Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Running on almost empty

Greenpeace tried to defeat Cairn Energy but in the end it was Arctic geology that won

Two stories in the past couple of days days illustrate the way two very different political dogs can bark up the wrong tree. The first was from Denmark, where I currently live, in the form of the government setting out its 'roadmap to the future' with regard to energy. When most people think of Denmark they think of wind mills and bicycles. The country has been the poster child for sensible sustainable development since the 1970s, and the latest vision for the future would seem, at first glance, to be a continuation along that path.

The plan, as it stands, is to be entirely free of fossil fuels by 2050. Denmark is an oil producer and exporter, albeit a small player, and imports large amounts of coal to fuel its power stations. Renewable power makes up for a significant minority of energy and the rest is imported from Sweden. So how, one might ask, can it shake off the shackles of carbon? Well, no prizes for guessing that it will be smart grids, more wind power and sophisticated electricity storage systems all the way.

The climate minister (yes, Denmark has one), Martin Lidegaard, when he had finished conjuring up this hallucinatory future did concede at the press conference that the pesky actual details of how this was to be accomplished were not exactly apparent just yet. Smart grids, for example, are still in the chin-scratching phase, electricity storage seems to boil down to vast banks of low-tech batteries and nobody is even asking where the country will get all the rare earth minerals for building millions of new wind turbines. Perhaps they could strike a deal swapping them with China for designer furniture …

So it was a relief to turn to the UK and see that for the Conservative/Lib Dems coalition business as usual was being touted as the only business worth a damn. Chancellor George Osborne, in his Autumn Statement, airbrushed energy and environmental concerns away, announcing a grand new road building plan that would tarmac a fair bit of the remaining non-tarmacked bits of Britain. In a tough talking speech, the young millionaire told the rest of us to expect at least six more years of austerity measures before things get better. And the way to make things better and restore the nation to a path of growth, he seemed to be saying, was by building more roads and airports while slashing funds for renewable energy and environmental protection and letting big polluters and energy hogs off the hook. It wasn't the kind of speech that would go down well in Denmark.

And yet both of these politicians on different shores of the North Sea, in their own different ways, are pinning their chances of re-election on the prospect of growth on a finite planet. Okay, so the Danish version is a bit more fuzzy and warm and at least acknowledges that energy shortages and global warming are issues to be taken seriously, but do either one of them take into account their respective countries' abilities to pay for these grand projects?

To refit the whole of Denmark with smart this-and-thats, pay thousands of PHDs thousands of work years to come up with systems that attempt to bend the laws of thermodynamics and basically keep the whole show on the road is likely to be so expensive that bankruptcy looks a preferable, and altogether more likely, option. After all, it's not as if any country in Europe can particularly afford to squander large sums of money on anything at present and Denmark's North Sea oil bonanza has been declining at an terrific rate and is expected to hit zero in just six years (2018). Six years - that's practically tomorrow! (And Britain isn't far behind with production expected to fall to 1/3 of its peak by 2020.)

George Osborne is equally broke but in a state of denial. He thinks that growth can be restored if we all just man up and try really hard. Never mind that most of the manufacturing industry has been packed up, the service industry relies on consumer spending, consumers have no cash to spend and the much vaunted financial sector is under attack from both itself and everyone else. Where, exactly, is this growth going to come from?

Another story caught my eye today that ties the above two together. The darling drillers of the denialist press, Cairn Energy, who sailed to Greenland with a drilling rig have found, after three test wells and up to a billion dollars of trying … not a drop of oil. The British company, who had to be protected by the Danish navy from Greenpeace protesters, have finally given up and will be towing their rig to somewhere oil is easier and cheaper to get at. Unfortunately places such as those are getting harder to find on the map, and Cairn, whose share price has shot up about 1,000% in the last decade, can expect it to go back down to Earth again pretty soon.

The above is not to poke fun at politicians or oil companies, although God knows they deserve it. Rather it is to illustrate the likelihood that for the next few years and decades we will get to hear increasingly futile promises from politicians whose aim is to restore the energy bounty that we have had in the post war years. That they are no more able to deliver on those promises than I am able to conjure bananas from thin air is by-the-by, but most people will want to believe them and that is how they will retain political power.

But that energy isn't coming back, no matter how much blather is spouted in parliaments and how much City traders manage to talk up the share prices of exploration firms. Simply put, we've picked all the low hanging fruit and what is left will cost more – a lot more- to extract. And when I say 'more' I'm not just talking about money, I'm talking about energy, which is not the same thing.

The best thing for any rational person to do under such circumstances is stop believing the snake oil salesmen and get to work on the task of making their own lives more sustainable and resilient to future shocks in the energy – and by extension food - supply. It's not exactly straightforward to do so and once you embark on the process one realises quite how dependent one is on the fruits of three centuries of industrial materialism, thaumatergic marketing and cheap energy. But the sooner one can make a start the better, and that's what I will be talking about in future posts.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

22 Billion Energy Slaves

Hubbert's Peak. Poster courtesy of
Welcome to my new blog. The title refers to the ex-oil geologist Colin Campbell's remark that the amount of work we get today from fossil fuels is the equivalent of having some 22 billion human slaves working for us round the clock 365 days a year. That's a lot of service we are getting but the shocking thing is that in the coming years and decades most, if not all, of these slaves are going to go away. What we are going to do as those slaves head off into retirement is the core theme of this blog.

Yes, Peak Oil. It's a term that is being bandied around increasingly these days and, basically, it refers to the fact that humanity has extracted around half of all known accessible reserves of oil and other liquid fossil fuels from the Earth's crust. Unfortunately, not many people take this fact too seriously - after all, if we've used up the first 150 years' worth doesn't that mean we don't have to worry about them running out for another 150 years?

If only. We are right now standing on the bumpy plateau of the oil production curve - or Hubbert's Peak as it's known - names after the late American geophysicist M. King Hubbert who sketched out a bell curve for US petroleum production, which posited that supply would peak in the late 60s or early 70s. His theory proved remarkably prescient, not just for the US but for all major oil fields, and the US did indeed experience a peak and has been in decline ever since. By the same reasoning Hubbert predicted that world oil supply would peak in 1995. He might have been off by a few years, and nobody can agree when or even if the peak was reached, but the International Energy Authority now states that conventional crude oil peaked in 2006.

A potted history of Peak Oil can be summarised as follows:

- In 1955 Hubbert predicted it but was ignored and even vilified.
- In the early 1970s oil shocks sent the industrial world into a panic and emergency measures were introduced to conserve energy
- In the 1980s people who were sick of energy rationing voted in politicians who promised a return of the good times - namely but not exclusively Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Raegan. These politicians pulled out all the stops and, combined with new (and very timely) discoveries in the North Sea and Alaska the industrial world was drowned in cheap oil ... for a time.
- Now, in 2011, with a peak having been reached we suddenly find ourselves in the position that emerging giant economies such as India and China, with a voracious appetite for fossil fuels, are demanding their share of the energy bonanza. That's why oil has gone up from around 10 dollars a barrel to the current price of over 100. Nobody knows how high the price will be in two, five or ten years, but 200 dollars a barrel does not seem unlikely.

Why should any of this matter?

Unfortunately it matters a great deal. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that what we must face up to in the coming years will be the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced and there will not be a single one of us whose world will not be turned upside down. Those 22 billion energy slaves will be going away, and there aren't any other kinds waiting in the wings to take over. With a tiny handful of exceptions, every one of us alive in the rich world today was weaned on oil. Our food is grown with it, it powers the way we move around and everything from clothes and medicine is made with it. We might as well call ourselves Homo Petroleus.

It's normally at this point in a discussion that someone politely (or impolitely) points out to me that, don't I realise, the slack from oil will be taken up by renewable energy, nuclear power and other things, like coal.

One of the points of this blog is to detail why that won't be happening.

It's a difficult thing to acknowledge but what we face right now is nothing less than the end of the industrial age. Some people might say 'great' - but we shouldn't romanticise the pre industrial age. For the great majority of us the rest of our lives will consist of one crisis after another as political and financial institutions fall, energy crises rear their heads and ecological catastrophes loom. It won't be pretty and, given that several billion of the world's population rely on fossil fuels for their food production, we can count on there being a lot less of us around in the future.

While recognising these facts is likely the most important thing you can ever grasp, it is equally important not to equate it with some kind of apocalypse. Yes, things are going to get ugly, but it will be a long process. Civilisations generally take a couple of hundred years to die. Ours is unlikely to be exceptional - although we often think it is. But with the right preparation it will be perfectly possible to at least manage our energy descent in a way that keeps us alive and, if we're lucky, comfortable.

These are the kind of hard to stomach facts that I will be presenting in this blog. But one shouldn't despair. The kind of steps I am going to be suggesting generally involve taking charge of your affairs and thus empowering yourself. All of us have been bombarded with the psychological detritus of the industrial age since we were born and learning how to switch off its influence is like lifting a huge load off your shoulders.

A bit about me. I'm 40 years old, a father of two and although I am British I currently live in Denmark. I studied economics at university and went on to become an energy trader but then jacked in the corporate world to become a journalist in Spain, where I started my own environmental newspaper The Olive Press. Since then I have been the editor of a newspaper in Denmark and have been a freelance correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. I have also been an active participant in the Peak Oil blogosphere (so dispersed are its adherents at present that's the main forum for communication) and have studying the implications of what is in store for us for the past couple of years. There are a number of key figures in the Peak Oil scene and most of them are American. Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Peak Everything, is a favourite of mine, as is another hard hitter Dmitry Orlov, who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union firsthand.

There are other names of course but my principal influence, which I will fess up to right from the start, has been and continues to be the Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, John Michael Greer, whose book The Long Descent simply blew me away. His weekly Peak Oil blog The Archdruid Report has become an addictive cerebral dose of analysis and food for thought and is read by thousands. Incisive as his essays are, he has always maintained that his analysis springs purely from his own American perspective and acknowledges that other cultures may interpret his ideas in slightly different ways. It's in this spirit that I'm presenting this series of blog posts - or dispatches - from a British perspective. We have our own political system and ways of doing things that can, at times, be quite different to the US. It's going to be quite a journey because the one thing that becomes apparent as you start to explore Peak Oil is that immediately a host of other disciplines and subjects present themselves. Indeed, one might expect a contemplation of Peak Oil to be a never ending procession of production charts and geological analysis. It isn't.

To gain a thorough understanding of the challenges that are beginning to force themselves upon us it will be necessary to explore everything from economics and physics (especially the Laws of Thermodynamics), to religion, architecture, social theory, psychology and ancient history. There will also be large doses of philosophy, analysis of current affairs and DIY. It's going to be an interesting exploration and I hope that you, the reader, will share it with me. There is little time for preparation (that should have started 30 years ago) but I aim to produce one post per week, or more if time allows.

To round off this post I'll give you a little hint of the urgency of our situation. In 2009 the august and dry International Energy Agency failed to mention the term 'Peak Oil' anywhere in its 600 page annual report on the state of the world's energy supplies. In the 2010 report is casually mentioned Peak Oil for the first time and stated that it had already happened. In the 2011 report, which came out a few days ago, comes with a number of dire warnings suggesting that if we don't change our ways quickly then much of humankind will have been wiped out by the end of the century. If that sounds alarmist then that's because it is. If a report could have a flashing blue light on it and an air raid siren then you can guarantee that this one would.

But did you read that in the news? No, I thought not.