Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Industrial Agriculture is Killing the Oceans

Industrial agriculture--the much touted Green Revolution that has vastly increased food production--is killing ever greater areas of the ocean. Industrial agriculture is a monocrop system--the same crop planted in the same fields year after year. But abandoning crop rotation depletes the nutrients from the soil. To compensate for this vast amounts of nitrogen based fertilizers must be applied to the soil, much of which washes off with the rains and ends up draining into the sea. Once in the ocean, this nitrogen reacts with the oxygen and creates vast oxygen-deprived zones where fish life dies off.

Pollution, particularly the overuse of nitrogen in fertilizers, is responsible for the spread of dead zones, environment ministers and experts from more than 100 countries were told.

The number of known oxygen-starved areas has doubled since 1990 to nearly 150, according to the UN Environmental Program (UNEP), holding is annual conference here.

"What is clear is that unless urgent action is taken to tackle the sources of the problem, it is likely to escalate rapidly," UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer said.

"Hundreds of millions of people depend on the marine environment for food, for their livelihoods and for their cultural fulfillment."

Urgent action is unlikely to happen because industrial farming has become so entrenched. In the U.S. agricultural corporations carry tremendous political clout so that reform is vanishingly improbable. In developing countries, monocrop culture based in heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers has been the only way to feed their burgeoning populations.

Industrial agriculture is at the heart of the house of cards that our unsustainable culture has built. Nitrogen fertilizers are made from hydrocarbons which will grow increasingly expensive as gas and oil production peak and go into decline. Food production will become increasingly difficult to maintain. At some point the difficult shift from monocrop production to unsustainable production will have to be made.

There are some alternatives available. Search the web for free range, grain fed beef, free range chickens, or buffalo meat and you will be able to leave the confines of industrial agriculture. These alternatives tend to be more expensive than the mass produced food at your local supermarket, but they represent a sustainable future for agriculture that the agribusinesses do not.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Sea change for tidal power: New underwater turbines could be cheap and eco-friendly.

Two recent articles on generating electricity from tidal power show that this industry may be ready for a significant take off. From Britain:

A British company has invented a simple tidal power system that is relatively easy to install and has little impact on its environment. The device could soon be added to our range of renewable energy resources, and be used to bring power to remote seaside locations.

The TidEl system uses floating turbines that are anchored to the seabed by chains. The underwater windmills drift back and forth with the tide, so they point in the best direction to get power from the spinning blades.

And in Florida, the company Florida Hydro has developed a strategy for harnessing the ocean currents of the Gulf Stream.

"For over thirty years, scientists and engineers have sought ways to capture the power of the Gulf Stream current to generate electricity," the company said. "However, all previous attempts have proven cost-prohibitive due to problems with technological scalability and the large capital costs associated with deploying an offshore underwater power plant. ...

If all the testing goes as planned Florida Hydro has big plans for their ocean energy device.

"Energy production by this site will prove the viability of the Open-Center Turbine technology and provide the basis for the construction of a 532-turbine-unit offshore hydroelectric plant fueled by the power of the Gulf Stream current," said the company.

These developments are coming none to soon. Recently Saudi oil experts have privately cast doubt about their ability to significantly increase Saudi output--something that all optimistic predictions of oil production's future count on.

Half of Saudi's production comes from the largest oil field in the world--Ghawar. But a former vice president for exploration and production at Saudi Aramco says that Ghawar was pushed too hard in the past and is now declining at a rate of around 8% per year.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that Saudi production will need to reach 20 million barrels a day by 2020 to meet world demand, double present capacity. Unfortunately Saudi oil officials are now predicting that production in 2020 will be about the same as today.

This is the context in which these fledgling green energy companies are developing.

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Biodiesel Production from Algae

Here is another interesting renewable alternative to fossil fuels: biodiesel fuel from algae.

The Office of Fuels Development, a division of the Department of Energy, funded a program from 1978 through 1996 under the National Renewable Energy Laboratory known as the "Aquatic Species Program". The focus of this program was to investigate high oil yield algaes that could be grown specifically for the purpose of wide scale biodiesel production. Some species of algae are ideally suited to biodiesel production due to their high oil content (some as much as 50% oil), and extremely fast growth rates. From the results of the Aquatic Species Program, algae farms would let us supply enough biodiesel to completely replace petroleum as a transportation fuel in the US (as well as its other main use - home heating oil).

Of course, the major drawback to biodiesel fuel is that burning it still causes the same pollution problems as fossil fuels. However, there has been some creative thought about at least some aspects of this problem.

The program targeted coal and other fossil fuel fired power plants as the main sources of CO2. Typical coal-fired power plants emit flue gas from their stacks containing up to 13% CO2. This high concentration of CO2 enhances transfer and uptake of CO2 in the ponds. The concept of coupling a coal-fired power plant with an algae farm provides an elegant approach to recycle of the CO2 from coal combustion into a usable liquid fuel.

Biodiesel fuel has significant problems to face before if becomes a sustainable energy source, but it does provide a renewable resource that can at least recycle CO2 created by other sources. It is worth keeping an eye on this project.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Water again:

In Florida pollution in the Escambia County aquifer has closed four water supply wells in Pensacola since 1958. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is going to spend $70,000 this year to try to find the source of radium and other pollutants in the aquifer in the Palafox Street industrial corridor.

The handling of drinking water pollution by public and private officials already has prompted a grand jury investigation and four lawsuits. Predictably all sides deny reponsibility for the aquifer.

India is facing much more severe problems.

The annual recharge of water is far less than what is consumed. The situation is more alarming in urban areas due to population pressure and industrial growth.

New Delhi's water tables are dipping by an average of 0.4 metres a year. In Gujarat, nearly 14,000 villages suffer from severe water scarcity every year. Groundwater tables have dipped around 3-4 metres every year, according to a report by NGO Utthan.

Add to this the high levels of pollution in water bodies, including lakes and rivers. Sewage disposal, industrial effluents, chemicals from farm run-offs, and arsenic and fluoride contamination have made water extremely poisonous both for consumption and irrigation.

Water conditions are approaching crisis levels and can only get worse as population continues to grow.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Chris Skrebowski has developed a list of major new oil fields coming online between now and 2008. Skrebowski analyzed all known projects with estimated reserves of over 500 million barrels and the claimed potential to produce over 100,000 barrels of oil a day. Projects on that scale account for about 80 percent of the world's oil supplies. It takes an average of six years from first discovery for a major field to start producing, so no other fields besides those already planned will coming online until at least the end of the decade.

The key findings of the report include:

- Between 2003 and early 2007 some 8 million barrels of new capacity is expected to come on stream. This should be more than sufficient to offset global production declines of about 3-4 million barrels a day over that period and projected demand growth of around 3 million barrels a day.

- The peak year for new mega projects, predominantly offshore developments, will be 2005 when 18 projects with a potential peak capacity of 3 million barrels a day are due to come on stream.

- The development pace will slow in 2006 with 11 new projects starting up. Their combined peak capacity will be around 2 million barrels a day.

- Only three new mega projects are expected to come on stream in 2007 and a further three in 2008, adding less than 2 million barrels of potential new capacity at their peak.

- From 2007, the volumes of new production will likely fall short of the combined need to replace lost capacity from depleting older fields and satisfy continued growth in world demand.

- Some 23 other projects have been identified that could potentially be developed sometime in the future. All but two of these are in Russia and the Middle East but due to a range of political, legal and technical uncertainties, none is likely to add new supplies to the market before the end of this decade.

The report sounds reassuring, at least for the next four years, even if gets very pessimistic after that. But even Skrebowki's conclusion that 8 million barrels between now and 2007 will be enough to cover depletion and growth seems optimistic. In 2003 countries with declining production lost a million barrels a day of production. This number can't rise any more without exceeding Skrebowski's estimates. Consumption in the first three quarters of 2003 was averaging a million and a half barrels a day above 2002 levels--double the rate of increase that Skrebowski assumes.

Furthermore the peak year for new mega projects will be 2005 when 3 million barrels a day are due to come on stream. By 2006 the number drops to 2 million barrels a day. 2007 and 2008 bring a total of another 2 million barrels a day.

If the numbers from 2003 hold up, it will be very hard for supply to keep up with demand much past 2005. If as Matt Simmons believes, Saudi Arabia is set to go into decline, even making it to 2005 will be difficult.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Some indications that renewable energy is catching on:

New Mexico Passes Aggressive Clean Energy Legislation

In a move sure give a major boost to renewable energy in New Mexico, the State's Governor Bill Richardson signed legislation making it mandatory for utilities to source a certain percent of their energy from renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydropower. Not only will New Mexico join a growing list of other states stepping forward and calling for clean energy, but it will be among the more aggressive in its pursuit.

Sharp Solar's US Facility Ramps Up Production

Sharp Solar announced a range of installations using solar modules that were manufactured at Sharp's U.S. solar panel manufacturing facility. The plant opened in Memphis five months ago to meet the increasing demand for solar energy in the U.S.

The solar manufacturing facility, based at Sharp Manufacturing Company of America, is assembling 165-, 167- and 185-watt solar panels for residential and commercial installations. Current annual capacity is 20 MW, all focused on manufacturing solar products for the domestic solar market.

Global Wind Power Growth Continues

The global wind power industry installed 8,133 Megawatts MW in 2003, according to figures released by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), bringing the world's total wind power generating capacity to 39,294 MW.

The new wind sector investment is worth ý8 billion, (US$9.7 billion) up from ý6.8 billion (US$8.3 billion) in 2002. The total capacity of 39,294 MW provides enough to power the equivalent of 19 million average European households, or 47 million people.

And perhaps the best indication that renewable energy has arrived--major corporations are starting to buy up renewable energy companies.

Sale of AstroPower to GE Energy Approved

Just a couple years after snatching up Enron Wind at bargain basement prices, US industrial heavyweight, General Electric is getting into the solar business with another low cost renewable energy acquisition. AstroPower will be sold to GE Energy now that the US Bankruptcy Court presiding over the beleaguered solar company's Chapter 11 proceedings approved the sale.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Sustainability resources:

The Earth Charter

"The Earth Charter is a declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. It seeks to inspire in all peoples a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family and the larger living world. It is an expression of hope and a call to help create a global partnership at a critical juncture in history."

Alliance for Sustainability

The mission of the Alliance is to bring about personal, organizational and planetary sustainability through support of projects that are ecologically sound, economically viable, socially just and humane. The Alliance for Sustainability is a Minnesota-based, tax-deductible nonprofit supporting model sustainability projects on the local, national and international levels.

The Alliance accomplishes its work by bringing together diverse businesses, government agencies, academic institutions, religious organizations, nonprofits, community groups and individuals in support of sustainability. It has helped promote sustainability education and training through The Natural Step and has developed partnerships and projects with a wide range of groups. The Alliance has numerous publications and a comprehensive Sustainability Resource Center that is open to the public.

Center for Respect of Life and Environment

The Center for Respect of Life and Environment was founded in 1986 to foster an ethic of compassion toward all sentient beings and respect for the integrity of nature. This ethic urges each of us to expand our moral concern to future generations; to poor, oppressed and disenfranchised human beings; to animals, plants and the earth as a whole. With a particular focus on higher education and religious institutions, the Center promotes a humane and sustainable future for all members of the earth community. The Center is an affiliate of The Humane Society of the United States.

The Millennium Institute

The Millennium Institute is a development research and service firm with the vision of a sustainable and more peaceful and equitable future for Earth. They believe that such a future is possible and that to attain it, humans must develop and apply advanced analytical tools to illuminate unintended and counterintuitive consequences of alternative strategies and policies and also to reflect on the human value systems needed to assess the alternative futures illuminated by the analytical tools.

MI’s mission, therefore, is (1) to develop and provide advanced analytical tools for national and global development, and (2) to formulate values-related questions and analyses on the consequences of alternative development strategies.

The Pop!ulation Coalition

The Population Coalition produces a bi-monthly newsletter, The Population Press, maintains and extensive list of hyperlinks on population, the environment, and sustainability, and collection of resources to help get people involved. Also, check out their population Clock

Sunday, March 14, 2004

A Wave of Desalination Proposals

California has begun a campaign to build desalination plants to supplement natural water supplies. The plants could provide more than 1.5 million Californians with drinking water by 2030.

But will it be enough? A recent study shows that the 10 fastest growing cities are all in the desert Southwest. The four California cities on this list alone grew by 86,000 in just the last two years.

In addition, desalination plants are expensive and require as much energy as a steel plant, although there is new technology. The new system uses a gravity induced vacuum and solar energy instead of electricity or fossil fuels to desalinate water--a possible new source of fresh water driven by renewable sources.

As with energy, renewable energy is increasing it's capability to rescue us from natural resource shortages. And again, it is a race against time to make the transition as smooth as possible.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Dry Beijing to shun water-intensive industry

Sticking with the China theme--the Chinese government is taking steps to deal with another environmental problem--the shortage of water.

Beijing authorities have announced that they will block new water guzzling industries and reward those that use water saving technologies. The government has developed a list of 93 kinds of water-saving and water-recycling products, and will set up a special fund to subsidize enterprises engaged in water-saving toilets, sewage treatment, and other water-saving technology.

Beijing has recorded surprisingly large declines in its water tables and aquifers in recent years. The Chinese government is in the early stages of a project that is meant to move huge amounts of water from China's south to irrigate parched areas of the densely populated north.

However, China is not alone in facing a growing shortage of fresh water. Whole villages in Iran have been evacuated due to exhausted aquifers, while some of the largest cities in the Middle East face the same problem in coming decades.

Water is yet another measure of the carrying capacity for humans, and the red flags are already flying.

Northern China, Beijing hit by first severe sandstorm of 2004

The yearly dust storms that have plagued China have returned. Years of tree clearing and overgrazing along China's northern plains--driven by the rising demand for beef by China's growing middle class--have led to desertification throughout the region resulting in the largest dustbowl in history, dwarfing Oklahoma's dustbowl of the 1930s

In Beijing, citizens are forced to wear face masks to ward off serious pollution. Airline take-offs and landings, as well as traffic on expressways, have been affected during the strongest sandstorms.

In previous years, the sandstorms blowing across China have forced people as far away as South Korea and Japan to wear masks against the sand.

These immense dust storms are further proof that human population has passed the earth's carrying capacity, and that the consequences we face are potentially severe. In fact, the damage being done by the overuse of natural resources will only lower further the carrying capacity for humans, ensuring a difficult period of decline in human population and economic activity.

A green future will eventually emerge from this crisis. There is a serious need to plan for that future to minimize the pain of the transition as much as possible.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

China's Shrinking Grain Harvest

World grain production has declined for four years in a row--a result of droughts, encroaching deserts, expanding urban areas, falling water tables, and small farmers being driven out of business by heavily subsidized imports from the U.S. and Europe.

As with energy, China is shaping up to be the driving force behind the growing deficit between harvest yields and demand.

China's wheat harvest fell short of consumption last year by 19 million tons. When the country's wheat stocks are depleted within the next year or so, the entire shortfall will have to be covered from imports. In some ways, the rice deficit is even more serious. Trying to cover a rice shortfall of 20 million tons in a world where annual rice exports total only 26 million tons could create chaos in the world rice economy. And with a corn shortfall of 15 million tons and stocks already largely depleted, China may soon have to import corn as well.

The handwriting on the wall is clear. While grain production is dropping, demand is climbing, driven up by the addition of 11 million people per year and by fast-rising incomes. As people in China earn more, they are moving up the food chain, eating more grain-fed livestock products such as pork, poultry, eggs, and, to a lesser degree, beef and milk.

The fall in China's grain harvest is due largely to a shrinkage of the grain harvested area from 90 million hectares in 1998 to 76 million hectares in 2003. Several trends are converging to reduce the grain area, including the loss of irrigation water, desert expansion, the conversion of cropland to nonfarm uses, the shift to higher-value crops, and a decline in double-cropping due to the loss of farm labor in the more prosperous coastal provinces.

Water tables are falling throughout the northern half of China. As aquifers are depleted and irrigation wells go dry, farmers either revert to low-yield dryland farming or, in the more arid regions, abandon farming altogether. In the competition for scarce water, China's cities and industry invariably get first claim, leaving farmers with a shrinking share of a shrinking supply. Losing irrigation water may mean either abandoning land or less double cropping.

China's farmers are also losing land to expanding deserts, such as the Gobi, which is consuming an additional 4,000 square miles each year. Paying farmers in the north and west to plant their grainland to trees to halt these advancing deserts is further reducing the grain area.

Soon China's reserves will be exhausted and it will have to turn to the world market for imports that could run as high as 50 million tons per year. This comes at a time when world grain stocks are at their lowest level in 30 years.

China has a $120 billion trade surplus with the United States, enough to buy the entire U.S. grain harvest twice over. If their auto market continues to explode at it's present pace, they will also be entering the oil market in a big way. China's needs could begin to drive the world economy soon in some very unexpected ways.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

UN study shows environmental consequences from ongoing boom in personal computer sales

Just to demonstrate how dependent we are on fossil fuels, a new United Nations University study has measured the amount of oil required to make personal computers, the toxic chemicals used in their manufacture, and the demand for electricity created by PCs.

The average 24 kg (53 lbs) desktop computer with monitor requires at least 10 times its weight in fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture, much more materials intensive than an automobile or refrigerator, which only require 1-2 times their weight in fossil fuels.

Researchers found that manufacturing one desktop computer and 17-inch CRT monitor uses at least 240 kg (530 lbs) of fossil fuels, 22 kg (50 lbs) of chemicals and 1,500 kg (3,330 lbs) of water -– a total of 1.8 tonnes (1.9 English tons) of materials -- roughly the weight of a rhinoceros or sports utility vehicle (SUV).

While computers become smaller and more powerful, their environmental impacts are increasing. The materials- and energy-intense production process, greater adoption of PCs worldwide, plus the rapid rate at which they are discarded for newer machines, add up to growing mountains of garbage and increasingly serious contributions to resource depletion, environmental pollution and climate change. ...

Hundreds or even thousands of chemicals, many of them toxic, are used to produce a computer and a set of specific health concerns has arisen regarding chemical exposure in the production process. Another pressing concern is the environmental and health impacts of emissions of hazardous substances from discarded computer equipment.

While the microchip industry has fewer accidental injuries compared to heavy industries, concerns have arisen over whether possible health effects of long-term exposure of workers to toxic chemicals. Former workers in semiconductor fabrication facilities have filed lawsuits alleging that exposure to chemicals in their work is linked to birth defects and cancer. These suits are still pending and fears may well be exaggerated, but there is scant scientific evidence to prove nor disprove links to birth defects and cancers. There is a need for epidemiological studies, yet little action taken to see that these are done.

A group of chemicals called brominated flame retardants used in circuit boards and plastic computer cases is of particular concern. Recent studies in the United States, Canada and Sweden show that concentrations of these compounds in humans have been increasing rapidly. In sufficient dosages, they can cause neuro-developmental disorders and possibly cancer.

Monitors, and to a lesser extent computers, contain significant quantities of heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, which pose potential health risks to production workers and environmental risks to water supplies near landfills where they are eventually dumped. ....

A study commissioned by the US Department of Energy showed that 3% of US electricity consumption in 2000 was due to IT equipment. Book contributor Danielle Cole says that while the increased popularity of liquid crystal displays over CRTs tends to lower electricity use by computers, newer generations of microprocessors and larger monitors tend to use much more than their predecessors.

Much electricity is wasted as computers also tend to be left on when not in use, even overnight. Many users falsely believe that turning off machines can harm the components. In practice, turning computers on and off shortens their lifespan only after around 20 years of use, not relevant for most equipment.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Dry, Dry West

While the most dramatic effects of overpopulation are showing up in other countries--the massive dust bowl that has appeared in China's overgrazed northern prairies, or the disappearance of rainforests in Southeast Asia and South America--the American West may be facing environmental limits to growth as well.

The West has historically gone through prolonged phases of drought, lasting for decades. These droughts appear to be affected by changes in ocean currents in the Atlantic and Pacific.

The West is now entering the sixth year of drought; the year 2002 was the driest of the past 100 years in Arizona and the second driest for Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The effects of this drought could be far reaching.

Americans saw spectacular effects of the drought last fall, when wildfires raged across Southern California, killing 24 people and destroying $3 billion in property.

Less obvious, but more profound, are other impacts. Los Angeles' reservoirs are dwindling, the water table beneath Las Vegas is disappearing, and millions of trees in Arizona and New Mexico are dying off.

A continuing drought could wipe out farmers and ranchers throughout the West, from pinto bean growers in New Mexico to cantaloupe farmers in California's San Joaquin Valley. And it could stifle the sprawling growth of the West's swimming-pool-dotted suburbs.

Scientists say this present crisis may reflect the true character of the West - an arid land that Americans have not inhabited long enough to fully understand.

The most infamous American drought, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, led to a collapse of farming across much of Kansas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. The plowed-up ground that had once been prairie was turned to dust and picked up by the wind. Earlier and more severe droughts probably led to the abandonment of major Indian settlements such as Mesa Verde in Colorado in the 13th century.

Residents of the Southwest have responded with increasingly ambitious schemes to pipe in water from other parts of the country. Southern California's reliance on water from Northern California has been longstanding. But now the Colorado is drying up before it reaches the ocean due to overuse and water tables are dropping. Water is emerging as another limiting factor to growth perhaps as serious as the limits of energy production.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

The Oil We Eat (from Harper's)

Richard Manning article demonstrates another major problem that must be faced in the transformation to a green society--the heavy dependence of the so called Green Revolution in agriculture of the 1960s on hydrocarbons. Around 1960 the expansion of agriculture had used up the supply of unfarmed, arable lands. In response plant breeders developed new strains of wheat, rice, and corn so that they could be hypercharged with irrigation water and chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen. These new strains were most efficiently farmed by the industrialized factory-farm system.

Manning calls this "the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet." It moved many of the now no longer needed people off the land and into the world's most severe poverty. It allowed the doubling of population, "adding virtually the entire increase of 3 billion to the world's poorest classes." And it made agriculture irreversibly dependent on oil.

In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten years.

It is not an idle fear; many countries are indeed following the US lead. Mexico now feeds 45 percent of its grain to livestock, up from 5 percent in 1960. Egypt went from 3 percent to 31 percent in the same period, and China, with a sixth of the world's population, has gone from 8 percent to 26 percent. All of these places have poor people who could use the grain, but they can't afford it.

And it's all based on oil and gas which will soon reach peak production and become increasingly expensive and increasingly scarce.

Friday, March 05, 2004

America's new coal rush.

Natural gas, only recently seen as the clean-cheap alternative for energy generation, is quietly being replaced by a return to coal fired power plants as natural gas production stagnates and prices rise.

At least 94 coal-fired electric power plants - which would add 62 gigawatts or another 20 percent to the US's current coal-generating capacity - are now planned across 36 states. Environmental concerns are being replace by economic concerns as the realization sinks in that gas and oil production may be nearing their peak.

Dan Becker, director of global warming and energy program at the Sierra Club, professes; "I certainly wasn't aware it was 62 gigawatts. That's an awful lot more coal to Burn. I think most Americans would be shocked that utilities are dragging the 19th century into the 21st century." The burning of coal already produces more airborne mercury and greenhouse gases than any other single source.

Because of these risks, the industry has taken a stealth approach to planning new plants.

Some critics say coal's comeback is stealthy because most new plants are still in private planning, and the public permitting process hasn't started for most.

Gerald Heinrich first heard about the new coal-fired power plant proposed for Elwood, Ill., when Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich unveiled plans for the plant last April. The 495-foot smokestacks would be just eight miles from his home and immediately next to the first federally designated tall-grass prairie preserve.

"It was a total shock to everyone," he says. "It was done in a way to keep it secret, to make sure it was a done deal when it became public." ...

Elwood is one of the few places in the nation where private planning has reached the public stage. Residents of this quiet, semirural community of about 1,000 people knew a plant was planned - but were told repeatedly it was for a gas-fired turbine generator, not a coal-burning power plant, Mr. Heinrich says.

The secretive return to coal generated power, along with the administration's new emphasis on nuclear power, point to the critical choices that must be realisticly faced as peak oil and gas production approach. We will have to choose between more pollution, less energy use, or a crash program to develop renewable energy sources.

Clearly a combination of conservation and renewable energy is the right approach to take, but it seems as though the Bush administration intends push for more dirty energy and a relaxation of pollution standards. As for the Democrats, only Dennis Kucinch has pushed a comprehensive alternative energy program. It's not clear whether the majority of Democrats have yet awoken to the seriousness of the energy problem.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Energy Information Administration: International Petroleum Monthly - Oil Production

The Energy Information Administration has compiled oil production statistics for 2003. Comparing December 2002 and December 2003 gives a pretty good view of the present oil situation. In December 2002 every country except Saudi Arabia and strike bound Venezuela was producing full tilt during the run up to the Gulf War. In December 2003, every country except Saudi Arabia and Iraq was at full production as demand has essentially caught up with supply.

The numbers are better than the worst of the pessimists believed--some were claiming that oil production had actually peaked in 2000 since worldwide production declined slightly in 2001 and 2002. But this decline was primarily due to OPEC production cuts that were made to force prices up. However, the numbers do contain worrisome details.

Ignoring the anomalies such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, oil production rose by about 2.5 million barrels a day in 2003. This is just about exactly the increase needed every year between now and 2020 to keep up with demand. But a third of this increase came from Russia which surprised everybody with its production rebound in the last two years. Production grew by 800,000 barrels a day in 2003. However, in the last few months of the year this increase clearly tapered off. It seems unlikely that Russia will repeat that performance next year.

Other counties with increased production were Algeria (200,000 bpd), Iran (350,000 bpd), Libya (100,000 bpd), Nigeria (260,000 bpd), United Arab Emirates (260,000 bpd), Angola (200,000 bpd), Brazil 300,000 bpd), Canada (250,000 bpd), Mexico (185,000 bpd) and "other" (650,000 bpd).

The areas where production is growing are primarily the Caspian Sea region and deepwater areas off Africa, the Gulf of Mexico, and South America.

This growth is balanced by some serious declines in other areas; Indonesia (-100,000 bpd), Venezuela (compared with pre-strike data from 2002; -430,000 bpd), the North Sea (-430,000 bpd), Oman (-100,000 bpd), and several other smaller producers. The US continued its 30 year decline although deepwater Gulf of Mexico production has moderated the decline in recent years. In 2003, the decline in US production was only 60,000 bpd.

Overall, while production kept up with demand, and countries with increasing production still outnumber countries with declining production, the cushion of surplus capacity is growing thinner. The Suadis increased production by 800,000 bpd in 2003 and propably have little more than a million bpd excess capacity. Iraq is still not at full production but the situation there remains unpredictable. Venezuela and Nigeria are both potentially trouble spots in the coming year.

Demand is growing in the Asian countries and stockpiles are low in Europe and the US. The tightness in the market has been pushing prices up since the summer with little indication that the fundamentals will change anytime soon. The world needs another surprise like Russia to keep ahead of the game and it is very hard to see where that is going to come from.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Hydrogen Initiative report from American Physical Society panel released

The American Physical Society's Panel on Public Affairs has released a report on the technical problems that need to be solved before a hydrogen powered car would be feasible.

The most promising hydrogen-engine technologies require factors of 10 to 100 improvements in cost or performance in order to be competitive. Current production methods are four times more expensive than gasoline. And, no material exists to construct a hydrogen fuel tank that meets the consumer benchmarks. A new material must be discovered.

These are very large performance gaps. Incremental improvements to existing technologies are not sufficient to close all the gaps. Significant scientific breakthroughs are needed.

This poses a problem for President Bush's hydrogen initiative which proposes to have hydrogen fuel cell powered cars ready by 2020. California governor Schwarzenegger has also proposed a major hydrogen initiative.

The main problem with hydrogen as a fuel is that it is so light that it has very little energy for the volume it takes up. The Hindenburg disaster makes a perfect example. For all the fiery blaze that hydrogen filled blimp made when it went up, two thirds of the passengers survived. Imagine if that huge of a volume of gasoline had exploded.

Finding a way to store enough hydrogen to power a car is a major technical difficulty. In the words of Peter Eisenberger, chairman of the committee, "Hydrogen storage is a potential show stopper."

The urgency of finding an alternative to oil and the stakes involved are outlined in Will The End of Oil Mean The End of America?

The world is quickly running out of oil. In the year 2000, global production stood at 76 Million Barrels per Day (MBD). By 2020, demand is forecast to reach 112 MBD, an increase of 47%. But additions to proven reserves have virtually stopped and it is clear that pumping at present rates is unsustainable. Estimates of the date of “peak global production.” vary with some experts saying it already may have occurred as early as the year 2000. New Scientist magazine recently placed the year of peak production in 2004. Virtually all experts believe it will almost certainly occur before the end of this decade.

And the rate of depletion is accelerating. Imagine a production curve that rises slowly over 145 years—the time since oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859. Over this time, the entire world shifted to oil as the foundation of industrial civilization. It invested over one hundreds trillion dollars in a physical infrastructure and an economic system run entirely on oil. But oil production is now at its peak and the right hand side of the curve is a virtual drop off. Known reserves are being drawn down at 4 times the rate of new discoveries.

The reason for the drop off is that not only have all the “big” discoveries already been made, the rate of consumption is increasing dramatically. Annual world energy use is up five times since 1945. Increases are now driven by massive developing countries—China, India, Brazil—growing and emulating first or at least second world consumption standards. Fixed supply. Stalled discoveries. Sharply increased consumption. This is the formula for global oil depletion within the next few decades.

The situation is especially critical in the US. With barely 4% of the world’s population, the US consumes 26% of the world’s energy. But the US produced only 9 MBD in 2000 while consuming 19 MBD. It made up the difference by importing 10 MBD, or 53% of its needs. By 2020, the US Department of Energy forecasts domestic demand will grow to 25 MBD but production will be down to 7 MBD. The daily shortfall of 18 MBD or 72% of needs, will all need to be imported.

Europe, which is less exposed to the problem than the US, is farther ahead in developing alternatives to oil. So far the US strategy has been to push to open the few remaining reserves in the US such as ANWR, to intervene in the Middle East to try to ensure a stable supply from there, and to gamble on hydrogen technology.

It may be a losing gamble.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Planet Ark : More Alternative Fuel Vehicles Seen in US in 2004

The number of vehicles in the United States that run on alternative fuels is expected to increase 7.3 percent this year from 2003, the government said last week.

A total of 547,904 vehicles that run on natural gas, corn-based ethanol, electricity or liquefied petroleum gases will be on the road this year, up from 510,805 last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

The agency's numbers do not include hybrid vehicles that are fueled by a combination of electricity and traditional gasoline.

At first glance, this sounds like an optimistic story, but there are problems. As I noted before, natural gas production is expected to be flat, pushing prices higher. Ethanol will never be a comprehensive solution. Some experts claim that it takes more energy to produce it than it contains. Others disagree, but even if all the farmland in the country were devoted to producing ethanol, it would not come close to meeting US energy needs.

Electric cars have floundered on the inability to develop batteries with enough energy to rival gas powered cars. GM not only halted its limited construction of electric cars, it recalled the electric cars it was leasing. The market is left to small companies such as Zap Electric. The future of electric cars is still far distant.

Monday, March 01, 2004

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Natural gas industry experts came in with a better prediction than the industry pessimists, but still somewhat short of optimistic, at the second annual Energy Finance Conference.

One panel member forecast a "flat" gas production outlook for US and Canada over the next decade, while another contended that the US in particular is heading toward a critical point in the next 5-10 years with regard its supply-demand balance.

Also, the effects of gas supply and demand on near and midterm gas prices in the US were a hot topic among panel members. Several noted that, given the ongoing constraints placed on US gas supplies, it is likely gas prices will sustain their current strong levels and will remain highly volatile over the next few years.

The panelists each ticked off reasons for the tightness in gas supply, especially in the US. These included the lack of significant gas discoveries, the steady increase of electric power demand, and the lagging development efforts for LNG gas import capacity.

While high gas prices will drive some consumers to other sources (just as obscuring has helped keep industry demand down), the rapid increase in gas fired electric power plants--billed as the cheap and clean alternative to coal and oil--will keep overall demand up. One panelist predicted that the natural gas shortfall will be "massive" by 2010 with "profound implications" for the US economy.

Alaskan gas, a huge source that has not yet been tapped because of the lack of a pipeline to the lower 48 states, will eventually alleviate the shortfall, but that is not predicted to happen until 2013 and "that date is now slipping." The troubled energy bill before congress contains money for a natural gas pipeline, and it enjoys bipartisan support, but the bill as a whole has so much opposition that it may not pass.

Natural gas shortages could have an impact on the much predicted hydrogen economy as one of the most convenient sources of hydrogen to power fuel cells would be natural gas.

The looming constraints on both natural gas and oil production only further underscore the need for an immediate crash program to boost renewable energy sources. The transition to a green economy will either be planned or forced.

Planned would be better.