The NY Dept. of Environmental Protection has weighed in on the shale gas issue that I first wrote about back in April. After studying the hydrofracing process, the NYDEP has called for the prohibition of shale gas production anywhere in the watershed that supplies NYC. Specifically, the NYDEP-commissioned study deems the risks of water contamination and infrastructure damage to be unacceptably high. I applaud this decision. As I’ve said many times before, hydrofracing is inherently risky, and we can’t allow a BP-magnitude hydrofracing disaster to comprise an even more precious and increasingly scarce resource: fresh water.
The fact that we are turning to shale gas – and tacitly accepting the associated risks and costs – to fuel the ‘clean’ energy revolution is evidence that natural gas production has reached the seventh fold. We can continue to produce natural gas and even increase production rates for some amount of time, but doing so requires that we take ever-greater environmental risks by pumping toxin-laced water into the ground in order to release hydrocarbons from the best carbon sequestration device known to man: shale. And this hydrofracing process not only increases our collective exposure to severe environmental risks, the process itself is more costly than we know. The costs of production are increasing not only in dollar terms (ROI) but in energetic terms as well (See my post on EROEI and net energy).
An energy revolution is needed, but is this the direction we want to go? I think not. Turning to shale is a mistake. From an energy generation perspective we have options like solar, wind, tidal, and hydro. But these alternatives won’t fill the gap. We need to match our push for alternative sources with even stronger conservation efforts. Unlike shale gas production, voluntary conservation carries zero negative externalities. In fact, it is a net benefit from all perspectives.
Thanks for reading,
I just had to share this great 5 minute TED talk presentation given by Birke Baehr.
Enjoy and pass along…
Below the fold, you will find the slides and transcript from a presentation that I recently gave to the kind folks that comprise Sustainable West Seattle.
The cement plug sealing the Macondo well shut is complete and passed the pressure test at 5:54 a.m. CDT (less than an hour ago as I write). See the NPR breaking news here.
This does not, of course, mean that the disaster is over. It is no more over than the Katrina disaster was over when the floodwaters receded. There will be plenty more to report in the days, weeks, months and years to come. But we shouldn’t let this fact keep us from celebrating the closure of this ugly chapter of U.S. history.
And as always, don’t forget that the BP spill is yet more evidence that oil production has reached the seventh fold… otherwise there would be no reason to be drilling a mile below the ocean surface using a platform that cost more than a half of a Billion (yes that’s a ‘B’) dollars!
Algeria’s announcement that it is “going to look for oil and gas in shale and compact formations” is yet another piece of evidence that natural gas production has reached the seventh fold, joining company with oil and coal (evidence: tar sands and mountain topping). It is becoming ever more difficult to maintain current levels of production in each of these fossil fuels, and after production reaches a bumpy plateau, it will inevitably decline along an equally bumpy descending path. (In other words, don’t be fooled by temporary surges in output!)
Thanks to fellow geographer, David Jensen (via Facebook), I am able to share this excellent 18 minute TED Talk given by climate scientist & oceanographer, Rob Dunbar. In his short presentation, Dunbar issues a compelling case for anthropogenic climate change via: 1) a very interesting analysis of sediments located beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, and 2) an equally interesting analysis of giant corals. He concludes with a discussion of ocean acidification, which is in my mind one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.
While I spend lots of time thinking about and explaining the evidence that we have reached the seventh fold of fossil fuel production – what I would call the gas tank side of the anthropogenic climate change issue – I spend comparatively little time thinking and writing about the exhaust side of the equation.
That said, Rob Dunbar does an excellent job of showing how the ability of oceans to support life in the face of rising atmospheric CO2 (which is absorbed by oceans causing them to acidify) has reached the seventh fold.
What Dunbar does not discuss is the fact that because we are reaching the seventh fold in fossil fuel production (oil, natural gas, and coal), we are collectively emitting more and more CO2 per unit of useful energy every day. This is due to the fact that EROEI is in irreversible decline.
As a consequence, the only solution to all of our seventh fold challenges is to be found in voluntary conservation and conscientious consumption.
Without further ado,
According to the Financial Times (article), Saudi Arabia just announced the discovery of huge unconventional gas reserves. Yes, that is correct, Saudi Arabia is getting into the shale gas industry. As the FT puts it, “The announcement signals a potential opportunity for Saudi Arabia, but also confirms that Riyadh has not found as much conventional gas as it had hoped.”
The FT goes on to say that “International companies, which have been shut out of Saudi Arabia’s oil production for decades, have been looking over the past five years for natural gas in the kingdom’s Empty Quarter desert, with largely disappointing results.”
This is, of course, another way of saying that like conventional crude, conventional gas has reached the seventh fold of production not just in the U.S. but in Saudi Arabia. Peak production is not far behind, nor is peak net energy, and as I’ve shown in a previous post, a peak has already been reached in net oil exports – the amount of oil made available for purchase by net importers like the U.S., China, Germany, etc. This means that net importers (a group which includes 9 of the 10 largest economies) have been competing for a declining resource since 2005/6.
These seventh fold problems pose serious challenges to a business-as-usual approach to running the economy, and these seventh fold problems are especially challenging from an environmental perspective. Read more…
Recently I’ve been advocating for a number of carbon reduction strategies for my home town, Seattle. Among the recommendations that I believe would make the greatest impact at the least cost is a simple education strategy which targets what the IEA calls ‘ecodriving’ (though I tend to think of this as an oxymoron).
Along these lines, I have decided to post a short piece every day or two which describes one simple way to improve fuel economy.
I’ve decided to kick this series off with a quick discussion of idling.
The latest data from the Energy Information Administration show that U.S. drivers consume 398.8 million gallons of gasoline per day. This not only sounds like a lot of gas, it *is* a lot of gas. And when burned each gallon of gas produces 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, so every day, drivers in the U.S. alone produce 7.98 billion pounds of carbon dioxide.
But what does this have to do with idling, you ask.
As it turns out, the average urban driver wastes 17.2% of all the gas they ever purchase while idling. This means that we needlessly burn 1.6 million gallons of gasoline valued at $4.8 million every day while sitting at traffic lights, in line at the local drive thru, etc. It also means that 1.36 billion pounds of CO2 are needlessly pumped into the atmosphere at the same time.
These appalling figures beg the question, “how much can we reduce idling?” As it turns out, idling could probably be cut by half. But in order to do so, a few myths must be ‘busted’. First, cars do not need to be warmed up for more than a few seconds before driving. Second, starting an engine does not take more gas than letting it idle. And most importantly, frequently restarting your engine does negligible damage to the engine. For these reasons, it has been recommended that if you are going to sit for more than 10 seconds, it is best to turn off your engine.
From the city side of the equation, timing lights and providing information on how long until the light changes are simple tricks that can greatly reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions – not only by reducing idling, but by reducing the time spent accelerating and braking.
In Seattle, where I live, there are a number of draw bridges, and the average amount of time that it takes for a Seattle drawbridge to open and close is 4 minutes. According to National Resources Canada’s nifty idling calculator, every car that gets stuck at one of the bridges burns 9.25 gallons of gas and produces 180 pounds of CO2 in a year. Now consider that as many as 200 cars can be stuck waiting at each of the four drawbridges eight or more times a day, and we see that 1.2 million pounds of CO2 are produced when 60,000 gallons of gas valued at $180,000 is burned every year by drivers who leave their engines running while the drawbridge opens and closes.
Now if Seattle is serious about reducing GHG emissions, perhaps one of the great places to start is by reducing idling through education and technology.
The news on the BP spill today was mixed. On the one hand, BP is finally pumping heavy drilling mud to seal the well for good. On the other hand, scientists in the Flow Rate Technical Group, supervised by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Energy report that the”Macondo well spewed 62,000 barrels of oil a day initially, and as the reservoir gradually depleted itself, the flow eased to 53,000 barrels a day until the well was finally capped and sealed July 15″ (Washington Post). That leaves a total flow of 4.9 million barrels.
But how much is 4.9 million barrels?
We all clearly recognize that this is a very large number, but what we really need is perspective. To quote Anton Ego – the dynamic villain turned hero of Disney’s Ratatoille – “After reading a lot of overheated puffery… you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?”
The fact is, humans are visual creatures. We have weak eyes, yet a significant portion of our brains is dedicated to deciphering visual cues. We think through visual metaphors. So, just as we have a difficult time imagining (note the root: image) the vast quantities of invisible methane that spewed out of the Macondo well along with the oil, we have a hard time envisioning just how much oil 4.9 million barrels is.
As if this visioning task was not difficult enough already, it has been made immeasurably more difficult by the numerous misleading maps like the popular NYT interactive graphic which shows the oil slick first as a growing 2-dimensional surface feature (the vast majority of the oil never made it to the surface so this is a gross misrepresentation of the spill) and later as a zero-dimensional image which seems to imply ‘problem solved’. When combined with the successful capping of the well, and the good news about the mud kill, I fear this story will soon vanish from the minds of the greater populous. And that will be a shame.
That said, let’s see if we can do some simple math and transform 5,000,000 barrels into a much more manageable figure… I’ve always been fond of the number ’2′. After all it is easy to remember and carries a certain mystique. For the biblically inclined, Noah led animals two by two onto the Arc. And for those with Darwinian inclinations that lean more towards evolutionism than creationism, our chromosomes also come in pairs (as do our jeans, but for some reason, I don’t think the fashion-inclined set reads my blog).
So there we have it. A goal. Express the oil spill in 2 tangible units. Read more…