Peak Oil will Never Die

In my former peak-oil days, I was a fan of James Howard Kunstler, and read both his fiction and non-fiction work, taking him seriously as a critique of the American zeitgeist. I was disappointed though to read this recent article by him in response to a recent NY Times article about the defusing of the population bomb:

One main contention in the story is that the problem of feeding an exponentially growing population was already solved by the plant scientist Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” which gave the world hybridized high-yielding grain crops. Wrong. The “Green Revolution” was much more about converting fossil fuels into food. What happens to the hypothetically even larger world population when that’s not possible anymore? And did any of the 23 journalists notice that the world now has enormous additional problems with water depletion and soil degradation? Or that reckless genetic modification is now required to keep the grain production stats up?

Kunstler obviously fails to understand the demographic transition, which is driven not by providing more food, but first by controlling the death rate: modern medicine, vaccines and sanitation lead to lowering of infant mortality and longer life-expectancy; since birth rates at this stage remain high, the population rapidly increases, which is precisely what lead to the “population  bomb” scares of Ehrlich and others in the sixties. Mathusian fears of die-off as a result of being unable to feed the consequent teeming masses were indeed solved- if not completely, but to a large extent- by Borlaug and the Green Revolution. Ehrlich was proved wrong- he said, definitively, “the battle to feed the world’s population is over”. He didn’t say “unless we figure out how to convert fossil fuels into food”.
In any case, the amount of fossil fuels that are actually used to produce food is relatively small:

In the USA in 2004, 317 billion cubic feet of natural gas were consumed in the industrial production of ammonia, less than 1.5% of total U.S. annual consumption of natural gas. A 2002 report suggested that the production of ammonia consumes about 5% of global natural gas consumption, which is somewhat under 2% of world energy production.

And of course, as Kunstler well knows, the shale revolution has massively increased the supply of natural gas in his home country -the cognitive dissonance required to ignore this as if nothing has happened in the past 10-15 years is staggering. Maybe the reality of increasing resources as a result of technological advances is simply incompatible with the narrative of Peak Oil Doom on which JHK has based his entire writing career, just as the reality of declining birth rates is just too challenging for Ehrlich.

Later in the piece Kunstler randomly mixes up turmoil in the Middle East with over-population issues, again ignoring the fact that one of the reasons for instability in Saudi Arabia is precisely  that they are no longer the world’s swing producer as a direct result of the revived US shale boom, which is decreasing the dependency of the West on OPEC.  It seems there is no pleasing Kunstler though.

Kunstler then goes onto finger “reckless” genetic engineering which displays ignorance of the highest order- all farming starts with plant breeding, changing wild plants beyond recognition to provide better yields for us humans to chew on. Far from reckless, genetic engineering is the most precise and regulated and tested form of plant breeding ever. Not only that, but GM crops have already been shown to reduce reliance on tilling, pesticides and fertilisers,

-thus reducing fossil fuel dependency and environmental impact while maintaining or even help increase yields.

Like Ehrlich- who ” still seems to think that getting rid of girls is a capital idea” Kunstler is molded in the tradition of many of the early-20th Century environmentalists, elitists who prefer peasants who know their place, harmoniously working the land and not upsetting the Natural order. This is reflected in the accolades showered on Ehrlich by environmental institutions such as the WWF, a major environmental NGO with roots in eugenics and deeply conservative and traditionalist ideologies. In another recent article on Ehrlich, author Jonathon Last writes

Of course, it’s been obvious that Ehrlich was not just misguided, but an actual charlatan, since the 1970s…..

Other people caught on to Ehrlich over the years. In her book about sex-selective abortion, Mara Hvistendahl has a long, devastating interview with Ehrlich in which she probes his errors, pushes him for accountability, and reveals him to be a doddering, foolish, old man wedded to a political ideology and with no interest in science, demographics, or even basic math. And Hvistendahl is a progressive feminist in good standing.

In a fascinating review of post-apocalyptic literature, Michael Potts shows how in Kunstler’s fictional writings, “the myth of feudal obligations and care in a hierarchical society is resurrected and its loss is related to decline and degeneration.”

Like other traditionalists like Vandana Shiva, Ehrlich and Kunstler are more about lamenting a lost world of aristocrats and peasants than they are about addressing real environmental problems.

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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.

Renewable Energy cannot sustain a Consumer Society

Continuing my series re-posting archive posts from my old permaculture/peak oil blog Zone5, which has now gone to the Great Blogosphere in the Sky….

The Peak Oil movement has done some good things: it has made us aware of how dependent upon fossil fuels we are, how many energy slaves we have working for us day and night; and how absurd it is therefore to claim that it is crazy to be using them, or that there is a simple alternative. Not.

Well the first two are true- Peak Oil really did do that for me, leading to me learn a great deal about energy of all sorts and think about energy in our daily lives very carefully. But in general, peak-oilers, power-downers and Transitioners shirk the logical conclusion that, as the old song goes, we “might as well face it- we’re addicted to oil” – and that that is not a bad place to be; instead, they either indulge in collapse-porn or fuel the deluded idea that wind and solar, combined perhaps with a return to Medieval peasant lifestyles, could realistically replace our immoral high-energy lifestyles.

Some in the peak oil/climate change movement were not so sanguine about what wind and solar could achieve however. The first book I ever read on the problems of trying to come off oil, years before I had ever heard the phrase “peak oil” was The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thomm Hartmann.
At the end of the book he explains how modern wind turbines and pv solar cells are themselves entirely dependent on cheap fossil fuels -not to mention a complex globalized industrial base- to manufacture them.
Another writer firmly in the “civilisation-is-bad-and- we- should-return to simpler-lifestyles” camp but who could see through the myth of replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar power is Ted Trainer. Below is a review of his book on the subject which formed one of my earliest Zone5 posts.

My views on the false claims made for renewables are one of the things that have not changed since those days. They have become more informed: in particular, I would refer to Colin McInnes’ analysis showing the importance of energy density: fossil fuels and nuclear power are two- or three orders of magnitude more energy dense than diffuse and unreliable wind and solar power.
If we look at the world leader in transition to renewables- Germany with its Energiewende- we can see even from a recent favorable report how this translates into real practical obstacles: firstly, to reach 100% renewables (including biomass and storage of surplus power as gas through electrolysis and methanation- an as yet hardly developed technology) is predicated on a 50% reduction in total energy consumption- almost as unrealistic as Trainer’s views;
and apart from anything else, includes covering fully half of Germany’s entire arable land in solar cells. An interesting thought experiment perhaps, but hardly practical.

Where I differ with Trainer today of course is a)his assumption that such a powerdown scenario is necessary or desirable; and
b) his views on “peak uranium” should nuclear power be pursued: predictions of “peak” are nearly always wrong because they underestimate the development of new technology, for new resource discoveries, new extraction technologies, and new efficiencies in end-use: fast-breeder reactors which are in the pipe-line are able to extract more than 90% of the energy from uranium fuel rods, as opposed to just 1-2% from current models. And after Uranium of course, there is Thorium.

I would also be strongly critical of his advocacy of “the Simpler Way”. There is no way to objectively differentiate “needs” from “wants”, and attempts to lay down the law and tell everyone else what constitutes “enough” seem paternalistic and oppressive. They are also based on deeply flawed Limits to Growth thinking, creating a sort of scarcity-consciousness which I feel all too often leads to a self-serving romanticizing of poverty. I also completely reject his idea that technology s not key- it is not the only crucial element, but for the billions of urban dwellers to have good lives into the future will certainly need ongoing technological innovation, as will farming and food production.

The moral approach to addressing poverty and inequality will certainly involve more energy consumption, not less.

Book Review: Ted Trainer – Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society

Originally Posted on 9 September 2007 on Zone5

Ted Trainer, of the University of New South Wales, has made a valuable contribution to the literature of energy and resource depletion with his new book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.
The title says a lot I think. With the focus of most mainstream debate on peak oil and energy being on the supply side- the oil is running low so what are we going to use instead?- Trainer brings a refreshing approach in which he provides a detailed and technically comprehensive analyses of existing renewable energy options- including wind, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass and energy crops, and hydrogen, as well as a look at nuclear and the issue of storing energy- and concludes:
“…we could easily have an extremely low per capita rate of energy consumption, and footprint, based on local resources- but only if we undertake vast and radical change in economic, political, geographical and cultural systems.”
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