Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Essential 12-Step Programme

The 12-step programme was developed by Alcoholics Anonymous, which found its roots in the Oxford Movement - a Christian based fellowship which provided consolation to those suffering from troubles with drink and other misfortunes of the human condition. The 12-steps of AA are intended to (1) admit you have a problem, (2) sort-out your past, grievances and own-up to your own part in them and (3) forge a link with a Higher Power and find spiritual salvation in communion with whatever god you believe in (or don't) and in the assistance of others suffering from the same problem you have.

It's a simple approach, but very difficult to apply in practice on all the the above three accounts. Now I note that the conversion of an oil-based town (or village) to a "Transition Town" (or village) is also reckoned to be abided by a 12-step programme. I will list the steps here, as in this oil-deprived inevitability we are seeing now, I feel that I need to try and do something practical rather than just write about it. I have not yet tossed-in the towel over the survival of humanity and feel there is a road to salvation, albeit with far less vehicles on the roads.

I am thinking specifically about the village of Caversham where I live with my family, neighbours and friends, which is indeed a very friendly and lovely place to live, set on the north bank of the River Thames, across from Reading. I am trying to "think local" as E.F.Schumacher urged us to in his classic and best-selling book, "Small is Beautiful"... subtitled, "a study of economics as if people mattered." Well, I think we do matter, all of us, and that man's words were published in 1973, while he was also a consultant economist to the British National Coal Board. They are far more relevant now because hardly anybody heeded them, then or since. If we had we would not be where we are now.

The Transition Town community have not nailed together a complete plan of action as yet, but it is the essential first stage in the ultimate arrival in a world without cheap oil and eventually without much of it on sale at all. The notion of a 12-step programme I take to be ironic, in that we have become utterly addicted to oil as alcoholics are to drinking, and we need to place ourselves in a condition of "recovery". AA has it that no alcoholic is ever cured but keeps sober and improves through a state of daily maintenance; so it is, most likely with oil. Put another way, the TT is an evolving fellowship in which we have to learn to live a new way: sober, without oil. The word "sober" does not just mean neither drinking oil nor booze but it reflects a state of altered comprehension, where one no longer desires or needs these things. Hence the spiritual transformation that AA promise to those who work their way assiduously through its 12-steps, usually with the help of a "sponsor".

Since no-one has done the TT programme as yet there are no sponsors and we will have, though cooperation, to work it out for ourselves, probably drawing on past knowledge, and finding the old ways of running a society before the first oil-well was struck in Pennsylvania in 1859 (exactly 100 years before I was born). The first field in the Middle East was found in 1908, by an Englishman, an explorer by the name of George Reynolds.

(1) Set up a steering committee and design its demise from the outset (now the latter is a lovely touch!).
(2) Awareness raising (yes like the AA programme, admitting we have a problem).
(3) Lay the foundations.
(4) Organise a great unleashing (i.e. set some plans and timescales).
(5) Form sub-groups (now this means potential action!).
(6) Use open-space (yes, if you look around there is more than we might think even in densely populated and built-up regions like the south east of England).
(7) Develop viable practical manifestations of the project (spot-on - real action afoot!).
(8) Facilitate the great reskilling (more difficult, but it may simply be learning woodwork, how to grow food, to cook and other practical arts, which have been long-lost since WWII and the plentiful appearance of cheap oil and transportation).
(9) Build a bridge to local government (yes, I'm working on that one now!).
(10) Honour the elders (yes, because they can still remember those lost arts alluded to in Step 8).
(11) Let it go where it wants to go (now since this is not about the market forces the mess we are in now has been excused by, I agree - the Higher Power knows best!).
(12) Create an energy-descent plan (this speaks for itself and is really the conclusion and purpose of the whole of the programme)... and then (AA "paraphrased": having undergone a spiritual conversion as a result of these steps, to carry the message to others that they can sort themselves out too).

As Ghandi said: "Be the change which you wish to see in the world."

Related Reading.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

World Lithium Supplies.

If electric vehicles or their analogous plug-in-electric hybrid vehicles (PHEV) are to become widespread in the face of a lack of cheap oil, some source of battery technology will be necessary to carry the charge to run them. I wrote an article a couple of years ago "Electric Vehicles and World Lithium Supply", October 13, 2006) in which I concluded there was insufficient lithium to fabricate an equivalent of 500 million cars, as was then estimated to be on the roads worldwide, by PHEV's. This was based on the assumption that the world stock of lithium was around 5 million tonnes and that it would take 9 million tonnes to make 500 million PHEV's. For all-electric cars, the situation is worse since they each take four times the amount of lithium that a PHEV would. I did also refer to other kinds of battery technology which use materials that are known to be more abundant.

However, the amount of lithium in the world has now been called into question, and one analyst thinks there is much more of it available [1], mostly based in Chile's Atacama desert, amounting to an economically recoverable total of 28.4 million tonnes. Clearly that would be plenty: enough for 1.58 billion PHEV cars or almost 400 million fully electric vehicles, so the physical amount of lithium is not a problem. There are also sources of lithium in the Andes and in Tibet, along with hectorite (a lithium containing clay) and oil-field brines that contain lithium, albeit more expensive to extract than the mountain-sources, and the material should be recycleable, so for example a direct comparison with the oil the technology is intended to replace is not strictly justified.

The issue is not without contention, however, since another author [2] concludes there are 6.2 million tonnes in reserves of lithium and its reserve base is 13.4 million tonnes.

In my opinion, if all sources of lithium are worked-out there is probably enough of it to go round to make 600 million cars, as there are now. It should be noted that there is an increasing demand for the metal to go into laptop computers and mobile phones, and it is anyone's guess what that total demand might amount to.

However, the latter devices are made out of oil too, and with current roaring prices which I do not expect to fall, along with a near and eventual shortage of oil, I see another limiting factor - raw materials to make plastics from and the lack of money in people's pockets rather than of lithium.

60 million new cars are put on the roads each year and if they were made as PHEV's which might take 18 kg of lithium each, we would need an annual production of 1.08 million tonnes of it. This is around 54 times the present output of lithium (20,000 tonnes), and so that production capacity (mining and processing) would need to be installed (a considerable task). If it could be done, we would be "there" within 10 years. However, will there be enough energy to do the job, and what will these cars actually cost.

Given that I see financial distress for many in the West the car may well be seen as a luxury and by default, we will set-aside our travelling lifestyles in the difficult oil dearth years ahead of us. We don't have 10 years in which to begin reducing oil consumption: we need to do that now. If only we had begun 10 years ago we would have saved massive amounts of oil, and be facing-off a future gap in the supply/demand conundrum, with time in hand. We didn't though, but permitted the market-forces to prevail. The present number of cars replaced by fully-electric vehicles will take 40 years to produce, and again against the backdrop of an energy crunch.

Another potential strife is that some kinds of lithium battery contain a phosphate component and I have discussed recently that there are likely to be problems with mining a finite source of rock phosphate which is mainly used for agriculture. As a rough estimate, assuming one phosphate anion per lithium cation in a lithium-iron-phosphate battery (the strongest contender for EV's) 600 million cars would need around 148 million tonnes of phosphate or about 15 million tonnes a year assuming we could equal the world annual total of 60 million new cars annually. That is to be compared with the total phosphate mined for food production of about 140 million tonnes, and so we would need to sacrifice a good 10% of that, while a hungry population rises.

It isn't going to happen, and to conclude once more, car use will be curbed by a combination of factors, with all that implies for civilization.

Related Reading.
[1] "Peak Lithium." By Bill Moore.
[2] "The Trouble with Lithium." ByWilliam Tahil.


23 May 2008.

Dear Chris,

I don't know what you do but I enjoy your comments, you have obviously been doing a bit of thinking about this problem. Personally I think that we have been too obsessed with the concept of markets. Let the market rip and it will cure all problems. It has been obvious for the last 20 years that we were heading for a energy catastrophe (acute shortage). America has always be a slave too the market and Maggie has slavishly followed.

One of the sayings that used to be said many years ago was what is good for General Motors is good for America. I have watched how General Motors have shot themselves in the head and
America in the foot. I don't know if you have seen the video of Who killed the Electric car, it is extremely fascinating. There is no real smoking gun just circumstantial evidence. You wouldn't get a conviction in court lets put it that way. But if you know how short term most American industry is it is easy to work it out. The American motor industry was forced to go for an electric car because of Californian pollution regulations. Ford bought THINK a Norwegian firm which made electric cars spent millions developed a crash tested electric vehicle with a rather limited range and then sold the firm when the pollution regulations in California somehow got rescinded.
G.M. built EV1 did exactly the same called in all the models that were leased and crushed them with a few exceptions, which ended up in a couple of museums I think. It doesn't make any difference. Now it is easy to see why they did it.

The massive Hummers and gas squandering top of the range models had a higher profit margin, the more you sold of them the more money you made which meant that the share prices were
higher and as the top management usually received a bonus if the share prices were high it was in there interest to pursue this type of sales. By going for short term profits they have squandered the chance of long term viability. I can see the time in the not too distant future when Think could be buying the remnants of ford motor company.

I have great difficulty blaming the large motor corporations. If I was in the position of General manager of one of the large corporations such as G.M. I would find it very difficult to go against the flow and sacrifice short term profits to invest in producing a product line in 10 years that would be a world leader, very high mileage, High quality, cheap, good performance, etc. etc. unfortunately they have lost about a 10 years lead and are now going to be thrashed.

The other problem is of cause breaking out of the mental box,basically mentally retooling which is almost as difficult as retooling a new assemble line.

Now I have just retired. 50 years ago I started as a 15 year old working in the mines in Midlands and in Yorkshire. I finished school the week I reached 15 and went down the mines the following Monday. Things were a bit different then. I took an apprenticeship as an electrical engineer. Dam good apprenticeship too may I say. Mainly hands on, but plenty of theory, none of your wishy washy shit you get dolled out now, if you couldn't scrap a bearing, rewire a motor or work out the size of cables to carry the load to certain districts you didn't need to come to work. So I think I know what I am talking about

Now I would like to suggest a few things that should have been put in place years ago and would have saved us so much pain and money.

It takes about 20 to 15 Hp to keep even a large motor car cruising at about 70 miles per hour. I don't know what a modern motor produces, but I would not see any difficulty in getting at least 20 hp from a 400cc motor most of the rest of the modern motor car motor is used to get you up to that speed in as shorter time as possible, the larger the motor the shorter the time and the more energy you use. What I am suggesting is that you couple the 20 hp motor too a flywheel. Switch on your engine and wait a couple of minutes until the flywheel is up to speed. Modern Flywheels are beautiful machines. They are very simple robust and the maths is also very simple. I put in 20 hp for 50 seconds and I can get out 100 hp in 10seconds. Now that shouldn't
cause much trouble to get up to cruising speed with modern lightweight bodies. The nice thing about the system is that you can use the flywheel for regenerative braking. None of that energy used to slow you down being transformed into heat during braking, that should increase mileage.

Now comes another suggestion. One of the big fallacies is that petrol burns. I was taught from early on that petrol never burns what burns is petrol vapour. Petrol has to go through a phase change before you can burn it. The problem with modern carburettors is that don't vaporise petrol they only atomize it. What is needed is a carburettor that vaporises the petrol. It is certainly not difficult to vaporise petrol spray it on the exhaust pipe. Is it beyond our imagination to run the exhaust pipe through the carburettor to do this.

Another thing that might interest you that always interested me. I was for many years a member of the mines rescue brigade. One the the interesting things I learned was that if I used a miners safety lamp in a methane atmosphere nothing happened, but if I used it in an atmosphere of Hydrogen then I would cause an explosion. It seems that the problem with Hydrogen was the flame speed propagation. The flame spread so swiftly that the gauze in a miners safety lamp didn't have time to cool the flame down. Add hydrogen to the carburettor and you will certainly give the mixture a better burn, with less pollutants.

Mind you these sort of things should have been done 30 years ago but we refused to think and used that panacea that all good conservatives use to stop themselves thinking the market always knows best. If we had done this or something similar, we would have had a fleet of vehicles with at least double the mileage which would have meant we would have halved our oil imports.

What did you say the price of a barrel of oil is now $135 most of that
is nothing more than a stupidity tax.

Deep Regards


Dear David,

I am with you all the way regarding "Market Forces", Maggie/Ronald and all that went on then.

Me, I left school at 16 with hardly any qualifications. I then worked as a technician in the pharmaceutical industry (Beechams, which no longer exists). I studied part time at what was Croydon Technical College and got the ONC and HNC.

I was then persuaded by my boss (an ex-Cambridge man who missed-out on getting a permanent university job because they were all taken by the end of the '70's; generally by protégés of the great and the good - some without any formal interview! It would be illegal these days.) to go to university. I did and studied chemistry; I got a good degree and then did a Ph.D (D.Phil, in fact, as they call them at Sussex University - they also awarded me a D.Sc in 2003) in physical-organic chemistry... well the long and the short of it is that I became a university professor in physical chemistry when I was 34. However, due to the maxims of "inclusiveness" and "education, education, education" (oh yes and the cash - bums on seats funding) the formerly great British university (and polytechnic) system has now been ruined.

In some of the new universities (ex-polytechnics which were fine institutions that trained the workforce for industry - where did that go... yes, we know don't we?!) there are "professors" with no published work or research experience in the subject they are supposed to be professor of... well there are many such disgraces, and in the end, 5 years ago, I thought bugger this and set-up as an independent consultant. I advise industry on keeping its pollution levels down; I also do some work on radiation effects on satellite components and work with engineers (I work out the chemistry and they build the stuff).

I am also a writer now - I have my first book of poems with a publisher and an offer from another publisher for my novel which is called "University Shambles" - a black comedy along the lines I have described.

I'm 50 next year and I wonder what kind of a year that will be for the world.

Interesting that petrol is atomised, not converted to vapour (gas) form. Now that does strike me as a huge waste of fuel potentially. But you smell the raw fuel from an engine don't you - before it's had time to warm-up, I mean? I know there is only about 12% well-to-miles efficiency got from a spark-ignition engine (maybe twice that under favourable circumstances from a diesel engine).

Yes, you are right about hydrogen and the matter of flame-propagation: it also has the greatest explosive mixture composition range with air than any other gas! Interesting to think that good old town-gas was about 51% hydrogen... and 21% carbon monoxide so people could "do themselves in" in the gas oven if they felt like it.

But what we will have in the future is heavy (diesel) fuel and so I think a retooling of manufacturers will be needed to convert to diesel engines as the sweet light crude oil runs-out. But what is the manufacturing capacity for that? I sincerely fear we have left it too late to implement any such changes on a comparable scale to current transport and simply we will go back to village life and the horse and cart.

Kindest regards too!


Friday, May 23, 2008

Running on Empty?

No, the world is not running on empty. There is plenty of oil left in the ground, but we are getting through it too fast. There is some debate about whether we have reached peak oil now or not, in view of the surge in the price of crude oil, but it doesn't really matter: supply is struggling to meet demand, even before we have reached that point of remorseless production depletion and so our lives are going to change profoundly and irreversibly. I have commented on this repeatedly, but the only reality I see is a partial relocalisation of society into smaller, independent communities supplied by their own farms and businesses. I am not fooled that there is some new technology just around the corner that is going to pull us out of the hole in terms of transportation fuel that geology, not politics has delivered us to.

In Britain there are angry calls for the government to cut the tax on fuel to get the price down to more manageable amounts, while the French are picketing oil-refineries (as happened in this country in 2000), and across the pond the car manufacturer, Ford, is preparing to reduce production of SUV's and concentrate on more fuel-efficient vehicles. The price of oil has increased day on day for 13 days, finding a record $135 for a barrel of light sweet crude. Only 5 months a go it reached $100 a barrel, a psychological watershed figure that it seemed would not be breached for a long time.

It seems there is no particular plan by any government for what to do about the oil-gap, which the Paris-based International Energy Agency has issued a downward revision of the oil-industry's capability to fill. There seems to be a state of denial - as though everyone is sticking their fingers in their ears and going "La - La - La- La" to drown out the noise of realities no one wishes to hear.

I read that unless demand in the US curbs its thirst for oil (which amounts to one quarter of the world's output for this highly car-dependent nation) and China does the same - unlikely in the white-heat midst of its industrial revolution - the gap is inevitable and incurable. Ms Clinton and Mr McCain have proposed a "fuel tax holiday" in the US this summer, and British lobbyists are urging the same kind of event over here. However, these actions merely obfuscate the simple fact that underpins the surging price of oil, and that is that supply can no longer keep up with demand.

There is some opinion that a global oil-shock would be a good thing. Meaning that this will force us to curb our dependency on fossil fuels. Well, it will do that all right, but without substitution by some other form of energy provision, noting that alternatives like hydrogen are a long way off if they will ever become a reality, while biofuels cannot match the quantity of petroleum we currently use, and their electrical counterparts in the form of electric cars and PHEV's would take many years to install, and to do so renewably, solar and other technologies would need to be implemented on an enormous scale too, an alternative way of living at an equivalent level of energy consumption is not obvious. Thus I can only see a powering-down of society and that does mean a relocalisation of society as part of a general focus on energy efficiency and to address the most immediate problem, specifically regarding oil. The oil-shocks of the 1970's did precipitate some focus on more efficient cars and many other ideas appeared on the drawing board. Sadly the resurgence of cheap oil on the markets caused much of this potential good to evaporate. We need this kind of thinking again and now for facts of geology not mere politics.

But does any government have a plan as to how this eventuality will be achieved? If the event is left to market forces to bring it about, I foresee extremely difficult times ahead both economically and socially.

Related Reading.
[1] "Is the world about to be running on empty?" By Stephen Foley.
[2] "Soaring oil prices are a warning that we need to change."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Oil Above $135 a barrel and Heathrow Expansion On-Hold.

The price of crude oil has reached a new record at $135.08 a barrel. It is amazing to think it was near $20 five or six years ago. The blame for this latest increase is placed on an unexpected drawdown in oil inventories coupled with a weaker dollar. US crude has increased in price by 20% since the beginning of the month with supply concerns making traders cautious about selling oil. Sam Bodman, the US Energy Secretary commented that these hitherto unknown oil prices are a fair reflection of tight supplies and strong demand for oil globally, rather than the cost being artificially elevated by investors.

I don't see the situation getting any easier either in terms of supply or demand, and the $150 barrel by the end of 2008 that I reckoned both recently and a couple of years ago seems very likely. Goldman Sachs have said that oil will top $200 a barrel by the end of 2010, but my own feeling it it will get there by the end of 2009.

Meanwhile, advisers to the UK government have recommended that the expansion of Heathrow and Stansted Airports should be put on hold for years, such is the controversy attending such actions. There are plans to build a third runway at Heathrow and potentially a sixth terminal, which has alarmed environmentalists. It is thought that there may not be a firm decision made until 2011.

Now this is an interesting coincidence, namely that some analysts estimate the arrival of peak oil by exactly then. I have said so before, but I simply don't understand why in the face of an alleged determination to cut CO2 emissions there is even the glimmer of an idea that the number of flights should be tripled by 2030. What will anyone put into the planes by way of fuel by then, anyway?

More likely there will be the economic brake of rising fuel costs and airport taxes which will act to constrain air-travel, the budget carriers will go out of business and there will be a huge downturn on tourism. This will be especially tough on countries e.g. the Czech Republic whose economy has grown well on cheap tourism. I read the other day that Prague is now the sex-tourism capital of Europe, having taken-over from Amsterdam.

I also noted a news-item this morning that the price of food is expected to increase at twice the rate of inflation year on year for the next ten years, but who knows really? It does seem clear that prices in general even of basic items like food and fuel are going to rise remorselessly and people will begun to hang onto their cash. The upshot of that will be a knock-on effect to the service sector, with people being laid-off there, less circulating money and taxes available and a downward economic spiral.

The Governor of the Bank of England commented last week that "The nice decade was over", and I'm sure he is right.

Related Reading.
[1] "Delay Heathrow airport expansion, say government advisers." By Andy Bloxham.,-say-Government-advisers.html
[2] "Oil hits record to surpass $135 a barrel. Reuters.
[3] Mervyn King: Bank of England has no room to maneuver."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

British Airways to Cut Flights by a Half.

Now here's one we've touched on before - that matter of how on earth is the airline industry going to expand its number of flights three-fold by 2030, in the face of peak oil. What exactly are they going to put into the planes by way of fuel? We have the third runway at Heathrow Airport under discussion, and Terminal Five in actuality - but for how much longer will these ventures serve purpose?

Confirmation of the latter conundrum is now exhibited by a recent analysis to the effect that British Airways (BA not AA) are now scheduled to slash their number of flights by a half. BA has made a designed cut of the price of its transatlantic flights, which now amount to a mere £249 to fly from London to New York. Nor bad: perhaps I will make that trip to the US, as suggested over there, to promote my novel, which has just been accepted by a publisher. It is an acerbic black comedy entitled "University Shambles" based around the disintegration of the British University system, which I gladly abandoned to set up my own consulting business 5 years ago, which has done pretty well, all things considered.

"It is a bloodbath", so one airline industry senior has allegedly said, in reference to the squabble among airlines who are now vying among themselves to offer the cheapest flights. It is, of course, the price of fuel that currently is responsible for this trend and inevitably will be the determining factor in the future too. If the cost of oil persists at above $120 a barrel (and I see no alternative to this, working on the basis that its elevated price is a consequence of it being harder and more exacting to pull the stuff out of the ground, and to refine high-sulphur "sour" crude) then BA is expected to lose its profits this year. A real headache indeed, but no surprise really.

I keep hoping that peak oil is a big hoax, as some conspiracy theorists claim, probably in the addicted denial of the cataclysmic change in the Western way of life that is imminent, but increasingly the evidence is in support of a rapidly consigning "Oil Dearth Era".

Interestingly, Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines, among other of his many and successful enterprises) is now endorsing an imminent $200 price tag on a barrel of oil, and this will hit his businesses too - both air and rail-borne. Sir Richard reckons this will come by 2010, and I predict it will be with us by the end of next year (2009). Virgin Atlantic's fuel bill has increased by 70% in the past year.

Related reading.
[1] "British Airways will ground part of its fleet over rising fuel cost." By Dominic O'Connell.
[2] Sir Richard Branson: $200 oil on way.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Oil in Them There Hills - Sussex that is!

I attended the University of Sussex, which is located about half way between Brighton and Lewis, and on the edge of the Sussex Downs. Now, I see that desperation and oil prices have risen to the extent that companies are set to drill for oil there. In my day: 1979 - 1982 for my undergraduate degree (in Chemistry) and 1982 - 1985 for my D.Phil (that's Ph.D in all but name, but Sussex being unofficially entitled as "Balliol by the Sea" retained the Oxford tradition of thus describing its doctorates), there were no oil-rigs in Sussex, and nor, in that flush age of North Sea oil, would anyone have dreamed there could be.

However, it is now reckoned that up to 200 communities have oil reserves underneath their feet, which prospectors say could be worth "billions". 54 different companies have submitted 60 applications to the government to explore 182 oil "plots". The issue is sensitive, as many of these locations are villages and hamlets which are lovely, tranquil and "English" in the spirit of St. George's day which we are not allowed for some inexplicable reason to celebrate, although we do thoroughly acknowledge St. Patrick's Day, the Scots St. Andrew's Day and when I was a small boy in South Wales, we had a half day off from school in honour of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. Quite right too.

Interestingly, in this village of Caversham where I now live, we do celebrate St. George and on the 23rd of April (2 days after my Birthday, the 21st, which is the same as Her Majesty the Queen) many houses, pubs and local businesses sport the red-cross on the white background flag, which is our tradition in England. For its many historical culpabilities, England has much to be proud of, having produced some of the greatest scientists, engineers, inventors, writers and other artists the world has ever seen. We also stood up against fascism and abolished slavery. Sadly, we have always been rather poor at developing our talent into a commercial consequence, and it is often other countries that have put up the cash to do so, especially the US, a nation that is to be admired for its deliberateness in all enterprises.

According to one estimate, there may be 200 million barrels of oil under the south of England, which would be worth £13 billion, assuming a $128 barrel. If as expected by Goldman Sachs and in my humble opinion too, the price of oil reaches that diminishingly illusive $200 price, we are talking about a grand reserve of £20 billion. It may be a while before Northern petroleum begins its operations in Markwell Woods, but locals are already forming opposing ranks to the eyesore and disruption of civil local English woodland/village life, to this, the first onshore drilling programme in the UK.

The Woodland Trust has called the idea "an act of vandalism", and it would hardly be the first such act upon this soil, but this represents the destruction of around one hectare of ancient woodland, which is the choicest habitat for British wildlife. The Trust rates this as being equivalent to the destruction of the rainforests. It isn't, in terms of controlling CO2 emissions, but I think it would be a rather sad compromise, and yet the world including the United Kingdom is desperate for oil. To place the "find" in context, 200 million barrels of oil is about enough to fuel British transportation for about 6 months... followed by a return to those village communities we would have destroyed in the pursuit of it. Perhaps it might be better to focus on the inevitability of a return to the small community without the intermediary mayhem.

Related Reading.
"Search for black gold is sweeping the country." By Valerie Elliott.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oil Companies Hit by Rising Costs.

CERA, the Cambridge Energy Research Associates, has published a report showing that the costs of capital equipment, ranging from refinery parts to oil-rigs and platforms, has in some cases doubled since 2005. The escalating fuel prices and according huge profits reported by Shell and BP - a total of around $7 billion in the past year - have caused anger among drivers and haulage company proprietors, and yet it seems that some of the apparently generous returns will need to be fed-back into the business to maintain oil and fuel production and to develop new potential oil-fields. Meanwhile, in Russia lurks the spectre of lack of investment, and the oil-companies there are calling for tax-breaks which will encourage the development of the Russian oil-industry.

Major new projects are being put on-hold by their cost-burden, and this may well impact on oil-production across the world and thus on the price of oil, which is now edging toward $130 a barrel. The chairman of CERA, Daniel Yergin, is quoted as saying that production costs are a significant factor in driving-up the price of oil, and a shortage of skilled workers has resulted in rising salary costs too, all of which must be borne by the industry and hence passed-on to the consumer.

The British economy is in a pretty pickle, by the looks of things. The price of basics, particularly food and fuel increases relentlessly, and a U-turn on the 10% tax-rate has cost the government almost £3 billion. I watched an item on the news yesterday evening to the effect that the total amount of money being borrowed by the Chancellor, Mr Darling, is around 38% of the national GDP, a mere 2% shy of the 40% watershed which Mr Brown has pledged not to break.

The price of petroleum products at the "factory gate" has increased by 25% during the past 12 months and the price of fuel "at the pump" has risen by 2.7% per month. As I have commented before, it is an intriguing coincidence that in terms of the numbers, the price of a barrel of oil in $ is about the same as that of a litre of diesel in £, i.e close to $127 and £1.27, respectively.

To compound the price of fuel, there is a shortage in refinery capacity across Europe, due in part to the recent strike at the Scottish Grangemouth facility, along with a serious fire at a refinery in Finland. Goldman Sachs commented last week that we are due for a "super-spike" in the price of oil to $200 a barrel as producers become unable to maintain pace with "blistering demand" from China and the Middle East.

There is a huge contrast in the price of fuel between the UK and the US (which works out to around $8 and $4 respectively for a US gallon), and this reflects directly the tax differential imposed between the two nations. In Britain around 70% of what is paid at the pump ends up in the government's coffers in the form of fuel-duty and VAT. It is reckoned that the average British driver pays £900 a year in fuel-duty.

However, I doubt the government will reduce fuel-taxes despite the pain to motorists' pockets, since it has to get its money from taxes generally to support the economy, banks, welfare system including the NHS, and keep the country stable. Thus we can all simply expect to pay more and more for everything, leading to an eventual destabilisation of society.

Related Reading.
[1] "Petrol prices set to rise as refineries struggle." By James Kirkup.
[2] "Oil companies struggle with spiralling costs." By Robin Pagnamenta.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Peak Oil = End of Cheap Oil.

"Peak Oil" does not mean that oil is "running out" but that cheap, plentiful oil is. The bottom of the well is not in sight. We will be able to extract crude oil for decades, but the depletion of existing wells, the necessity to make explorations in increasingly inhospitable regions of the world, e.g. in deep-sea locations - drilling through miles of water, rock and salt - and in the Arctic, does mean that oil will be forever an expensive, and scarcer commodity. The Antarctic thus far remains sacrosanct, but resource pressure may change this particular status quo of environmental conscience.

It is claimed that making synthetic oil from coal (CTL) would be much cheaper than drilling for crude, but that axiom needs to be measured against the sheer quantity of engineering required to do the job on a petroleum-equivalent scale and other resources, including water, and probably natural gas, and the potential environmental consequences of mining and processing coal, and that coal based fuel overall results in the release of far more CO2 than does the oil-based product it is aimed to replace. In any event, it cannot be done quickly enough that one can simply be switched for another, meaning that overall production must still fall, let alone there being any excess capacity of CTL to maintain growth.

Put another way, peak oil tells us that the earth's hydrocarbon resources are precious, and the end of their production growth is nigh. What can be recovered in the future, by whatever technology, even some claims that I cannot find much detail for (not surprisingly given the significance of them if they are true) that CO2 can be reduced into hydrocarbons, cannot be done cheaply, I am sure. A recent article [1] neatly and succinctly speaks of "future flow rates" for oil, that "peak oil" = "peak flow". In accord with the Hubbert analysis, once the half-way point is reached, the "flow" or production of oil will thenceforth decline. Hubbert's peak does not tell the whole story about future oil production, but refers specifically to the kind of cheap oil the world is built upon, and probably many Hubbert curves could be drawn to describe the production/depletion of the more intractable kinds of oil e.g. from the Middle East wells beyond their peak, oil from tar-sands, from shale or from the Venezuelan Ultra-heavy oil - a specific curve for every case.

The upshot is there will be less oil to be apportioned among a growing number of consumers. A paradigm shift in consciousness about how we live our lives might reduce demand (and must), but only if harsh economics first tilts that awareness by increasing the cost of fuel, food and all else in this oil-underpinned world, so that the bulk of consumers begin to economise - or become extremely poor and have no choice but to use less.

[1] "Peak Oil: 'It's the flows, stupid!'" By Steve Andrews and Randy Udall.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Coal is Dirtier than Gas.

There is much discussion currently concerning the relative merits of coal or natural gas as a fuel. It is debatable just how much extractable coal is in the earth, and there are estimates ranging from10 trillion tonnes down to around 0.5 trillion tonnes. To put this into perspective it is thought there is around 1 trillion barrels of readily extractable crude oil, or around 0.15 trillion tonnes, and a comparable amount of natural gas that will be recovered. Coal, then still looks like a good bet in terms of its quantity.

The heat of combustion of methane (which is what natural gas is mostly) is 891 kJ/mol, which amounts to 1 x 10^6 (g/tonne)/16 (g/mol) x 891 x 10^3 = 55.69 GJ/tonne. This can be compared with around 28 GJ/tonne for coal (the figure varies according to the nature of the coal, but this is a fair estimate).

When methane burns the process can be expressed as: CH4 + 2O2 --> CO2 + 2H2O

and for coal (being largely carbon) as: C + O2 --> CO2

Thus each tonne of methane yields 44/16 = 2.75 tonnes of CO2, while each tonne of coal yields 44/12 = 3.67 tonnes of CO2.

But since less heat is obtained per tonne of coal than per tonne of methane, we need to burn more coal to get the same amount of heat from it, and so a relative CO2 yield per unit of heat can be derived:

3.67/2.75 x 55.69 GJ/tonne/28 GJ/tonne = 2.65, or over two and a half times as much.

Either way, using natural gas or coal, produces a lot of CO2. For example, a typical 1 GW power plant burns 3 million tonnes of coal per year or half that amount of natural gas, and produces around 11 million or 4 million tonnes of CO2, respectively. For oil-fired stations (which exist mostly in Asia but are being phased-out and converted to coal), approximate thermal values of 42 GJ/tonne are often quoted, and there are some at 45 GJ/tonne, depending on the exact nature of the oil. For comparison, a value may be obtained for n-octane (a reasonable model for oil-based refined fuel) of 47.87 GJ/tonne.

We burn around 7 billion tonnes of "carbon" annually, which ends-up as 26 billion tonnes of CO2 - of which only about half is removed by natural processes, including photosynthesis. Thus the atmospheric concentration of the gas can only increase, unless we were to reduce fossil fuel use by around 50%.

People talk much about renewables, since they are ideally sustainable and non-polluting. i.e. They don't consume irreplaceable reserves like coal and gas and oil, or contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions, but matching the amount of them that we get through to sustain our current quality of life, by renewables is a long way off, if it can be done at all. Localised energy production, e.g. through CHP and micro-hydro generation might come some way to providing for relatively small communities, if the dearth of oil and hence transportation fuel forces civilization to take this course, but generating enough electricity to run power utilities on the scale of conventional power stations and the national grid will prove extremely challenging.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Blight on Wheat... all we need!

We are aware of world food crises, but now it appears that a new (but historically recognised) infection is on its way to kill-off wheat-crops, and that is about all we need. A recent analysis predicts that by 2024, the world population will "peak" at 7.1 billion (from 6.7 billion now) and then decline to around 2.5 billion by 2100. This "new" infliction goes back to the Romans, and is called "black stem rust" because that's what it looks like, and it hit the North American breadbasket in 1954 - eradicating 40% of the nation's wheat crop - and during the cold-war between the US/West and the USSR, both sides of the argument stockpiled stem rust spores as a biological weapon against the other.

The Romans used to pray to a stem rust God, called Robigus, and the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Norman Borlaug told the New Scientist magazine recently that Ug99, which appeared in Kenya in 2002, is due for a reappearance in consequence of complacency - TB in humans is similarly blamed for its recent resurgence. As is the case with most research, a lack of funding is blamed, and yet when I see what the various research councils are spending their money on - matched against the backdrop of oil-depletion, and the energy-crunch, I do wonder if we have our priorities arse-about-face.

Borlaug came to fame fifty years ago, and at 93, he is focussing on the long-game. He commented that because travel has vastly increased during the past 40 years, there is the concomitant opportunity and likelihood that Ug99 spores might be accidentally spread around the world, rather than erupting in isolated pockets. This is true indeed of all kinds of infection, as one might envisage. He further suggests that the responsible genes might be located undetected in other grains and grasses, for example rice, which is facing a shortage and an accordingly elevated price, with detrimental consequences for half the world's population who depend on it as a staple food.

Borlaug concludes: "We have to rely on fungicides, wheat breeding (to secure invulnerable strains, temporarily at least) and luck!" Yes, we are going to need some of the latter, along with strategic planning to get through the Oil-Dearth Era.

Related Reading.
"Billions at risk from wheat super-blight." By Deborah Mackenzie.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Oil at $122 and Predicted to Reach $200 - Deja Vu.

Friday, September 01, 2006

$200 a Barrel Forecast for Peak Oil!

Prompted by this morning's news item to the effect that the price of crude oil has risen above $122, my memory latched back to a previous posting of almost two years ago, as noted above. At that time the price was around $70 and the benchmark $100 was a figure that most thought was still a long way off. Accordingly, the estimate of $200 did seem alarmist. I also wrote an article "Hubbert Peak Oil" (Friday, October 26th, 2007) in which I aver that the cost of everything, driven by the underpinning price of oil, will double, and that once peak oil is reached, judging from the $100 figure as pertained at that time, this would correspond to the new magic "ceiling" of $200. Lord Oxburgh made a prediction at around the same time of a $150 barrel, and this now seems inevitable.

Guided mostly by hunch and more roughly by curves of oil production and depletion, I predict that the price of oil will reach $150 by the end of this year (2008) and $200 by the end of 2009, by when the world will be a considerably more fractious place with supply being increasingly stretched to meet rising demand; a tug-of-war contest the latter must ultimately lose.

The latest hike in oil price is blamed on supply troubles in Nigeria and a slow-down in Russia. Arjun Murti, an analyst for Goldman Sachs, noted that while Western nations are discussing the necessity to reduce oil consumption, and that of energy more generally, the excess production that is necessary to cool the oil-market is not evident. He said: "though predicting the ultimate peak in oil prices, as well as the remaining duration of the upcycle, remains a major uncertainty... a multi-year decline in global oil demand is needed in order to create a spare capacity cushion and bring about potentially lower energy commodity prices."

Fair enough, but this is an economist talking while the underlying problem is one of geology. There was only so much oil in the ground to begin with and we are getting through it too quickly. Mr Murti reckoned that the oil price could hit $150 - $200 within 24 months, which is about my prediction too. The OPEC member nations are now producing oil at near full-capacity, the increase in production in Russia is slowing and that from Mexico is in decline. Nonetheless, demand from markets such as China climbs relentlessly.

I suspect that the world production of oil is pretty much at the plateau of maximum output -" peak oil" if you will - and that soon, economics must give-way to geology.

Related Reading.
"Goldman predicts crude prices will 'super-spike' to $200 per barrel." By Stephen Foley:

Monday, May 05, 2008


I get quite a lot of interesting correspondence about the subjects in this blog of which the letter posted following my reply, next, is a fine example.

Dear David,

many thanks for your interesting and supportive message! The blog is just me thinking out-loud really, and trying to find some solutions to the energy-crunch, but also to recognise the scale of the problem and the relative impact that can be made by e.g. biofuels etc. and the likelihood (or not) of the hydrogen economy etc.

I have also tried to keep optimistic rather than a "Kunstler" scenario where we disappear into the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel or the wild-West as he is an American.

When I talk about a relocalisation of society I am not thinking of this scenario but a focus on local production of food etc. as far as possible to take pressure off transportation which must become a problem with the escalating price of oil and its inevitable scarcity.

I am reading quite an uplifting (if a bit idealistic) book called "The geography of hope" by Chris Turner, which does indeed focus on the "local" and also in the sense of revamping inner-city areas turning problems into positive outcomes.The "clever" Danes get quite a lot of coverage in this, and he focusses on their many ingenious and holistic energy solutions where one process or the waste from it feeds another - there is one lovely example where due to its geometry it is impossible to mow the grass around a power station using machinery... the solution: to graze a flock of sheep there who have no trouble at all getting to the grass!

I think that the sum total of many "solutions" made acting at the community level may go some considerable way to providing sustainable solutions. We can each of us do something and as there are getting on for 7 billion of us, maybe our number, which is thought of as the major source of the problems we face as a human species, might go some way to mitigating the worst aspects of them.

Turner is highly critical of architecture especially the grid-layout of most US cities, which he points-out is divisive, by which I mean in one place there is just accommodation, no shops, no other businesses or other amenities, and a necessity to drive everywhere. He cites European models, e.g Heidelberg (or Caversham where I live, for that matter) where everything is integrated. So we have houses within 5 minutes walk of all else that is required.

In the latter aspect, Kustler and Turner are in agreement, and indeed, in Caversham, beyond the village, are large "developments" with nothing there other than houses and so everyone has to drive down in to the village or into town (Reading) to buy what they need, go to leisure-centres etc. etc.

Thanks very much for your information which I think will make (unattributed or attributed as you wish) a useful article.

Kind regards,


On 4 May 2008 at 14:40, wrote:

Dear Mr. Rhodes,

I have been reading quiet a few of your articles and have quite enjoyed them. Some of the stuff is nothing more than rehashed from more than 30-40 years ago. The barrage across the Bristol Channel was on the drawing boards then. I think it got the Bums rush because it wasn't environmentally friendly silting up of Swansea harbour was one of the complaints if I remember correctly. It didn't stop the French though from going along with the Rance barrage which came on stream at about the same time if I remember correctly.

Here are a couple of other things to think about which might be of interest too you. During the oil crisis, I was living in Denmark and the oil shock got the wily Danes doing some heavy thinking. They have always been dependent on imported energy there was some small deposits of Brown coal over near Herning in Jutland, but they were worked out during the 40s and 50s. One of the things they did was to make the production of electricity tie in with the production of hot water to heat towns. Copenhagen has been for decades heated by two electrical generating stations Svanmollen and H.C. Osteds verks. The hot water generated during the production of electricity was pumped through insulated pipes round the city and tapped off to heat building complexes. The Danes also contemplated shipping hot water from Iceland where they have a surplus in the large tankers that were being then mothballed in the Norwegian fjords mooring them by the large coastal town and then pumping around the towns to keep them warm in winter.

What the Danes did do which has benefited them ever since was to set very high building standards with high insulation norms and also set in motion a large government research project in windmill technology of all places in the grounds of their Atomic research centre at Riso near Roskilde. This has continued uninterrupted supported by what ever party was in power and has given the Danes a lead in Alternative energy production. Denmark now accounts for 50% of all installed wind energy around the planet they are opening new factories around the world to take advantage of the boom and there expertise. This unfortunately is causing some complaining by the people around the factories as the transport of the large loads round the clock to the Docks is causing congestion on the the motorways. They now produce 20% of there electricity from wind power. They are very lucky as they can off load any excess onto Germany at one point during a storm several months ago they generated I think 70% of there electricity from wind. Not bad for a country without any resources apart from a stiff breeze.

We the Brits who live on an island made of coal and surrounded by a sea of oil and gas and a government obsessed with the concept that the market knows best, have to import most of our coal from Australia and fair amount of our oil from the middle east.

It doesn't take much or cost much to have an energy plan for self sufficiency. The trouble is that it usually tend to end up as a political football in Britain. I worked in the mines in northern
England and I watched while Attila the Hen [sic. Margaret Thatcher!] and her minions, who should be in prison as traitors. Wilfully destroy the energy base of the British Isles and don't believe the shit that they tell you that they can open the mines up quickly again. They can't, they can clear the shafts easily enough, but you can bet your life that the roads have filled up with water and most will have closed up under any circumstances. Let me just give you an example which you have certainly not thought about. Lots of coal seams have clay floors. These tend to throw, they well up and bow in the middle you can drive a road through solid ground make it twelve feet tall and in the space of a couple of months it has closed up to six feet by the clay welling up leave it a year and it is completely closed.

I worked on a coal face , we drove it not more than a mile before we had to close it down because the roads kept closing in, we had to abandon most of the equipment. Most of the coal that is left is several miles from the pit bottom and if the road have to made anew this will mainly have to be done by hand as it is difficult to automate. That will make it expensive and slow plus the price of building new infrastructure on the surface will be expensive if not prohibitive. The site of the old pit where I worked and know that there is 40 years of coal left in 3 unworked seams underground was sold off and is now what you call a logistical centre for some large firm, plus several small factories.

I would also like to thank you for your interesting articles. I tend to agree with what you have to say and only disagree in the detail but I think that the real solution to the energy problem will be even more esoteric than even blacklightpower and there are a few that are bobbing about just below the radar at this very moment.

Deep Regards...


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson, Fuel Prices and Peak Oil.

Ken Livingstone may have lost the London Mayoral election last night to Boris Johnson by 6% of the votes, but I note a legacy from him in terms of coming-clean about peak oil, which I had not heard any politician do hitherto. This was in a statement made at an environmental hustings earlier in the run-up to the election. When David Strahan from Global Public Media asked him what he would do to protect London from the impact of peak oil he replied: "I don't see this as a threat. I see it as an opportunity... [which] may be the only way that we face-up to having to reduce our energy-consumption".

He continued: "Almost every government on the planet is too cowardly to tell its people how much they should pay for energy, [but when peak oil brings escalating prices] we'll know the real cost of putting oil in the tank of our car, and we will scale down our energy consumption to cope with that".

I couldn't agree more, but a golden-age is unlikely to be the immediate consequence. When peak oil does bite, and I think we are seeing the onset of this now, the price of oil will increase to an unforeseeable level from its current $120 dollars a barrel (some analysts are talking about $200 but it's really unpredictable). However, policies or suggestions of how exactly oil will be replaced in practical terms were not offered by any of the three final Mayoral candidates, other than the usual references to "renewables", e.g wind, solar, hydroelectric and carbon capture (i.e. to make coal-fuelled power cleaner). It should be noted that none of these means address directly Transportation, which is the major end-user of oil.

There was support for Combined Heating and Power (CHP) from all three voices, but exactly how sustainable this is depends on the fuel used. On a smaller scale, these units can be run on wood-chips, but to fuel a city the size of London, natural gas is the more likely source, and there is much speculation about European supplies of gas over the next decade. Recently Ukraine froze when Russia cut its gas-supplies by 50% over money apparently owed, and even acknowledging the much greater efficiency of CHP which can yield substantial economy in both fuel consumption and hence CO2 emissions, such a strategy would be vulnerable to the vagaries of gas provision in the wider context.

Probably it is dangerous to rely too much on any single source of energy. The biggest issue over peak oil in this country and the rest of the world is how to keep transportation running if oil-based fuels become crushingly expensive and indeed in limited supply over the next decade. Even the CEO of Shell recently commented that there would be a gap in supply and demand for oil by 2015, i.e. not later than this, and many estimates are closer to 2011/2012, i.e. in 3 years or so. For a city like London, public transport is vital and Ken's controversial congestion-charges have reduced car-use to some extent. This and the rising cost of fuel is particularly tough on road-haulage, and I note that the dollar price of oil per barrel is almost numerically the same as the cost per pence of diesel per litre, i.e. around $120 and £1.20 respectively.

Providing biofuels on a comparable scale to those distilled from crude oil is not really an option, because there is only so much arable (crop-) land available and if we grew no food at all we could still match less than half the amount of fuel the UK gets through annually. It is a logical consequence then that the number of vehicles on the roads will fall drastically and the likely scenario is a relocalisation of society into communities of reduced population, but the deconvolution of a conurbation the size of London with 8 million or so people living there, is not an obviously manageable process.

Providing electrified transport, eg. trams, as are used extensively and with great efficiency in other European cities - Prague is a good example - might be one solution to keeping London moving, and I suspect such an undertaking ought to begin around now if it is likely to succeed in time to meet the peak oil energy crash - the "Oil Dearth Era", as I have referred to it.

Boris Johnson suggested extracting geothermal energy from the great underground holes moled-out for the cross-rail transport project which could match the output of a typical power station, i.e. around 1 Gigawatt (1,000 Megawatts), but it would not be trivial to use this as a means to run transportation (e.g. to make hydrogen, for which there is no existing infrastructure); however, it might feed electricity into the national grid to power trains both overground and underground and a putative tram-system.

Either way, for London, this is now Mr Johnson's problem while Mr Livingstone writes his memoirs.

Related Reading.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Brazil - The New Saudi?

While the oil-fields off Brazil may hold oil in a quantity only beaten by two larger reservoirs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, getting it out of the ground may prove extremely difficult. The latest find is called Carioca, in the Santos Basin, 170 miles offshore, and follows the Tupi field, whose reserves are confirmed at 5 - 8 billion barrels. It is thought that Carioca may contain 33 billion barrels of oil and gas, and if this figure is confirmed it will represent the greatest discovery for 32 years. Among much enthusiasm and speculation, it should be noted that 33 billion barrels is about what the world gets through in terms of oil in a year.

Brazil is now the eighth largest consumer of oil in the world, and last year it became self-sufficient in oil production, largely from the state-oil company, Petrobras, exploiting the country's offshore reserves. If these major new reserves can be tapped, then Brazil will become a major oil-exporter since most of its own transportation is run on cheaper ethanol made locally from sugar-cane. It is a big "if", however.

Brazilian expertise in drilling at depths of over 2,000 metres is relatively recent, and to get at Carioca, Tupi and the giant gas-field, Jupiter, it will be necessary to drill down to a combined depth of up to 10,000 meters (6 miles), going through layers of rock and sand, followed by a layer of salt that might be 1.3 miles thick. Under these conditions, the pressure is in excess of 1,000 times atmospheric pressure (almost 8 tonnes per square inch), enough as has been noted, to "crush a pickup truck". The temperatures are high too, at above 260 degrees C (500 degrees Fahrenheit).

In getting the oil out of the reservoirs, engineers will need to cope with the sudden drop in temperature from that hot enough to melt bismuth (used to transport uranium fuel rods) to near freezing-point at the ocean floor, with a likely concomitant and manifold increase in viscosity. The salt-layer under such conditions of pressure and temperature also exhibits some degree of plastic flow, meaning that there is a tendency for holes drilled through it to spontaneously close-up again.

The technological development and investment is presently prohibitive, but with oil at around $120 a barrel and almost certainly set to rise, some think to $200 within a year or so, the incentive increases commensurately.

Related Reading.
[1] "In Brazil, Another Gusher", By Joshua Schneyer:
[2] "Brazil Oil Trapped by 500-Degree Heat, salt Barrier (Update 2)", By Joe Carroll.