Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Can flooding be prevented by rebuilding the soil?

Living close to the River Thames, I am well aware of the reality and presence of flooding. Although this house has not been flooded since 1947, some, closer to the river and on lower ground, have. On periodic occasions, we have been presented with television-footage of the Somerset Levels, utterly overwhelmed by water, and it is apparent that the suffering of those living there and all whose lives are also disrupted by flooded roads and railway tracks, may not be abated beyond temporary "fixes", according to the likely weather patterns that we may anticipate in the coming decades. For hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years, the regions of the Somerset Levels were marshlands, until humans encroached upon them, in days before the Domesday Book was written http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_Levels. Similarly, here and elsewhere, many houses have been built on the floodplain. The floodplain does the job that ecology might expect it to, which is to take-up the excess water when the river is in flood.

At the end of our road used to be a farm, and every winter that I can recall, the riverside field there used to flood, and I did wonder if it was such a good idea to graze cattle there, since they might pick-up some contagion such as liver-fluke from the sodden ground. Then, perhaps twenty years ago, the farm was sold to developers, who created a rather picturesque complex of houses, each of which sold for a pretty penny, and I imagine that the farmer is still laughing his socks off. In contrast, those who now occupy the complex are less amused, since every winter, from where the cows used to graze, people have to make their way gingerly along the single narrow track out, while the former fields are flooded not only as they were, but more heavily because the water can no longer soak into the soil, being debarred by the impermeable foundation of concrete and tarmac on which the houses are built. The name of that narrow track remains as "The Causeway", which probably sounds rather twee, but by definition does give a heavy hint as to the prevailing geography: i.e. "A causeway is a road or railway route across a broad body of water or wetland raised up on an embankment." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causeway. Interestingly, there is a house that has stood on ground to the other side of the causeway for around two hundred years, that is protected from flooding, since not only is access provided to the farm/development but its raised structure acts as a fortification against the floodwater from the river. This, they knew to do, in days past when people observed and understood the lay of the land, and worked with its natural topology.

In the midst of such reflections, a friend alerted me to an article by George Monbiot http://www.monbiot.com/2014/01/13/drowning-in-money/ which refers to a study in which the replanting of trees enhanced the rate at which soil could take-up water by 67 times. While this is something of a revelation to read, sitting here in an English village, Britain has in fact been involved with and has funded research across the globe whose results show similar effects. I know that soil erosion/degradation runs hand in hand with poor absorption of water into the soil, and hence flooding. Planting cover crops is one way to curb erosion, otherwise the soil is more strongly eroded in the winter: (1) when it is left bare (on fields harvested earlier in the year), and (2) when the elements are at their most forceful. Through erosion, soil is washed away and contributes to the silting of rivers, so reducing their flow capacity and further exacerbating the problem of flooding.

Planting trees acts to shield soil from the winds, and the mulch from fallen leaves forms a layer to protect the soil on the "forest" floor. The roots, and associated fungi, also help to hold the soil together. The mulch furthermore contributes to building soil organic matter (SOM), when it is taken down into and processed by the soil food web (the ecosystem of microbes and other creatures, such as earthworms and beetles that live in soil), and so the soil structure improves, meaning that it can absorb water and drain properly. In combination, this reduces run-off, at least until the soil becomes saturated. The study suggests that the roots can act as conduits for water into the soil, which makes sense because tree roots are very deep and can access soil regions that roots from grass, say, cannot. There is a rough symmetry between the depth of the roots and what grows above the surface. Hence, a greater "volume" of soil can be made available to absorb water, and so that sixty seven-fold improvement in water absorption rate is perhaps accounted for. Impact by the hooves of animals can certainly compact soil, raising the volume of runoff, and particularly when combined with overgrazing accelerates erosion of the soil. That said, in arid regions of Australia, soil has been brought back to life by the deliberate introduction of grazing animals, whose hooves drive seeds into the soil, while their manure assists the creation of SOM http://www.sciencereviews2000.co.uk/blog/view/science-progress-news/62/feeding-and-healing-the-world/650. 

The study is fascinating, and if funding has been withdrawn from tree planting projects, as Monbiot says, the policy might appear misguided. Perhaps those allocating the cash are unaware of the potential benefits of having trees rather than ground that is otherwise left "open". Certainly more work should be done, as it seems such a cheap and easy option - a "back to nature" approach.To be sure, the situation on the Somerset Levels and elsewhere is complex, but I was struck recently by another news item about mitigating flooding at lower levels by cutting trees on higher ground and placing them to act as partial barriers to slow down the flow of water, which can be described as "engineering nature's way"  http://www.engineeringnaturesway.co.uk/category/blog/flood-alleviation/. Rather than getting "rid" of the water as quickly as possible, as has been done by technology, holding it back using natural defences has proved successful in preventing flooding in property that has previously been inundated http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jan/10/flood-defence-nature-experiments

It seems likely that other human actions are contributing to our flooding problems, which are expected to continue into the coming decades http://www.ceh.ac.uk/news/news_archive/the-recent-storms-and-floods-in-the-uk_2014_06.html  However, there are many ways by which the issues of degraded and flooded land might be addressed, particularly through the observation and partnership of Nature  http://www.sciencereviews2000.co.uk/blog/view/science-progress-news/62/feeding-and-healing-the-world/650. Hence, surely, to take care of the soil, the land and the landscape must be the certain path away from an emerged human condition that is all too apparently, and in all respects, non-maintainable. The importance of earth-works such as swales, ponds and dams should not be forgotten either: "slow it, spread it, sink it!" as they say in permaculture circles

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Why Cheap Oil Does Not Mean that Peak Oil is a Myth.

Peak oil is a fundamental tenet of the Transition Towns concept, but the current return of “cheap oil” has muddied the waters about how to discuss it: https://www.transitionnetwork.org/blogs/rob-hopkins/2015-02/transition-agony-aunt-how-talk-about-peak-oil

At a recent meeting of Transition Town Reading (U.K.), we discussed the prevailing low oil price, and the group asked me to put together some salient points on the subject, set within the context of whether or not we can now dismiss peak oil, e.g. as is currently being contested. http://peakoilbarrel.com/will-2015-peak-oil/  http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/02/02/why-the-crash-in-oil-prices-should-bury-peak-oil-once-and-for-all/

The following points are based on an article that I wrote on this blog http://ergobalance.blogspot.com which was re-posted on Resilience.org http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-01-16/fossil-fuel-use-is-limited-by-climate-if-not-by-resources Most of the references that I have drawn from are in the links posted there, with a few more added into the text below. Some of the points overlap with each other, but hopefully expand their perspective in so doing:

(1) Peak oil is NOT when oil runs out, but it is the point at which the maximum rate of production of oil is reached, globally. Beyond the peak, global production falls relentlessly. New technologies can extend the supply, but the cost of production rises accordingly. 

(2) Peak oil is expected to happen as a result of geological/ technical/ geopolitical factors, but it may also be that a very high cost of production (mainly due to these factors), and hence selling price, makes oil less affordable, reducing consumption, so production “peaks” for this reason. 

(3) Different nations/regions will peak at different times, but “peak oil” refers to the global maximum.

(4) Over half of the world’s major oil-producing nations have passed their production peak. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-06-26/the-oil-production-story-pre-and-post-peak-nations

(5) The decline in production rate from existing oil fields amounts to a loss of 3.5 million barrels a day, per year. To maintain overall supply (around 30 billion barrels per year), the equivalent of a new Saudi Arabia’s worth of production must be brought on-stream every 3 years or so. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/dec/23/british-petroleum-geologist-peak-oil-break-economy-recession

(6) This (5) means that new production has to grow relentlessly, year on year, such that by 2030 (only 15 years time) we must install new production to the tune of around 5 Saudi Arabias.

(7) It is not only the (large) total of the oil that must be produced (200 billion barrels  by 2030), but [reinforcing (6)] that the production rate of the “new oil” has to increase relentlessly to meet the decline from existing conventional fields. http://www.peakoil.net/200-billion-barrels-of-new-oil-production-is-needed-by-2030

(8) It is production rate that is critical, more than the size of the reserves. “The size of the tap, not the tank”. Of course, the oil has to be there in the first place, but it is how fast it can be got out of the ground that determines whether the overall global production rate can be maintained.

(9) The conventional fields being found now tend to be smaller than they were. The 20 largest oil fields in the world account for 25% of total global oil production, of which the majority are already in decline. “Giant” oil fields (those containing 500 million barrels or more) currently provide 60% of the world’s oil supply, but their discovery peaked decades ago. http://www.energyandcapital.com/articles/peak-oil-investments/1603

(10) This means that most of the new production has to be from unconventional “oil” sources. These are more difficult and expensive to produce from, and have a lower energy return on energy invested (EROEI) than for conventional oil. This is likely to translate into lower production rates per unit of $ or unit of energy.

(11) There is an inverse correlation between EROEI and $ price for different oil sources, i.e. lower EROEI, higher $ price. http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/372/2006/20130126

(12) Chevron have released a presentation for their investors [emphasising (10)] which indicates an expectation that 40% of the “new oil” will come from deepwater fields, 20% from U.S. shale, 10% from increased tar-sands production, 25% from OPEC growth (Venezuelan extra-heavy oil?), and around 5% each from shale outside of the U.S. (Russia?) and “onshore and shallow offshore”. http://www.peakoil.net/200-billion-barrels-of-new-oil-production-is-needed-by-2030

(13) Chevron also stress that production from these sources will not come cheap, and will probably be of the order of $100 a barrel (“Breakeven price” or “marginal cost”).

(14) Hence at under $50 a barrel selling price, these projects will not go ahead, or they will be money-losers (cost more to produce the oil than it sells for). This year, $150 billion worth of new projects may face the axe, which are mainly from heavy-oil, deepwater, tar-sands and shale-oil.

(15) Lack of new infrastructure now will mean a reduced production rate, a year or so down the line.

(16) So why is oil so cheap? There are various contributing factors relating both to supply (production rate) and demand. The main supply factor is that production of U.S. shale oil has increased rapidly to 3.5 million barrels a day, along with the renewed oil production from Iraq and Libya. Saudi produce one third of OPEC’s output, and this time they have refused to cut production because they want to keep (grow?) their share of the market.

(17) At the same time, demand has fallen because the global economy (especially China) has slowed down. Since everything we do uses oil, when an economy is strong the demand for oil goes up, and when the economy weakens, demand goes down.

(18) The result of (16) and (17) is a glut of oil. According to supply/demand considerations, the price goes down. It only takes 1% or so, in undersupply or oversupply, to push the price of a barrel of oil to above $100 or (as we have seen recently) down to $50. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-01-12/the-oil-price-fall-an-explanation-in-two-charts

(19) So, can we now forget about peak oil? No. Due to (5) and (14/15), the oversupply of oil will peter out. We still have the background global decline rate, so needing to produce a new Saudi every 3 years, and from unconventional oil, which is more difficult, tends to have a lower net energy return, and is expensive. Due to the current low oil price, new infrastructure is now not being built, meaning a further loss in production a year or so ahead.

(20) Then the price will then go-up again (supply/demand). But it has to, or producing much of the oil that is left would be a money-loser. The price has to go above the breakeven price (cost of production) for new investment to be worthwhile.

(21) The only way the price could maintain a sustained low is if the global economy continued to slow, so the demand not only didn’t grow but actually fell. This, naturally would have its own adverse consequences. If the price were to rise massively, e.g. to $150-200 a barrel, oil would become increasingly unaffordable, which would also reduce demand.

(22) So long as the selling price of oil stays above the “shut-in” price, existing production will mostly continue. If, however, it were to fall below this level (say, $20 a barrel), much global production would actually lose money, and be shut-down. This might reduce the world oil supply rapidly and massively, to the point that the world economy would stutter, and restarting both the oil production and the economy in its wider sense, might prove extremely difficult (worst case scenario!).

(23) While a low oil-price is seen by the consumers as a good thing., i.e. sales of Hummers and other SUVs are at a record high, because the full-prices are low!, it’s no fun for the oil-producers. Saudi get 90% of their GDP from selling oil; Venezuela, 50%; Russia, 35%. To balance their national budgets, all these countries need oil at $100 a barrel. At $50, Venezuela may go bankrupt. Saudi has deeper pockets, and can hold out for longer. Russia is interesting, especially as they control much of the gas-supply to Europe. If they held it back, even for a week...

(24) While the return of a sufficiently high price may encourage new investment, it is unlikely that we can grow production of new oil to equal five Saudi Arabias within the next 15 years, especially from sources that are more expensive and more difficult to produce from than the oil they must serve to replace. Therefore, we can anticipate a contraction of the global oil supply within this timescale.

(25) Once the production rate of new (unconventional) oil can no longer match the rate of decline of conventional oil, the global production overall must decline, i.e. we will be at peak oil. How exactly this happens and when, will be determined by the interplay of the factors mentioned above, but to quote Fatih Birol (Chief Economist and Director of Global Energy Economics at the International Energy Agency in Paris):
One day we will run out of oil, it is not today or tomorrow, but one day we will run out of oil and we have to leave oil before oil leaves us, and we have to prepare ourselves for that day. The earlier we start, the better, because all of our economic and social system is based on oil, so to change from that will take a lot of time and a lot of money and we should take this issue very seriously."

(26) There is the climate-change aspect too, since burning oil contributes around one third of the carbon emissions that are due to human activities. http://cdiac.ornl.gov/GCP/images/fuels_co2_emissions.jpg

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fossil Fuel Use is Limited by Climate, if Not by Resources.

We appear to be living in rather peculiar and unsettling times. A year ago, discussions and fears were over the high oil price, which until September 2014, had been above $100 a barrel http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/09/09/markets-oil-idUKL3N0RA1L220140909. The price rose to $115 in June 2014, but has subsequently plummeted, with West Texas Intermediate falling to $43 and North Sea Brent Crude to $47 earlier in the week. Today, both have rallied marginally to around $48, with an untypical mere 21 cents between them. Since Brent typically trades at several dollars above WTI, any apparent synchrony between the two tends to reflect price-volatility, as indeed is the case now.

It is fair to say that the crash in oil price was not anticipated by most people who keep an eye on the oil supply situation, and accordingly, its cause is a matter of intense speculation, and the likely prognosis even more so. Among the various factors that have been brought culpable for it http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2014/12/economist-explains-4, we may list: a slowing of the Chinese economy, and little recovery in Europe, so that demand has fallen, and that moreover, supply of crude oil has soared ahead of expectation. The latter is accounted for by supplies of oil returning from Iraq and Libya, and overwhelmingly, the ramping-up of oil-production in the U.S., principally released from impermeable shale-formations by hydraulic fracturing ("fracking"). While the U.S.is not a major exporter of oil, the increase in its own domestic production has reduced the amount of oil it needs to import, so leaving a bigger surplus on the global market. Saudi Arabia produces around 10 million barrels a day, or one third of the output from OPEC, which has refused to cut back on production primarily to avoid losing its market share http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/08/us-opec-oil-idUSKBN0KH1HA20150108. Thus the result is overproduction against demand, leading to a glut of oil, and this has pushed the price down markedly.

Although, from the perspective of "price at the pump", a low oil price is widely being seen as positive, i.e. sales of Hummers have increased http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-11-11/gas-guzzling-hummer-makes-comeback-fuel-prices-plunge, and the British Prime Minister has promised that cheap oil and gas will lead to reduced energy bills http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/fuel/11345216/Fuel-prices-will-fall-further-and-faster-says-David-Cameron.html there are various reasons to infer that the situation is but metastable and temporary. The main factor is that the world's currently producing oil fields are showing a production decline of 4.1% per annum, meaning that year on year we need to find another 3.5 mbd http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/dec/23/british-petroleum-geologist-peak-oil-break-economy-recession, or the equivalent of the production from Saudi Arabia about every 3 years.

This surely will eat into the glut, and in addition, we are already seeing oil companies pull back on investment in new production to the tune of $150 billion in 2015 http://www.naturalgasintel.com/articles/100639-150b-plus-of-upstream-projects-face-wipeout-on-low-oil-prices-says-analyst, because the price they can sell oil for is less than the breakeven price (how much it costs to produce it). Any failure to inaugurate new production now must reduce the supply of oil a year or more down the line, and it is unlikely that U.S. shale oil output, impressive though it has been (now providing 30% of U.S. domestic  production http://www.energyglobal.com/downstream/the-environment/11122014/CBO-oil-gas-budget-and-economy/), can grow in perpetual step, to offset the decline from existing fields. Indeed, along with deepwater production, it is the relatively expensive shale oil projects that are vulnerable to a curtailing of new investment in them. It is speculated too, that the resurfacing of troubles in Libya will reduce its exports of oil http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-29/oil-climbs-as-libyan-output-threatened-by-fire-at-storage-tanks.html, further attenuating overall global oil supply. Once the supply surplus is reduced against demand by these combined forces, the price will go back up: it has to, in line with true and rising production investment costs, and the real speculation is only over "when".

This may well sound like the bones of a "peak oil" argument, which will be laid bare once more, as the oil surplus which has veiled them drains away, but the technical and economic viability of oil production may not be its limiting element. Rather, the determinant of how much oil (and other fossil fuels) we can produce may be the amount of carbon dioxide that we are allowed to release into the atmosphere if we are to keep the mean global temperature from exceeding another 2 deg. C warmer than it is now, which is predicted to drive catastrophic climate change. In a paper published in the prestigious journal Nature http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v517/n7533/full/nature14016.html, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins, researchers at University College London, conclude that it will be necessary to leave some two thirds of the fossil fuels available to us unburned, to achieve just a 50% chance of keeping global warming within the 2 degree C limit. From their analysis, they deduce more specifically that it is necessary to leave one third of the oil, half of the gas and more than 80% of the world's coal in the ground, up to 2050.

This is in line with previous studies, but the real significance of the work is the particular geographical regions that will be most affected, if these findings are turned into global policy. In particular, the Middle East would have to leave half of its oil and gas unburned, while Russia and the U.S. could only burn less than 10% of their coal reserves. 85% of Canadian oil sands (bitumen) reserves and 95% of Venezuelan extra-heavy oil reserves are described as "unburnable". The study is based on a model which limits the total amount of carbon discharged to the atmosphere at 1,100 Gt in the form of cumulative carbon emissions between 2011 and 2050.

The study concludes that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology would have little influence on the overall quantities of fossil fuels that can be produced, due to its high cost, relatively late date of introduction (2025) and likely rate at which it can be installed on the scale required.

While such a static reckoning of the distribution of the oil, gas and coal reserves across the world is extremely informative and undoubtedly salutary, it is of interest to examine the production rates of the three fuels that the model implies. To make an estimate of this, I have simply "blown up" the various charts (Figure 3 in the paper) on the computer-screen and measured them with a ruler, with the following results. EJ = Exajoule = 1.0 x 10^18 J:

            2010 (EJ)                   2050 (EJ)               Change

Oil       164                             156                            -5%

Gas      109                             172                           +58%

Coal     142                              46                            -68%

Total     415                             374                           -10%

Thus, we see that it is predicted that the oil-supply will remain robust (falling by only -5% over the 40 year period), fuelled mostly by fields already in production and those scheduled (from which production will have halved by 2050), with "reserve growth", "undiscovered", light tight oil (shale oil), and natural gas liquids filling-out the supply.

The major change is the replacement of coal by natural gas, the production of which is required to grow by 68% in 2025, and to be maintained through to 2050. (It is predicted that shale gas, tight gas and coal bed methane will form a substantial proportion of the gas supply, along with reserve growth and new discoveries). Since the carbon emissions per unit of energy are only half that of coal http://www.biomassenergycentre.org.uk/portal/page?_pageid=75,163182&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL, the production of which is curbed by two thirds in the model, the impact is large. It is predicted that the strategy would decrease the annual carbon emissions from 48 Gt CO2-eq (2010) to 21 Gt CO2-eq (2050), a reduction of 56% from start-to-finish year. The overall use of fossil-fuel energy is predicted to be reduced by 10%. This may be contrasted with the view taken from the B.P. Statistical Review of World Energy (2014) http://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/about-bp/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy.html that by 2035, although there will be some replacement of coal use by gas, global carbon emissions will increase by 29%, in accord with our increasing consumption of fossil fuel.

The authors further conclude that: "developments of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil production are incommensurate with efforts to limit average global warming to 2 degrees C."

They also warn that to maintain large expenditure on fossil fuel exploration is pointless, because it will not be possible to increase the amount of them available to burn (since the limits are already exceeded by the amounts that we already have!).

It is salient that at a time when policy-makers are intent on exploiting their fossil fuel reserves to the limit of availability and production, they should in fact be setting limits to production. Thus, the difference between the decrease of 56% in CO2-eq emissions from 2010 to 2050, predicted by the model, and the increase of 29% by 2035 (B.P. Statistical Review) - probably +50% or so by 2050! - emphasises the disparity between what must actually be done and propping-up business as usual.

In the U.K. we await the outcome of the Infrastructure Bill, which forces governments (both the present and future incumbents) to produce strategies for “maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum”. This means producing as much oil as possible, albeit how difficult that will be do, once the price escalates, once more, and the supplies (increasingly furnished by expensive, unconventional oil) become less and less affordable to buy. Yet such efforts appear as paradoxical denials of the urgency to ameliorate climate change.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Regenerative Agriculture: The Transition.

In the face of peak oil and in order to curb carbon emissions, methods of farming that depend less on oil and natural gas, respectively to run machinery and to make synthetic fertilizers, must be sought. Such options are to be found within the framework of regenerative agriculture, but the transition from current industrialised agriculture to these alternative strategies will prove testing.

It is an illusion to think we can continue to use as much energy as we do now. No one can entirely rule-out that some extravagant technology will be forthcoming, e.g. solar power or nuclear fusion on the full-scale of more than 500 EJ/year as we get through now http://www.resilience.org/stories/2012-02-16/world-energy-consumption-beyond-500-exajoules, but the particular issue of matching liquid fuels derived currently almost entirely from petroleum appears insurmountable. The "solution" is probably the collective of individual solutions, and this means adopting a completely different paradigm of human philosophy and intention. The most pressing demand is how to feed the population of the world, and how to adapt industrialised conurbations, with cities provided for entirely from external regions for their food and electricity. If oil is the most vulnerable element in the energy-mix as the life-blood of transportation, then we must aim to live with less transportation, and this includes the means and distribution implicit to modern food production.

In methods of regenerative agriculture and permaculture http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/stl/sciprg/2012/00000095/00000004/art00001?crawler=true, much of the energy involved is provided quite naturally by native soil flora and fauna fed ultimately by photosynthesis, since the fuel for good soil derives from plants as the factories that supply carbon-rich nutrients, and in a wonderful symbiosis, the living soil microbes, especially fungi can draw other nutrients and water from the soil to nourish the plants. The individual elements of life feed one another in a mutually dependent and beneficial manner.

While the two approaches can be defined and envisaged rather clearly, the intermediate means for transition from industrial agriculture, with its acknowledged unsustainable impact on the soil http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/deep-down-and-dirty-science-of-soil.html, to regenerative agriculture (permaculture, agro-ecology) is rather more nebulous, since it has not been done before, or at least not in the degree that necessity now demands. So how might we perform this revolution in the least painful way?

For a start, a decolinising and restructuring of present industrialised agriculture is necessary along with an appreciation and magnification of native and traditional food systems http://phdtree.org/pdf/38299805-a-transition-from-agriculture-to-regenerative-food-systems/. Overall, a change in thinking and concept is required from conflict and limit to cooperation and abundance.

The scale of the transition may be compared with other milestone transitions throughout human history, such as the hunter-gatherers becoming farmers, and then modern industrial societies. It is the latter that are under threat and unsustainable, and a compromise devolution to a more localised collective of small communities (pods) is required, supplied by local farms and infrastructure with (probably) rail links between them for essential movement of goods and people. The maintenance of the Internet and electronic communications would seem desirable since ideas and knowledge can be transmitted from pod to pod and between countries and continents.

In the 1970s, there were studies done that evaluated the massive inefficiency in energy requirements for food production. It was concluded that 10 Calories of energy are expended to bring 1 calorie of food onto the dinner plate http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/2011/08/11/10-calories-in-1-calorie-out-the-energy-we-spend-on-food/. It has been stressed that essential agricultural production is to yield food and fibre - i.e. the essential elements of biomass. One might also add-in fuel as a product, if the consideration also includes fermentation of sugars form starch into ethanol, or hydrothermal production of liquid and gaseous fuels from biomass by heating it under pressure in the presence of water.

The impending stress of "climate change" is well acknowledged, e.g. sea-level rise and the spreading desertification of formerly green lands, but its impact on agriculture is rarely mentioned by climate-modellers. However, as a for-instance, it is speculated that the Colorado River basin could dry up. It's mighty dams would then look something like the pyramids of Egypt, maybe leaving future generations to speculate as to what their purpose was, and upon the nature of the civilization that created them. As climate zones shift, it is the variability of the weather that will have greater impact than ramping "mean temperatures" on the enormous investment made by humans in agriculture. The capital outlays required for new dams, irrigation supplies and the retraining of farmers will need to be contrasted with that for flood-defences in vulnerable locations (e.g. New Orleans and the east coast of England). Most likely both cannot be supported and it may prove expedient to simply let some regions "go to the sea".

Biodiversity is a natural means for evening-out the losses and gains of living systems http://peakoil.com/enviroment/the-soil-land-water-climate-honey-bees-oil-food-nexus-peak-soil. It is cooperative in the sense that pests are not encouraged as they are by growing single strains of crop, and that suitably matched plants help each other to grow - the holistic whole being more robust than the simple measure of its components. The term "global village" tends to signify an interconnected unity of trade or electronic communication, while aspects of cultural diversity and biodiversity seldom enter the line of thinking. However, it is a necessity to preserve and expand the traditional food and fibre production systems that are tried and tested and whose regenerative capabilities have been demonstrated over millennia. We may adapt to or readopt cultures that have been lost, as industrial civilization has supplanted them, and it is the latter that we must seek to break away from in order to arrive at a sustainable future, that is if we are to survive as a human species.

If "global village" means "global supermarket", the term lends acceptance to the concomitant rule of multinational corporations. If we restructure societies to become self-sustaining, rather than dependent on inputs and indeed outputs, as they are now, we also must abandon "limited liability" and the legal designation of "corporations" as "persons" with the same rights as individual citizens. Traditional food systems are storehouses both of biodiversity and cultural diversity. It is a pity that the seedbanks around the world contain no information about the culture, economy, details of cultivation methods, flavour or other human aspects of the crops and the food they produce. Including my own musings on the topic, most commentators on the post peak oil world refer to the need to localise food systems, such that small populations are provided for locally by means of community farms. However, establishing regenerative systems to grow food and fibre must include cities too, the design of which must be analysed in terms of the natural mechanisms that interweave them.

It is mostly not realised that the rural development or redevelopment urged by the industrialised nations for the developing world are precisely those they need to adopt themselves. E.F.Schumacher's "Buddhist Economics" which he describes in the bestselling "Small is Beautiful - A Study of Economics as if People mattered" http://www.amazon.co.uk/Small-Is-Beautiful-Economics-Mattered/dp/0099225611, applies equally to the industrialised world as it must of needs de-industrialise, and take lessons from simpler societies which consume far less per head of population. The example of Cuba may be taken as a benchmark for progress, as it has survived and indeed thrived through implementing a system of community gardens, in the abrupt absence of cheap and plentiful oil and fertilizers gifted from the Soviet Union when that regime collapsed in 1989. "Small is Beautiful" has been updated for the 21st Century context by Fritz Schumacher's Daughter-in-Law, Diana: http://www.greenbooks.co.uk/Book/4/396/Small-is-Beautiful-in-the-21st-Century.html

James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis has acted as an iconic beacon to the environmental movement, drawing-in a range of people who are dissatisfied with the industrial and materialistic way of life, and seek alternative, more natural and or spiritually rewarding lifestyles, and with less detriment to the planet and life upon it. "Gaia" is holistic in nature and is based on ecology. Rather than an indstrialised "global village" it implies a "globe of villages". Food and fibre production http://phdtree.org/pdf/38299805-a-transition-from-agriculture-to-regenerative-food-systems/is one of the most important features of the transition to a post-fossil fuel era, to which the establishment of regenerative food systems is essential. Underpinning all of this is the need to grow and protect perhaps the most fundamental element of the life-nexus, the soil itself, which is truly "our children's earth" http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-05-30/for-our-children-s-earth-rebuilding-the-soil-sustaining-the-future

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Is Peak Oil Now a Phantom?

While this edited article of mine (on page 4) was published in The Professional Engineer a while ago, I have only just discovered its existence http://www.professionalengineers-uk.org/pdfs/newsletters/ProEngSpr13-issue79.pdf!I remember being asked to write a piece for them, by someone in the audience at a talk that I gave to the Guildford, Cafe' Scientifique a while back on "What happens When the Oil Runs Out?", but I had heard nothing further. However, it provides a reasonable summary of the oil situation, which is probably worth emphasising here.

All engineers should recognise the formula m.g.h as representing potential energy. Oil is one of the most used sources of such energy, and once it has been released from the form in which it is found, it is gone. Professor Rhodes’ article relates to his concern that the rate of finding new sources of energy may not keep up with the rate of diminution of existing sources, and this concern ought to be of the greatest interest to Professional Engineers.
It has been claimed that the United States has enough natural gas to last for 100 years, and that by 2017 the nation will be producing more oil than Saudi Arabia. Much of this bounty, it is asserted, will come from horizontal drilling, combined with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). Therefore, so runs the rhetoric, peak oil can now be relegated to a myth. Indeed, to quote from an article in The Daily Mail (8-12-12):

“…the Earth can now provide us with about 250 years’ worth of gas supplies.
The so-called ‘peak oil’ theory, which suggests that within the foreseeable future the world will run out of fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas — has never looked more absurd.”

Peak oil does not mean we will abruptly “run out of oil”, but that the rate of production will reach a maximum and thereafter relentlessly fail demand for it. For a global civilization, entirely dependent on crude oil for its food, materials, transportation, and economy, the unplanned consequences could be dire. Many of the more cornucopian conclusions are arrived at by confounding resources with reserves, and ignoring the fact that it is not only the quantity that might be available, which determines “peaking”, but the rate at which it can be recovered, over time. A useful analogy is that it is the size of the tap not the size of the tank that matters. In gauging a resource, all known, proved, probable and theoretical quantities are tallied together, not only ignoring technical and economic factors, but the uncertainty of whether the material is there to be had in the first place. Thus resources are considerably “larger” than reserves.

While oil or gas is not going to “run out” any time soon, continuing to produce 30 billion barrels of conventional crude oil every year is unlikely to be possible for very much longer. We have already run out of cheap oil, and at some near point, production will reach a maximum, and then fall relentlessly. It must – this is the nature of a finite reserve. So long as the enlarging “hole” in the supply of conventional crude oil can be filled from unconventional sources, all is well, but once it exceeds them, the overall sum will pass into the negative; i.e., global oil production will have peaked.

New technologies – horizontal drilling combined with fracking – have made it both practically and economically viable to exhume gas and oil from previously inaccessible reservoirs. In principle, shale gas can be recovered all over the world, although until an actual well is drilled, both the quantity and quality of it are unknown – e.g. from nine such wells drilled in Poland, came a gas so heavily contaminated with nitrogen that it wouldn’t burn. Both shale gas and shale oil wells tend to play-out more rapidly than their conventional counterparts, and after two years, production has typically decreased by 80%, meaning more wells must be drilled continually to maintain the overall output of a field. If shale gas production is to be enhanced, they must be drilled even faster, and at a typical unit cost in the region of $5-10 million. Ultimately, the strategy must run up against material limits in financial investment, infrastructure, equipment and trained personnel that can be brought to bear in the effort.

As to how much shale gas the United States has, detailed inspection of the available figures reveals the “100 years worth” claim to relate to a resource – i.e. the most optimistic set of accounts – while the reserve (proved plus probable) is enough for only 20 years. To surpass Saudi Arabia, by 2017, a total production of 11 million barrels a day (mbd), ramped up from just under 6 mbd currently, would be necessary. The projected production of shale oil (for which the correct term is “tight oil”) falls far short of this. The term “liquids”, is now often used, by which biofuels, natural gas plant liquids (NGPLs) and refinery gains are reckoned together with crude oil. This obfuscates the truth, since the other liquids have different properties from crude oil - in particular, a lower energy density. While world production of liquids has increased by around 3 mbd since 2004, actual production of crude oil has remained almost flat at 72 mbd, and so the global production limit may have been reached.

It is claimed there are two trillion tonnes “oil” under the U.S., in the form of oil shale, but really, this refers to a resource. Moreover, oil shale is not the same thing as shale oil. Shale oil (tight oil) is actual crude oil that if recovered, e.g. through horizontal drilling and fracking, can be refined in the normal way. Oil shale does not contain oil as such, but a solid organic material called kerogen, which is heated to around 500 oC, in order to crack it into liquid form. The process also uses large amounts of freshwater, and churns-out an equal volume of contaminated wastewater which needs to be dealt with.

There is, as yet, no commercial scale production of oil from “oil shale”, and there may never be, since it takes almost as much energy to get oil from it as will be delivered by the oil itself, i.e. pointless. The returns are better on “oil sands”, maybe 3 to 1, in energy terms - once the material has been “upgraded” to provide a liquid fuel - but here too, vast quantities of water are needed, and sufficient energy is required to extract the bitumen in the first place, that installing nuclear reactors in such locations is being considered seriously as a source of heat, currently generated  by burning natural gas.

Since the total “oil” contains five times the amount of carbon reckoned to raise the mean global temperature by 2 oC - modelled as the limit, to avoid dangerous climate change - even if it could all be accessed and burned, the effect on the climate would most likely be catastrophic.

Professor Rhodes has outlined a problem on which Professional Engineers are in an eminently well qualified position to hold a view.