Posts Tagged ‘Fossil Fuels’

President Obama’s failure on climate change

July 27, 2016

President Obama was elected in 2008 based on promises to, among other things, do something about global warming.  My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey called my attention to an article highlighting his refusal to act.  Here’s an excerpt:

climatechange91740d8c51000401415d83d7d5ded446Obama has sufficient scientific resources at his command to know exactly what we are doing and failing to do. He came into office with control of both houses of Congress and a clear mandate to act on the climate crisis, with scientists the world over sounding all the necessary alarms.

But in pursuing an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, highlighted by the figurative explosion of fracking and the literal explosions of oil trains and deep sea drilling rigs, Obama has turned the US into the No. 1 producer of fossil fuels in the world.

The value of federal government subsidies for fossil-fuel exploration and production increased by 45 percent under his watch, even as he turned what were once climate “treaty” talks into a subterfuge for global inaction. This, from the guy who ran against “Drill, Baby Drill!”

Source: Truthout

True, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has enacted regulations classifying greenhouse gasses as pollutants, which are intended to close down aging coal-fired electric power plants.  He has obtained subsidies to promote renewable energy.  And he has set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, to be accomplished by future administrations.

But this has been offset by his promotion of the domestic oil and gas industry and his opposition to enforceable international climate treaties.

The problem is that there is no immediate political payoff from trying to slow down global warming.  The climate change that is manifesting itself right now—record-breaking temperatures, floods and droughts—is the result of decisions made or not made 30 or 40 years ago.

What is done—or not done—today about climate change will not change the present situation.  It will only help people 30 or 40 years from now.  There is little political incentive to do that.

Neither democratic government nor free-enterprise economic systems, assuming that this is what we have, would respond to the immediate concerns and wishes of the public, but not to warnings about future problems.  Not that socialist dictatorships have a better record!

The only answer, as I see it, is for climate change activists to do what Naomi Klein describes in her book, This Changes Everything, which is to join up with those who are fighting fossil fuel companies on other grounds—protection of property rights, Indian treaties, public health and the environment, and the authority of local government.

LINK

President Obama’s Lethal Climate Legacy by Zhiwa Woodbury for Truthout.

Oil giant knew and hid global warming facts

September 19, 2015

Exxon Corp. commissioned scientists to research climate change from 1977 to 1982.   They concluded that fossil fuels were causing a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that would change the climate, an investigation of Inside Climate News has shown.

Top management hid and ignored the findings.  There is a fine line between being willfully ignorant and lying.  I think Exxon management crossed that line, and the world will suffer as a result.

LINKS

Top Exxon scientists began warning top management about fossil fuels and climate change in 1977 by Jen Hayden for Daily Kos.  (Hat tip to my expatriate e-mail pen pal Jack)

Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago by Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer for Inside Climate News.

Exxon Believed Deep Dive Into Climate Research Would Protect Its Business by Neela Banerjee, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer for Inside Climate News.

Could industrial civilization be rebuilt?

April 20, 2015

Our industrial civilization was made possible by easily available coal and then by easily available oil.

All the easy fossil fuels, not to mention the easy metal oils, have been used up, but advanced technology makes it possible to extract fuel from shale oil, shale gas and tar sands, drill in the Arctic and under the oceans and move whole mountains to get at coal.

collapse16-2But what if industrial civilization collapsed?  Do we have the knowledge to rebuild it without the resources available to the creators of the Industrial Revolution?

Lewis Dartnell, a UK Space Agency research fellow and author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch, said it would be possible, but very, very difficult.

The most likely places for a rebirth of industrial civilization, he has written, are Norway and Labrador, which have forests for making charcoal and fast-flowing rivers for water power.  These pre-industrial sources of energy just might generate enough power to create the materials needed for solar panels, electrical generators and other alternate industrial technologies.

I know enough not to pretend to predict the future, but the continuation of our industrial civilization is not guaranteed.

A nuclear war between the USA and Russia is still possible.   Drug-resistant diseases such as Ebola could sweep the world.  Global climate change could prove even more catastrophic than most scientists think.

Dmitry Orlov on his blog foresees the collapse of industrial civilization, and John Michael Greer predicts its slow decline.  Neither scenario is impossible.

The moral I draw is that the time to turn to renewable energy is now.

LINKS

Can civilization reboot without fossil fuels? by Lewis Dartnell for Aeon.

Four surprising reasons why clean energy is gaining on fossil fuels by Michael T. Klare for TomDispatch (via Grist)

Paying the bill to stop climate change

October 28, 2014

This Moyers & Company broadcast was aired about a year ago.

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Naomi Klein’s THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs The Climate has convinced me that, in order to maintain a habitable planet, it’s necessary to limit and maybe eliminate the burning of coal, oil and gas, and that energy companies will never do this unless they are forced to do so.

What I’m not convinced of is that it is possible to painlessly transition to some green utopia, in which everybody’s material standard of living is the same as it is now, except for a small group of plutocrats.

naomi-klein.book0coverMy house is heated with natural gas, and my gas bills lately have been low, due to an abundance of gas supplied by hydraulic fracturing (of which I disapprove).   My car runs on gasoline, and the computer on which I write this post is powered by electricity.

Over the years I’ve read books by Lester R. Brown, George Monbiot , and Al Gore making the case that with smart technology, I can heat my house with solar energy and better insulation, I can ride a streetcar that is almost as convenient as a private automobile, and that electricity can be provided by windmills, solar panels, other innovative sources of energy and a smart electrical grid that eliminates waste in the system.

I don’t have the knowledge to question their proposals on technical grounds.  I agree with Arthur C. Clarke—that the only way to test the limits of the possible is to venture a little way into the impossible.   And the alternative to trying is to accept the “long emergency” foretold by James Howard Kunstler.

But even at best, the transition will cost enormous sums of money.  Who would pay?  Naomi Klein says that rich people in rich countries should pay, especially countries that enjoy a high level of consumption based on fossil fuels.   This means first and foremost the USA.

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Blockadia: the climate fight’s new front

October 25, 2014

The fight against global warming consists of many local struggles that, at first glance, don’t have anything to do with climate change.

These struggles include resistance to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, to the Alberta tar sands industry and the Keystone XL pipeline, to deep ocean oil drilling and to other destructive practices by oil, gas and coal companies.

Such destructive practices are necessary to keep the fossil fuel companies in business because all the easy-to-get oil, gas and coal has been used up.  And greenhouse gas emissions will decrease only when oil and gas drilling and coal mining decrease.

naomi-klein.book0coverNaomi Klein in her book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs The Climate, reported on how these scattered local resistance movements are coming to realize they are part of a common cause.

In just one chapter, she touched on protests in Greece, Rumania, Canada’s New Brunswick, England’s Sussex, Inner Mongolia, Australia, Texas, France, Ecuador, Nigeria, West Virginia, South Dakota, North America’s Pacific Northwest and Quebec—all related directly or indirectly to stopping fossil fuel operations that would produce greenhouse gasses.

She and others call this alliance “Blockadia”.   Unlike some of the big, established environmental organizations, the grass-roots protesters do not limit themselves to lawsuits and political lobbying.  They engage in nonviolent direct action, the kind of mass defiance that Gene Sharp advocated.   These movements, more than the lobbying and lawsuits of the Big Green environmental organizations, will determine the future climate, she wrote.

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A liveable climate and its enemies

October 23, 2014

Here are links, with transcripts, to the complete Sept. 18, 2014 interview.

Naomi Klein on the Need for a New Economic Model to Address Ecological Crisis.

Naomi Klein on the People’s Climate March and the Global Grassroots Movement Fighting Fossil Fuels.

Naomi Klein on Motherhood, Geoengineering, Climate Debt and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement.

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Naomi Klein thinks that, if governments had taken action in the 1990s to curb greenhouse gas emissions to control climate change, it could have been accomplished without drastic upheavals in society or in people’s lives..

Unfortunately another movement arose at the same time, a movement to remove restrictions on corporate activity, and this movement has proved more powerful than the climate movement.   The corporate movement has produced privatization, deregulation, repeal of anti-trust laws and a strong and enforceable body of international law to block environmental regulation and subsidies of renewal energy.

naomi-klein.book0coverThe first chapter of Klein’s new book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs the Climate, is about how the real objection of climate change deniers is their realization that climate change, if real, would mean an end to free enterprise as they know it.  She said they’re right.

Our economy is based on what Klein calls extractivism—the idea that there can be unlimited economic growth based on the burning of a limited amount of coal, oil and gas.

This is a process that will someday end in and of itself, when it is no longer feasible to dig out what little fossil fuels remain.  We the people can’t afford to wait until that happens, because emissions from burning fossil fuels will have heated up the planet to the point where it is barely liveable.  But moving away from extractivism is easier said than done.

An end to extractivism would require, first of all, the repeal of international trade treaties such as NAFTA and the World Trade Organization treaty that allow corporations to challenge national laws that favor local industry or interfere with the international movement of goods and services.

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Naomi Klein’s new climate change book

October 22, 2014

Naomi KleinWe know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backwards; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society that we need.

==Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything

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Naomi Klein’s brilliant new book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs the Climate, underlines two important things I had not quite realized.

The first is that the built-in financial incentives of the fossil fuel corporations, or capitalism generally, make it impossible for corporate executives to do anything on their own that would limit the greenhouse gasses that cause climate change.

The second is that many seemingly unrelated struggles against abuses by fossil fuel companies, or abuses by corporations generally, tie in with fighting climate change.

hoax-cop15When native Americans fight to have Indian treaties recognized in law, when small towns in upstate New York pass ordinances against hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, when ranchers and Indians protest the Keystone XL pipeline, when other protestors object to corporate trade treaties such as NAFTA, when Occupy Wall Street protesters advocate economic democracy—all these things help other people in danger from the increase in droughts, floods and violent storms.

I confess that I did not see these connections, or did not fully realize their significance, until I read this book.  I had thought of the question of climate change as primarily a question of how and how much I and other people are willing to reduce their material standard of living, or give up hope of increasing their material standard of living, so that future generations will have a decent planet to live on.

This is a real and important question, but it is not the only question.  As Naomi Klein points out, the well-being livelihoods of many people are threatened by continuing on the present course.   That is because the era of easily-available oil, gas and coal is long gone, and the methods of extracting them—deep water ocean drilling, tar sands, fracking, mountaintop removal—are increasingly costly, dangerous and destructive.

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‘Drill, tovarich, drill’: Putin’s economic dilemma

September 4, 2014

russia.exports

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a great military power with a backward economy.

Without a strong manufacturing base, Russia’s economy depends sale of oil and natural gas, which are non-renewable.   This means that, unless Russia changes direction, it is fated to become a resource colony of China or the European Union.

Economic sanctions promoted by the USA could be an opportunity for Russia to develop its domestic industries and its internal market, much as the infant USA did when it was cut off from trade with Europe prior to and during the War of 1812.  But according to this article by Mikhail Matveev for Inter-Press Service, Russia is going in the opposite direction.

The recent call from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev for “tightening belts” has convinced even optimists that something is deeply wrong with the Russian economy.

No doubt the planned tax increases introduction of a sales tax and increases in VAT [1] and income tax will inflict severe damage on most businesses and their employees, if last year’s example of what happened when taxes were raised for individual entrepreneurs is anything to go by – 650,000 of them were forced to close their businesses.

Nevertheless, it looks like some lucky people are not only going to escape the “belt-tightening” but are also about to receive some dream tax vacations and the lucky few are not farmers, nor are they in technological, educational, scientific or professional fields – it is the Russian and international oil giants involved in oil and gas projects in the Arctic and in Eastern Siberia that stand to gain.

“In October [2013], Vladimir Putin signed a bill under which oil extraction at sea deposits will be exempt from severance tax.  Moreover, VAT will not need to be paid for the sales, transportation and utilization of the oil extracted from the sea shelf,” noted Russian newspaper Rossiiskie Nedra.

[snip]

In fact, the line of thinking adopted by Russian officials responsible for tax policy is very simple. Faced with the predicament of an economy dependent on oil and gas half of the state budget comes from oil and gas revenue, while two-thirds of exports come from the fossil fuel industry, they decided to act as usual – by stimulating more drilling and charging the rest of the economy with the additional tax burden.

Matveev wrote that Russia, like other countries, suffers the bad effects of global climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions.  The Russian economy is at risk, he wrote, if the USA or European Union ever achieve their announced goals for shifting to renewable energy sources.   I don’t think the latter is as likely as Matveev seems to think.

The fact that economic sanctions cause serious problems to Russia does not mean that they are a good idea.  Weaker nations than Russia have survived U.S.-led economic sanctions, and the economic war with Russia hurts European Union countries as much or more than Russia.

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Methane hydrate and the future of fossil fuels

May 1, 2013

The word may be on the brink of a new era of cheap natural gas, made possible by hydraulic fracturing and development of a new fuel methane hydrate, according to Charles C. Mann in this month’s issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  Methane hydrate is a product of organic decay trapped in ice crystals, and is found in potentially enormous quantities in the ocean’s depths.  View the video for a better explanation.  Click on What If We Never Run Out of Oil? to read Mann’s article, which I highly recommend.

What Mann reported is interesting and significant, and his prediction may be correct.  But then again, maybe not.

“Never run out” means something different to economists from what it means to me and probably to you.  In a free-market, capitalistic economy, you never run out of anything.  What happens is that the scarce resource becomes increasingly more expensive, people use less of it, and eventually a substitute is found.   The question is just what that substitute is—an equivalent resource, a more expensive resource or acceptance of doing without.

I long thought that the rising price of fossil fuels would result in a transition to solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy.   Over time, I reasoned, the cost of nonrenewable resources are goes up, while the cost of technology goes down.  Sooner or later, I believed, these two lines must cross.

I still believe that this will happen someday. but in the short run, just the opposite is happening.  The petroleum industry has found ways to extract fossil fuels that never were dreamed of when King Hubbert made his predictions about peak oil.   Methane hydrate may or may not emerge as an important energy source.   I wouldn’t bet against it.  But even if it doesn’t, hydraulic fracturing has already transformed the world market for natural gas.  Melting of the polar ice cap will open the Arctic to oil exploration and development.   Someday these sources, too, may peak but not anytime soon.

The question about hydraulic fracturing is how low it will last.  Oil wells in Texas and Saudi Arabia produced oil for decades.  How long will the hydrofracking wells produce?  My guess is that their usefulness will be relatively short-lived, while leaving behind a long-term mess for local communities to clean up.

Experts quoted by Mann say that methane hydrate could provide fuel to keep our industrial civilization going for centuries and perhaps indefinitely.   These predictions usually come with a footnote, which says “at current rates of use.”  No matter how abundant a resource is, it will be quickly exhausted if you use it up at a steadily increasing rate.  I don’t see energy use stabilizing until the world’s population stabilizes, and a majority of the world’s population are not in poverty.   What is poverty?  At a minimum, it is having enough to sustain life and health and, beyond that, it is whatever people think it is.

Then there is the question of global climate change.   Natural gas (methane) is a clean-burning fuel, but in its natural state is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  In theory, natural gas can be extracted in such a way that it is not released into the atmosphere.  In practice, it might not be.

The more fossil fuels we burn up, the more fragile our civilization becomes.  We depend on increasingly complex systems that are increasingly vulnerable to failure.   I realize this every time there is a severe ice storm that causes electric power failures here in Rochester.  As I sit in the dark, I wonder what I would do if the failure were universal rather than local, and lasted indefinitely rather than a few days or weeks.

Back in 1954, Harrison S. Brown wrote in The Challenge of Man’s Future about how our industrialization was made possible by the availability of coal and oil, and of metal ores that were easy to process.   If for some reason industrial civilization should collapse, it would not be possible to rebuild it using the methods by which the original industrial civilization was created.  The resources would not be there.   That is still true, and the more nonrenewable resources we use up, the more true it becomes.

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Tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline

February 22, 2013

While the United States looks to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas for energy independence, our northern neighbor Canada looks to an even more problematic and dirtier energy source—tar sands.

Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water and a tarry substance called bitumen, which can be processed into crude oil.   Bitumen can’t be pumped.  It has to be mined.   Then it has to be cooked in order to separate it from the sands and mixed with chemicals to make it liquid enough to be piped to a refinery.

Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

Canada is the only country with an important tar sands industry.  The Canadian province of Alberta has one of the world’s two largest known deposits of tar sands (the other is in Venezuela).  They underlie an area as large as the state of Florida or the nation of England.  If all the tar sands were usable as oil, Canada could in theory be an oil producer equal to Saudi Arabia.

Tar sands are pumped into the United States partly through Keystone pipeline, which became operational in June, 2010.  The pipeline extends from Hardisty, Alberta, to Cushing, Oklahoma, and Patoka, Illinois.  Now the TransCanada, the pipeline owner, wants to make extensions of the Keystone pipeline—the Keystone XL pipelines—which would take the tar sands crude from Cushing to refineries in Houston and Port Arthur, Texas, and create a more direct route from Hardisty across the Great Plains.

Canada is the largest source of U.S. oil imports, and a large fraction of that is tar sands oil.   Enbridge, another Canadian tar sands company, also operates pipelines in the United States and also looks to expand.

Environmentalists have valid objections to tar sands generally and to the Keystone XL plan in particular.  Alberta’s tar sands are extracted through surface mining, one of the most destructive extraction practices in existence.  Tar sands mining contributes to global warming by releasing underground carbon, increasing carbon emissions, and destruction of forest land.  Environmentalists say tar sands mining and processing uses four times as much energy as it makes available.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Processing of tar sands bitumen requires corrosive chemicals to make it liquid enough to pump.  The chemicals can corrode pipes and create the danger of spills.   Whistleblowers say that TransCanada doesn’t properly inspect its pipelines.  There were 12 spills during the first year of the Keystone pipeline’s operation, admittedly all relatively minor, and a more serious spill in Michigan by Enbridge.

TransCanada says it already has the necessary approvals for the southern Keystone XL through Texas, but President Obama has authority to disapprove the northern Keystone XL because it would cross the U.S. border at a new point.   That extension would take the tar sands pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground water reservoir which supplies irrigation water for 20 percent of U.S. farm production and drinking water for many communities.  A spill or leak could contaminate this water.   If President Obama can’t bring himself to disapprove the pipeline altogether, he should insist that it be rerouted around the aquifer.

No matter what he decides, tar sands will reamin as a presence in the United States and as an issue.

I have to admire the oil industry’s enterprise and ingenuity.   It is amazing to me that techniques such as deep water ocean drilling, horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, and conversion of tar sands to usable petroleum are even possible.  I think the environmentalists’ objections to tar sands are all valid.  But I want gasoline for my car and that gasoline has to come from some source, dirty or clean.

I wish the intelligence, hard work and capital investment that is going into developing dirty energy can be redirected into developing clean energy.   The oil industry probably would say the latter isn’t economically feasible.   I can’t prove this is wrong, but if it is, industrial civilization doesn’t have a future.

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