. It is only necessary to begin by calling into question some of those arguments in order to start the process of undermining the official story. Questions lead to more questions which lead to openness to an alternative narrative about the future of society and the planet.

Again, fortunately, the peak oil movement does have a coherent alternative narrative about the direction society should go, and that narrative is complete with action plans. That narrative generally includes emphasis on efficiency; conservation; relocalization of nearly every aspect of our lives; genuinely sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar; public transportation; compact development; redevelopment of cities; small-scale, low-input agriculture; and many other specifics. Entire communities are moving ahead to implement these ideas in places such as Willits, California and Kinsale, Ireland.

By contrast the 911 truth movement does not appear to offer a coherent narrative or plan of action. Perhaps individual members of the movement are working to impeach President Bush or to encourage more official investigations or to create political change through elections. But, there appears to be neither a guiding template for action nor a clear description of what the world would look like if it were run the way those in the 911 truth movement would like it to be run.

I count it a huge plus that the peak oil movement has been able to outline a vision of a sustainable future and even more, begun to implement it. But my years doing advertising and public relations work tell me that the movement could do a lot better in advancing its cause. One of the unfortunate rules of thumb of the public relations business is this: If you're explaining, you're losing. Those in the peak oil movement are all too happy to provide endlessly detailed explanations about peak oil and responses to it. Kudos to those who have informed themselves so well and are good at articulating their knowledge.

But before most people will be able to hear the peak oil movement's narrative, they will have to develop doubts about the official story. Naturally, the peak oil movement will get some help from events. Recent high gasoline prices have caused people to seek explanations. But we cannot wait for events to do the work for us. As most of those familiar with peak oil already know, by the time peak arrives (and let's hope that those who think it already has are wrong), it will be too late to avoid very unpleasant consequences.

So, my suggestion is to focus on questioning the current official narrative of technological advancement, alternative fuels and new sources of oil that will supposedly lead to a seamless energy transition. It may somehow seem not quite right to tailor one's approach to fit a public that is confused by detailed explanations and often even suspicious of them. But my experience tells me that the peak oil movement will make much faster progress if it puts more emphasis on questioning those spouting the official story, thereby forcing them to come up with the detailed explanations. Those explanations will only reveal more flaws in their arguments which can lead to further questions. Such explanations will fatigue the public which has a short attention span and is inclined to put more emphasis on the questions than the answers. Pursuing this strategy means, of necessity, being ready with plenty of disquieting follow-up questions.

Once a large enough portion of the public begins to question the official narrative, I am confident that the peak oil movement will be able to present an alternative narrative that is clear, coherent, and principled enough to be accepted. But until the tipping point arrives, I think the entire movement would be well served by focusing a larger portion of its effort on propagating questions about the official story. To that end, I list 10 questions below that I think may be useful for this purpose, and I invite readers to list many more in the comments.

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10 questions to challenge the official story

  1. How do you explain the sudden 50 to 100 percent gains in the oil reserves of many OPEC countries in the mid-1980s?

  2. How do we know the oil reserves claimed by many OPEC countries--over 60 percent of the world's reserves--are even there since those countries won't allow an independent audit?

  3. How many coal-to-liquids plants are there in the world today? Why so few?

  4. How many commercial oil shale plants are now producing oil in the world today? How many are planned?

  5. Does anybody know how much uranium is available using current technology and extraction techniques? If there are figures, who compiles them and how can we be sure they are reliable?

  6. Why have past oil price predictions by major forecasters including the U. S. government turned out to be so wrong? If they missed developments such as the tremendous growth in oil demand in China and India, isn't it possible that current optimistic forecasts by some forecasters about greater oil supply and lower prices in the future could be wrong?

  7. The United States now expends 1 unit of energy to get 39 units to run the non-energy economy. Can you explain how our society will function if we move to biofuels such as corn ethanol that would require us to expend at least 15 units of energy for every 9 delivered to the non-energy economy? (This assumes, of course, that we accept the U. S. Department of Energy's very generous estimate that corn ethanol has an energy profit ratio of 1.6 to 1. Lowering it to 1.2 to would mean we'd need 45 units of energy for every 9 delivered to the non-energy economy. Some researchers such as David Pimentel say the energy profit ratio is less than 1, making ethanol an energy sink.)

  8. If we have to use other energy sources to extract hydrogen to fuel a hydrogen economy, why not just use those other energy sources directly? Wouldn't that be more efficient?

  9. Even if world peak oil production is many years away, why wouldn't it be a good idea to start getting ready now? (This question is often useful if paired with question 10.)

  10. Haven't you heard of the Hirsch Report commissioned by the U. S. Department of Energy which calls for a crash program to get ready for peak oil?

Please note that in posing these questions I am not trying to be internally consistent; that is, I'm not trying to make a case for a coherent alternative path. I am merely trying to get people to ask questions about the official story so as to open them up to an alternative narrative. I look forward to readers' suggestions for additional questions.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Road to nowhere?

Last week I attended a hearing on the transportation plan for my county for the year 2030. Similar plans are mandated by federal law for most localities in the United States. Though not explicit, the assumption behind our plan is that liquid fuels will remain cheap and abundant through 2030 and beyond. I suspect that most of the nation's transportation planners share this assumption and that therefore most of the country's transportation plans embrace it.

Below are comments I presented before my local transportation planning agency concerning its 2030 plan. I hope these comments will provide some ideas for those who want to comment on plans in their own locales. My planning agency goes by the rather strange name of Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study though a web search reveals that several agencies use this format for their names, for example, Chicago Area Transportation Study. Many also use the generic term for such agencies, metropolitan planning organization, tacked onto the name of the area covered by the plan, for example, Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Miami Urbanized Area. For a list of such agencies, check the Association of Metropolitan Planning Organizations website.

These planning organizations meet frequently and provide many opportunities for citizen input. Some jurisdictions may be beyond the comment period for their long-range plans; but, transportation planners are essentially planning all the time, so virtually any time would be appropriate to bring energy issues to their attention.

Below are the comments which I read before the Kalamazoo Area Transportation Study or KATS on March 29:

Good evening. My name is Kurt Cobb and I live in the city of Kalamazoo. I am neither a scientist nor an engineer. Rather, I am concerned citizen who also happens to write frequently about energy and environmental issues.

Transportation planners (like many of the rest of us) desperately want to know the one thing which they cannot know: the future. I understand that KATS is obliged by law to look out decades into the future and attempt to anticipate the transportation needs of this county. And, I understand that this plan will evolve over time as the future unfolds. I also understand that the planning process is necessary and useful for soliciting public input. None of us would be here today if we did not have something to comment on.

That said, history teaches us that the future is the domain of unexpected events and discredited predictions. In our technologically driven society, a forecaster predicting the outlines of our world 20 or even 10 years from now would, for example, have to know about all the inventions of the coming decade or two and their effect on society. This, of course, would mean that the forecaster would be very close to inventing all those inventions right now which means he or she would really be talking about the present and not the future.

Still, there are some things, such as our sprawling transportation infrastructure, which cannot be planned on a napkin the night before construction begins and so we must try to guess at a future whose outlines are beyond knowing with any specificity.

My aim this evening is not to comment on the details of the 2030 transportation plan, but rather to question one of its tacit and yet critical assumptions, namely, that liquid fuels will remain abundant and cheap through the year 2030. There are many reasons to believe that we cannot count on cheap, abundant liquid fuels in the decades to come. I will get to those in a moment.

First, let me say something about the asymmetry of the risks we face in transportation planning for this county or really for any place that relies on motorized transport. If the most optimistic predictions about the availability of liquid fuels in 2030 are realized, it is possible that this plan will not provide enough new roads to handle all of the traffic that will result. So, the risks are that the roads in Kalamazoo County would end up choked with cars and trucks for some time until additional roads could be built. However, if the most pessimistic predictions about the availability of liquid fuels are realized, we will be living in a completely different world. Instead of clogged highways and roads, we will find empty expanses of crumbling asphalt that may have limited use as bike paths or walkways, but which will have turned out to be a mammoth waste of resources in an energy-constrained world. The age of the private automobile will be over.

No one knows which of these two outcomes will occur or whether something in-between will result. But, it is clear by comparing the two most extreme scenarios that the risks we face are wildly asymmetrical, that is, one scenario would reveal the plan we have before us as a colossal planning failure while the other would demonstrate that it was somewhat inadequate, but not necessarily incorrect in its general direction.

This is why I would advocate that future plans incorporate an explicit energy supply forecast with lower and upper bounds. (Price is less relevant than supply since price merely rations supply and fluctuates based on immediate demand.) If this is done, the plan will in all likelihood have to include various plans based on various scenarios for energy availability. In this way, policymakers could determine the most prudent course based a range of outcomes rather than trying to do something which none of us can do: Predict the future precisely.

Now, let me say a few words about a why I believe we may not be able to count on cheap, abundant liquid fuels. I say liquid fuels because nearly all transportation worldwide runs on liquid fuels. There is a tiny, but increasing portion that runs on electricity and this type of energy may offer a path for replacing at least part of the liquid fuel I expect us to lose in the next couple of decades.

First, we must understand that 86 percent of the world's primary energy supply comes from fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and oil. (I say primary energy supply because electricity, for example, is an energy carrier and thus classed as a secondary energy supply and not an energy source.) Fossil fuels are made from organic material, much of it deposited hundreds of millions of years ago in seabeds and on land. They are continuously being made in the Earth's crust, but at rates that are so slow that this replenishment has no significance for humans living now or any time in the next several million years. In other words, fossil fuels are for all practical purposes finite.

What this means is that for all fossil fuel resources the world will reach a peak in the rate of production followed by an irreversible decline. No amount of effort, no price, no new technology will work to stop the decline although these things may help to moderate it. Surprisingly, this peak will occur even as huge reserves still lie in the ground. But it is the rate at which we can get them out of the ground that is crucial, for everything in society today depends on our ability to support economic growth by continuously increasing the rate of production of our primary energy sources, especially fossil fuels.

As it turns out, natural gas in North America appears to have peaked already at about 27 trillion cubic feet per year, running along a production plateau since about 1998. This is despite very high prices and unprecedented drilling efforts. And, a moratorium on development of the world's largest natural gas field in Qatar containing 14 percent of the world's reserves has called into question whether the growth in liquefied natural gas supplies will be sufficient to satisfy both North American and Asian demand growth. The idea that natural gas turned into liquid fuels will provide a significant substitute for declining fuels derived from petroleum should be regarded with considerable skepticism.

As for oil, peak projections range from 2005, meaning, of course, that it's already happened, to 2037, an estimate provided by the U. S. Energy Information Administration and the one most often cited by the optimists. But the EIA estimate should be taken with a grain of salt. This is the same agency that missed the peak in American domestic oil production in 1970 and predicted growing supplies of natural gas throughout this decade. No matter what date you believe world peak oil production will occur--and there is going to be a peak and then a decline at some point--perhaps more important than any exacting prognostication as to the time of the peak is an evaluation of what it would take to make up our deficit in liquid fuels after the peak.

It turns out that the U. S. Department of Energy has already undertaken such a study, and it makes for sobering reading. Commonly referred to as the Hirsch Report after its principal author, Robert Hirsch, the report concludes the following: It will take a crash program to develop alternative fuels and implement conservation measures starting 20 years in advance of the peak to avoid significant societal and economic disruptions resulting from a shortfall in liquid fuel volumes. This is regardless of when the peak occurs. So, even if the optimists are right, we have little time left to start making the transition, and, of course, changing our transportation system to accommodate these new realities.

Let me cover briefly various panaceas that are currently being offered. First, there are known methods for turning coal into liquid fuels, and we are said to have a 250-year supply of coal in the United States. These methods are very carbon intensive and therefore have implications for global warming. But I'm not going to address that issue here, though I believe any intelligent energy supply forecast will have to take into account the near certainty of carbon emission limits. But setting aside the global warming implications, is there really that much coal left? A new independent study produced by the German-based Energy Working Group tells us, for instance, that Chinese coal reserve data hasn't been updated since 1992 even though 20 percent of those reserves have presumably been produced. This is no small matter since China is supposed to have one of the largest coal reserves in the world. There are similar anomalies all over the globe including the curious fact that while annual coal tonnage in the U. S. continues to climb, the total energy content of that coal has been declining since 1998.

Second, biofuels are often touted as a replacement for gasoline and diesel. Even if all the corn grown in the United States were converted to ethanol, it would supply only 7 percent of our liquid fuel needs. Only if all the arable land in North America were put under oilseed cultivation could we fuel the North American vehicle fleet with the much vaunted biodiesel. In other words, we could drive, but we couldn't eat. (Here I'm assuming, of course, that the entire fleet has been converted to diesel.) But, there are serious questions about whether both of these biofuels are actually energy losers, that is, they require more energy to produce than they return which would make them a drain on our current fossil fuel resources.

Third, the words "hydrogen economy" are now frequently heard from the lips of politicians and policymakers. Alas, hydrogen is not an energy source. There are no hydrogen mines. There are currently two ways to make hydrogen: strip it from natural gas which is already in short supply or make it through the electrolysis of water. And, that means, of course, that you need another energy source to make the electricity which in turn means that hydrogen is an energy loser. In addition, there are huge problems with storage and transport. But, beyond this is something that may have escaped your notice. All the talk earlier this decade about hydrogen cars has quieted down considerably as major carmakers have either drastically scaled back their research or abandoned it altogether. The major reason: the technological hurdles are much larger than anyone had assumed.

This leaves us for the moment with electricity. I believe we must begin a serious effort to electrify our transportation system and save what dwindling liquid fuels we will have for only three purposes: emergency vehicles, rural transport and farm machinery.

While hybrid cars are a start and plug-in hybrids may become commonplace within the next several years, I believe we will need to go far beyond the private automobile. After all, half of the energy that a car will ever use has already been used by the first time you take it for drive. In an energy-constrained world, it seems doubtful that we will be able to provide private automobile transportation to the masses, even if it is electrically powered. We will instead need to electrify our public transportation system and vastly expand it. We desperately need to expand greatly our intercity passenger rail service and add to our freight rail service while electrifying both. We need to bring more electrified rapid transit to our cities similar to the SkyTrain system found in Vancouver.

The electricity we will need will have to come from wind and solar, and possibly some nuclear, if we are to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming. Fortunately for us, Lake Michigan is one of the greatest wind resources in the world and large, state-of-the-art wind turbines placed inland from the lake and near major electrical infrastructure have the potential to power much of the Midwest.

If we move forward with the electrification of transportation, and it later turns out that liquid fuels are in ample supply, I think there will be many advantages and few disadvantages to having done so. On the other hand, if we are passing into the post-petroleum age, we will be obliged, in my view, to replace the notion of consumer preference--which is clearly an artifact of the oil age--with the notion of societal necessity.

This is only a cursory look at the problem of liquid fuel supplies and one possible solution, the electrification of transport. But, I hope it will stimulate the curiosity of the people who plan our transportation system to examine energy issues more closely as they proceed with their very important work.

Thank you.