Peak Oil News: 02/01/2007 - 03/01/2007

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Climate Change, Peak Oil, And Nuclear War

By Bill Henderson

Damocles had one life threatening sword hanging by a thread over his head. We have three:

The awakening public now know that climate change is real and human caused but still grossly underestimate the seriousness of the danger, the increasing probability of extinction, and how close and insidious this danger is - runaway climate change, the threshold of which, with carbon cycle time lags, we are close to if not upon.

A steep spike in the price of oil, precipitated perhaps by an attack on Iran or Middle East instability spreading the insurgency to Saudi Arabia, could lead to an economic dislocation paralyzing the global economy. Such a shock coming at the end of cheap oil but before major development of alternative energy economies could mean the end of civilization as we know it.

And there is a building new cold war with still potent nuclear power Russia and China reacting to a belligerent, unilateralist America on record that it will use military power to secure vital resources and to not allow any other country to threaten it's world dominance. The world is closer to a final, nuclear, world war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 with a beginning arms race and tactical confrontation over weapons in space and even serious talk of pre-emptive nuclear attack.

These three immediate threats to humanity, to each of us now but also to future generations, are inter-related, interact upon each other, and complicate any possible approach to individual solution. The fossil fuel energy path has taken us to a way of life that is killing us and may lead to extinction for humanity and much of what we now recognize as nature.

There is one possible way this Gordian Knot can be cut open so that we can unblock and begin solving each of these life threatening problems hanging over our collective heads - massive change in the United States of America. It is possible to conceive of an America renouncing unilateralism and militarism and above all renouncing imperial consumption; an America leading in turning the military industrial complex into a new Manhattan project style creation of a new, clean, green, local and much smaller footprint economy; an America rich enough to develop a sustainable 21st century way of living and enlightened enough to share a common future on this small blue planet.

What would it take to cut the knot?

Impeachment and criminal proceedings against those in the Bush Administration who cynically attacked Iraq to create a client state as part of a neocon dream to rebuild a business friendly Middle East.

A commitment to radically reduce military spending and America's military footprint and leadership in developing a new round of disarmament and proliferation treaties and a commitment to strengthening multilateral institutions and the international rule of law so that co-operation and diplomacy and not warfare will settle future resource or other dispute.

New governance innovation so that the best and brightest are electable and not just the rich, psychopathic, or the corporation owned and branded. America has the wisest, smartest, most skilled, expert innovators in almost every field - Wilson, Costanza, Lubchenko, Holling, Pimental, Dailey and many others for just the biological sciences example. We need this level of competence and complex problem solving ability in a government empowered and unfettered for change and dedicated to the possibility of continuing opportunity in the future.

In less than a decade America must morph from a fat, info-tainment addled, spoiled brat in combat fatigues to healthy, productive, responsible, ethical citizens again. From Syriana style monsters in mindless sprawl wastelands to exemplars of quality lifestyles, free of the draining virus of affluenza and reinvigorated by the promise of new frontiers of human endeavor and maturity. From purpose bred consumers that create 20 tons of CO2 annually as part of their highest in the world average 25 acre footprints to much more aware and alive people getting close to the sustainable global average of around 2 tons of carbon emissions annually in a 4 acre footprint.

Only a change of this massive scale in America will allow for solution to these building life and death global-scale problems. If America doesn't lead and make their example work we're toast. But few in America can afford even to think about this possible hopeful future. Cannot afford to think about their place in an alternative economy, in alternative lifestyles, in a much different America. Americans today are hopeless addicts.

Massive change for a new America is never debated in the major media No legislator or business or social leader can afford to initiate such a debate. But without American leadership, now, in acknowledging that massive change is needed, without American leadership, now, in finding a path to make this needed change, one if not all of those swords are going to fall.

The Bush Admin appears to want to play double or nothing with war in Iran to try again at enforcing their neocon vision for the Middle East. Valuable time is wasting as we drift along down to energy shortage and, at the same time, increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Is there someone who recognizes the danger and can cut the knot?


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Weak oil theory

By Terence Corcoran

After months of shadowboxing with the fanciful spectacle promised by Peak Oil Theory -- conventional world reserves are running out and prices will soar -- now may be the time to move on to another, more realistic perspective. A number of analysts are gearing up for a major oil-price correction, one that could drive a barrel of crude back down to a level that better reflects oil's long-term price: US$30.

Yesterday Russia announced a reduction in its expected average price down to US$55. This is unlikely to be the last Russian reworking of its oil price outlook. For a variety of reasons, the world price of oil is heading lower. Whether it will hit US$30 would be guesswork, but the band of oil-price skeptics keeps growing.

Weak Oil Theory, to coin a concept, holds that the long-term price trend for commodities is generally down. The history of world oil prices over the last 60 years is mostly flat, averaging maybe US$20 a barrel in constant dollars, except when the world has been cast into military conflict. The real driver of rising oil prices is geopolitical mayhem brought on by war, terrorism and other horrors created by governments.

Left to market factors, the price of oil would tend to drift lower as new technology increases the supply, not just of oil itself but also the supply of energy that can be extracted from a barrel of oil. Today's oil refineries get many more Btus out of a unit of crude oil than they used to. At the same time, demand for oil per unit of economic output -- or oil intensity -- is falling as energy users constantly shift energy practices and technologies. Since 1970 alone, the oil intensity of OECD countries has dropped by 50%.

These are the real fundamentals that, unimpeded by government, would keep oil prices down. Most recent long-range economic forecasts have expected oil to hold somewhere around US$30 for decades to come. In a review of long term oil developments published in 2004, the OECD Economic Outlook set a baseline scenario that forecast oil at US$35 a barrel by 2035. The "worst case" scenario had oil at US$45 by 2035, with a blip to the plus-US$50 range in the event of a major supply disruption.

The rise of China and India as major consumers of oil would bring fresh pressure on prices over the shorter term, but the scale of world reserves and the prospect of technological change would normally force price stability over the longer term.

We return now to a problem noted here many times before. Oil at US$30 a barrel, while great for economic growth and living standards across the globe, looms as a crisis on the horizons of most governments and politicians. In one country after another, from the rich to the poor, from developed to developing, political forces look at the prospect of falling oil prices with trepidation, even horror.

Take Russia, where the Putin government has grown increasingly dependent on US$60 oil. Oil keeps the government flush with cash and gives President Vladimir Putin much of the political and economic backing he needs to hold on to power. A fiscal crisis brought on by a sharp decline in oil prices could upset Putin's grip.

Even developing countries, or at least their governments, collect windfalls from oil prices. A recent news report from India said the government benefits from rising oil prices and that if the price were to rise to US$80 a barrel, the national government's fiscal deficit would be eliminated. Lower oil prices would increase government deficits. Falling crude prices leads to lower government excise tax collections on oil products, lower royalties on Indian oil production and lower dividends and taxes from state-owned oil companies.

Developed-nation governments have similar interests. Ottawa and some provinces have vested interests in high oil prices for fiscal reasons. Ottawa, for example, recently announced new spending on green subsidies to the provinces, money seen as a tax transfer from high energy prices. Talk of green trust funds as federal policy are based on the idea that money can be collected from oil revenue to be used for climate change and other environmental purposes.

Many politicians and political advisors in the United States frequently tout the benefits of high oil prices. They serve to curb demand for oil and reduce the popularity of high-emission cars. If the price of oil were to drop down to US$40 or US$30 a barrel over the next year, many people would be wringing their hands, alarmed at the idea.

For many people, the peak oil scare of the last year or so could soon give way to the reality of Weak Oil Theory and oil prices that simply do not fit their objectives.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cheap Oil to Last, Doomsday Fears Overblown, Author Says

National Geographic News

By Brian Handwerk

Is the era of cheap oil really at an end? Or could a glut send prices into a freefall? Should Western countries fear energy blackmail from oil-rich powers?

There's no crystal ball to predict oil's future, but Leonardo Maugeri believes that much can be learned by looking at the industry's past.

Maugeri is the author of The Age of Oil: The Mythology, History, and Future of the World's Most Controversial Resource. As a senior vice president at the Italian oil corporation Eni SpA, he's also an oil-industry insider.

In his book Maugeri explains how prices affect the cycle of oil production and why he believes oil "doomsday theorists" are tapping an empty well.

Maugeri's theories often challenge conventional wisdom but are likely to become an essential part of the debate on oil's future.

He discussed his controversial ideas in an interview with National Geographic News.

Some experts believe we're at or near a point where world oil supply will be unable to meet demand—with potentially devastating consequences. Are we close to this point of "peak oil"?

It's so seductive, in a way, to speak of a coming catastrophe—but we're not on the brink of a catastrophe.

People usually assume that the planet is thoroughly explored [for oil], but this is not true. The United States and Canada are the most thoroughly explored, and the latest discovery by Chevron in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates that they are not really so [thoroughly] explored.

Other parts of the world are really not explored at all. Even today more than 70 percent of the world's oil exploration wells are concentrated in the U.S. and Canada—countries that hold only 3 percent of the world's oil reserves. Conversely, only 3 percent of the world's exploration wells are drilled in the Middle East.

Many countries, Saudi Arabia in particular, have discovered oil fields in the past but have never developed them because of their fear of creating excess capacity.

No one knows how much oil there is. But all the hints we have—for example surveys made the U.S. Geological Survey—indicate that the world still has really huge oil resources in its soil.

The problem is that in order to bring this oil onstream, you need to be sure what the price of oil will be in the future—so you need to know how long [current] consumption levels will remain.

Some enormous proven fields exhibit slowing oil production, but you stress that new technologies can boost these rates?

Yes. I'll give you an example.

Yukos, the Russian company destroyed by Vladimir Putin, doubled its production in four years by one simple [act].

They hired Schlumberger, [the U.S. oil-technology company] with great experience in the drilling and management of oil fields. The recovery rate for Yukos went from 9 percent to 26 percent without any new discovery.

What's behind today's relatively high oil prices?

These prices are not due to the world's oil drying up—they are simply derived from the low investments of two decades. In the 1990s OPEC repeatedly asked countries to find an agreement in order to sustain prices, because prices were very low due to overproduction.

OPEC continually [said], if you don't ensure markets for new capacity, we won't spend money [on development]. And sooner or later, if we don't spend money, the current capacity will be overloaded, and a crash will come.

Now the production crash has come. We're paying today for the low prices of yesterday.

Refining is another pillar of the current crisis. Right now there's not enough refining capacity in the world, but the world is not running out of refining capacity, because humans build refineries.

You believe that these developments are part of a historical pattern?

Westerners think about the problem of oil security in terms of security of supply. But if you speak with the large producers, their tragedy has been that throughout history, prices have [suddenly] collapsed.

Many times it was because of a combination of excess development of production capacity and a sudden decline in global demand.

This happened during the time of the Wall Street crash in 1929, just when new discoveries in Texas put a lot of new oil in the market. It happened again in the 1950s and 1960s and again in the 1980s.

In the minds of the great producers, the problem is that the growth of demand is not sure, and there is a long delay before consumption reacts to the price of oil.

Sooner or later demand will cool or decline, so they are very concerned about the possibility of sustaining future demand in order to make these [increased production] investments. We don't usually take that point of view into account. On November 1 of last year OPEC ministers cut production by 1.2 million barrels a day in response to falling prices. How might this impact future markets?

In the last few years there has been a boom in investment, not only for the development of new production capacity but also refineries.

This was created by the increase in the price of oil, so now all the producers are [concerned] about how long demand will last to sustain the huge growth of production capacity which is on the way all over the world.

The more prices are sustained, the more the investment boom will continue, and there is a point—when you've spent 50 or 60 percent of the money—that you can't stop those investments even if prices come down. We still need one or two more years [of current price levels] in order to reach this point of no return.

But if for some reason demand cools or stops dramatically, the large producers in particular will soon stop their investments.

How do you address political fears concerning oil security?

The Middle East has always been an unstable area, and unfortunately oil is not found in Switzerland.

The first interest of Saudi Arabia and other large producers is not to blackmail the West. They want to have a secure demand and stable oil prices in order to make money.

Of course they try to raise the price of oil, because they want money. But this is an economic attitude and not an ideological attitude. So I think the problem of oil security is overrated.

Even at the apex of the Iranian revolution, [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini never used oil as a weapon. Oil is the main source of income for most of the producing countries, and they know very well that you can use oil as a weapon for only a very short period of time until, as in the past, the world is able to react.

Rationing would be a nightmare for them. When the West decided to devise energy policies aimed at curbing consumption, demand for oil [from the West] declined between 1979 and 1983 by more than five million barrels per day—or more than 10 percent of demand at that time.

This was a dramatic response to the two oil shocks [of the 1970s], and the final response was the collapse of prices in 1986.

The producers are very aware of this situation, and they don't want to use oil as a weapon.

Can we ease our "oil addiction" before supplies run short?

The Stone Age didn't finish because of a lack of stone. The Oil Age won't finish because of a lack of oil. Sooner or later, probably in this century, oil will be surpassed by another source of energy.

The most effective way to decrease our dependence on oil is to change our habits. We waste a lot of energy because we are so addicted to cheap oil.

American people consume 26 barrels of oil per person each year. That's down from the peak of per capita consumption of oil—in 1978 each American consumed 32 or 33 barrels per year.

Yet an American still consumes more than twice what a European consumes (less than 13 barrels per year), and we in Europe also waste a lot of oil.

The Chinese consume about 1.7 barrels per person each year, and only about 8 percent of the global demand. My preoccupation is not how much China will consume but how we can reduce the foolish consumption of the Westerners.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Is the Deadly Crash of Our Civilization Inevitable?


By Terrence McNally, AlterNet

Humankind is doing more things, faster, across a greater space than ever before, producing changes of a size and speed never seen before.

Thomas Homer-Dixon compares our current situation to driving too fast along a country road in a dense fog. Some ignore the fog and keep their foot pressed on the accelerator, but most of us feel like fairly helpless passengers on this wild ride.

In 1870, the average income in the world's richest country was about nine times greater than that in the world's poorest country. By 1990 it was forty-five times greater.

In 2006, the world's 793 billionaires held combined wealth of $2.6 trillion. (If liquidated in 2006), this wealth could have hired the poorest half of the world's workers -- the 1.4 billion workers who earn a few dollars a day -- for almost two years.

Between 1977 and 1996, the weight of the average American cheeseburger grew over 25 percent, and the volume of the average soft drink grew more than 50 percent. About 40 percent of the world's population now lacks sufficient water for basic sanitation and hygiene, and nearly one out of every five people does not have enough to drink.

Between 2000 and the beginning of 2005, China's daily oil imports soared 140 percent. Saudi Arabia, has pumped a total of 46 billion barrels of oil in the past 17 years, without admitting to any decrease in its stated reserve figure of about 260 billion barrels.

Since 1950, industrialized fishing has reduced the total mass of large fish in the world's oceans by 90 percent. The atmosphere's level of carbon dioxide is the highest in 650,000 years.

Is a deadly crash inevitable?

Thomas Homer-Dixon is director of the Trudeau Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict at the University of Toronto. He is the author of "The Ingenuity Gap" and his newest book "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization."

Terrence McNally: What are the biggest questions driving you right now?

Thomas Homer-Dixon: I have a 20-month-old son, and I'm concerned about the future for him. I'm trying to figure out what might happen and how we can make it better.

It's unlikely that the future is going to be a linear extrapolation of the present, but I've pretty well arrived at the conclusion that the diversity and power of the stresses that we're encountering are going to cause some major volatility. I expect social, political, economic and technological crises and breakdowns. It's hard to say what they're going to look like, but the probability of some major problems developing is rising.

So how are we going to respond in times of crisis?

In the book I introduce the metaphor of earthquakes. I talk about tectonic stresses building up under the surface of our societies and of global society. Now this is something that Californians are very familiar with. Everybody in the state knows that there are mighty tectonic plates pressing together along the San Andreas Fault, among others. Potential energy builds up, and at some point it's released in earthquakes that can have devastating consequences.

And I think the same is at least metaphorically true for our world. Stresses are building, and at some point I expect there will be a release of pressure because our institutions and our adaptive capability will be overloaded. We just won't be able to cope.

TMN: You point out that it's not linear, and it isn't any one thing that's going to do it. It's the combination and interaction. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond puts forth five factors that have led to collapse -- human environmental impacts, climate change, the behavior of your enemies, the behavior of your friends and how you respond. What are the converging stresses you see?

THD: Demographic, energy, environmental change, especially scarcity of water, shortages of cropland and forest in poor countries, climate, and then finally widening gaps between rich and poor people around the world.

You touched on something a moment ago that's very important. The real problem is that they're all happening together. We've learned in recent decades that revolution or societal collapse tends to happen when societies are stressed from multiple directions simultaneously.

Any one of the problems we face could be a major challenge for human society, but we have things going in the wrong direction in five different ways at the same time. Millions around the world are in a situation of severe water scarcity. That's already having major economic impacts, causing poverty and dislocation, and undermining institutions. Add climate change and the problem becomes that much worse. The two things will multiply each other. You could have a really catastrophic problem where, say, the precipitation fails and there's already water scarcity.

TMN: And the energy issue impacts everything -- moving water, moving people.

THD: Or drilling deeper into the ground to pull more water out of the ground. Energy is kind of a master resource. If we have enough cheap, high quality energy, we can cope with a lot of our other problems. But once energy becomes a lot more expensive, then the combination of climate change and water scarcity will be that much harder to deal with.

TMN: I recall Buckminster Fuller made the basic point that truly accurate economic value is related to energy.

THD: In fact there's a whole way of approaching economics that uses thermodynamics. Herman Daly in particular has pioneered this. Energy is a currency that is fundamental and physical, and it gets you away from prices, which are often distractions. The price of something -- a barrel of oil, a bushel of grain -- includes so many other factors that may not have anything to do with underlying abundance or scarcity of these things.

TMN: The economics of a snail, or a pond, or an entire society -- all have to do with the energy that keeps the organism alive.

THD: Physicists would tell you all of those things are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. That basically means they're complex systems, and they require a constant input of high quality energy to maintain that complexity. Human beings have created cities and societies and technologies that are extremely complex. We use those things to solve our problems and to raise our standard of living, but that takes enormous inputs of high quality energy. The energy footprint of Los Angeles, for instance, is hundreds of times larger than the city itself.

The question is ultimately whether we can sustain that indefinitely, especially since we're probably moving to a post-petroleum age. Energy is going to become steadily more expensive, in terms of the amount of energy that it takes to produce energy.

TMN: Peak oil is either already here or perhaps it's a decade away. That may not sound like such a bad thing -- the fact that we've used up half the oil in the ground. Many might say, my God, only half in a hundred years.

THD: We still have half of it left.

TMN: But every single barrel from now on is harder to get. We've gotten the easy half.

THD: Once you've passed peak production in a field or a region, the decline can be quite rapid. The major oil field in Oman and a lot of the fields in Texas are declining at 12 percent a year. The North Sea field that the U.K. depends upon is declining 8 percent a year. That's a very rapid shift from increasing production to decreasing production -- a shift into a world of scarcity. When we pass the peak in global oil production, energy prices will rise dramatically and very quickly.

TMN: Our current way of feeding ourselves in America is unsustainable. Everything on our plates travels an average of 1,300 miles to get there. We've rigged all of our economic systems and our agricultural systems as if energy would never run out.

THD: Here's a statistic that I came across in writing this book that really astonished me. We've quadrupled the human population in the last century, from 1.5 billion to 6.3 billion, in part because we've had a lot of cheap energy. In particular, that cheap energy has allowed us to increase the amount of energy in our food production systems by 80 fold.

TMN: So it takes 80 times more energy to feed four times more people.

THD: Exactly. We've created a food system, a water system, and cities that are fundamentally dependent upon a resource that is not indefinitely available.

TMN: The whole idea of free trade is built on globalized exchange, which depends on long distances.

THD: In his book "The Flat Earth," Thomas Friedman says we're moving to a frictionless global economy where everybody can compete on an equal plane. But that's only the case if we have abundant cheap energy. As energy becomes more expensive, people will start moving production closer to consumers. It won't make sense to have your production facilities in China if you're selling your goods in the United States. You're going to want them at least on the Mexican border.

TMN: It's going take playing the film backwards to save ourselves.

People have heard about the litany of crises in your book, but what's unique I think is the stance you're willing to take about what's going to happen. Jared Diamond says that there are two main factors that define whether societies succeed or collapse. Societies that survive practice long-term thinking and are willing and flexible enough to change their values when they no longer serve them.

What do you feel will save us from ourselves? What is The Upside of Down?

THD: I agree with Jared on both those factors. At the end of my book I spend a fair amount of time talking about the importance of value change. We need to move away from what I call strictly utilitarian values which focus on simple likes and dislikes that emphasize consumption of material goods, towards moral values, and even what I would call existential values. These relate to what we consider to be the good life, what brings meaning into our lives, what kind of world do we really want for our children and our children's children. These are fundamentally values conversations.

My difference with Diamond is that I don't think we're going to really begin those conversations in a proper way until we face some crises or breakdowns. In other words, my impression of his argument is that collapse is something we have to avoid, in all cases and in all forms. On the other hand, I believe there is a spectrum of forms of collapse. At one end is the ideal, optimistic future where we solve all our problems and we live happily every after. At the other end is catastrophic collapse. We have tended not to fill in all the spaces in between, but that's actually where things might be very interesting. There may be some forms of disruption and crisis that will actually stimulate us to be really creative. Most importantly, they may allow us to get the deep vested interests that are blocking change out of the way.

TMN: And that will be part of what allows us to finally have that values conversation?

THD: Exactly.

TMN: It seems that we're more willing to admit that when we talk about individuals. The 12-step notion, for instance, that people don't change till their backs are against the wall, till they hit bottom. We're usually not willing to say that about society because it's too frightening.

THD: I introduce it very much in personal terms, exactly the kinds of things that you mentioned. Many of us have had times in our lives where crises have challenged us in the most fundamental ways. We've had in some sense a breakdown of the basic systems that we rely upon to manage our lives. And we've had to rebuild, we've had to think very carefully about what we're doing, re-examine our values, break patterns. And often we've ended up much better off afterwards.

When you look at research that's come out over the last 15 to 20 years, the most complex adaptive systems in the world all go through patterns of growth and increasing complexity till eventually they become rigid and break down. Then they reorganize themselves, regenerate and regrow. All highly adaptive systems have breakdown in them at some point or other.

The key thing though -- and this is where I think that Jared Diamond's argument just doesn't give us the purchase that we need -- is that we have to keep the breakdown from being catastrophic. There has to be enough resilience in the system, enough information, enough adaptive capacity that things can be regenerated. With catastrophic breakdown, recovery is often impossible.

TMN: So you're saying, let's be realistic and not afraid to talk about breakdown. If an intervention is needed -- if things are that bad or about to become that bad -- we've got to be able to deal with it and not be disempowered.

THD: We need to start thinking now about what we're going to do in those occasions.

There will be times of frustration and fear and anger on the part of many people when fundamental verities and patterns of life are suddenly challenged. They'll be scared. And in those moments, extremists can take advantage of the situation and push our societies in directions that are very bad. Those of us who are nonextremists need to be prepared to push in other directions and create something that's good.

TMN: I recently interviewed Niall Ferguson about his book "War of the World." He quotes Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler as both come to power in the midst of the Depression. They sound remarkably alike, and yet one of them took things one way and one of them another.

THD: In fact that's exactly the example I use in my book. The great depression was a breakdown that challenged the fundamentals of the capitalist system. In fact, in the 1930s a lot of Americans thought that capitalism was a failed system. FDR used the opportunity created by that catastrophe to rebuild the fundamentals of American capitalism, to introduce a lot of Keynesian policies that laid the groundwork for American economic power for the next five decades. On the other hand, that crisis was used by Hitler to generate one of history's most horrific regimes.

TMN: Another lesson of history -- In his book Plan B 2.0, Lester Brown says that we should take hope from the fact that we turned our economy and our productive capacity around on a dime to fight and win World War II.

THD: And that turning on a dime occurred in the midst of a crisis. My suggestion is that we're not going to see fundamental shifts until we confront a major crisis. Whether we're able to exploit such crises effectively will largely depend upon whether we've planned well in advance, whether we've thought through how we're going to mobilize at those critical moments.

TMN: What is the role of religion in this?

THD: Our religious institutions are supposedly the places where we think about these larger values issues. But when we go in the door of our church or our mosque or our synagogue, we're given a creed, we're told what to think. We're not given a space in which to have a conversation about these things. So one of the issues that I discuss at the end of the book is how can we create what I would call an "open source democracy," an environment in which we can have some of those really deep discussions about values that we can't within our current religious institutions.

TMN: You're saying that we're in bad shape, and things are probably going to break down -- though not necessarily collapse, and it's that breakdown that's going to finally give us the impetus to change. But you're also saying that we're going to have to adapt our values institutions -- our politics and religion -- in order to successfully prepare for that moment.

THD: Whether we effectively take advantage of what I call "moments of contingency" will largely depend on whether we know where we're going. And we won't know where we're going unless we've had those values conversations ahead of time. Those conversations have to start now.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ten Ways to Prepare for a Post-Oil Society


By James Howard Kunstler

The best way to feel hopeful about our looming energy crisis is to get active now and prepare for living arrangements in a post-oil society.

Out in the public arena, people frequently twang on me for being "Mister Gloom'n'doom," or for "not offering any solutions" to our looming energy crisis. So, for those of you who are tired of wringing your hands, who would like to do something useful, or focus your attention in a purposeful way, here are my suggestions:

1. Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed "greens" and political "progressives" are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymax™ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car. We have to make other arrangements for virtually all the common activities of daily life.

2. We have to produce food differently. The Monsanto/Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy.

3. We have to inhabit the terrain differently. Virtually every place in our nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami ...) will support only a fraction of their current populations. We'll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g. Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature -- as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components -- at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.

4. We have to move things and people differently. This is the sunset of Happy Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it. Don't waste your society's remaining resources trying to prop up car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in restoring public transit. Let's start with railroads, and let's make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal systems -- including the towns associated with them. The great harbor towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to restore maritime shipping based on wind -- yes, sailing ships. It's for real. Lots to do here. Put down your Ipod and get busy.

5. We have to transform retail trade. The national chains that have used the high tide of fossil fuels to contrive predatory economies-of-scale (and kill local economies) -- they are going down. WalMart and the other outfits will not survive the coming era of expensive, scarcer oil. They will not be able to run the "warehouses-on-wheels" of 18-wheel tractor-trailers incessantly circulating along the interstate highways. Their 12,000-mile supply lines to the Asian slave-factories are also endangered as the US and China contest for Middle East and African oil. The local networks of commercial interdependency which these chain stores systematically destroyed (with the public's acquiescence) will have to be rebuilt brick-by-brick and inventory-by-inventory. This will require rich, fine-grained, multi-layered networks of people who make, distribute, and sell stuff (including the much-maligned "middlemen"). Don't be fooled into thinking that the Internet will replace local retail economies. Internet shopping is totally dependent now on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap. It also is predicated on electric power systems that are completely reliable. That is something we are unlikely to enjoy in the years ahead. Do you have a penchant for retail trade and don't want to work for a big predatory corporation? There's lots to do here in the realm of small, local business. Quit carping and get busy.

6. We will have to make things again in America. However, we are going to make less stuff. We will have fewer things to buy, fewer choices of things. The curtain is coming down on the endless blue-light-special shopping frenzy that has occupied the forefront of daily life in America for decades. But we will still need household goods and things to wear. As a practical matter, we are not going to re-live the 20th century. The factories from America's heyday of manufacturing (1900 - 1970) were all designed for massive inputs of fossil fuel, and many of them have already been demolished. We're going to have to make things on a smaller scale by other means. Perhaps we will have to use more water power. The truth is, we don't know yet how we're going to make anything. This is something that the younger generations can put their minds and muscles into.

7. The age of canned entertainment is coming to and end. It was fun for a while. We liked "Citizen Kane" and the Beatles. But we're going to have to make our own music and our own drama down the road. We're going to need playhouses and live performance halls. We're going to need violin and banjo players and playwrights and scenery-makers, and singers. We'll need theater managers and stage-hands. The Internet is not going to save canned entertainment. The Internet will not work so well if the electricity is on the fritz half the time (or more).

8. We'll have to reorganize the education system. The centralized secondary school systems based on the yellow school bus fleets will not survive the coming decades. The huge investments we have made in these facilities will impede the transition out of them, but they will fail anyway. Since we will be a less-affluent society, we probably won't be able to replace these centralized facilities with smaller and more equitably distributed schools, at least not right away. Personally, I believe that the next incarnation of education will grow out of the home schooling movement, as home schooling efforts aggregate locally into units of more than one family. God knows what happens beyond secondary ed. The big universities, both public and private, may not be salvageable. And the activity of higher ed itself may engender huge resentment by those foreclosed from it. But anyone who learns to do long division and write a coherent paragraph will be at a great advantage -- and, in any case, will probably out-perform today's average college graduate. One thing for sure: teaching children is not liable to become an obsolete line-of-work, as compared to public relations and sports marketing. Lots to do here, and lots to think about. Get busy, future teachers of America.

9. We have to reorganize the medical system. The current skein of intertwined rackets based on endless Ponzi buck passing scams will not survive the discontinuities to come. We will probably have to return to a model of service much closer to what used to be called "doctoring." Medical training may also have to change as the big universities run into trouble functioning. Doctors of the 21st century will certainly drive fewer German cars, and there will be fewer opportunities in the cosmetic surgery field. Let's hope that we don't slide so far back that we forget the germ theory of disease, or the need to wash our hands, or the fundamentals of pharmaceutical science. Lots to do here for the unsqueamish.

10. Life in the USA will have to become much more local, and virtually all the activities of everyday life will have to be re-scaled. You can state categorically that any enterprise now supersized is likely to fail -- everything from the federal government to big corporations to huge institutions. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to have food in your cupboard and people who esteem you. An entire social infrastructure of voluntary associations, co-opted by the narcotic of television, needs to be reconstructed. Local institutions for care of the helpless will have to be organized. Local politics will be much more meaningful as state governments and federal agencies slide into complete impotence. Lots of jobs here for local heroes.

So, that's the task list for now. Forgive me if I left things out. Quit wishing and start doing. The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Connecting the Dots

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple

In the months after 9/11 there was much discussion about the American government's failure to "connect the dots." Hints and clues that Al Qaida was about to launch airborne suicide attacks inside the US abounded but nobody put the bits and pieces together into a convincing warning.

Such it may be with peak oil. There are trend lines and clues from across the earth pointing to serious troubles just ahead, but once again they are not generally perceived as making a "convincing case," especially when nobody really wants to contemplate the conclusion.

The "dots" of peak oil cluster into four groups. First, there are the depletion vs. new discovery dots. Every active oil field on earth is giving up some share of the 85 million barrels we burn up each day. New wells are constantly being drilled into existing oil fields in an effort to maintain production as the oil from the field is used up.

As fields mature and new wells are not enough to maintain production, output starts to drop. To offset the loss and maintain or increase our 85 million barrels a day, new fields must be opened and start producing. This balance between old fields drying up and new fields starting up is the heart of the peak oil story. When there is not enough production from new fields or other "unconventional" sources of oil substitutes to offset the decline, it is all over— world production has peaked.

For the last couple of years, new production and depletion have been running just about neck and neck, with production from new fields just offsetting the declines in production and cutbacks from geopolitical factors such as insurgencies and other political disputes. Some knowledgeable observers, after noting the pace at which in production is falling particularly from the North Sea and Mexico's Cantarell fields, believe that new production going on stream during 2007 will not be enough to maintain the production level we have seen during the last two years.

These observers note the cost of extracting oil from new, mostly offshore, fields has been increasing rapidly and that many projects have been slipping due to the unavailability of skilled personnel and equipment necessary to bring them on stream as rapidly as planned.

It should be noted that we don't yet have returns in from the giant Saudi oil fields. Saudi production has dropped about 1 million barrels a day in the past year. The Saudis maintain they are simply cutting production due to a glut of oil and falling prices. Many outside observers, however, are suspicious that there may be more to the story. Various techniques of assessing the course of Saudi oil production suggest these giant fields, some of which have been in production for 60 years, are ready to go into rapid decline. If this is happening, the Saudis sure aren't going to tell us.

Just to be safe, the Saudi dot should probably be flashing amber just as the North Sea and Mexican dots are already flashing bright red.

The next cluster of dots are the one's for the world's oil exporters. Some of these countries are fine, upstanding places like Canada, Norway, and the UK that will keep sending us oil until they run out of exportable surpluses. Unfortunately, for the UK this is already the case. Even America's best friend to the north, Canada, only has a few years before its citizens start to question selling of so much of its oil to the US.

Most large oil exporters are monuments to political instability. Iraq and Nigeria are currently in death spirals that could easily lead to serious reductions in their oil exports during the next year or so. The political leadership of Iran and Venezuela at the moment seems to be doing their best to get bombed by somebody or other. At least they are ideologically screwing up their domestic petroleum industries to the point where their ability to export current quantities of oil has a very short half-life.

Then we have the global warming dots: meltings, droughts, famines, hurricanes, and you name it. While the US, at the minute, seems inclined not to do much about this until Wall Street actually goes under water, a critical mass of public opinion seems to be forming. Short of imposing a 50 mph speed limit, and rationing or taxing the dickens out of fossil fuels, there does not seem to be much the US can do about greenhouse emissions in the short run.

Any serious, rapid, governmental action to cut emissions will of course have a serious impact on the last set of dots: the global economy. Here the question is easy. Do economic hard times come before or after peak oil? It should be obvious to everyone by now that if you take away a share of the world's oil and gas consumption, you are going to have some really serious economic problems. You can pick your own word to describe this phenomenon depending on how bad you think it is going to be— Recession? Depression? Collapse? Armageddon?

The key question is whether the economic troubles come before or after oil, for one reason or another, becomes very expensive and scarce. Many observers think there are serious economic troubles just ahead stemming from negative savings in the US, the housing bubble, collapse of Detroit, balance of payments, value of the dollar, or any number of other factors.

Where does this leave us? To anyone who cares to look, the dots are already connected and they spell big, big trouble just ahead. The dots are flashing bright red. The alarm bells are sounding. The klaxons are blaring. But few are noticing. As a nation, we are so engrossed with Wal-Mart's latest sales figures, interest rates, and surging in the streets of Baghdad, that we have failed to notice the cliff just ahead. Someday, the historians will say "on this one, connecting the dots didn't make any difference after all."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Worldchanging Interview: Lester Brown


By Mark Tovey

In Canada right now, we're looking at what some might consider a sea-change in public opinion about Climate Change. According to a new poll of 1,500 Canadians conducted by McAllister Opinion Research and Globe Scan Inc, the environment now tops Canadians' political concerns, "even more than health care at its peak" (Ottawa Citizen, January 31st, 2007, A1-A2). Yesterday's Ottawa Citizen had a front-page photo entitled "Great Barrier Reef: The Latest Victim of Climate Change". On the same day, The Globe and Mail's front-page lead was: "The fallout of global warming: 1,000 years."

Should we be encouraged by this kind of trend? Lester Brown thinks so. The influential founder of WorldWatch, and author of Plan B 2.0, gave a talk at the Global Environmental Taxation conference, where I caught his keynote, and sat down with him for half an hour of fascinating conversation, distilled below. Brown talked about the educational challenge that we're facing as a society, and suggested that the media is the only institution capable of meeting that challenge. I asked him for his thoughts on solutions to the twin themes of his talk, global warming and the peaking of oil production. He noted the strong wind resource in Canada, and the value in developing non-environmentally disruptive biofuels. He sees developing the necessary political will, moving towards a "social tipping point", as the key to developing the necessary technologies and policies. - MT

Mark Tovey: So one of the things that I'm wondering is how big a problem is it that so much of our infrastructure that runs on oil right now (combines for farms, trucks to ship things, individual automobiles, industrial machinery to actually make things), was designed with petroleum in mind, and doesn't necessarily run on biofuels, or at least not out of the gate. Do you know of technologies that allow those kinds of things to be retrofitted without scrapping that infrastructure and rebuilding it fom scratch, or if we did have to scrap portions of it are there ways of doing that that we can re-use a substantial amount of that?

Lester Brown: A large share of the world's oil is used for transportation and we know that a good part of that can be substituted -- we can substitute, as I mentioned using plug-in hybrids with, we can substitute wind for example, any source of electricity, but wind, because it's clean, or -- for automotive fuel, for gasoline, or for diesel. So that takes care of a large part of our use of oil. But there's still a lot more. And the more difficult ones to substitute are construction machinery -- heavy duty construction machinery -- some farm implements, jet aircraft. They're more difficult. But what we can begin to do with, I mean jet aircraft can run on ethanol as well as jet fuel. So that's entirely do-able. The trick is to develop sources of liquid fuel that are not environmentally disruptive -- and are not socially competitive with, for -- the food supply. And that means developing cellulosic ethanol as a form of liquid fuel that can be used in the place of gasoline and biodiesel.

But that's a smaller, a relatively small part of the total -- it's automobiles -- but we can look at urban transport systems that are almost entirely electricity driven with light rail, begin to substitute light rail more and more for buses for example, and, so, much of our passenger transport is fairly easy. Some farm implements, I mean, farm implements can also operate on ethanol, tractors and combines and those sort of things. So we will need something other than electricity for a piece of the automotive fuel and transport fuel use, but we can begin to see how to get most of that energy from renewable sources, importantly wind.

MT: And what do you make of the argument that we as a civilization don't have enough cheap energy to build all of those wind turbines, for instance? Are those kinds of arguments based on assumptions that are sort of submerged or invisible, or should we be taking them seriously, or what is a good way of looking at those arguments?

LB: The fortunate thing is that it does not take a lot of energy to build wind turbines, and they last for a long time, and produce an extraordinary amount of energy. But it is important that we start this sooner rather than later, because the longer we wait, the less energy we'll have, and the more difficult it will be to get enough energy to build the new system. The exciting thing about gas electric hybrid cars and wind energy is that they operate with the existing infrastructure. We have the gasoline service stations in place, we'll be using a lot of that ... and we also have grids in place, electrical grids. Now we'll have to strengthen them in some places, but that's entirely do-able. I mean one of the things I didn't mention this morning is what's happening in Texas with wind energy. There's been a lot of focus on California and the new program there that Governor Schwartzenegger has introduced and so forth but what's happening in Texas may be even more important because a group of wind-farm developers, plus local utilities, plus the state government of Texas, with a Republican governor by the way, have come together to develop an agreement to build some transmission lines from West Texas, which is sparsely populated, and very wind rich, and carry the electricity east into central Texas, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and parts further east. The plan is to develop 7000 megawatts of wind-generated capacity. This would be a total investment by these companies and utilities of close to 11 billion dollars. But it will supply the residential electricity needs of 2.1 million homes, or 5 million people. This is just one project. But it's an example, and that incidentally is equal to at least -- 7000 megawatts -- 15 coal-fired power plants. So I mean we're talking big time now in terms of potential structural changes in the energy economy.

MT: In terms of, and this is a bigger problem in Canada possibly than in the United States, although the eastern seaboard also has issues with heating, and now that we're seeing a peaking of natural gas in North America, and the cost of heating homes is going to be increasingly expensive, do you see a move there to electricity for heating homes, or to oil, and if it is to electricity, to what extent do we need to factor that energy charge into the equation of how much energy we need?

LB: Right. Well, for example just as Iceland has gone from using heating oil to heat homes almost entirely to geothermal energy -- almost 91% of all homes in Iceland are heated with geothermal energy, so Canada could go from using heating oil to using wind generated electricity. 'Cause it's so abundant. I haven't looked at the per capita wind energy resources, but Canada must be near the top in the world, given the enormous wind resources and a relatively small population. Another possibility is just investing in more energy-efficient buildings and homes and energy renovations in some cases. So there are a lot of things that can be done, but the US and Canada both have an abundance of energy resources -- a combination of wind and solar, and geothermal, and tidal, and wave energy. Wave energy for country with their own coastlines could become a major source of energy in the future. There's a lot of energy in those waves, it's a matter of converting it into [electricity]. And it's coming in engineering terms. It's definitely going to emerge as an important energy source.

MT: What are the features beyond tax neutrality that you think are likely to play best both in terms of convincing governments and offering common cause on both the right and the left for something they can all buy into?

LB: Well, one of the interesting things about conservatives is that I think they realize that we've reached the point where the market is no longer telling us the truth. I mean they sort of worship the market, and I mean the market is a remarkable institution. But we have a serious problem with it now because it's not telling the truth any more. And as I mentioned in the talk we're running much the same risk that Enron did, except on a much larger scale. So we gotta ... once you go through the economics, then it's pretty convincing, and I would point out that the emerging support for plug-in hybrid cars in the United States is coming from two sources. It's coming from environmentalists, and neo-cons. Neo-cons because they see the United States losing its political independence because of its dependence on imported Middle Eastern oil. And that, you know, we're at the end a, they're pulling the strings, and we can't do much about it. So it's interesting, and in some of the sessions of the Hill, the neo-cons have been even more outspoken than environmentalists on this issue.

MT: Are there ways that you can see that there is political will building on all sides of the political spectrum?

LB: I think Americans are more concerned about the future than any time that I can remember.

Two of the things they're concerned about: One is oil. They realize, in the Middle East, it's a mess right now, and to count on oil from there is really a high risk proposition. And also, that our reserves are being depleted. That's pretty clear. I mean, peak oil may be imminent. A world very different, when oil production is declining. Very different from any we've known. We've spent our lifetimes in an environment where global production was rising: there are temporary interruptions, but basically ... not.

I think concerns with oil are one thing, and concerns about climate change are another thing. And fortunately, they both have the same solution, or solutions. What reduces our dependence on oil also helps to reduce carbon emissions.

MT: What would you say is the piece which is distorting the market the most?

I think fossil fuels may be as big as they come, both in terms of scale and in terms the difference between them in terms of of prices and costs. How do you calculate costs of climate change -- I mean, the costs go up -- and the real question is whether civilization will be able to manage the kinds of problems that will develop. There's another way of looking at this, and I haven't really thought about it much or written about it yet, but what we have seen in recent decades is the emergence of serious threats, or problems, that are difficult to manage. For example, the HIV virus. Most industrial countries have succeeded in holding adult infections rates under 1% of the population. A lot of developing countries, especially in Africa, were not able to. And those societies are being decimated, today. I mean some villages are almost missing a generation. The grandparents, the kids, and not very many in-between. Food security is suffering in those countries.

Now, another problem that's emerged is the over-pumping of aquifers. In the last half-century we've built pumping capacity with powerful electrically-driven, or diesel-powered pumps, to pump water from underground faster than aquifers recharge. And one would think that when that happens, you know, that red lights would go on, the bells would ring, and someone would say, hey, you know, our water table's beginning to fall, we need to do something. I don't know a single country that's done that. And half the world's people now live in countries where water tables are falling. There's not enough pressure to deal with it until it becomes a crisis, by which time it's rather late in the day.

Or consider climate change - I mean it's hard to find a country out of the 200 in the world -- that's really responding effectively to this -- and by effectively, I mean cutting carbon emissions by 70%, not by the Kyoto of 7%. It's just not happening.

The question is, are the problems that civilization are facing becoming so difficult that our institutions, our political institutions, are not capable of managing them? It's a scary question.

MT: It's a very scary question. Thomas Homer-Dixon, for instance, talks about The Ingenuity Gap and suggests that we might be able to use collective intelligence, you know, large scale open source methods, very participatory democracies, to tap into people's abilities to manage things potentially better. What do you think of the potential of that kind of approach?

LB: My model is a bit different. I mean the real question is whether we cross the tipping point in social behaviour, attitudes, first, or whether we cross some of the climate change thresholds first. It's two tipping points, one social, and one environmental.

My model is one based on rising levels of information. I mean the reason for the smoking revolution in the United States is that in 1964 or in 1963, President Kennedy commissioned the first report on smoking and health in the United States. And then it became an annual report, done by NIH almost every year. And the existence of that report itself, reported on all the studies that had been done anywhere in the world linking cigarettes smoking with pancreatic cancer, you know emphysema -- the whole range of smoking related illnesses we now know about.

And what that did in the United States was gradually raise the level of awareness -- and more and more people stopped smoking. And more and more people began to support bans on smoking. Until today it's difficult to find any place in the United States you know inside you know where you can smoke. I mean there are still a few places but not many.

Cigarette consumption per person has dropped by half since 1970. And then suddenly we had this enormous change, beginning in the late 90's, I was talking about earlier. But that was based on a rising public awareness, you know, and suddenly in the late 90's we reached a point where it just overwhelmed the most powerful lobby in Washington, tobacco funding.

And we change behaviour either in response to new information or new events. Pearl Harbour, Katrina -- I think of the Berlin Wall coming down. You know, somewhere we crossed a social threshhold there. It was not like we anticipated it. There's not a single Political Science journal article in the 80's, saying watch Eastern Europe, big change coming. When the Berlin wall came -- what happened was that one morning, people in Eastern Europe woke up and realized that the great socialist experiment was over. A one party political system, a centrally planned economy -- it was history. Everyone knew it, including the people in power. So we had an essentially bloodless political revolution. And it happened very quickly.

So these changes do occur. Sometimes as with cigarette smoking it's a gradual rising level of awareness. In the case of Pearl Harbour it was a very dramatic event that just changed everything. And, so, I am inclined to think it's going to be information.

And interestingly, and the reason I'm always happy to do interviews, is because in the United States beginning of World War II, it was the automobile industry that really held the key to our restructuring quickly.

Today I think the equivalent are the communications media. Because we're faced with an enormous educational challenge. I don't think the formal educational system has the capacity, because of the built-in time lags. I think [that the media is] the only institution that can respond to the educational challenge we face, so that people everywhere are as aware of what's happening -- or almost -- as the people that are in this conference today. And that's going to take an enormous effort. Now, it's encouraging because the media's beginning to give much more coverage to Climate Change, for example.

MT: What might that look like?

LB: It would mean more news coverage, more news analysis of these issues, not just reporting there's flooding someplace, or drought, or an enormously destructive storm, but not reporting it as just weather events, but as quite possibly part of a change in the Earth's climate. And then people, are -- it sort of forces people to think into the future. And say, you know, if it's Katrina today, what might it be tomorrow? And documentaries of course -- analysing these things. And reality shows, that deal with these issues.

Leonado diCaprio, not a media person -- I mean media person in the sense, I mean film is an important medium, obviously -- but he is working on a film, a bit like "An Inconvenient Truth." It's not based on a Power Point presentation, but it's about the environmental challenges that we're facing, including climate change, and I think that is intended to go into theatres next April, or something like that. And also would be on television.

I mention it because here's an actor who is himself directing this, and involved in the production. In fact, next week I'm flying out to California just to do this -- I'm doing an interview for this -- but it's an example of someone who can command some resources and public attention beginning to make a major committment. Now the next thing is that he's thinking about a reality show.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Age of the Electric Car

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple

It is time for some good news. In recent weeks there has been a spate of announcements about plans to develop electric cars and much better batteries to power them. Although few new models will be ready for sale in a couple of years, by the end of 2007 there should be many technology-proving prototypes driving around. This in turn should give us better insight into how soon electric vehicle technologies might become available and whether there will be limitations such as prohibitively high cost, inadequate performance, or shortages of specialized raw materials that might prevent their widespread adoption.

The current round of announcements started out with General Motors presenting its prototype "Volt" on January 7 at the Detroit auto show. The concept car is interesting in that it’s not only a plug-in electric with a 40 mile electricity-only range, but that it also carries along a small gas generator to recharge the battery after the initial "plug-in" charge is used up.

The motor-generator would someday come in versions capable of running on different liquid fossil fuels — gasoline, diesel, ethanol— and GM is talking about the car achieving 50 miles per gallon while running in the gasoline powered battery-recharge mode. Such a car would use zero gasoline at typical commuter and around town ranges and would be capable of 60-70 mpg or more for longer commutes.

The Ford "Airstream" that starts the day as a "Volt"-like a plug-in electric car soon joined the GM prototype. The Ford then shifts to a fuel cell to recharge the batteries for longer trips. This has the advantage of never needing fossil fuel, but has a downside of needing to find a source of hard-to-handle hydrogen. Ford spokesmen conceded that the fuel cell could be replaced by some sort to efficient motor-generator set should the cost of fuel cells and the availability of hydrogen be a show-stopper.

We now get to the critical part of the new technologies, which is the battery. Needless to say, the prototype "Volt" as yet does not have a battery that will perform to advertised specifications, but all is not lost. The white-hot technology in Detroit at the minute is the advanced car battery. These devices will be capable of storing enough electricity to give the coming generation of plug-in cars sufficient range and power to make them acceptable as substitutes for internal combustion cars while consuming little or no gasoline.

As part of its unveiling of the "Volt," GM announced that it is satisfied that the technology to power plug-in cars already exists at the individual cell level and working prototypes of car-powering scale batteries should be available before the end of the year.

There have been so many dramatic announcements recently in the formerly mundane world of batteries that it is hard to know where to begin. So far the new developments seem to fall in into three general categories: advanced lithium-ion batteries, of which at least a dozen different types are under development; a carbon foam battery that still uses traditional lead-acid chemical reactions, but is made from light-weight foam and promises major improvements in performance; and finally, the holy grail of electricity storage, an ultra-capacitor, that would be capable of holding large quantities of electricity in the form of a massive static charge— no time-consuming chemical reactions needed.

Of the three, the lithium ion battery is the furthest along. GM has already let contracts with a pair of consortiums to develop existing lithium-ion cells into battery packs suitable for powering cars. Numerous Japanese, European, and probably Chinese manufactures are working on similar projects with some saying they will have electric automobiles ready for sale in two or three years.

There is nothing wrong with an electric powered car. They should easily be able to provide satisfactory performance for a post peak oil world. Except for brakes and tires, maintenance should be non-existent for the life of the car, a phenomenon that does not excite manufacturers and their network of dealers.

Until recently, the main drawback to the electric car is the six or more hours it would take to recharge traditional batteries in order to go another 40 miles or so. However, at least one US, and several Japanese companies, say they have developed lithium-ion batteries that are capable of being recharged to 80 or 90 percent of capacity in 10 minutes or so. If this indeed turns out to be the case "plug-ins" combined with lots of recharging stations just might someday get along without fossil fuel boosts.

Currently, the advanced lithium-ion battery is basking in the manufacturers' hype. However, some are already questioning whether there is enough inexpensively obtained lithium in the world to make batteries for hundreds of millions of cars. Should this be the case, then perhaps the carbon foam battery, while not quite up to advanced lithium-ion batteries in performance, may end up as the inexpensive battery technology of choice.

Finally we have the ultra capacitor, which a secretive little company down in Texas claims to have developed and will soon release to the world. Capacitors are not batteries in the common sense, but are devices that are capable of holding static electric charges. They have been around for a century in all forms of electronic equipment, but were only capable of holding tiny amounts of electricity by car-powering or house-running standards.

If the little company in Texas is to be believed, all this is about to change, for they claim to have invented a way to store large amounts of high voltage electricity, initially 17 kilowatt hours, in a compact device. Although this technology has yet to be subjected to independent verification, the company says its device will have a specific energy of about 280 watt hours per kilogram, compared with around 120 watt hours per kilogram for lithium-ion and 32 watt hours per kilogram for lead-acid gel batteries.

If all this turns out to be true, we will have a technology that will be right up there with the electric light bulb and the transistor. Such a device would be invaluable for storing intermittent wind, wave, and photovoltaic produced energy. It would open up a whole new era.

Because of the silver-bullet potential of the device and the company's refusal to divulge details of its ongoing development, many specialists in capacitors simply refuse to believe. At any rate, the company is talking of delivering a product to the world later this year. Standby!

Be it a Ford, a Chevy, or an Asian econobox, 2007 just might turn out to be the birth year for practical electric cars.