Monday, June 23, 2008

News Round-up.

Other than mention that today is the first day of Wimbledon, the B.B.C. news [1] this morning was filled with items about fuel - both oil and gas. Gordon Brown has visited Saudi, along with other energy leaders, to ask for an increase in production from this, the world's majority oil-producer. He also asked that Saudi and other major oil-producing nations invest in British renewable energy, which includes nuclear, that they may reap a harvest from in the coming oil-dearth era. Presumably this also defrays Britain's own outlay costs to build a future based on "renewable resources". It always puzzles me that nuclear power is counted among the cast of renewable resources since it depends on uranium as a fuel, which is surely in finite supply, and only through breeder-reactor technology using either uranium or thorium, or mining poorer streams of uranium "ore" can the world's nuclear fuel last for hundreds of years, rather than running-out in less than 50 years as the present known reserves of 3 million tonnes or so are anticipated to.

However, in the conference summary, there was no mention of such a commitment to U.K. renewables, nor to the post-oil era. According to Saudi "there is no production problem for the foreseeable future". Mr Brown is the only non-OPEC national leader in attendance, which I take as a demonstration of his commitment to the seriousness of the oil-price situation. Indeed he has stated that "oil prices are the greatest threat to the world." I agree: rising CO2 emissions may well be a longer-term threat, but running out of cheap fuel will have the more immediate impact on maintaining present lifestyles.

The aviation industry is feeling a very firm pinch from high fuel-prices and is levying all kinds of charges - for check-ins, airport taxes, and many other services. I read that one airline in the U.S. is going out of business every day, and these are the smaller outfits which, along with budget airlines across the world generally are finding their profit margins squeezed relentlessly against increasing operational costs. Saudi have said that the world cannot expect oil to become cheaper, while noting that an inexorable rise in the price of a barrel of oil is not in their interests either. Other main oil-producing nations, e.g. UAE, do not seem especially similarly concerned, and have not offered to ramp-up their own production. With the oil-prices as they are, UAE are making a surplus of around $100 a barrel over the amount they have budgeted for ($40 a barrel): adding up to a cool near $100 billion a year. What is done with such surpluses will impact significantly on the world political stage.

The new gas-terminal at Milford Haven in South Wales, also home to the U.K.'s largest oil-depot, looks set to begin work. It is thought that this facility may handle 30% of the U.K.'s gas, imported in liquid form by tanker from Qatar, a nation that owns vast volumes of gas; some of which it is turning into synthetic diesel through GTL technology, in the world's biggest civil engineering project employing almost 30,000 workers. Thus from the oil and gas exporting nation Britain was until a couple of years ago, we are now heavily dependent on imports of both from the Middle East. Thus surely any potential strife there could effect this country calamitously if supplies of gas and oil are interrupted - in terms of providing heating, electricity and transport. Our other friends for gas-imports are the Norwegians, who live in a perennially stable nation. It makes sense to plan for the longer-term future now, while so much of conventional fossil-resources are up for grabs, and the gas-deals should keep Britain fuelled for decades ahead. The oil problem comprises both its costs and ultimately limited supply, although setting a time-line for the latter is difficult and possibly not helpful since it is the cost of oil and its refined products, particularly fuel, that will drive consumption down over time.

This will have significant social impacts, and unless some other kind of fuel is found in similar amount and at reasonable cost, cheap transport will be a thing of the past. One can of course not know what will happen in the far-future, but in the more immediate term, the airlines, both budget and large enterprises such as B.A. who are prepared to cut the number of their flights to conserve fuel costs, provide an indication of an economically-motivated curbing in the level of transport.

There are severe limits in what might be provided in terms of biofuel, unless the algae-to-fuel technology [2] can be implemented on the large-scale, but this will require enormous amounts of phosphorus fertilizer, demand for which is already being pressed from conventional agriculture - i.e. to grow food. Food prices are escalating across the world and the latter problem will not help to alleviate matters. Indeed, a food-crop vs fuel -crop conflict over the same, restricted amount of available arable land will only make matters worse.

The issue of "growing things" is paramount on so many levels, and one underlying problem is the poor quality of soil especially in Africa and much of Asia. I discovered a new term (new to me anyway) of "biochar" [3] which is a kind of charcoal formed at low temperatures, which both ties-up unwanted carbon from the atmosphere in the soil over the longer-term (maybe hundreds of years) and increases the fertility of poor soil. It also seems to help the soil to retain nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and may mean that less of them are required to provide a given crop, which would usefully ease pressure on the latter particularly.

This is another worthy "technology" to be investigated, and I am beginning to think that those strategies that are likely to come to the aid of the world are those which work in-hand with nature, rather than which preserve a bubble whose integrity can only be preserved by expending other finite "mineral" resources. It is significant that another item this morning mentioned [1] that "it will take 30-40 years to install the proposed nuclear power programme in the U.K." - this emphasises that the "nuclear solution" is not a quick fix and will depend on all kinds of other resources to bring it forth. However, it is not clear to me how renewables, even if we include nuclear and if we can get enough of them up and running, can address the issue of replacing liquid fuels, unless the majority of future transport is intended to run on electric-power, which has implications for other resources such as lithium.

[1] "Breakfast Time" B.B.C., news items, June 23rd, 2008.
[2] I am writing a chapter for a book on this subject which I will post when it is published.

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