Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In Defense of Pseudoscience

— Arthur C. Clark 


Over the past several months The Farm Ecovillage Training Center has been blessed with the presence of a wonderful personality in the form of our new Assistant Innkeeper, KMO, host of the C-realm Podcast, a crossroads café at the edge of our global abyss. Among the many improvements we have experienced is the emergence of our own weekly podcast, ETC Voices, that transports listeners to our lovely Tennessee home and visits with our interesting friends and neighbors. Who knows? This could be the start of reviving Green Acres or Petticoat Junction, of at least PeeWee’s Playhouse.
 
Recently one of our listeners has launched a broadside on a recent ETC Voices show that we had not thought particularly controversal. The attack centers on our interpretation of Rudolph Steiner and biodynamic agriculture, Elaine Ingham and the soil-food-web concept; and real science versus pseudoscience.
While we don’t disagree with many of the points that have been cross-posted on various websites, we feel compelled to defend pseudoscience, if not Steiner personally.
On the 10th of November, 1619, while camped with the Habsburg army at Neuburg on the Danube, René Descartes had, in one night, three dreams, which he interpreted at the time, even before waking, to be revelations from the Spirit of Truth, reprimanding him for the sins of his youth but extending guidance for his future life.

In his third dream, the angel came to Descartes and said, “Conquest of nature is to be achieved through number and measure.” That was the beginning of the Cartesian way of dissecting the natural world — one of mechanics, formulae, and, eventually, human design, including most recently, nuclear power, genetic engineering and red nanothermite paint.

We might ask, however, if the words of the angel were intended not as a gift to Descartes, but as a grim warning, rather like the Spirit of the Future standing over the grave of Ebenezer Scrooge and pointing downward.

 While it is comforting to find some intellectual terra firma to grasp onto, we are forced to acknowledge that our still evolving neocortex exists as vibrating waves and particles in a greater, loose, fractal matrix of external vibrations, with neither boundary nor solidity. Indeed, our cravings for boundary and solidity are more than likely evolutionary echoes carried up the DNA chain from the brain of our reptile ancestor that climbed first onto land and then up into the trees. We seek that elusive comfort, and so we grasp classifications like solid, liquid and gas, or science versus pseudoscience. What we are forced eventually to understand, though, is that uncertainty is pervasive and in insecurity there is wisdom.

The genius of our scientific method is not that it separates fact from fiction by reasoned discourse —a cursory examination quickly reveals that is far from the historical case — but rather that it legitimates distrust. In that distrust there is hope for the occasional novel working hypothesis to emerge. Loaded words like “scientific,” “unscientific,” “pseudoscience,” “cult,” “superstition,” “anecdotal,” “occult” and “woo” serve the advocate and the propagandist, but do not advance a co-creative process. They obscure rather than enlighten. In my 63 years here, I have observed many occurrences I cannot explain, and neither can any science I know of at the present. I could term it magic, but that has its own baggage, so I will just call it UO, for “unexplained observations.”

When Joseph Fourier observed the greenhouse effect for the first time it was, for him, a UO. What we now know to be infrared radiation Fourier called chaleur obscure (non-luminous heat). From the work of a contemporary, William Herschel, Fourier realized that how you warm the Earth is the same as how you warm a greenhouse — by trapping light and forcing it to give up its heat. Fourier posited, although he could not prove it, that this is what gave Earth its habitable climate. Thirty-seven years later, the Irish physicist John Tyndall devised laboratory experiments that proved Fourier’s theory and 37 years after that Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius warned that industrial-age coal burning would magnify the natural greenhouse effect. He even provided a number — five degrees Celsius — corresponding with a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Were I a numbers man, I might believe that such breakthroughs invariably arrive at 37 year intervals (such as did the Club of Rome study, Limits to Growth, in 1972) and so would be anxiously anticipating the year 2046, perhaps expecting the technological singularity.

But fallacies of science are many, and one of the faulty syllogisms that it is easy to fall prey to is post hoc ergo propter hoc — as before, so after. My point is not that science is rubbish, but rather that the division between science and art is not a bright line. Clinging to the one while heaping scorn upon the other is foolish from whichever direction it emanates, like thinking that plants do not communicate with humans, that ocean waves do not alter brain waves, or that your body is a solid object, standing on solid ground.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Jungle Boot Camp

"So where do we stand in mid-July 2010? While the U.S. and OECD economies may not be doing so well, the global demand for oil has recovered nicely. After taking a two-year, 3 percent dip in obeisance to the economic downturn, global oil consumption is now reported to be back in the vicinity of its 2008 high of 86.6 million barrels a day (b/d) for 2010. While U.S. demand is down a million barrels a day or so, demand from China and India are up more than enough to offset what is called "weak" US and European consumption. The International Energy Agency (IEA) tells us that it currently expects world demand to increase by 1.3 million b/d next year to a new annual high of 87.8 million b/d.

As nobody who carefully watches global oil production expects it to increase in coming years, we are left with "total productive capacity" which is currently estimated by the IEA to be 89.7 million b/d. This is about 3 million b/d above what we are currently using -- maybe. Most of this spare capacity is supposed to be in Saudi Arabia; a land of eternal optimism where oil reserves never go down no matter how much is pumped up and sold. Many are skeptical that all of this "spare capacity" is really ready-to-go, reasonable quality, sustainable production capacity. If not we are in worse shape than we believe."


We are in rural Quintana Roo, Mexico teaching a 3-week course in natural building and appropriate technology and it is noticeably hot. The temperature in the daytime can climb to around 100°F with high humidity (we are out on the Yucatan Peninsula and it is densely forested) and can hold above 80°F well into the night. The course providers, while wanting to learn about how to make cob, strawbale and earthbag buildings using local materials, also want to take good care of we students and instructors, and so rented all the available houses in this small town that were pretty new and had electricity and indoor plumbing. That was a bit ironic, considering the course subject.

Many people in this small town still live in the old Mayan ways and build one-room homes from sticks and palm thatch, with hard-packed clay floors, an open cooking fire, and hammocks. After Hurricane Wilma the government came around and gave away free cinderblock and metal roofing, sand, and bagged cement and urged everyone to replace their damaged homes with something more modern and storm-resistant. The government built free cement cube houses, put in cement floors and ceilings, and the people bought electric stoves and refrigerators, ceiling fans and sometimes even an air conditioner.

After a while those grey cubes would develop a sheen of black mold — concrete beads moisture in this climate — but the people would just paint over the mold. The people also got TVs and stayed home at night rather than going out walking around the neighborhood like they used to.

On one wall of the cuarto where we are housed there is a black mold that looks like the Madonna with the Christ child. You can see the landlord has painted it over, but the icon is determined and is once more emerging. When we come back from a day of stomping cob and making arched windows of earthbags, we unlock the door and have to stand back to let the blast of hot, cement-smelling air escape. It is well over 3-digits °F inside because the building just sits in the sun and bakes all day and the one window is not placed in such a way as to catch a breeze. The walls retain dank heat for many hours after dark. Our pattern has been to immediately turn on the ceiling fan and then sit outside until the room cools down and the air gets better. We try to imagine what it must be like for all the people in this town who now live in these high-energy buildings and we can see that in just 5 years many things have changed for them.

Once in a distant motel out of boredom we watched a TV program popular with USAnians called Extreme Makeover — Home Edition. In this show they find some poor, struggling family who have been beset by some misfortune and a team of celebrities comes in, tears down their old toxic house (using a wrecking crane and packing it off to the landfill in large containers) and builds them a new toxic house, much larger, with a huge energy footprint. We could not help but wonder, watching that, how that poor, struggling family would pay the new energy bills and whether anyone had investigated to see how many of those families sold their new houses and moved to something they could afford, or were just shamed by their neighbors into sticking it out and had to work extra hard to pay all the bills. The show gives new meaning to “house slaves.”

One irony of the Mexican rural aid program is that there is not enough State-subsidized electricity to support the building upgrades, so brown-outs and black-outs are more frequent now, and will become even more so as PEMEX, the national oil company that fuels the electric plants, nears its stated crude oil exhaustion date of 2012-2014.

We directly experienced what this will mean when we returned one night to find the power off, meaning that we could not cool down the house. In some ways it was a blessing because we did not have to listen to the neighbors’ televisions, but without the ceiling fan, sleeping was very difficult. We did what we often do in Tennessee when it is very hot (and where we have been off air conditioning since 1994) — we took a cold shower. In fact, several, every couple of hours through the night, to keep our body temperature at safe levels and get enough rest for the following day.

This could well be the future, when many places much farther from the Equator will experience similar conditions — hot days, hot nights, no power, maybe scarce water, and the consequences of earlier decisions for design of the built environment. While we lie back and try to sleep, we imagine that we are just in a boot camp here. This is basic training.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah told Saudi scholars studying in Washington that he had ordered all Saudi oil exploration to cease "in order to keep the earth's wealth for our sons and grandsons.”
— Peak Oil Review, July 12, 2010
 

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Return of the King




Rumors reach us that in a secret ceremony at Buckminster Palace, the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Our source, whom has chosen to remain confidential, explained: “In 90 days time, BP has done more to reverse the power relationship between the Kingdom and its former colony than anything in nearly a century.”

The damage to British dignity and self-respect was most acutely felt during the first decade of the new century, when to everyone in the world, Britain seemed no more than Bush’s Bitch. When a compliant vassal was needed for the invasion of Iraq, to send elite troops to Basra, to validate the phony Italian memo on uranium from Niger, or to twist Chinese and Russian arms at the UN Security Council, England always bowed to US wishes. As the Downing Street Memo revealed, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw well knew that President George W. Bush had "made up his mind" to take military action and “facts were being fixed around the decision” but "the case was thin." Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith had warned that legal grounds were utterly lacking and that invasion of Iraq would be tantamount to a war crime. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom had no choice but to join the war planning and do as it was told. It was called a “partner” in White House public statements, but handled with thinly-disguised contempt in private.

Since the end of April, the power relationship between the two countries has completely reversed, and Hayward deserves much of the credit.

BP currently has oil reserves of 63 billion barrels in its portfolio, and if the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout pressure is any indication, that amount could be understated. At $60 per barrel, 63 billion barrels represents $3.78 trillion dollars. Costs of the spill are currently running BP 500 million USD (344 million pounds Sterling) per month, so in theory it would take 3780 years at that rate for the company to exhaust its assets through the hole in the bottom of the sea. If the price of oil were to rise to $120 per barrel (it reached $147 two years ago), BP’s assets, applied to present disaster cost levels, would not run out for 7562 years.

On April 2, 2010, eighteen days before the explosion in the Gulf, US President Obama, in a gala ceremony unveiling his plan to open US coastal waters to deep-sea drilling, announced, “It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced.”

A report in the June 20 issue of Rolling Stone  reveals that the White House was caught flatfooted by the scale and implications of the disaster. Within the first 48 hours the President’s national security briefers advised him that the flow rate might be 110,000 barrels per day, that the loop current could wipe out the Eastern Gulf and Florida Keys fisheries, and possibly even tar beaches from Hilton Head to Hyannisport during peak summer vacation months. The damage to the nation’s seafood and tourism industries would be immense, and there are as yet no technology remedies known to politics or science.

And don’t forget the pelicans.

A blame game immediately ensued, with BP the principal target, but BP held too many cards and quickly outplayed the White House with finesse and panache.
First, it controlled the intel: concealing its high-definition cameras and other devices that would have easily allowed government scientists to calculate the flow rate of oil and gas into the Gulf; denying the presence of any underwater plume; claiming a release rate of only 5000 barrels per day. BP thumbed its nose at the puny capabilities of the United States to either assess or repair the damage.

Then it controlled the mass media: buying up search engines; taking over prime time news commercial spots with its mea culpa, and “we’ll protect you” advertisements; putting its top management at the front lines with rolled-up sleeves and ready sound bytes.

The failure of nearly every attempt at an engineered solution by the oil company made no difference to its immunity, either from criminal prosecution or the nationalization of its assets. BP’s hole card was the 9 billion dollars worth of petroleum products that it supplied the US military each year to keep boots on the ground in Af-Pak and Predator drones flying over Yemen. Without BP’s willing cooperation, every carrier fleet at sea would have to return to port, and the White House knew it.

The irony is that even as the U.S.’s oil addiction continues to feather the nests of British pensioners, that addiction could be ended virtually overnight, as every president since Jimmy Carter has well known. As John Michael Greer pointed out in The Long Descent, if the average USAnian used only as much energy as the average European, the US would be exporting oil, not importing it. Only 4 percent of the land area of the US (rooftops, deserts, and areas near cities) is enough to supply all US energy requirements, solely from the sun and wind. Even less space would be needed if the US used its long, now greasier, coastlines to tap wave and ocean thermal energy. Only the colony’s political insistence on clinging to spendthrift habit keeps BP stockholders laughing all the way to the bank.

While the Buckingham Palace ceremony was a closely guarded secret, Hayward continued to put the best foot forward for his company. “Everyone at BP is heartbroken by this event, by the loss of life and by the damage to the environment and to the livelihoods of the people of the Gulf Coast,” Hayward told the cameras. “It should not have happened and we are bound and determined to learn every lesson to try and ensure it never happens again.”

Never, that is, until another lesson in empire might be required.
 

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
Iceland.

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.

 

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cap and Refund



Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wa) and Susan Collins (R-Me) have a brilliant way to capture imaginations and reclaim the public debate about cap-and-trade. Their bill on the floor of the House is called the CLEAR Act — Carbon Limits and Energy for America’s Renewal — just the kind of moniker to lift the fog of climate change deniers like Marsha Blackburn and James Inhofe. The bill makes an end-run around the pitfalls of cap-and-trade, summarized so well by Annie Leonard (Story of Stuff)’s short animation by the same name.

Cap and refund stands on the shoulders of deep thinking by David Fleming, Richard Douthwaite and the rest of the skunk works at FEASTA, the (Irish) Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability. Fleming correctly foresaw the boondoggle Ponzi scheme that cap-and-trade, the darling of the Kerry/Graham/Lieberman approach, would prove to be when it was actually implemented in Europe. His alternative was cap-and-share (called cap-and-dividend in the US), the idea that every citizen would go to the bank or post office and collect a monthly check from the international trading exchange in carbon credits. While gradually reducing atmospheric CO2 (the cap), the refund would ensure that the poorest people in the world are not priced out of the market for energy and everything made with energy as its price rises due to the tightening cap. Leiberman’s bill, and the dismal experiment with the European carbon market, would, if enacted, enrich the oil companies and big energy consumers, and mint a new generation of Wall Street billionaires while starving and freezing the poor.

We need a carbon credit exchange, despite rallying cries to the contrary coming from the climate summit in Cochibamba, because without it, there is no way to put a price on carbon. Without a price on carbon, big polluters like the US, Canada and China can keep building more coal plants and ignoring alternatives like wind, solar and biochar. Leiberman’s bill would give fat subsidies to nuclear reactor builders by ignoring uranium’s huge carbon footprint, in the same stroke starving wind energy (with a fraction of the carbon footprint) of needed investment.

As Elizabeth Kolbert reports in the April 21 issue of  Yale 360
“Under the [CLEAR] bill, the president would, beginning in 2012, set an overall cap on fossil-fuel emissions. That cap would remain in place until 2015, after which it would start declining by a quarter of a percent a year. So-called “upstream” emitters — mainly sellers or importers of coal, oil, and natural gas — would then have to buy permits from the federal government at a monthly auction. Three-quarters of the proceeds would be returned to U.S. citizens in the form of a monthly check. (Cantwell’s office has estimated that, for a family of four, the “refund” would be about $1,000 a year.) The other quarter would go into a Clean Energy Reinvestment Trust Fund to research and develop renewable sources of energy.”
Admittedly, reducing carbon emissions by half a percent per year will not pull the world’s fat out of the fire. At that rate, it would take until 2115 to bring US emissions down by half, which is not nearly quick enough. If the rate were raised to 1 percent, the US could bring emissions to half by mid-century, which is more in line with what is needed (although 80% reductions would be better, and some nations have pledged to be carbon neutral much sooner than that). By Cantwell’s calculus, raising the annual cap increase to 1% would line $2,000 in every USAnian’s pocket. Raising it to 2% would mean $4,000, and so forth. What is not to like about that? It is Lafferesque in its voodoo economics.

What are the chances that CLEAR will supplant the Leiberman porkmonster? In the latest issue of The New Republic, Bill McKibben asks, 
“why is Bill One, the porky kludge, viewed as ‘serious’ and ‘realistic’ and the center of the action, while Bill Two barely gets a mention? One answer I heard from half a dozen people on both sides of the issue was surprising: ‘They’re women.’ One would hope, in Nancy Pelosi’s Washington, that this isn’t actually the cause. But what do I know? The even scarier, and probably even truer, answer is that Bill One, Kerry-Graham-Lieberman, is seen as serious precisely because it’s weighed down with a thousand compromises.”
Another question is, which bill will the White House support? From what we have seen of Obama on this and other issues in recent months, the answer seems apparent: Leiberman. But c’mon Barry, surprise us. 

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