Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Petrocollapse Timeline

"We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us. "

Since the early two thousand oughts we pessimistas have been trying to discern the shape of the backside of Mr. Hubbert’s curve. John Michael Greer has made a strong case for catabolic collapse, which could be described as a stair-step down from the present peak, punctuated by precipitous drops (the 147-dollar oil spike; the Lehman default; the ARMs race) and level treads (“Green Shoots,” the “Morning in America” phase we are currently re-hallucinating).

Catabolic collapse may describe the micro-view, but in coming decades the decline curve has a number, and whether that number is 2 (the grade of the uphill climb we traversed over the past 100 years) or 7 (halving every ten years) matters.

At the Local Futures conference in Michigan on November 14, Richard Douthwaite joined others, myself included, in predicting something in the 7 to 9 range, which places him in the pessimista camp, whether he likes the association or not. A splendid analysis published November 23 at the Oil Drum by Tony “ace” Erikson follows a more benign 3 degree slope (1.6 to 2.4 mbd/a), and offers a very nifty view of the next few years. I have taken the liberty of combining ace’s charts with an overlaying fabric of possible socio-political reactions.

Here is the projected decline slope, derived by subtracting new supplies now being developed from anticipated depletion of existing supply, with an overlay of expected prices: 

Here is the projection of just the new additions, which typically take 8 to 10 years to develop after discovery, assuming the product price justifies the expense to develop (which it does in this case), together with a possible socio-political overlay for the United States. 

Going by these charts it is safe to say that the next few years should be very lively. Stick around. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving in Fallujah

— Commander, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Battle of Fallujah
When uranium comes out of the ground, it gets elementally separated from its ore at a mill somewhere near the mine. At the mill they crush and dissolve the rock in an acid, alkaline or peroxide solution. Since uranium is one of the heaviest elements, it settles quickly to the bottom of the tank. Workers remove the course residue, called yellowcake, even though it is typically black in color. Yellowcake is about 80% uranium, mostly in the form of triuranium octoxide (U3O8).

Mining and milling uranium leaves vast piles of radioactive tailings that are poorly regulated and have been known to cause extensive cancers and birth defects in communities close to the mines and mills. In Bulgaria excessive radium concentrations of up to 1077 Bq/kg were found in cereals grown on these areas. Similar agricultural diffusion occurred in France, but health studies were either not performed, or have been suppressed. We know from TVA’s experience at Edgemont, South Dakota, that the health of an entire town can be destroyed, and the latent hazard to inhalation and groundwater absorption only peaks after 800,000 years.

Yellowcake travels to the enrichment plant where it undergoes isotope separation through processes of gaseous diffusion or laser centrifuge. The purpose is to separate the more common U-238 from the less common U-235. Low-enriched uranium is about four percent U-235, which is fine for civilian electric-power reactors. Highly-enriched uranium contains 90% or more U-235, and that is what is required for naval warships, submarines, and nuclear weapons.

Because of the SALT and START treaties, there is a worldwide surplus of weapons-grade uranium, and not much is produced anymore. All the large uranium diffusion plants in the United States, the former Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom have been closed, and our largest, the K-25 plant in Tennessee, is now being demolished, with deregulation scheduled for late 2011. Reduced operations continue at Paducah, Kentucky and Portsmouth, Ohio.

The amount of electricity required for isotope separation is huge, and when all three US plants were in operation, they consumed more power than the continent of Australia. This power capacity came from a combination of coal and hydro-power in the Tennessee and Ohio river valleys, and produced its own pollution that has only recently been taken into account in looking at the greenhouse effect of nuclear power. Producing nuclear fuel generates 21.7 grams of CO2 per kg, so for a reference reactor (1000 MWe @ 75% capacity), the CO2 released to the atmosphere would be 14 million metric tons per year. For the 104 reactors now active in the U.S., call it a billion tons. Safe and clean nuclear power.

When U-238 is separated from yellowcake, it is tossed aside at the enrichment plants. The piles of depleted uranium has been called Q-metal, depletalloy, or D-38 over the years, but now most techies at the plants call it DU. Because about 2/3 of the U-235 has been removed, it is only 60% as radioactive when it leaves the plant as when it arrived, so it is treated as relatively safe. And, because of its high density — 19.1 g/cm3 — the military found it useful for armor plating and armor-piercing projectiles.

Uranium rounds fired from A-10 Warthogs really made those civilian cars pop like popcorn on the Highway of Death from Kuwait City in Desert Storm in 1991. Six American vehicles struck with DU “friendly fire” in the desert were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump.

So when Operation Iraqi Freedom rolled into town, DU rounds were outfitted into every tank and humvee. During the siege, Warthogs shot 300,000 DU rounds into the Iraqi planning ministry – about 75 tons of DU. Between 1,000 and 2,000 MT of DU were used in the three-week assault on Baghdad, including bombs dropped on a downtown restaurant in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Saddam Hussein. That was about 3 times more than were used in all of Gulf War-I, but the Pentagon was only getting started.

Western journalists who spent a night on the outskirts of Baghdad on April 10, 2003, measured piles of jet-black dust at 9,839 and 11,585 counts per minute, more than 300 times average background levels. A burnt tank round lying by the roadside pushed the Geiger meter off the scale. Similar DU tank rounds recovered in Saudi Arabia in 1991 were calibrated at 260 to 270 millirads per hour. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit is 100 mrad/yr for non-radiation workers and 1700 mrad/yr for workers.

Pentagon officials say that DU is relatively harmless and a necessary part of modern warfare. They say that pre-Gulf War studies that indicated a risk of cancer have been superseded by newer reports (which they commissioned).

But a 2001 study of 15,000 Gulf War combat veterans and 15,000 control veterans found that the Gulf War veterans were 1.8 (fathers) to 2.8 (mothers) times more likely to have children with birth defects. After examination of children's medical records two years later, the birth defect rate increased by more than 20%. A laboratory study on rats produced by the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute showed that, after a study period of 6 months, rats treated with depleted uranium coming from implanted pellets, comparable to the average levels in the urine of Desert Storm veterans, substantial amounts of uranium were accumulating in their brains and central nervous systems, and showed a significant reduction of neuronal activity in the hippocampus in response to external stimuli. The conclusions of the study show that brain damage from chronic uranium intoxication is possible at lower doses than previously thought. Results from neurocognitive tests performed in 1997 showed an association between uranium in the urine and “problematic performance on automated tests assessing performance efficiency and accuracy.”

At the Winter Soldier hearings on Capitol Hill last year, veterans of the Fallujah campaign in April 2004 described commanders requiring tanks to drive down streets and fire two DU rounds into every building. They described how the sunsets and sunrises over Fallujah were turned brilliant green from the uranium dust in the air.

On October 12, 2009, the Iraqi Minister for Women’s Affairs and several local hospital administrators in Fallujah sent a letter to the President of the United Nations General Assembly. They respectfully reported that in September 2009, Fallujah General Hospital had 170 new born babies, 24% of whom were dead within the first seven days and 75% of the dead babies were classified as deformed. In August 2002, prior to the coalition assault on Fallujah, background morbidity was one birth defect to 530 live births.

The doctors told the UN that an increasing number of babies are being born grotesquely deformed, with no heads, two heads, a single eye in their foreheads, scaly bodies or missing limbs. In addition, young children in Fallujah are now experiencing cancers and leukemias at abnormal rates. It is not known how many birth defects are not reaching the hospital. One grave digger of a single cemetery is burying four to five babies a day, most of which he says are deformed.

We know from studies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, atomic veterans, uranium miners and nuclear workers that birth defects and leukemia are just the early warning signs for what is still to come. Leukemias show up in the first 5 to 15 years, because damage to blood-forming organs in the bones is the most rapidly propagated. After 20 to 30 years we will see cancers of the bone, breast, lung, colon and other soft tissues. The genetic damage will continue for 2000 years, because only about 1 percent is expressed in each generation.

Five years ago, as USAnians prepared for Thanksgiving, an estimated 100,000 residents of Fallujah, where pre-battle population was 340,000, were cut off from escape by U.S. forces. Trapped in their homes, they struggled to survive incessant bombardment without fresh food, water or electricity. Emergency humanitarian aid was kept out for more than 2 weeks. The hospital in the central Nazzal district was reduced to rubble. More than 6000 dead civilians lay in the streets, some bodies partly melted by white phosphorus. Lt. Col. Brandl, commander of the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, was filmed giving a “pep talk” to his marines: “The enemy has got a face – he's called Satan,” Brandl said. “He's in Fallujah, and we're going to destroy him.”

Article 6(b) of the 1945 Nuremberg Charter defined as a war crime the “wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages.” Human experimentation was also defined as a war crime under Nuremberg. Nuclear power is surely the largest medical experiment on unconsenting humans in history.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Day of the Dead

The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of past societies, is that we know about those past societies. We can see how and why they went wrong. Homo sapiens has the information to know itself for what it is: an Ice Age hunter only half-evolved towards intelligence; clever but seldom wise. We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.
— Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2004)

Late October’s market correction was forecast so broadly that anyone who was surprised by it has not been noticing. Those green shoots the gov’ment was jiveing about in the Spring did not yield fruit, and now comes the Winter of Great Discontent.

We are still being told this will not be an “L” shaped depression, but don’t believe it. The shape is more like a long back-slash, pixel-bit-mapped by resting steps. If you back down the enlargement, it smoothes. Enjoy the slide. Like us, you may find you have more time on your hands.

We have been skipping more conferences than we have been attending lately, and fortunately for us, those meetings have been getting more web-savvy and posting the presentations for the non-attendee audience. That used to mean not getting to hear the illuminating conversations that happened around the coffee urn, or in sponsored hotel suites and piano bars, but even that part is now being web-cast. See, for instance, the conversation between Euan Mearns and Rembrant Loppelaar, of The Oil Drum: Europe, and Stoneleigh, of The Automatic Earth as they un-jet-lagged in the Rocky Mountains National Park in the run-up to the ASPO meeting in Denver. We could call ourselves a fly-on-the-wall, but from the photo, there was way much too much snow for that.

Speaking of flies, here in Mexico it is very, very quiet. This past weekend the children were all in Halloween costumes and parties and parades for the Day of the Dead were temporarily festive, but now it is Sunday morning, and the quiet has returned. Calling up ghosts, the newspaper Por Esto! daily  reports the number of people getting off airplanes in Cancun and Acapulco and the numbers of flight cancellations. Numbers, what numbers? It’s a cargo-cult for the vanishing tourism industry. Fewer than twenty percent of the hotels and restaurants in this part of the Mayan Riviera are even bothering to open.

The Diebold presidente here, Felipe Calderón, proposes to privatize the national oil company, Pemex. The elected but excluded actual presidente, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with his pot-bagging street crowds, controls enough of the national assembly to thwart that move, but the seriousness of the proposal exemplifies the degree of official desperation. The largest single source of both national exports and government tax revenues is the state-owned oil and gas resource, which is in production free-fall after desperate attempts at tertiary recovery using nitrogen injection and lateral drilling. Mexico is the US’s third largest supplier, in case we had forgotten.
With the tax base falling, services are being curtailed at all levels, business taxes have tripled in six months, there are rolling blackouts and brownouts every day, the peso has slid and the price of food (most of it now imported) has skyrocketed. On January 1 the federal government will raise the price of gasoline, diesel, electricity and LP and LNG gas by 17%. It will also levy a “holding tax” on any bank deposit of 3% per year on everything over $1500. That comes on top of a 16% addition to the VAT.
This week they came with trucks and stopped at city halls in rural towns and gave out rice, beans, and corn flour for anyone who needed it. This is normally something they do after a hurricane. The hurricane now is economic. The government doesn't like people banging pots.

Mexico is getting hit with a triple whammy — its other two largest sources of income are remittances (which are down and people are returning from the north in search of employment) and tourism (which is being killed by the swine flu and violent crime rumors, both overblown, and by the financial belt-tightening upstream where tourists are begat — the US, EU, and Japan).
Calderón’s solution to privatize Pemex is not even so much a proposal as a bullying threat. It would mean Mexico would not get $86 billion/yr in oil revenues to run the government, but it would get a one-time purchase price, and the government could run on that until Calderón leaves office. Seriously, that's the president’s plan.
It only amazes us that no-one in the US is considering doing what an earlier presidente of Mexico, Lazaro Cardénas, did, which was to nationalize the oil companies. Since 2007, Exxon’s profits alone could have gone a long way towards balancing the deficit. Instead, they are being squandered on high-priced condos in Dubai with 50-meter private boat docks that spell out Koranic verses that can be viewed by orbiting billionaires.

Rather than nationalize the oil companies, the US jumped off on Afghanistan to take back its poppy trade, which had been successfully eradicated by the Islamic fundamentalist local talibans, despite the CIA's best efforts (or perhaps because of them — the street price of heroin skyrocketed). That seems the most plausible reason the Western Alliance is in Afghanistan, especially when it now appears Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal will get his 21,000 extra troops to protect the poppy growers, over the objection of Vice-President Biden.   We watched Joe Biden listening to “God Bless America” being played at the seventh inning stretch during the third game of the World Series and we wondered, does he know?

Following the money for the moment, could this be why our Nobel Peace Prize-winning Shogun is raining Hellfire missiles on Pakistan's tribal territories from AfPak Predator drones controlled from windowless buildings in Las Vegas - a completely outlaw move under international treaties going back two centuries — to take back control of our former guys (they are called Al Qaeda) from the Koran-readers? To ramp opium production back up? To take back market share from the Pakistanis in the Tribal Areas, who glommed it from us in 2001 when Osama went rogue?

Our Afghani heroin trade envoys - largely private contractors, including President Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali - have been doing spectacularly well at their $75 million/day mission, despite the blow-back from the human rights community (see Democracy Now, Oct 28, 2009). Afghani Brown is now well above its earlier production records. The Opium Empire is secure, or at least so it might appear to the heir of Kissinger's Nobel House.

Unfortunately, whether it is poppies or tulips, the global economy had other plans. It was overdue for correction, and Peak Everything was both the trigger and the bullet through its brain. We are in a civilizational collapse of unprecedented proportions now: Joseph Tainter and Jared Diamond cubed; the Club of Rome on steroids.

Here in the Yucatán they still speak Yukatek, and the local government, at its incense-burning base, is managed by a class of white shamans, who call themselves that formally, and cleave to many of the rituals that have remained in these parts since the Ah Itzá left, including the occasional ayahuasca ceremony to communicate with the spirit world and cleanse demons. Dia de los Muertos is all about that.

Historically the Itzá were a fierce Mesoamerican people who remained in the Yucatán long after other Mayan dynasties collapsed. In the classic period they erected the cities around Tikal near lake Peten Itzá in Guatemala, then abandoned those to migrate north into the Yucatán during the collapse. From their new capital at Chichén Itzá, which resembles Tikal in its monumental architecture arranged as an astronomical calendar, they established a sail-powered trade empire reaching up into Central Mexico and as far south as Honduras. Collapse? What collapse?

Eventually the Itzá got sacked in a power struggle between three Yucatekan lineages all claiming to have descended from the Toltecs. The Itzá said that dark sorcery was at work in their defeat and these local governments of white shamans are making sure that won’t happen again. In 1331 the Itzá royal lineage abandoned Chichén Itzá and returned south to the Petén, constructing a new fortress city, Noh Petén (also called Tah Itzá or Tayasal), on an island in the middle of Lake Peten Itzá, today part of Guatemala, near the western border of Belize. There they successfully resisted many military expeditions by the Spanish until finally surrendering in 1697 to a diplomatic delegation led by Martín de Ursua, governor of Yucatán. The terms of surrender allowed them to retain the Mayan shamanic culture that continues today.

To the Maya the oil that seeped from the ground was useful for tarring canoes and sailing craft, but little else. It was too stinky and smoky to burn for heat or light, and you couldn’t eat it.

Their black gold was soil, and the milpa system still practiced in the Petén and elsewhere, the chinampas and the black earths within the pyramid city walls attest to their skill as scientific soil-builders. They had learned the hard way what happens when you cut your trees to roast lime and let the good soil run off the land. By changing their soil management practices, they had improved their diet, moderated their climate, and changed their fortunes.

When we glance at the downloadable audio files and powerpoints from another meeting, “4 Degrees and Beyond” held September 28-30 in Oxford, England, we can easily see that once humans break through the 2°C striped yellow caution tape, tacked up by the EU a few years ago, we’ll enter what the Potsdam Institute now calls Terra Quasi-Incognita, complete with sea levels rising back to the Oligocene (+80m), a 90% population die-off, and tipping points that could take us to Venus.

Standing along the path to Copenhagen, offering handfuls of soil to the passing delegates, are the Yucatán shamans.

This post originally appeared on Culture Change, an umbrelled project of Global Village Institute.




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