Monday, May 31, 2010

Standing up to Bullies

 — Akiva Eldar, Haaretz

For those who try to find hope in cobbling together an international climate change treaty from the ashes of the Copenhagen conference, there was a glimmer of hope this past week. The UN found its spine.

We had seen hints of a change over the past several months. The post-mortems of Copenhagen differ on details (the US-China geopolitical clash, the secret back-room deals from the start, the actions or inaction of the G-11, the weaknesses of UN leadership), but generally consense on the damage. The UN lost far too much in Copenhagen — the multilateral process, the Kyoto timetable, the inclusion of scientists and the civil sector in setting realistic goals, and the small advances wrung from every meeting since the Earth Summit.

That cannot be repeated.

Somewhere in the background, one can imagine Ban Ki Moon calling in staffers and senior advisors and letting them know that the UN is nobody’s patsy.

Last month at Cochabamba, the poor countries and public-interest groups met for a week to lay out their central areas of agreement. Their conclusions were clear — oil and coal addiction is a menace to our mutual survival and must be withdrawn from, quickly. Insofar as the UN can assist in the transition to renewables, that needs to be the emphasis of its efforts. Climate justice demands that countries who derived their historic wealth by appropriating the atmospheric commons now take responsibility to share that wealth equitably with the other owners of the commons and to restore that commons to its natural, functional condition.

In the run-up to the next round of negotiations, starting this week in Bonn, the UN’s top climate change official, the outgoing Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC Yves de Boer, sensing that a repeat of Copenhagen would be the death knell for more than just the UN, urged arriving delegates to “overcome differences and work for greater clarity on what can be agreed to by all Parties for Cancún in December.” 

De Boer’s call was unnecessary. A majority of delegations, appalled by the coup from the gang of 5 in the final 2-days of COP-15 and by the strong-arming and extortion tactics of the US State Department in the months afterwards have drawn a line in the sand. After Copenhagen concluded, the Conference of the Parties did not formally adopt the so-called Copenhagen Accord, but pushed back.

Using despicable tactics such as offering or withholding international aid and canceling development contracts, Obama purchased or coerced 115 signatures to his sham treaty. But 85 nations stood their ground and refused to be intimidated. That is the group determined erect a binding climate architecture in Cancún. None of the 120 countries that signed the Obama accord have lifted a finger to meet its requirements (including the US, which pledged $10 billion/year starting in 2010 but has yet to submit anything to Congress). Most of the world regards the Obama accord as a joke. To the UN, it is simply a non-binding non-entity.

Now, going into Bonn, the United States has thrown down a gauntlet — no binding climate treaty will issue as long as Barack Obama has any say in the matter.

Undeterred, the Bonn delegates are resuming the Copenhagen agenda and mapping out formal deals on mitigation targets, adaptation, technology transfer, financial arrangements, deforestation, REDD+ and capacity building. Clear targets, clear deadlines; clear penalties for failure to adhere.

Sensing the threat to its hegemony, the US has told the UN that it does not recognize the current text proposed by the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long Term Co-operative Action (AWG-LCA) as a basis for negotiations.

Immediately India and China rose to rebuff the US, saying that negotiations must be conducted only within two existing UN tracks — the Kyoto Protocol and the LCA. The Obama accord is no basis for action going forward. The AWG-LCA places 3 options before negotiators – 2 degrees, 1.5 degrees or 1 degree.  Multiple choice, only one correct answer.

UNFCCC has chosen science over politics.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), now supported by more than 100 Parties, has spelled out what the middle ground position of 1.5 degrees would entail. Greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015 and global CO2 reduction must be greater than 85 percent by 2050.

AOSIS members are already feeling the heat, and next to what they are experiencing, White House bullying pales. Rising seas and unpredictable monsoons are contributing to severe food and water shortages in the Pacific Rim and creating environmental refugees in Vanuatu, Micronesia and Papua New Guinea. AOSIS concluded:
“Mitigation pledges of 3 degrees centigrade are not enough to limit temperature increases to the 2 degrees ceiling sought by some, let alone limit temperature to well below 1.5 degree sought by over 100 parties. The gap between current pledges and what the best available science demands must be addressed as soon as possible… [with] clearly defined milestones for each negotiating session. 
“Such contingency process should be transparent, inclusive and efficient with results being brought back to the formal UNFCCC processes for discussion and adoption.”

UN leadership made it clear that the legerdemain attempted by the US in Copenhagen would not be permitted in Cancún. Under the AWG-LCA only three choices are offered – 50, 85 and 95 percent reductions from 1990 levels by 2050.  In addition, developed countries as a group are asked to reduce emissions by a different four bracketed options – 75-85%, 80-95%, more than 95% from 1990 levels by 2050, or more than 100% by 2040. 

The introduction of that last option — more than 100% by 2040 — is the most surprising, and exhilarating. It tells us that the delegates actually got it from all the biochar presentations at Copenhagen. Less than zero is the new zero.

This get-tough stance from the UN towards the US and its toadies will undoubtedly come to a head in Cancún, which is already being downplayed as an insignificant conference, not worth attending, even if the tequila is free. Few Heads of State have announced intentions to attend and Yves de Boer has said that a binding treaty will likely await COP-17 in South Africa in 2011. De Boer’s comments came as one of China’s top climate change officials, Xie Zhenhua, confirmed for the first time that China is targeting the UN climate meeting in South Africa in late 2011 for the completion of any international treaty.

Some other rattlings around the UN suggest that such delays may not be acceptable. At the Committee on Sustainable Development’s COP-18 on May 12-14 in New York, ministers from nearly half of the UN Member States and representatives from more than 1,000 civil sector groups agreed that what was needed, now, is “a clean energy revolution” in the words of Ban Ki Moon. In developing countries, where demand is rising rapidly, there needed to be an immediate shift to a solar economy. In the developed world, greenhouse gas emissions had to be taken to zero. The COP called for a transition to a green economy and more efficient use of remaining energy resources.

Then on May 28, the 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded at United Nations Headquarters. This meeting came only a month after President Obama had called world leaders to Washington for his own ad-hoc Nuclear Nonproliferation Summit that backpedaled on existing targets and  — while making grand pronouncements about Einsteinian drift towards unparalleled catastrophe — renounced one of the core requirements of the NPT: that existing weapons states pledge abolition. In an earlier day, when the US called the tune, one might expect that NPT-2010 would follow the Obama two-step. Even a year earlier it might have. That was before Copenhagen.

At present, 189 countries are party to the treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, more commonly known as the NPT. These include the five Nuclear Weapons States recognized by the NPT founding document: the People's Republic of China, France, the Russian Federation, the UK, and the United States, all members of the UN Security Council with charter-enshrined veto rights towards any resolution or enforcement action.

Iran is also an NPT signatory and on 9 August 2005, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. In 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency, after extended review, said there is no reason to believe that Iran has a nuclear weapons program (IAEA drew the same conclusion about Iraq in 1998, prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, and was subsequently proven correct).

Notable non-signatories to the NPT are Israel, Pakistan, and India (the latter two have openly tested nuclear weapons, while Israel is an unacknowledged nuclear weapons state). North Korea, which successfully tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009, was once a signatory but withdrew in January 2003. South Africa, Syria, Egypt and Libya were on track to becoming nuclear powers, but reversed course for different reasons and are now in NPT compliance. Myanmar’s military government appears to be secretly building a nuclear reactor and plutonium extraction facility with North Korea's help, and should test its first nuclear bomb within a few years.

Those are your rogue nations: Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Myanmar. Given the US position on abolition, it could be included in a group of 6 outlaw proliferators. If you want to give China credit for arming Pakistan, the outlaw population rises to 7.

Every fifth year in May the UN convenes a meeting in New York to attempt to advance disarmament goals. Most times little is achieved other to confirm existing agreements and initiatives. This time was different.

Dramatically different.

On May 27, when the 189 parties agreed to the 28-page final document, they reaffirmed the NPT’s legitimacy and validity and set out a blueprint for concrete actions and next steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. They urged the five nuclear powers to “engage” with the aim of total disarmament and to report back to a preparatory committee in 2014 on progress they had made. This was a direct slap at the Obama policy of sheltering Israel while removing abolition from further discussion.

After heated debate, the parties called on the Secretary-General to convene a conference in 2012 to make a nuclear-free zone the Middle East. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon happily agreed. The document urged Israel to sign the NPT and open its nuclear facilities to UN inspection.

For the US, the stakes are rising. The UN has the power under the NPT to levy sanctions such as an embargo on nuclear power technology and resources. That could put a very severe crimp on not only the White House plan for a new generation of reactors, but on maintaining the functionality of the existing nuclear power program. Many of the companies that service US nuclear plants are now based outside the United States.
In rapid response, Israel put its public relations juggernaut into overdrive, vowing to defeat threats to its sovereign rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to meet with Obama.

“I thought that was a particularly distorted and flawed resolution because it singled out Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East and the only country anywhere on Earth threatened with annihilation,” Netanyahu told a CBC interviewer en route.

“It failed to mention Iran, which brazenly violates the Non-Proliferation Treaty, is racing to arm itself with atomic weapons and openly expresses its wish to see Israel wiped off the face of the Earth.”

At the White House last night, Obama provided Israel with unequivocal guarantees that included a “substantial upgrade in Israel-U.S. relations.” Whether that was code for a new generation of advanced weapons was undisclosed. Obama promised that no decision taken by the UN “would be allowed to harm Israel's vital interests.”

A White House press spokesperson said the US opposed efforts to single out Israel and said the President deplored the UN document's failure to mention Iran.

Of course the UN would fail to mention Iran since its own IAEA had said there was no nuclear weapons program in Iran, Israel’s provocations and Hillary Clinton’s grandstanding notwithstanding.

All of this was predicted in the debates that transpired at the 2010 Review meeting. None of it was any surprise. What was surprising is that the UN delegates to the NPT conference stood up to the bullying and did the right thing.

Can Cancún be far behind? While the US and China are now deploying press spokespeople to temper expectations for Cancún, the Mexican delegation has made it clear that, this time, the COP’s high-level session will not be overrun by capricious Heads of State.

Going to Copenhagen, few parties were willing to compromise on key matters, although in the 10 days leading up to Obama’s arrival, most were gravitating towards compromise at “50 by 50” (reducing GHGs 50% by 2050, with an 80% suggestion for the largest polluters). Characterizing that as an “impasse,” the US steamrolled in with its own tepid, backtracking accord.

Preparing for a hot June in Bonn, and scalded by their previous experience, many parties have been relaxing their hard lines. Whatever progress is made at the June meeting, particularly in terms of changes to the AWG-LCA draft text, will set the tone for November.

Two G-20 summits have been scheduled to be held before COP-16, the first right after Bonn, the second just before Cancún. These could offer still more inducements for the major players to suspend intransigence and get on board with emissions reductions, or they could telegraph the willingness of the hard liners at the White House and elsewhere to dig in their heels and prepare to torpedo Cancún the same way they torpedoed Copenhagen. If the other parties, those who just declared the NPT alive and well, can maintain their commitment to the UN process, then the prospects for Cancún are encouraging.

Stay tuned, it is starting to get exciting.

Albert Bates is United Nations representative for the Global Ecovillage Network, with consultative status. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

BP Strikes Rich Creamy Nougat Center of the Earth

BP, which used to stand for British Petroleum, and in their dreams “Beyond Petroleum,” now stands for  “Broken Planet.”

In 1955, astronomer Thomas Gold proposed that while many of the liquid hydrocarbons being pumped up and refined for energy and petrochemicals were of fossil origin, deeper down in the Earth there were vast reservoirs of hydrocarbons of abiogenic origin, compounds that have been there since our blue glob of molten star first coalesced and cooled.

Gold proposed that "biology is just a branch of thermodynamics" and that the history of life is just a "a gradual systematic development toward more efficient ways of degrading energy." Since petroleum and its component hydrocarbons are present across the entire universe, as evidenced by spectrographic signature, there was no reason to believe "that on Earth they must be biological in origin."

Gold pointed out that all the major oil fields occur along rift zones, where deep methane, finding a path to the surface, could explain at least in part how oil and gas deposits evolve. A helium signature in crude deposits from some of the world richest provinces seemed to bolster his theory.

In 1979, at the peak of the OPEC oil crisis, Gold proposed that the Earth may possess a virtually endless supply of hydrocarbons including "at least 500 million years' worth of gas." A decade later he succeeded in obtaining financing to sink a test well deep into a crater in Sweden formed by a meteorite impact about 370 million years ago. The drill ran into technical problems and was stopped at a depth of 6.8 kilometers  (4.2 mi) but recovered about 80 barrels of deep oil. The oil contained living microbes and so Gold’s proof remained elusive. According to Gold, who died in 2004, hydrocarbons are not biology reworked by geology (as traditional view would hold), but rather geology reworked by biology, and in particular, extreme thermophylic bacteria.

Flash forward another 20 years to the BP Deepwater Horizon. In the desperate hunt for the last drops of ancient sunlight, BP invested billions of dollars to develop the "Macondo Prospect" deep Gulf oil field, a.k.a. Mississippi Canyon Block 252, 41 miles from the Louisiana coast.  It leased the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig from Transocean Ltd., and took it out for a cruise of deep ocean prospecting. DH was a fifth generation, ultra-deepwater, dynamically positioned, column-stabilized, semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) of South Korean (Hyundai) construction, flying a Marshall Islands flag to get away with the least regulation possible.

Drilling through the first 1500 meters (1 mile) was easy. Nothing but seawater. Then came the harder part, 18,000 feet (3 miles) of rock, which was overlain by suspicious, and energy rich, frozen methane clathrates, a kind of deep ocean permafrost of natural gas crystals. The oil vein was found, the pipe laid, and Halliburton contractors sealed the wellhead in cement. To get the cement to set, they heated it, and in heating the cement, they also heated the surrounding clathrates. 

The Deepwater Horizon exploded at 9:45 p.m. CST on April 20, 2010, killing 11 BP drillers and sinking the rig. Apparently, the blowout was triggered by a bubble of pressurized methane that escaped from the well and shot up the drill column, expanding quickly as it burst through several seals and barriers before reaching the air intake for DH's deck engines and causing them to surge, bursting light bulbs all over the platform. 

Venting gas under pressure through the casing was easy. At least one main seal on the blowout protector was destroyed some weeks earlier when it was penetrated by a drill bit while in its closed position. After that, BP had opted to test the pipe pressurization at no more than ambient ocean pressures (6500 psi) rather than the required test pressure (12000 psi), in order to prevent a test failure that would have shut them down until they replaced the damaged BOP. 

Once the deep cavern was tapped, with its enormous gas pressures, the "accident" became inevitable. After revving the engines, the methane found an ignition source and blew, with an explosion that killed some of the 11 workers instantly.

What came next has been of continuing concern to petroleum geologists, who always considered Thomas Gold a kook, but not by anyone who had studied Gold’s theories. DH had gone just slightly deeper than Gold’s borehole into the meteor crater in Sweden. Submersibles monitoring the escaping oil from the Gulf seabed displayed the eruption of oil from a deposit now estimated to be around the size of Mount Everest.

Trying to contain the story, the White House initially refused access to NASA images by the Army Corps of Engineers, FEMA, the Coast Guard and other responders. However, National Geographic managed to obtain foreign satellite imagery of the extent of the disaster and posted it to their web site.

The numbers put forward by BP and parroted from the White House communications podium and by CNN, MSNBC and others began with 1000 barrels per day and climbed to 5000 barrels per day.
Coast Guard sources at first suggested 210,000 gallons per day (5000 barrels).  Once the live video feed from the ocean floor went public, those estimates were seen to be laughably disingenuous. Recent estimates have put the discharge at 12,000 to 19,000 bpd but a short-lived attempt to capture a portion of the flow through a smaller pipe inserted into the damaged BOP valve yielded 22,000 barrels in less than a day. There are 42 gallons per barrel, so 22,000 bpd would be more than 924,000 gallons discharging daily. Satellite and submarine imagery suggests 20,000 to 60,000 barrels per day might be the possible discharge rate.

Early into the accident, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, interviewed by CBS, when specifically asked how much oil was emanating from the ocean floor wellhead or the broken pipes or risers, stated that no oil was emanating from either. On another TV interview the same day, Landry stated, "The fact that there is no oil spilled other than that small amount we were able to work with, that's a good thing," and expressed "cautious optimism" of zero environmental impact. Later, when the full size of the flow could not be hid, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked if it was possible that it would not stop until the reservoir was drained, and was told that was a distinct possibility.

The thing is that a rich creamy nougat reservoir of abiogenic origins is infinite by fossil fuel standards. Nobody knows what is down there, or how deep it goes.
More than 400 species, including whales and dolphins, are threatened, along with Louisiana's barrier islands and marshlands. In the national refuges most at risk, about 34,000 birds have been counted, including gulls, pelicans, roseate spoonbills, egrets, shore birds, terns, and blue herons. By April 30, the Coast Guard received reports that oil had begun washing up to wildlife refuges and seafood grounds on the Louisiana Gulf Coast. The Gulf is a breeding ground for much of the North Atlantic's seafood, so the economic impact could well be felt in distant countries in months and years to come.

As the slick drifts to the east, the biggest immediate threat is to Florida's Everglades, which could be turned into a "dead zone." There are 2,276 miles of tidal shoreline in the state of Florida. From there the slick follows the Gulf stream loop current up the eastern seaboard of the United States, potentially fouling beaches and estuaries like Hilton Head and the Chesapeake Bay, maybe even wafting toxic gas inland over Washington, New York and Boston, and tarring swordfish in the Grand Banks off Newfoundland before moving across the Atlantic to Ireland and

We don’t know and we can’t predict how this will come out. Maybe some bright BP engineer will come up with an ingenious cap, or a phenomenally large relief well will stop the volcanic eruption, who can say?

BP has screwed the pooch. The pooch will not be unscrewed. All the rest is public relations disaster containment and finger pointing. Gold is in his grave, but his theory survives.





The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.