Monday, August 27, 2007

Russian vs Norwegian Gas to UK - Buying Time.

The reliance of the UK on gas supplies from Russia look set to be relaxed once a new pipeline begins to deliver gas from Norway. I have written about Ormen Lange previously, which is the largest gas-field in Europe, and looks set to bring gas to these shores by next month, well ahead of original predictions that it would not begin in earnest until October. Preliminary flows of gas are to begin this week. The Langeled gas pipeline is connected to the gas depot at Easington in the North-east of England, and at 745 miles (1,200 kilometres) in length, is the longest such sub-sea pipeline in the world. It is expected to meet around one fifth of the UK's demand for gas.

North Sea gas, introduced in the early 1970's to replace the older town-gas, which was produced by heating coal in huge retorts, has now peaked and the UK is a net importer of natural gas. Following all peaks in resource production, the supply will thenceforth inexorably dwindle, and by the end of the decade (just a couple of years from now) half the nation's gas will need to be imported, much of it from Russia. There are other supplies of gas being negotiated from Norway and a gigantic gas-terminal has been built at Milford Haven, off the south Welsh coast, to receive liquefied natural gas from Qatar, in the Persian Gulf, also to the tune of one fifth of the nation's current total consumption of gas.

The owner of British Gas, Centrica, which are also the operator of the Easington terminal, has signed a £5 billion contract with Statol, the Norwegian energy group, to supply its customers with gas. The National Grid and the UK government are lobbying Statol in connection with a second gas pipeline whose destination is a matter for competition between nations, i.e. the UK, Germany, Belgium and The Netherlands. This is due to open in 2012 to carry gas from the Troll field and could double exports from Norway to the UK (i.e. provide 40% of the total amount of gas used, in conjunction with the Langeled pipeline). Statol will make its decision next month as to who will get it.

Centrica is calling loudly for a much greater investment in the UK's energy infrastructure, and two years ago, before the first stage of the Langeled pipeline, and another one from the Netherlands were built, Britain had the highest gas-prices in all Europe with detrimental consequences for the competitiveness of businesses here. Since then, the price of gas in the UK has roughly halved and the Langeled line supplies coming on-stream next month will buffer the costs of the resource and keep them stable in the short term.

Analysts warn that the coming cold-season will force a test of how the new gas infrastructure operates as a unit in this post-North Sea bounty era. The head of the energy markets EIC, Craig Lowry, said: "There is a big question mark over how much gas will be delivered on any specific day. No one has seen how all these sources of imports interact with each other. It could lead to volatile wholesale gas prices. It's a situation that the UK has never faced before."

True, we used to make all our gas from coal, and we also made most of our electricity from coal. Then the North Sea gas arrived, effectively putting coal out of business, since we could burn that instead to produce electricity as well as using it as the new "gas". This also had the "advantage" from the government's point of view that the militant miners unions could be crushed and the pits closed. The "miners" after all, brought down the Edward Heath administration in the mid-1970's, and Margaret Thatcher was determined this would not happen to her government. UK carbon emissions fell too, since less CO2 is produced when gas is burned per unit of energy than is the case from coal. Now the North Sea gas is in decline, we are relying increasingly on imports of natural gas, using more coal (including re-opening some mines, long closed, in Yorkshire and in South Wales) and ramping-up the use of nuclear power, with a new generation of reactors planned both to replace those due for decommissioning and to expand provision of nuclear energy overall.

The energy mix is changing in the UK, and the gas issue is just one link in the energy chain - the first to be forged, of many.

Related Reading.
"Russian dependence eased as UK receives gas early from Norway", by Tim Webb:

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Mountaintops Blown-Away to get Coal!

I had not heard of mountaintop coal mining until now, but it seems that the Bush Administration will issue a new rule to approve mountaintop coal removal, which involves blasting away the tops of mountains to get at the coal underneath and dumping the attendant rubble and so forth into valleys and streams. The technique has been used for over 20 years in the Appalachian coal region and is regarded as cheaper, more efficient and safer than digging out coal from underground. In support of mountaintop mining is quoted the statistics that nine miners and rescuers were killed at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah and 12 more fatalities occurred among miners at the Sago Mine in West Virginia last year. Indeed, half the coal produced in West Virginia is produced by mountaintop mining.

The new regulation would clarify the somewhat nebulous existing laws on the matter and allow the continuation and expansion of the practice. However, unless mine owners are allowed to dump rubble and other waste in streams and valleys, according to Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, it will not be possible to operate in mountain regions such as West Virginia where some of the richest deposits of low-sulphur coal are in reserve. This does seem to pose an environmental conundrum though, since if more coal is to be burned in the interests of rising demand for energy at the same time as breaking the dependence of the US on imported oil, this would seem to be one way of reducing the consequent SO2 emissions and hence acid rain. However, the environmental landscape will be scarred and hundreds of miles of streams destroyed in central Appalachia.

I am reminded for a moment of the film "Way out West" with Laurel and Hardy making a calamitous journey to prospect for their fortune, and in it they sing a song called "The Lonesome Pine", which goes something like: "In the Blue-Ridge mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the lonesome pine..." As I recall these mountains appear blue as viewed through the atmospheric aerosol caused by the oxidation of pinene and other hydrocarbons emitted from the pine-trees that are present in abundance in this spectacularly beautiful natural wilderness.

The actual procedure of mountaintop mining is no mean business. The ridge-tops are blasted off with dynamite and flattened using bulldozers. The immediate environmental impact is the clearance of all vegetation and sometimes with local residents being forced to move as well. The coal seams are then scraped with huge machines known as draglines. However, the law does require that the mining companies reclaim and replant the land, but there is always an excess of solid waste which must be disposed of somewhere. According to the environmental statement that comes with the new rule, 724 river miles were buried under mining waste during the period 1985 - 2001, and it is predicted that another 724 miles will be obliterated by 2018 if current practices continue - and why should they not, since the demand for energy from coal is unlikely to fall, especially if other fossil fuels, mainly oil begin to decline in supply, for either geological or political reasons?

I guess my thinking is that we can't have it both ways. If we are going to continue using carbon-based fuels, then as one kind (oil and then gas) begins to run low we will need to get hold of more of another kind to fill the gap. Since there is still a lot of coal left in the world, about one third of which lies under American terra firma (including its mountains), efforts to extract yet more of it must be expected, albeit with damage to the environment, both at the mining stage and again when it is burned. The alternative is that we live quite differently and use far less energy to do so, but I doubt that will be a vote-winner either.

Related Reading.
"Rule to Expand Mountaintop Coal Mining", by John M. Broder, The New York Times, August 23, 2007:

Monday, August 20, 2007

Swiss Geothermal Project Causes Earthquakes.

It has been confirmed by experts that the Deep Heat Mining project, located near the city of Basel to extract geothermal energy caused tremors of 3.3 on the Richter scale. The strategy involves the injection of considerable quantities of pressurised water into boreholes three miles deep where the temperature can reach 200 degrees C. The resulting superheated steam is brought back to the surface where it is used to provide steam with which to run an electricity-producing turbine. However, the project operators, Geopower Basel, have had to suspend its pumping of water into the hot rock layer since it has been discovered that this caused a series of earthquakes, some up to 10 miles distant.

An investigation is now underway to seek liability for everyone involved in the project, and possible criminal prosecutions, since it is claimed that those in charge were well aware that there was a risk of setting-off earthquakes. Basel is one of the areas in Switzerland most prone to seismic activity, and in 1356 the city was practically razed to the ground by a quake of 6.5 on the Richter scale. It has come to light that the officials of the project were warned that injecting water into the hot rock layer might trigger earthquakes, but according to an official response from the company it was not believed they would be felt at the surface.

Nuclear power has some string opposition in Switzerland and hence the Deep Heat Mining project curried favour as an environmentally-friendly and safe source of renewable energy. The Swiss government have partially financed the project which is intended to provide enough electricity for 10,000 homes and heat for another 2,700, but since the quakes there is far less faith in this approach. There have been similar projects in Australia, Japan and the U.S., but none of them has resulted in a similar triggering of earthquakes of the magnitude measured in Switzerland. Geology is complex and varies considerably from one region of the earth to another, and human "engineering" of natural forces must always be attended with some degree of risk. The Earth is a complex system, and tinkering with one aspect of it can influence others, sometimes catastrophically.

Related Reading.
(1) "Green Energy Project gives Swiss the shakes," by Bojan Pancevski, Sunday Telegraph August 11th.
(2) Deep Heat Mining and Earthquake Monitoring in Basel, Switzerland,"

Friday, August 17, 2007

An Unstable Earth?

I came across an interesting article, referenced below, which suggests that we may expect trouble from within the Earth itself, in addition to the surface effects of climate change involving mainly the atmosphere and the seas. According to the geologic record, the interglacial periods are separated by around 100,000 years, and are inter-spaced by the ice-ages. The exact causes of ice-ages remain a matter of considerable speculation but are generally thought to relate to changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, and hence to variances in the amount of solar radiation falling onto the Earth.

As an ice-age progresses, glaciers advance in varying degrees from the polar regions in the direction of the equator, resulting in substantial proportions of the continents becoming covered in sheets of ice with a thickness of more than one kilometer. Now that is an amazing thought! To achieve this phenomenon, water is drawn from the oceans and frozen into ice. Correspondingly, the sea levels globally were anywhere up to 130 metres lower than they are today. Given the relatively shallow basin of the English channel and that between Alaska and Russia, it was once possible to walk between the various continents.

At the end of an ice-age, the ice-sheets retreated and so the melt-water drained back into the ocean basins, causing the sea levels to rise at a rate of several metres per century. Significantly, research by Bill McGuire, who is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, shows that in the Mediterranean area, there exists a good correlation between the rate of rise and fall of sea levels during the last ice-age and the number of volcanic eruptions in Italy and Greece. The connection was clearest following the retreat of glaciers which occurred around 18,000 years ago, resulting in extensive flooding of the globe, and an increase in sea levels to where they are now, with a corresponding 300% increase in the number of volcanic explosions in the Mediterranean region.

Now correlation does not necessarily reveal cause, but the following explanation has been offered to account for these findings. The huge mass of melt-water pouring onto the continental margins and marine island chains (where over 60% of the world's active volcanoes are) squeezes and distorts the Earth's crust, forcing-out underlying magma into an actual eruption. There is considerable variation in results from mathematical models as to the extent of sea level rise that might occur in the future, but it seems quite possible that hair-trigger volcanoes (those close to blowing their top) might be set-off by relatively modest increases. Sea-level rise is in itself a dangerous thing, since a one metre rise would threaten to inundate about a third of all agricultural land in the world, two metres would overwhelm the Thames flood-barrier under surge-conditions, while four metres would swamp Miami, placing it 60 kilometres off the US coast.

The higher that sea levels increase, the greater is the chance that the world's volcanoes may be triggered, and in extreme cases, the activation of geological faults could occur, resulting in more earthquakes and undersea landslides. Hence there is a tsunami risk too, for example the Storegga Slide off Norway 8,000 years ago, which sent a 20 metre high wave across the Shetland Islands and onto the east coast of Scotland. The whole notion brings to mind that the Earth is not a collection of unrelated parts but an holistic entity (the "Earth system"), wherein change in one feature may have ramifications through the whole planet.

Related Reading.
"The Earth Fights Back," by Bill McGuire, Guardian Unlimited August 7, 2007.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Laser Fusion - Techno-fix to World Energy Crisis?

The latest putative technological ray of salvation from the imminent energy crisis that confronts the world is Laser-Fusion. At an expected cost of half a billion Euros, a mighty laser is to be constructed which can create enormous temperatures at which nuclei will fuse. Lasers are currently used to heat plasmas, normally containing tritium and deuterium nuclei, above the ignition temperature of 40 million degrees required to overcome the electrostatic forces whereby the positive charges on these nuclei repel them from one another, getting them close enough that they can fuse-together, releasing energy in the process. The ignition temperatures that must be achieved for other hydrogen nuclei to fuse are far greater than this, hence the focus on the deuterium-tritium couple. However, in all cases I am aware of, it takes more energy to run the laser than is extracted from the plasma itself. This is partly a result of limitations in laser technology, but if an extremely powerful laser can be built, and which furthermore can fire sequentially at a sufficiently rapid rate, scientists believe that a sustainable working fusion reactor might be a possibility. The world's most powerful lasers need several minutes to recover for a second burst, but the HiPER laser will need to fire several times a second.

It is not thought that a commercial reactor will happen any time yet, and I am reminded of the ITER project at Cadarache in France: an experimental thermal fusion reactor project costing ten billion Euros, which it is thought might produce a working reactor in about 60 years, allowing for the various development stages planned. The laser-fusion HiPER project has been earmarked as "priority" by the European Union, and is intended to overtake the US-funded imperative known as the National Ignition Facility (Nif) in Livermore, California. When Nif is built in 2010, physicists are confident that the laser will be sufficiently powerful to start a fusion reaction, and experiments undertaken using underground nuclear explosives in the Nevada desert have provided evidence in regard to just how much energy the laser will need to provide to do this.

Mike Dunne, who is director of the Central Laser Facility in Oxfordshire and where the world's currently most powerful laser, Vulcan, is housed said: "The world is going to take notice when this happens. Politicians are going to look around and say, 'So what are you going to do about it? What is the next step?' This is how to take it from a scientific demonstration to a commercial reality. The trick now is, can we get it to work without throwing a nuclear bomb at the thing?"

Fair enough, but the engineering challenges are huge. Indeed in neither ITER or HiPER have the materials been devised that can withstand either massively energetic neutrons or a mighty laser beam, and without them any commercial development seems unlikely. It is often said that nuclear fusion is an attempt to replicate the processes going on in stars, e.g. the Sun, and yet Earth-bound plasmas are of very low density compared to the huge gravitational pressures in stars which dramatically increase the probability of fusion occurring, e.g. the solar proton-proton cycle which probably could not be reproduced sustainably on Earth.

The world will begin to run short of fossil fuels: first oil, then gas and finally coal, beginning within just a decade for oil. Unless more nuclear fuel is found, nuclear power has only a limited lifetime too, without the development and implementation of breeder technology based on uranium or thorium. The energy clock is ticking away, and I wonder, even if these behemoths can be made to work, not just at all but commercially, how quickly might this be done in reality. 60 years for ITER will almost certainly be too late to come to our aid in the impending energy crisis, and if HiPER has a similar projection in timescale then both may be regarded in the future as white elephants, similar to those architectural follies that pebble-dash the British landscape, which finally served no practical purpose.

Related Reading.
"Laser fusion - the safe, clean way to produce nuclear energy," by James Randerson, The Guardian.,,2091037,00.html

Monday, August 13, 2007

Denmark Follows Russia to North Pole.

Following Russia's claim to the Lomonosov ridge as a part of it's Siberian territory, Denmark has launched its own similar geological mission to investigate whether the feature actually belongs to Greenland and hence to its own country. The Danes are the latest to seek provenance of the ridge among the US, Canada and Norway, which is thought to be well endowed in gas and oil. There is a positive side to global warming in that it should be easier to harvest both resources as the Arctic ice melts. The Danish mission is supported by a Swedish icebreaker called Oden and a Russian nuclear icebraker known as 50 let podedy - the latter meaning 50 years of victory.

It is the intention of the project to gather seismic, bathymetric and gravity data to map-out the seabed underneath the ice, and will sail from Tromsoe in the north of Norway, returning to the Svalbard islands on September the 17th. While the North Pole seabed is not presently apportioned to any particular country it is under the governance of certain complex international treaties, and just last week a Russian geological team planted a titanium flag on the seabed some 4,200 metres below the pole. The latter action attracted some hostile response from Canada, who's foreign minister, Peter MacKay, compared it to tactics used in 15th century colonialism.

Interestingly, Canada and the US are embroiled in a dispute over the North-west passage, which is a seaway that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, normally partially frozen but which may be rendered open for more of the year at the behest of global warming.

Related Reading.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Russian Arctic Oil Grab.

I picked the elements of this up on the news in Switzerland last week, but my German not being quite as good as it was when I worked there for several months of the year, I thought I had misheard. However, it is true that Russia has used two mini-submarines to plant a one metre-high Russian flag (made out of the highly resilient metal, titanium) on the underwater Lomonosov ridge, which it claims is directly connected to its continental shelf. The Canadians particularly are rather annoyed at this maneuver, which they compare with a fifteenth century colonial land-grab. [As I recall from history, the British were rather apposite in such matters, and thereby built an empire].

At a depth of 4,300 metres, the mini-vessels Mir-1 and Mir-2 (wasn't "Mir" also the name of their space-station, meaning both "peace" and "world" in Russian?) sampled water and sediment from the sea-bed in an effort to substantiate their claim that the ridge is a part of their national territory. This is no mean matter, as it is estimated that there are 10 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons there, which amounts to 73 billion barrels of oil. As I recall, Russia has around 80 billion barrels of oil in its reserves (about the same as Venezuela), in addition to its vast gas-fields. How this arctic reserves will break-down into oil and gas is anyone's guess, as indeed is the deduced total, but the amount is substantial in anybody's language, being equal to about two and a half years' worth of world oil consumption, if it can all be extracted, which probably it can't.

It is an interesting mission in any case, although only yellowish gravel has been found so far, and no deep-sea creatures. I would bet there are bacteria down there, however. In an interview on CTV, the Canadian foreign minister said: "This isn't the 15th century. You can't just go around the world and just plant flags and say, we're claiming this territory. There is no threat to Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic... we're not at all concerned about this mission. Basically it's just a show by Russia."

Under the UN convention on the law of the sea, Canada, Norway, the US, Russia and Denmark (through its governance of Greenland) have economic rights over a 200 mile wide area around the north of their coastline. This rule is subject to appeal nonetheless, and there are disputes over the limits of this zone. For example, Russia claims that its Siberian shelf is linked directly to the Lomonosov ridge, which is an undersea mountain range running 1,240 miles across the north pole, and in 2001 a claim was advanced from Moscow to the UN, based on geological measurements that this was indeed the case. However, the results were dismissed but it is expected that Russia will make a resubmission in 2009.

When asked if sediment samples from the seabed could prove the case for a common identity for the Lomonosov ridge and the Siberian shelf, Kim Holmen, who is the research director for the Norwegian Polar Institute, said: "In a geological sense, yes, but in the cartographical and political sense, no. The United States and Europe were at one time connected, but Scotland cannot claim that the US is part of its territory because of that. These samples cannot prove once and for all that the whole discussion is over. Depth soundings and other data would also be needed to stake a claim."

It is true that all continents originated from a single land-mass called Pangea, but became separated through continental drift, juxtaposed with the tectonic boundaries, such as the north Atlantic Ridge upon which Iceland sits. Whatever conclusion arrives, I daresay that politics will trump its hand over geology, especially with so much at stake.

Related Reading.