Magical Thinking about Energy

Monbiot’s column a couple of days ago- “No Fracking, drilling or digging: it’s the only way to save life on earth”– is about as egregious a piece of misdirection as I have seen coming from him, and that is saying something.

The problem under discussion is the unobtainable nature of the Paris climate agreements, and Monbiot is absolutely correct in asking whether governments know what they have signed. Whether they do know or not, setting arbitrary targets for CO2 reductions without the slightest idea as to how they can be achieved in practice has never been a good strategy. Fossil fuels are not like CFCs, which were basically a set of chemicals which it was possible to develop alternatives for and then simply ban, as was done under the Montreal Protocol; they are, rather, the lifeblood of the modern world. There is currently no known way of doing without them, and a couple of bilion of our brethren have yet to gain access to the wondrous benefits they can bestow, so we can assume use will continue to increase globally.

“a 2C target” Monbiot explains “means that we can use only around 85% of the fossil fuel that’s currently good to go, while a 1.5C target means we can extract little more than a third… So what’s the point of developing new reserves if the Paris agreement precludes the full extraction of those already in production?”

What indeed. He then goes onto point out that the only alternative to meet these climate targets is the widespread adoption of BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage):

As for the belief among some governments that they can overshoot the climate targets, then at a later date suck carbon dioxide out of the air: this depends on scenarios that would be no less realistic if they involved sorcery. The most popular proposal is to combine the capture and storage phantasm with biofuel plantations covering an area between one and three times the size of India, then harvesting the material they grow, burning it in power stations and burying the emissions.

I agree that this is unfeasible, and it is worrying that Paris does indeed seem to be based on these assumptions. Monbiot claims however that there is a simple no-brainer alternative:

All this nonsense is a substitute for a simple proposition: stop digging. There is only one form of carbon capture and storage that is scientifically proven, and which can be deployed immediately: leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Then there will be a complete phase-out of fossil-fuel extraction including compensation of the mining companies and retraining for the employees. Retraining for what? Monbiot doesn’t specify. What will we use to replace the fossil fuels? He doesn’t say- maybe a magical alternative fuel will just appear?

But later on the real point of his article becomes clear:

In Britain, for example, tax rebates for North Sea oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years the government is likely to give them around £5bn more than it receives in revenues. There are similar tax breaks for fracking companies – but not, of course, for renewable energy.

(Apparently, from what I can gather, fracking companies will only receive tax breaks for the exploratory phase, not the extractive phase, for which it will pay 30% tax, more than many industries; fracking will bring net revenue and jobs to the economy, not to mention cheaper fuel bills.)

In Monbiot’s world, we are to replace coal, oil and gas with…wind, mainly (solar in sunnier countries perhaps). The problem is, to replace these reliable and energy-dense fuels, with which we have constructed the entire modern world with all its amenities and benefits, with wind would require every bit as much “sorcery” as BECCS. Monbiot tells us BECCS will take an area 1 1/2 times the size of India, but gives us no details on how much land would be required for wind, or what other land uses it would compete with, or what environmental impact it would have: how many windfarms, where would they go, how much will it cost- and how does he propose to overcome the issue of intermittency, something which biomass at least does not have to contend with?  On these pressing issues, George is silent. It is as if his entire “alternative” energy policy consists of “replace fossil fuels with wind, The End.”

Fortunately, the sums have already been done on this, as I reported here, by Professor David McKay, who concluded that “Britain cannot live on its own renewables”. Monbiot however is relying on a report by Oil Change International, (OCI) which is based on projections created by Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, which are also used by Bil McKibben’s campaign in the US. Robert Bryce explains what the proposed 100% renewables scenario would look like for the US here:

McKibben, the founder of 350.org, and his friends are pushing would result in the despoliation of vast swaths of the American landscape. Indeed, it would require that an area the size of Texas and Louisiana combined be covered with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines.

OCI use Jacobson’s projection of 50% renewables by 2035. That is just 20 years away. Currently the world barely produces 5% of its energy from renewables. It is completely unfeasible, and even if attempted, would take many decades- there is no possible scenario even in your wildest dreams where we could build out the tens, hundreds of thousands of wind turbines that would be required by 2035. Grids find it very difficult to accommodate intermittent wind and solar once they go much above 30% supply; most countries are still a very long way from that, and that is just electricity- wind does nothing to replace oil for transport. And did I mention that the wind doesn’t blow all the time? Wind needs baseload for it to work, that currently means gas as the best option.

Perhaps even more curious, neither OCI nor Monbiot make any mention of nuclear power, the only conceivable low-carbon source that could replace fossil fuels- but even if there was an all-out program for nuclear new builds, it would also take decades to achieve. Despite having spoken up for the importance of nuclear in the past, Monbiot’s purpose in this piece seems to be nothing more than put forward an anti-fracking screed.

The article he links to which exposes the BECCS plan behind Paris relies on two other fairy-tale assumptions: energy efficiency, and the hubris of assuming that the poor who currently produce little of no emmissions- because they are poor- are content to stay that way:

But move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative opportunities for delivering the deep and early reductions in emissions necessary to stay within 2°C budgets come into focus. Demand-side technologies, behaviours and habits all are amenable to significant and rapid change – and guided by stringent policies could drive emissions down in the near-term. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of total emissions and the rate and scope of what is possible if we genuinely thought climate change was an important issue becomes evident.

Again, there is absolutely no evidence that “demand-side technologies” can achieve more than a cosmetic fraction of the kinds of emissions cuts the author is talking about. This can only mean one thing in reality: draconian energy rationing, and the complete and permanent denial of energy access to the bottom couple of billion who don’t currently have it. In practice, the developed world will ofcourse never accept energy rationing, so the world’s poor will have to carry the brunt of our climate policies.

Just as egregious is Monbiot’s tarring of all fossil fuels with the same brush, which only misleads and results in bad policy. Oil is used mainly for transport, treating it as if it is interchangeable with coal and gas- used mainly for electricity and heating – makes no sense. Gas has half the emissions of coal, and because it is so readily dispatchable, energy dense and available, can bring down CO2 emissions much faster than renewables by displacing coal. But Monbiot’s aim does not appear to be to actually reduce emissions, but merely to join McKibben’s bandwagon against fossil fuels in general and fracking in particular.

So, absolutely correct, the Paris targets will not be met under any plausible scenario. Should we still strive to reduce emissions as fast as possible? Sure- but not at any cost, and only if an equal goal is to ultimately provide energy access for all. The only realistic path to these twin goals is rapid displacement of coal, and also transport oil – with cleaner gas, and a long-term transition to nuclear power. Anything else truly is magical thinking.

What have Fossil Fuels Ever Done for Us?

Book Review:
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Alex Epstein

Portfolio/Penguin 2014

Kindle Edition

Energy is a life and death issue—it is not one where we can afford to be sloppy in our thinking and seize upon statistics that seem to confirm our worldview. -Alex Epstein

Everyone knows fossil fuels are Bad. Bad for the planet, Bad for the environment, Bad for people. They pollute the atmosphere and groundwater, destroy whole eco-systems, and worst of all are responsible for the wholesale eco-cide of the entire biosphere through unstoppable apocalyptic climate change.

But wait, urges Alex Epstein, author of the recent book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Isn’t there something important missing from this narrative of Bad Guy Fossil Fuels? Indeed we might ask, as Monty Python did of the Romans: What have fossil fuels ever done for us?

 

…apart from education, roads, hospitals, sanitation, and a vastly increased life expectancy… in fact, pretty much everything that makes life in the modern world worth living.

This is the passionate moral case for fossil fuels that Epstein develops in his eminently readable and clearly-laid out book, and through his organisation The Center for Industrial Progress:
contrary to what nearly everyone has been brought up to believe in these strangely post-modern and relativistic times we live in, fossil fuels are not just good, but a moral necessity for the foreseeable future, a human right no less, and it is about time people started making an unequivocal stand for them.

Taking on the Big Guns of the environmental movement such as Bill McKibben, Paul Ehrlich and Amory Lovins, Epstein shows that not only have they been spectacularly wrong in their predictions but that there is a fundamental flaw in their moral philosophy:

The environmental thought leaders’ opposition to fossil fuels is not a mistaken attempt at pursuing human life as their standard of value. They are too smart and knowledgeable to make such a mistake. Their opposition is a consistent attempt at pursuing their actual standard of value: a pristine environment, unaltered nature. Energy is our most powerful means of transforming our environment to meet our needs. If an unaltered, untransformed environment is our standard of value, then nothing could be worse than cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.

This muddled and dangerous way of thinking has become mainstream, infecting our education systems and politics so much that speaking out in favour of the dirty black stuff we dig out of the ground to fuel our civilisation must be the highest form of heresy. Even oil giants such as ExxonMobil and Shell have pandered to environmentalist agendas- for example by avoiding any mention of the word “Oil” on their Homepages, and paying lip-service to renewables and the “idealism” of their opponents without challenging the basic moral argument- something Epstein takes strong issue with in his section “What the Fossil-Fuel Industry must do”.

What is at the heart of this irrational objection to the wonders of cheap energy?

The reason we have come to oppose fossil fuels and not see their virtues is not primarily because of a lack of factual knowledge, but because of the presence of irrational moral prejudice in our leaders and, to a degree, in our entire culture.

But fossil fuels are non-renewable! I hear you say. Is it not crazy to base a society on an essential mineral that is going to run out?
-but predictions of “peak oil” and fears over shortages have been with us since the beginning of the Oil Age- the reality is, we have barely scratched the surface, literally, in terms of the resources that are there in the earth’s crust waiting for the technology to arrive to extract them: the data does not lie- even as our populations grow and demand for energy increases and extraction rises to keep pace, paradoxically fossil fuel reserves continue to grow.

The problem is not the lack of resources, but the increasingly tight straight-jacket being placed around the freedom to extract them:

Our concern for the future should not be running out of energy resources; it should be running out of the freedom to create energy resources, including our number-one energy resource today, fossil fuels.

Ultimately, advanced nuclear energy- the only scalable energy source that is more (potentially far more) energy dense than oil and gas- may step in to drive what will be the greatest energy transition of all time; but although nuclear should still be supported whenever possible, this will take decades- and nuclear, as we all know, is not even considered as an option by most environmentalists.

What about direct pollution from extraction? Naturally, Epstein does not dismiss the obvious downside to mining and drilling- there is certainly an environmental and human-health cost. But what is missing from the general public debate is that as wealth increases as a result of access to energy, so does our ability and desire to clean up the environment. British cities like London were far more polluted by smog in the early industrial era than even Beijing is today. Furthermore, we choose in today’s world to spend some of our fossil-fuel wealth on environmental protection, wilderness preservation and so on, something poor countries cannot easily afford to do. The downsides make fossil fuels an easy target- the overwhelmingly net positive benefits to human life and the environment are generally ignored.

Pessimistic predictions often assume that our environment is perfect until humans mess it up; they don’t consider the possibility that we could improve our environment. But the data of the last forty years indicate that we have been doing exactly that—using fossil fuels.

Shouldn’t we be switching to cleaner energies such as wind, solar and hydro anyway? Apart from the fact that most environmental groups have been busy vigorously opposing hydro-power in much of the world for the past 30 years, the fact is that there simply is no good affordable, scalable alternative to coal, oil and gas at present. Renewables are sometimes dubbed “unreliables”- they don’t work all the time and they need a gas or coal back-up in any case. More than that, they have far lower energy density than the fuels they pertain to replace, in some cases by two or more orders of magnitude.

It seems that there’s more focus on getting energy directly from the sun, which is often considered “natural,” than there is on getting it in a way that will maximize human life. It is deeply irresponsible and disturbing that environmental leaders are telling us to deprive ourselves of fossil fuels on the promise of what can charitably be described as a highly speculative experiment, and can less charitably be described as an ill-conceived, resource-wasting, perennial failure.

Epstein goes onto point out that tens of thousand of giant steel wind-turbines are hardly “renewable” in any meaningful sense, even if the wind is:

For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.

Renewables are low-density, extensive technologies that, if unrolled on the vast scale that would be required for them to really replace much energy-dense coal or gas, would certainly have an immense negative environmental impact on the land where they are installed, but also in the pollution caused by their manufacture. Epstein notes wryly

Fox could make a far more alarming movie than Gasland based on supposedly risk-free solar and wind technology. Imagine a scene at a rare-earth mine in a movie called Wasteland.

In short, Epstein makes clear that trying to replace energy-dense fossil fuels with diffuse intermittent renewables is a recipe for disaster:

If fossil fuels have catastrophic consequences and it makes sense to use a lot less of them, that would be an epic tragedy, given the state of the alternatives right now. Being forced to rely on solar, wind, and biofuels would be a horror beyond anything we can imagine, as a civilization that runs on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy would see its machines dead, its productivity destroyed, its resources disappearing.

At the core of the moral issue must be energy access for the couple of billion in undeveloped countries who currently lack pretty much any access to cheap energy at all: they tend to be very poor with low life-expectancy and high infant-mortality, little educational opportunities and poor or non-existent health services. Yet as a result of the environmental agenda’s influence on current policy, they cannot expect to get much help from the West which has decided it best to keep the poor in the dark with the US refusing to fund coal-fired power stations- the cheapest and most effective option- in developing nations.

Epstein shares some personal opinions from those effected by this naive “Green” policy of only promoting unreliable and expensive renewable energy to those who really need it:

Another Kenyan, James Shikwati of the Inter Region Economic Network, explains why he resents programs to encourage underdeveloped countries to use solar or wind. The rich countries can afford to engage in some luxurious experimentation with other forms of energy, but for us we are still at the stage of survival. I don’t see how a solar panel is going to power a steel industry, how a solar panel is going to power a railway network, it might work, maybe, to power a small transistor radio.

Right now, there are calls to reduce the life-giving, life-sustaining use of fossil-fuels by 80% in order to meet the demands of addressing climate change (and Bill McKibben has apparently called for 95% cuts)- once again we have to ask the question, has a full accounting of both costs AND benefits been done here? Humans have always been, and will always be subject to the vagaries of weather and climate- but it is our technology and skills of innovation that keep us safe.

Epstein claims we are basing policy on bad science and an unreasonable faith in “experts” who have been repeatably shown to be wrong in the past:

many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate….
This sloppy use of “science” as an authority, practiced by politicians of all parties, guarantees that we make bad, unscientific decisions.

Alex Epstein is really unimpressed with the call for alarm so far, with on about a half-degree of warming caused so far since industrial CO2 emissions really picked up pace in the first half of the last century; nor is he impressed by the use of unreliable climate model projections on which to base policy. The last thing we should be doing is timetabling the rapid dismantling of the only way we can actually protect ourselves from storms, droughts, floods and sea-level rise: the cheap, abundant energy produced through fossil fuels.

Thus, climate change, extreme weather, volatility, and danger are all inherent in climate whether or not we affect it with CO2 emissions. Thus, when we think about how fossil fuel use impacts climate livability, we are not asking: Are we taking a stable, safe climate and making it dangerous? But: Are we making our volatile, dangerous climate safer or more dangerous?

Environmental policy is based on the ideological and even religious belief that everything was fine and perfect and dandy in the world until modern humans came along with their dirty technology and filthy fossil fuels. Epstein slices through this deceit rather nicely:

the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability. No matter what, climate will always be naturally hazardous—and the key question will always be whether we have the adaptability to handle it or, better yet, master it.

He concludes with the most important point, again one almost entirely missing from climate discourse (emphasis added):

The climate future appears to be extremely bright. Fossil fuels’ product, energy, has given us an unthinkable mastery over climate and thus record climate livability. And its major climate-affecting by-product, CO2, has fertilized the atmosphere and likely brought some mild and beneficial warming along with it. But we can’t know how good the warming is because, whether it is net negative or positive, it’s completely drowned out by the net positive of the energy effect.

In this essential book, Epstein makes an impassioned call for clarity on what our moral perogative should be in terms of energy, climate and environmental policy:

if we’re on a human standard of value, we need to have an impact on our environment. Transforming our environment is how we survive. Every animal survives in a way that affects its environment; we just do it on a greater scale with far greater ability. We have to be clear: Is human life our standard of value or is “lack of impact” our standard of value?

More than just a close analyses and explanation of what is wrong with the anti-fossil fuel movement, Epstein wants us to take action. He wants the fossil fuel industry to stop being ashamed of its product, but rather proudly speak out in its defence; and he wants you, the reader and every-day user of fossil fuels, to join the debate and stand up to defend the attack on our fossil-fuel future.

We don’t want to “save the planet” from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings.

Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous—because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.

Peak Snake Oil: Richard Heinberg and his predictions

Peak Oil guru Richard Heinberg has a new book out on fracking: Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future.

Disclaimer: I have not read it, and, while curious, have no plans to in the near future, so am basing this on a couple of reviews.

I have however read some of his other books, notably The Party’s Over (2003) and Powerdown (2004), two of the most influential books of the Peak Oil movement from the past decade or so.

Apparently, Heinberg argues in his latest offering that shale gas- which has gone from zero to supplying 40% of US gas in the past 10 years -is just hype, a bubble that will burst soon, leaving society worse off (because of increasing dependence on fossil fuels and consequent climate change) than if we had never exploited it in the first place.

Let’s see what he said about fracking in his earlier books:

Nothing. Not a word. There is no mention in either about the potential of shale gas. Heinberg, who is now predicting the imminent demise of shale gas, completely missed the biggest shake up in the energy world since nuclear power, even as it emerged at the very same time he was writing his predictions of the collapse of industrial society due to peak oil (shale gas started to become economic in the US in 2003, the same year The Party’s Over was published).

In The Party’s Over Heinberg writes:

US natural gas production has been in decline for years….
The public got its first hint of a natural gas supply problem in the latter months of 2000, when the wellhead price shot up by 400%. This was a more dramatic energy price increase than even the oil spikes of the 1970s…
There are disturbing signs that rates of natural gas extraction in North America will soon start on an inexorable downhill slope perhaps within a few months or at most a few years. When that happens we may well see a fairly rapid crash in production rather than the slow ramp-down anticipated for oil.

(Emphasis added.)

In Powerdown, published the following year, he writes:

Nevertheless, while nearly everyone is upset about the shortages and high prices, it is surprising how seldom one hears or reads the word that most clearly sums up the cause of the dilemma- depletion.
The nub of the issue is that North America has passed its peak in natural gas production. US production peaked in 1971, but the country managed to maintain a fairly flat production curve until the end of the 1990s by steeply increasing investment in exploration and recovery. By 2002, the US was importing 15% of its gas from Canada; meanwhile, Mexico- which had been exporting gas north of the border- had begun importing gas from the US. In 2003 it became clear that Canada’s production was also in decline.

Instead of these dire apocalyptic predictions, the advent of shale gas in the US lead to a collapse in prices, a surge in production and now serious plans to invest huge sums to retrofit LNG import terminals to be used for export.

Not only that, but the 1971 peak in production has now been exceeded, apparently in defiance of the Peak-Oil Laws of Gravity:

File:US Natural Gas Production.svg

Does shale gas involve huge investment, thousands of wells, environmental costs and dislocation of communities? Absolutely, yes all of these things (though mainly hugely exaggerated by activists)- but so does any extractive industry have a cost. For the most part, the benefits of cheap energy outweigh the problems; gas is a low-carbon fossil fuel and, unlike wind and solar, energy-dense enough to deliver energy where it is needed and displace coal and even oil in transport (Liquified Natural gas) as is happening in some US cities where buses are being converted to run on LNG.

According to this review, which claims the book is “unbiased”, Heinberg has now revised his predictions of Peak Gas production in the US-

The evidence shows that in less than 50 years, shale gas will peak and the decline will be quick and dramatic, leaving society unprepared.

Fifty years is a looooong time in the world of energy. The shale revolution- new techniques of high-pressure fracking combined with multiple horizontal drilling- blew Heinberg’s earlier predictions out of the water, rendering them obsolete even as he was publishing his Tomes of Doom. Now he is being more cautious it seems, leaving plenty of time to publish many more failed predictions before being proved so spectacularly wrong again.

Over the next 50 years, we can surely expect further improvements in drilling technology, allowing the access to even larger volumes of gas hitherto considered too expensive or inaccessible. The Japanese are even seriously expecting commercial production of methane hydrates from the sea floor around their coasts  within just 10 years.

We can also expect of course developments in nuclear power, and yes renewables as well over that time scale. What is not likely to happen is that the world will sit back and twiddle its thumbs while draining the last of its currently recoverable resources.

This is how the world works: far from the Peak Oil view of a bucket of known resources being drained by more and more straws sucking them out, the size of the bucket is unknown and continually expands with new technology.

Will Richard Heinberg ever learn?

Green for Me Talk for UCC Enviro Soc

I had an enjoyable evening at the Green for Me event at UCC Environmental Society on Tuesday where I gave a talk along with Dan Boyle of the Green Party and well-known biologist and TV/radio presenter Eanna ni Lamhna as part of their Green Week.

The theme given us for our talks was “My Reasons for Being Green.”

Eanna spoke first, but I had already got into a discussion with her about population as soon as she came into the lecture hall, pointing out that birth rates are declining everywhere, and hurriedly added in a few graphs to prove my point; her own graph was I felt somewhat misleading in that it showed only the dramatic population expansion of the past hundred years, without any context or explanation that this phase finished some 20 years ago.

Update: As Patrick Hayes writes here in response to David Attenborough’s recent Malthusian remarks, even sub-Saharan Africa has seen a massive drop in birthrates:

But as Slate has observed, it’s not just the most developed nations: ‘From 1960 to 2009, Mexico’s fertility rate tumbled from 7.3 live births per woman to 2.4, India’s dropped from six to 2.5, and Brazil’s fell from 6.15 to 1.9. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average birthrate remains a relatively blistering 4.66, fertility is projected to fall below replacement level by the 2070s.’

All of which is bad news for Attenborough and his Malthusian ilk, as it reveals that what lurks behind their doom-mongering is prejudice rather than fact. That becomes increasingly evident when you hear headline-generating comments, such as those Attenborough made recently to the Radio Times: ‘We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves – and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case.’

Too many people in Ethiopia? This is a country which, according to the World Bank, has a mere 83 people per square kilometre. This is the same as Serbia, and there aren’t mass starvations there. At 196 people per square kilometre, Switzerland has a far higher population density than Ethopia, but people aren’t starving there. Nor in Japan, where there are 350 people per square kilometre, or the Netherlands, which has 493 people per square kilometre.

She then went on to talk about climate change and supported the issues around this with two more rather misleading slides, one of polar bears and one of deserts. Polar bears are of course the poster child of climate change and have been used to very good propaganda effects since before Al Gore; but the reality seems very different- many polar bear populations are increasing, they seem remarkably adaptable to declining sea ice.
A much greater threat to bears in the Arctic than global warming is hunting.

So bears polar bears are probably an eye-catching but bad example of the effects of climate change- so far at least. Similarly, desertification also is more complex than just laying it at the feet of CO2 emissions- de-forestsation from human activity being another obvious cause, with underlying poverty often being the problem.

Eanna then wnet onto talk about renewable energy- “we have very little renewable energy- and yet the wind blows all the time!” Yes, it’s a no-brainer: humans, especially Irish humans in a country that has been hailed as the Saudi Arabia of wind- choose to use Polar-Bear murdering fossil fuels when they could just switch to clean wind.

Unfortunately, one of the major draw-backs with wind is that it does not in fact blow all the time even in Ireland, as anyone who has lived off-grid with wind-power as I have done in the past will tell you: plenty of calm still “soft” days Ireland where you get effectively no power from wind, no matter how many turbines you might have.

Even a super-grid covering the whole of Europe would not solve the problem– there is really quite dramatic indetermittency issues Europe-wide as well. For this reason, wind can never on its own replace fossil fuels or nuclear, and as another graph of Eanna’s showed quite well, renewables currently only supply a tiny percentage of energy- for well-understood reasons that are more to do with the laws of physics and cost than anything else.

More controversially, Eanna then went onto discuss waste, asking why dont we have have incinerators- a local hot-potato. “You can’t even mention them- they are considered as bad as GMOs!” The last time I had seen Eanna was at the potato day last year in Skibbereen, where she had had done an admirable job of myth-busting about the GE potato trials that started last year.

She then commented that at the protest meetings on incinerators she had been to, at the break about a third of the protestors went out to smoke!

Eanna finished her entertaining talk by admonishing us to eat only food that is in season and plant trees to help combat climate change.

I was up next, and began by staking out my credentials as a back-to-the-lander. While preparing the presentation I had in fact dug up photos of a commune I had lived in in the 1980s on the Welsh borders.

This is a photo of the Earthworm Housing Co-op from 1990, possibly when I was still actually living there.Brings back memories- many of which make me cringe!

854064249_021ca8daae_m

I then discussed my involvement with the Peak Oil movement, and how my views had changed as time went on and the expected collapse failed to materialise, and the new energy story became one of the Golden Age of Gas.

I then used Stewart Brand’s Four Environmental Heresies to frame my new perspective on “Being Green.”

-population growth stablising and the world is not over-populated;
-cities are green
-nukes are green
-genetic engineering is green

I then gave a brief explanation of the Environmental Transition- the idea that environmentalism is a product of wealth and industrial growth rather than a reaction to it, and told the story from Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ book Breakthrough about the fires on the Cuyahoga River:cuyahoga_fire650

In June 22nd 1969 Time Magazine showed this photo of burning oil on Cuyahoga River with the caption
“The Price of Optimism” and it became emblematic of start of the US Environmental Movement.

The problem was, the photo was not from the 1969 fire, which has burned out in half-an-hour before the Time photographer could get there- but from an earlier and much more severe fire from 1952. In fact, there had been fires on the Cuyahoga river for a hundred years, some of them burning for days and causing loss of life: but the society had not yet reached a level of wealth and development- which would support universities with Environmental Societies- until much later. Poor people are not generally environmentalists- they have more expressing concerns, but once society has a critical mass of relatively affluent educated people with time on their hands, then industry is compelled to clean up its act.

I concluded my presentation with a quotation from Daniel Botkin’s book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell.:

Our perspective, ironically in this scientific age, depends on ancient myths and deeply buried beliefs. To gain a new view, one necessary to deal with global environmental problems, we must break free of old assumptions and myths about nature and ourselves while building on the scientific and technical advances of the past.

Dan Boyle followed me and began by expressing surprise to find himself having to defend the broad thrust of the environmental movement from the past few decades. He began by emphasising his agreement that Luddism is false, and that greens depend upon science and technology;

but seemed to struggle to hide some exasperation at my reference to Lomborg: “It is NOT the case that you burn your hydrocarbons and then clean up afterwards”- rather missing the point about the environmental transition, because of course that is precisely what the greens have been doing, otherwise we would never have embarked on industrialisation in the first place: the greens would have stopped us!

Dan’s main points seemed to be a bunch of Green Herrings: the supposed rallying cries of “bigger faster more” are the problem; untrield technology is dangerous and we should proceed with greater caution;
while his reference to dangers of the “chemical soup” used in frakking, and from “cross-contamination” from genetic engineering belie his claim to environmentalism being underpinned by science. Not to mention his suggestion that we can have “smaller and more efficient” wind turbines- surely not? To become more efficient, wind turbines can only do one thing: get bigger, due to well-understood laws of physics concerning wind-speed increasing to the square of the altitude/height and rotor span’s ability to collect the diffuse wind energy from a given space.

In the discussion and questions afterwards I was challenged quite strongly on nuclear waste issues, and general “Pandora’s Box” concerns about whether naughty humans should really be trusted with technology.

Dan Boyle made the very good point that at a meeting he had attended recently in the midlands concerning the proposed giant wind farm there, anti-wind activists used the same rhetoric and alarmism used by the anti-nuclear lobby, even including the threat of radiation- from wind turbines!

A popular theme seemed to be that rather than constantly striving for more energy sources, we should just use less. “Let’s turn out the lights then!” I said looking up to the ceiling at the dozens of lights that were probably consuming more energy that evening than I would at home in a year. My personal experience of living off the grid was apparently not persuasive however, and when I pointed out that there are still a couple of billion people without electricity at all in the world, I was told, “They can just use the Gravity Light!”

“Would you use one?”

“Well, it would be great for an outdoor light or something.”

Indeed it would, and for those without electric lights of any kind, this remarkable invention will surely be a wonderful boon. But for those who think that we can or will do anything other than make cosmetic changes in our energy usage, that “powerdown” can in some way substitute for cheap reliable electricity supply, should contemplate what life might be like if one or two gravity lights is all you ever have as a light supply, for the rest of your lives, ie without development.

Several people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for a thought-provoking perspective, while others took a more conventional green- perspective, concerned more about a presumed loss of contact with Nature, the virtues of the simple life and the insanity of endless growth rather than addressing the concerns of the poor. “We are all too greedy in this country!” proclaimed Eanna at one point.

But as Colin McInnes shows in this award-winning essay, growth is not just a matter of extraction and consumption, but is also about complexity:

While innovation-driven growth has delivered immense improvements to the human condition, it is also the means through which human needs can be gradually decoupled from the environment. Growth emerges from productivity, doing more with less. For example, new additive manufacturing technologies, so-called ‘3D printers’, look set partly to replace the wasteful subtractive manufacturing of machine tools. In contrast, in coming down from our oil high, as advocated by {Richard} Heinberg, we could regress to using whale oil for lighting, as was the case prior to commercial oil production. But this hardly constitutes progress, economic or environmental….

The real worry of Heinberg’s vision of a post-growth world is his straight-faced assertion that ‘there should be [an] increasing requirement for local production and manual labour’. This chilling claim is more Year Zero than zero growth. A return to carbohydrate-fuelled manual labour may be appealing to Heinberg and others as a means of powering down our lives and reconnecting with the land. But he shouldn’t expect a long queue of volunteers.

Maybe not- but he could well expect a long line of green ideologues who have forgotten that their green ideas are only possible because of the benefits brought by the very techno-industrialism that they campaign against.

Science and the Greens

A couple of recent posts continued with the theme I have been writing about in my last few posts, the awkward relationship between environmentalism and science.

Adam Corner and Alice Bell, writing for the New Left Project pick up on the Genetic Engineering/Nuclear issues that have been highlighted so effectively by “Chernobyl-Death-deniers” Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, but appear to add little to the debate, making the usual abstract remarks about the power context in which science takes place, while apparently unaware of the power-context within which environmentalism has emerged.

They stray into dubious territory right from the start when claiming that the Greens have always had a strong affinity with science, and that Green activism is actually rooted in science, evoking Rachel Carson and Julian Huxley:

Like the biologist Julian Huxley’s role in the founding of the WWF the year before, Silent Spring is endemic of the way science’s ability to look carefully at the natural world alerts us to the negative impacts humans have had on  it. To borrow a phrase from sociologist Steven Yearley, there is “elective affinity” between science and the greens, though as Yearley himself would be keen to stress, this doesn’t mean it’s a simple relationship.

Although Carson was right about some things, and played an important role in raising awareness about environmental impacts of farming, she over-egged the pudding and exaggerated on many issues, going well beyond the evidence, and these exaggerations arguably were responsible for chemophobia and radiophobia and the legacy of general alarmism and disregard for the facts -the very subject under discussion.

Julian Huxely is also surely a very bad example, since he was a champion of the then-fashionable “science” of eugenics and set the tone for much environmental thinking since with his concern about over-population, a political stance that is traditionally associated with the Right, not the Left. (For reading on this, see Fred Pearce, PeopleQuake 2010.) Continue Reading

On Fracking

I attended an interesting presentation on “fracking”- hydraulic gas extraction- in UCC last week given by David Manz from Canada on the subject of “Gas Well Fracturing (Fracking)- Corporate Social Responsibility and Shared Value.”

Manz has been involved in developing the Biosand Water Filter (BSF) in more than 65 countries around the world and also in the treatment of so-called “produced water” from the shale gas fracking industry. This is water that returns from the gas wells after being pumped down with sand under pressure  to open up small fractures in the shale rock which allows the gas to be released.

This was an interesting talk and I am just putting up a few notes of interest that I talk during it.

Manz gave the opinion that the chemicals that are pumped down with the water in the first place- which include lubricants etc- do not pose any particular environmental problem (despite claims to the opposite from the anti-fracking lobby)- they are generally chemicals that are commonly used in many industrial activities and do not in themselves pose special environmental hazards. The water that returns from the well is however often seriously contaminated, with drilling mud and some of the gas itself- hence his operation to clean it up.

This is generally done on-site. The water is stored in lined holding and settling ponds right next to the well-heads; various technologies including different filtration systems and membrane systems are used to clean and recycle the water. The gas wells themselves provide all the energy used in the treatment process.

One interesting point he mentioned was that the actual gas itself varies in its make up from well to well, and you do not know what you are getting precisely until it emerges. Sometimes other products including ethanol can be separated from the natural gas, and, surprisingly, these products can sometimes be more valuable than the gas itself.

It was also impressive at how relatively small the footprint of a well-head can be, and that once the gas is extracted after several years, how well the area can be restored.

Fracking takes a lot of water- anything from 1-10million gallons per well- but this is still relatively little water compared to many other industrial users.

Multiple horizontal wells from a single well-head are the key to the recent success of fracking in North America, which makes the drilling operations both much more economic and much less of an impact.

Manz pointed out that the regulatory authorities need to require high-quality treatment practices- otherwise the companies will take the cheapest route out- but also emphasized that it is really not in the companies’ interest to cause pollution or environmental damage more than is strictly necessary, and pointed to the commitment made by Tamboran, the company applying for a license to prospect for shale gas in Leitrim, to “monitor groundwater quality, air quality, noise emissions, and seismic activity before, during, and periodically after all of its well site operations” as well as abide by other regulations. Tamboran claim that they will employ slick water techniques that involve no chemicals in the water.

I asked him how much gas there was in North America- we hear claims of “100 years’ supply” while some peak-oilers claim this is just hype and it will be gone in not much more than five years.
Manz was clear that there is a lot of gas there, and not all of it has yet been found- “at least 50 years supply, maybe 100years.”

Asked about his views on the prospect in Leitrim, Manz was thoughtful He had driven through the area in Leitrim several times himself, and said revealingly that fracking operations there “would be highly disruptive- to say the least”- Leitrim, where 100 acres is a large farm, is not Calgary, Canada, where farm holdings may be measured in the square miles. Nor are there wide freeways to accommodate the hundreds of trucks carrying water and heavy equipment to the well-head. However, if a careful consultation process is engaged with and all the implications looked at, with an absolute requirement from the outset of complete transparency, then “the benefits- of jobs and cheap energy- could be huge.”

Fracking is sure to continue t be controversial, and the potential impact on small communities and the environment in lovely Leitrim may be considered too high a price to pay. But with the UK Environment Agency coming out in favour of fracking over there this week the pressure for Ireland to look at exploiting this valuable resource is likely to grow, particularly if the alternative is economic stagnation, unemployment and ever higher energy costs.