Sunday, December 26, 2010

Taking a break--Happy Holidays!

No post this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 2.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Will shale gas turn out to be an energy sink?

If you externalize the costs of a business activity, it means other people pay the costs--environmental, social and otherwise--and you get the profits. It goes on all the time in extractive industries such as oil and natural gas and mining. And, it is also a natural strategy for manufacturers who dump their pollution into the air and the water. It's even practiced in finance where the executives of Wall Street banks have managed to collect the bonuses made off a phony boom in the last decade and saddle taxpayers with the losses of the inevitable bust caused by bad and often fraudulent loans, misleading derivative contracts, and leveraged speculation in stocks and commodities.

If the loopholes are there, you can be assured that people in business will take advantages of them. That's exactly what is happening in the business of shale gas drilling. Drillers are exempt from federal clean air and water regulations under a bill shepherded through Congress in 2005 by none other former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney in his capacity as the then vice president of the United States. (Halliburton is one of the world's largest providers of drilling fluids for shale gas drilling and other oil and gas drilling operations.) That means the drillers can externalize the environmental costs of these hazardous fluids and other materials needed to fracture the shale and thereby free the natural gas. They can foist those costs on nearby residents in the form of ruined water supplies, toxic air pollution, poisoned land, and health problems for humans and animals.

The environmental and health horrors associated with shale gas drilling are now in the news on a daily basis. But I have begun to think about the issue in another way. All of these externalized costs have an energy cost. And, the toxic fracturing fluid--millions of gallons of which are pumped into each and every shale gas well--will stretch out the time frame during which such costs are borne. No one knows what will happen to the half of that fluid which never returns to the surface during operations. There is concern that it could migrate to drinking water aquifers and destroy the drinking water not just for the few who happen to live near a drilling site, but for people living in huge swaths of the United States by polluting water sources for large cities such as New York.

Now, of course, that water could be cleaned up if it becomes toxic. Already shale gas drillers are having to provide filtering systems for people whose well water has become contaminated. In some cases, even this isn't enough, and water must now be trucked in to families whose water is no longer fit to drink even with filtering.

In order to judge whether shale gas will provide any net energy to society, we must first decide where to set its system boundaries. It is hard to know exactly where to stop spatially: Should we, for example, include the energy needs of a family dependent on a worker at a subcontractor that provides software services to the driller? But, it is even harder to know what time frame to use.

One thing is certain. The legacy energy costs of doing shale gas drilling will not disappear anytime soon. The country and its people could be paying the externalized costs of such drilling decades after it ceases to provide any material benefit to society.

If New York city is forced to expend considerable energy to purify its water to clean out toxic chemicals leaching from wells in its watershed 50 years from now, how shall we then judge the presumed bounty of energy that shale gas supposedly represents?

The same kinds of questions have been raised about nuclear energy. If one takes into account the entire energy cost over time of building, operating, decommissioning, and then protecting decommissioned plants and their wastes--wastes that will remain dangerous for conceivably tens of thousands of years--it is possible to understand why some people claim that nuclear energy provides no net energy to society. Rather, it burdens future generations with huge legacy energy costs. We who are alive today get to externalize the energy costs of nuclear power by foisting them on future generations. This is probably the only way that one can consider nuclear power--as it is currently configured--an energy source rather than an energy sink.

I believe we may ultimately find that shale gas is nothing but an energy sink. It will provide net energy for a while to those who are living now while burdening future generations with huge cleanup costs that, in terms of energy, may equal or exceed the energy gain we are currently receiving from this supposedly "clean" energy source.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why you should read The Biochar Solution

First, you should know that I have an allergy to anything that smacks of geoengineering. And the use of biochar--charred organic matter that can improve soil fertility--to address climate change by interring carbon in farmland on a mass scale strikes me as one of the largest geoengineering projects ever conceived. I always ask, "What will the unintended consequences be? Can we be sure that those consequences won't simply present a new set of problems, possibly catastrophic ones?"

Fortunately, Albert Bates, author of The Biochar Solution, takes these questions seriously and offers a measured endorsement of biochar as one of an array of strategies for responding to climate change. Even in the forward Vandana Shiva warns that "[b]y shifting our concern from growing the green mantle of the earth to making charcoal, biochar solutions risk repeating the mistakes of industrial agriculture."

With this kind of qualified endorsement, why should we read further? The answer is straightforward: Because intelligently and broadly applied and ethically managed, the production of biochar and its incorporation in the soil has the potential to lower carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, not on a millennial time line, but within a few decades. We have the possibility of reversing climate change. It's worth exploring this possibility because some of the most prominent climate scientists in the world believe we have already passed beyond the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that will, if not reduced, move the world into new and much warmer climate.

So, what might one of those unintended and possibly catastrophic consequences be? Bates summarizes an unexpected answer from a prominent soil scientist as follows:

Biochar is too powerful, she told me. Once the industrial complex with its credit markets, government incentives, and subsidies to farmers gets up and running, biochar could become a juggernaut, pushing the soil-atmosphere carbon balance into an overcorrection and ushering in a rapid-onset ice age.

When was the last time you heard someone who is firmly convinced that climate change is a critical issue say that a proposed solution would not simply fail, but could push us into an ice age? If biochar was that potent, I wanted to know more.

And, this leads to a second reason why you should read The Biochar Solution. The book begins with the engaging story of how biochar was discovered but not really understood (by Europeans, that is), forgotten, rediscovered, and finally understood by scientists. The story reads like a combined action/adventure tale and detective novel and shows Bates to be an accomplished storyteller. We are treated to a trip down the Amazon at the time of the conquistadors; to visits to plantations run by expatriate Confederate plantation owners who emigrated to Brazil after The Civil War; and finally to the findings of modern archeologists who uncover the truth about seemingly fantastical historical descriptions of great cities on the Amazon at the dawn of Spanish settlement in the New World.

The remainder of book is something of a handbook on biochar and carbon farming, showing how it might be done and who might do it. Bates introduces us to innovators who think broadly and creatively about how the soil might again become the rich, dense, living provider of fertility it once was. Readers will learn that the side effects may actually turn out to be side benefits: revitalized soils, verdant cities, higher long-term agricultural productivity, increased biodiversity and the reclaiming of desert landscapes. The author also discusses the prospects for agroforestry, an approach to forests that could make them both sustainable and productive for human purposes.

Along the way Bates relates several astounding claims that will keep you reading. Two such claims are as follows: 1) The Amazon rainforest is actually the product of human actions, and 2) the world's cooking stoves--the kind that burn wood and other biomass in most poor countries and currently add to global climate change woes--could be transformed into tools for climate recovery.

Could little pieces of charred organic matter really do all that Bates suggests? He recommends that we give biochar a widespread trial, but in conjunction with deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. These cuts, he says, are absolutely essential.

While such cuts seem by far the more difficult task, biochar will involve its own difficulties. First, as Bates admits, the production of biochar will have to be regulated to ensure that it is done ethically and sustainably. He gives an example in the book of unregulated production and its potential to do much harm. But, in a world now gripped by the laissez-faire model of economics, it's hard to see how broad-reaching international regulation of biochar production could be achieved.

And yet, if the unfolding climate catastrophe produces a vivid and pivotal moment--say, a sudden collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet--the will to do something as dramatic as seeding a large portion of the Earth's soils with biochar and doing it in an ethical way may actually become politically feasible.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Peak oil and four principles of PR

The following piece appeared previously in the Peak Oil Review.

Peak oil activists and the mass media have had a rocky relationship. Activists often don't understand how the media works and can't fathom why reporters and editors are not better informed about energy issues. Those working in the media are constrained by the interests of their advertisers, their corporate owners and the necessity of focusing on ratings and circulation.

There is a pervading sense in the peak oil community that those in the mass media "just don't get it." And, there is an inclination to criticize them for either their lack of curiosity or their blatant indifference. And, that brings me to my four principles of public relations, the first of which is:

1. Never, ever publicly criticize the media. There's no upside.

My father used to say that it was unwise to pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. In the age of the Internet we now tend to think in terms of the number of eyeballs attracted to web content. But it comes to the same thing. If the media has the equivalent of a loudspeaker system designed for a heavy metal band concert and you have the equivalent of laryngitis, who do you think is going to win any dispute you have with them in the eyes of the public?

If someone in the media irks you, you can complain all you want to your spouse or spouse-equivalent. But you're a fool to take on the reporter and media outlet publicly. If you do, they may not take out their irritation directly on you. But you will find them far less sympathetic to your point of view in the future and more likely to lean to the opposing side in the way they cover energy-related stories.

If you think a story contains errors or frames energy issues in the wrong way, it is pointless to ask for a correction. Corrections end up in obscure places in newspapers, magazines, and websites, if they end up anyplace at all. And, they almost never get on broadcast media. It is more effective to make yourself into a credible, reasonable, even-tempered source who will be glad to provide information for the NEXT story. That story, if you are lucky, will end up prominently positioned and do far more to overcome misconceptions from a previous story than any correction ever will.

2. Fear triumphs over hope.

The human nervous system is designed to build hope slowly and react to fear quickly. Why is this so? Because those are the characteristics which have enabled humans to survive. It's not that fear always and everywhere triumphs over hope. But our evolutionary heritage makes us prone to react to danger much more quickly and completely than we do to the prospects of gain or pleasure.

Peak oil activists are pretty good at wielding fear, maybe too good. If you emphasize the possible catastrophic outcomes of declining oil, you will frequently get two reactions from an audience. One group will say, "If peak oil is coming so soon and going to be so bad, what's the point of doing anything?" A second group will just go into denial. They'll judge your assessment of the future to be so bleak that it can't possibly be true because lots of other people would be talking about it and they aren't.

Fear has to find its resolution in action. What can I do? How will what you suggest help me weather the storm? When politicians demonize their opponents or scapegoat the helpless and marginalized in society, they are offering voters an avenue for action: "Vote for me and I'll take care of these rascals who are causing our problems." Peak oil activists can certainly do better than that, and many now give detailed practical advice to help people prepare for a post-peak oil world. Perhaps the best way to start with audiences new to the peak oil issue is to give them "no regrets" strategies, ones that will make their lives better whether peak oil hits soon or not. Some ideas include insulating their homes, riding a bicycle whenever practical, sourcing more of their food from local producers, and getting to know their neighbors. All of these things can enhance people's lives no matter what happens, and it puts them on a road that allows successful adaptations which will inculcate a willingness to do more.

3. If you're explaining, you're losing.

Perhaps the most difficult thing for a peak oil activist to do is to keep it short. Now, if you are having a conversation with a group of friends where the object is to hash things out, it's fine to ignore this dictum. If you are performing public education, you are probably talking before an attentive, curious and self-selected audience. They will often put up with lot of explaining. After all, that's what they've come for. But if you are in a public dogfight in the media, you definitely don't want to be the one who is explaining things.

Here's why: When communicating with large audiences, anyone saddled with the task of explaining complex scientific and technical information is likely to turn off the audience. First, the audience will find it hard to follow such explanations. Second, they'll wonder why the person providing the explanation feels compelled to provide such detail. He or she will appear to be on the defensive. This is the key point. The public perceives that those who are prone to excessively long explanations are actually trying to confuse them or hide something. This perception may be wholly without foundation, but it is a hard one to fight.

The best strategy is to force your opponents (who may be physically present or simply quoted alongside you in a newspaper article) to do the explaining. Some possible grenades to lob include the following:

  • Explain why many OPEC members mysteriously claimed increases in their reserves by 50 to 100 percent in the mid-1980s without any large discoveries.
  • Explain why with the very high historical oil prices of the last decade, we have not seen the predicted glut in oil supply.
  • Why does the promised bounty of oil from oil shale never seem to appear even when oil prices scale $100 a barrel?
  • Some 80 percent of the world's oil reserves are controlled directly by countries and their government-run oil companies. Many of these countries are run by secretive, authoritarian regimes and do not allow any outside audit of their claims. Why should we be confident about the reserve numbers they report? Is it wise policy to simply take their word for it?

An alert activist can probably think of many more, but you get the idea. Let the other side explain all these things. You're job for now is to plant doubt concerning the official story. Without that doubt most people will never consider the peak oil point of view.

If you have some creative talent, an alternative way of pressing your case is to do it in verse or in song or in the form of a play, a novel, a painting, or a stand-up comedy routine. This is not the same as explaining. It’s storytelling in the classic sense. It’s very hard to argue with a piece of art. People can comment on it. But an antagonistic viewer is forced to choose between aesthetic criticism (which doesn’t really strike at your message) and attacks on your message. Attacks on your message will seem off base to most people since, after all, it’s just a piece of fiction or a song or a work of art, so lighten up! The critic will come off as a killjoy which is perfect for you. This will be especially true if what you are doing is funny.

4. The cover-up is always far more damaging than the screw-up.

This one is simple. If you make a mistake, admit it, apologize for it, if necessary, and then move on. In the context of peak oil activism, this principle is less applicable than the others. Peak oil activists strive to shed light on energy issues, not cover them up. Still, it is possible to screw up, and one of the best ways to do that is to make predictions.

When it comes to making predictions for reporters, I have one word of advice: DON'T! The currently well-established facts are scary enough. If you must talk about the future, talk about it in terms of risks, not forecasts. If you make predictions, you are setting yourself up for a fall, and then the cycle of anger with the media is likely to get hold of you all over again. And, as I've said, there's absolutely no upside to expressing it publicly.

The notion, however, that governments and oil companies are not squaring with the public is a useful idea. But it is reckless to accuse them of some sort of conspiracy of silence. A better way to talk about this is that it is not in the interests of public officials to announce the peak oil predicament since they have no plan to address it. And, it is not in the interests of large international oil companies to talk about peak oil since it would imply that their businesses would soon start winding down, something that can hardly be salutary for oil company stock prices.


While it may seem unfair in some ways that the world of mass communications requires the understanding and application of these principles, it is more effective to deal with the realities of mass communications than to try to change them. Sticking with these principles doesn't always assure you of success, but it does keep you out of a lot of unnecessary trouble.