Tuesday, May 27, 2008

RUSH- the Science Illiterate

Today, Rush Limbaugh waxed long and hard about Mars and the recent landing of the Phoenix and the fact Mars possessed an atmosphere of 95% carbon dioxide – and yet there was no global warming!

Fancy that! All that CO2 and little heat to show for it! Meanwhile, Earth doesn't even have a half of a percent CO2 and we are supposed to believe there's a connection to global warming!

Hello! Calling all dingbats! First, Mr. Limbaugh, Mars is more than 1.5 times further from the Sun than Earth. As any basic physics student knows, the intensity of radiation (including heat and light received) falls off as the inverse square of the distance.

Thus, relative to the Earth (1360 watts/ m^2 received), on Mars one would have:

(1360 W/m^2) x 1 / (1.5)^2 = 1360 W/ m^2/ 2.25 = 604 W/M^2

or less than half the intensity of radiation, heat.

This means that before CO2 even enters the picture Mars is much colder than Earth.

Added to that is the fact that the atmospheric pressure on Mars is barely 0.0056 of that on Earth. In other words, just over five thousandths of an atmosphere. This is less atmosphere than one would encounter on Everest.

The low density of atmosphere means that CO2 occurs in too low a density to matter, in terms of effecting any climate change or in this case – global warming.

By analogy, the higher one goes up a mountain on Earth, the less air there is to absorb heat.(What we call 'heat' is really energy associated with motion and positionsof molecules in a material. The conversion of radiant energy - say from the Sun- is really a conversion of large scale energy, e.g. in electro-magnetic waves- to internal or microscopic energy.

In effect, if air is thin, as it is at the top of a mountain (or on Mars), there isn't enough MASS present to enable or facilitate energy transfer to the medium. Hence, it feels 'cold' to the human observer.

The thermal capacity is defined by the quantity:

W = mc

where m is the mass and c, the specific heat capacity. It is a measure of how difficult it is to increase the temperature of a medium by one degree (e.g. 1K or 1 Kelvin).

Again, the higher one is above the Earth, the lower the atmospheric density & pressure, and the lower the thermal capacity of the medium – so the smaller the amount of heat that can be retained, or measured.The lower one goes in altitude, the greater the number of particles, and the greater retention of heat- especially if water vapor is also included (since water has a large specific heat capacity ~ 4200 Joules/ kg K).

The low atmospheric pressure combined with the distance and low solar insolation means the CO2 present on Mars affords no measure of countervailing forcing factor for warming, such as the presence of CO2 does on Earth. Which, despite its low percentage in the atmosphere (< 0.04%) harnesses much more forcing on account of the atmosphere being 178 times more dense, and the Earth 1.5 times closer to the Sun.

This is why CO2 plays a vastly more critical and important role in controlling Earth’s climate, as opposed to Mars’.

Limbaugh finished his Mars’ piece by huffing to the effect: “Take that, you global warming idiots!”

But he’d do better to look at himself in a mirror when he babbles similar codswallop in the future.

Perhaps, he'd do even better by removing the penchant for "chaos" he is seeking to fulminate in the real world.

Has Peak Oil Arrived? (III)

According to Robert Heinberg (‘The Party’s Over’) the first economic sign of Peak Oil will likely be gas at the price of $7 a gallon. This would mean oil is nearly $200 a barrel. However, that assumes no other supply factors are operating that maintains a price divorced from real supply and demand.

But let’s say this does transpire in the next year or so. What then? How do we cope, what can we expect?

IF Peak Oil really does arrive all aspects of life will become much more costly and difficult than they are now. Indeed, as per a Wall Street Journal article (‘If $$ Gas is Bad, Just Wait, May 23, p. C8) the Executive Vice-President of the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey quipped: “Maybe at $6 or $7 a gallon it become less attractive to go to work”

Well, perhaps, but at $10 a gallon it surely would! At that point, I can visualize the entire economy going into the tank unless employers permit massive telecommuting – much more so than now. In addition, governments will need to provide massive tax breaks or concessions to encourage more people to car pool.

The individual driver embedded in his own two tons of steel, will go the way of the dinosaur.

In terms of food, transport and fertilizer costs will go through the roof. One can imagine all these costs added to foods, making food conservation an imperative. No longer will Americans be able to afford food wastage of $7 billion a year.

It is quite possible the average middle income, middle class family will be reduced to eating sardines or tune with some rice five times a week, and maybe chicken or fish the other two days. Beef will become prohibitively expensive, as will pork. Actually, beef and pork will see prices much more common to lamb now.

Utility costs will escalate, perhaps to two to three times more than people are paying now.

Can alternative fuels solve the Peak Oil problem?

The cold, unvarnished and hard fact is that none of the usually touted "alternatives" has the energy density of oil and can replace oil to fuel and power any kind of industrial civilization. "Methane hydrates" ? Matt Savinar torpedoes that proposal easily in his 'Life After the Oil Crash'. Shale oil reserves? Jay Hanson et al. blast that poppycock to kingdom come on their excellent site:


In many cases, what Peak Oil deniers are doing is mistaking a technological advance for a genuine energy source alternative. In the end , it’s all very well to speculate and ruminate that future energy needs will be met, but the question remains: HOW? When one does the math, and in particular pays attention to the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the ‘net energy equation’, this just isn’t on.

Where will energy come from to support an industrial-energy intense and consumptive civilization? Alternative energy buffs can’t just say “new sources” and leave it at that. What new sources? Where? To what degree does the distribution, implementation, and use of these alternative sources demand massive retro-fitting of our industrial infrastructure? How much money, energy, and time will this retrofitting require? To what degree does the distribution, implementation, and use of this alternative require other resources that are in short supply? Do these other resources exist in quantities sufficient enough that the alternative is capable of being scaled up on a massive level?

Unless these questions are addressed as an integral part of any alternative view or proposal, the latter remains mere idle speculation or conjecture.

What about solar? Can that work:? Weisz (Physics Today, op. cit. (I)) notes that the solar total access for the U.S. currently amounts to 22Q per year per 4000 square kilometers. A maximal output of 20Q (about one fifth the current U.S. demand) could be achieved in terms of electricity generation provided a collector area is available from two to four times the area of the state of Massachusetts.

Calculations show that solar cells currently consume twice as much sej as they produce, so they are no bargain. Worse an entirely solar civilization would most likely have to exist at the power output and potential (relative to electric grid capacity) of about one half where we are now. Plus, the collector area would have to expand to around that of the states of Colorado and Nevada combined.

Will you still be able to run your personal computer (even a creaking old Windows 98 like I have) in that low energy environment? Very doubtful unless you have your own nuclear powered or other generator!

Some have asked me if it isn’t at all feasible that solar can be the SOLE potential answer to energy problems – given the Sun is so powerful, etc.

Well, maybe- provided several things occur:

1) We cut population drastically from right now, since each increase in numbers add to the energy burden required to sustain it. There is no "free energy" and each human body is a net energy user. A “solar” world cannot exist, in my opinion, with numbers beyond 3 billion – 2 billion is probably more realistic

2) We allocate an area equal to roughly 500,000 sq. miles for solar collection and conversion, using the most efficient cells, devices available (efficiencies running at 45% minimum.

3) People are encouraged to make their own solar energy collection devices or get their homes re-strrructured to it - soonest.

4) People retreat from their high consumption ethic and develop a de-localized mentality - with no more aspirations for concentrated energy generators, or distant travel. Solar energy- especially in cars, vehicles, simple cannot support it. Nor can it support even remotely the energy-intense military-industrial complex now being run off cheap oil.

Thus, making the switch to solar or a solar built society - the most likely to replace oil to the greatest extent- requires the de-localization of energy resources. Preferably, tiny communities each living off their own solar collectors, growing their own hydroponic or other crops. and foregoing all visions of distant travel - since there will never ever be solar-powered jetliners or cargo ships. Ain't gonna happen.In effect, "globalization" and world trade will have to come to a dead stop. It can't be sustained once the cheap oil is gone, and the net energy of recovery of new sources dips below zero. And the new sources in toto force a massive overhauling of the underpinning infrastructure. (Let’s also bear in mind the bulk of petroleum reserves will have to go into food production, transport, fertilizers etc.)

H.T. Odum's solar "eMergy" (eMbodied energy) measures all of the energy (adjusted for quality) that goes into the production of a product. Odum's calculations show that the only forms of alternative energy that can survive the exhaustion of fossil fuel are: muscle, burning biomass (wood, animal dung, or peat), hydroelectric, geothermal in volcanic areas, and some wind electrical generation. Nuclear power could be viable if one could overcome the shortage of fuel. No other alternatives (e.g., solar voltaic) produce a large enough net sej to be sustainable. In short, there is no way out.
As Jay Hanson pointedly notes:

“The fact that our society can‘t survive on alternative energy should come as no surprise, because only an idiot would believe that windmills and solar panels can run bulldozers, elevators, steel mills, glass factories, electric heat, air conditioning, aircraft, automobiles, etc., AND still have enough energy left over to support a corrupt political system, armies, etc.

Envision a world where freezing, starving people burn everything combustible -- everything from forests (releasing CO2; destroying topsoil and species); to garbage dumps (releasing dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals); to people (by waging nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional war); and you have seen the future”

My take? I personally don't believe Americans have the will or moxie to do what is required to live in a radically downsized (diffuse as opposed to concentrated) energy environment. I may be wrong, but I just can't see it. It would require too many sacrifices on their part. And while the current high oil –gas prices have forced some alterations of life style from the sheer economic pain- I cannot imagine it might be permanent. Look how we all lapsed after the OPEC – gas rationing of the 1970s ended!

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the corporate owned gov't to do squat either. They haven't up to now - look at the execrable earlier (1990s) provision in the income tax to confer tax breaks on SUV owners! Look at the other energy -squandering legislation, the unwillingness to even remotely consider conservation.

As A. Bartlett emphasizes (Physics Today, July, 2004, ibid):

"Our national goal must be to reduce the total annual consumption of nonrenewable energy for many coming years."

This solution must mean not only severe conservation – much less driving and energy use overall- but also a concerted effort to cut population (which fuels demand). A first start can be made in ceasing all per-child tax credits and breaks, and even (indeed) placing a child tax on couple that insist on having more than one child.

No solution is palatable, but the consequences of inaction will be a million times worse.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Has Peak Oil Arrived? (II)

Could there not be other salient factors that are driving the price of oil up? Factors separate from a fundamental supply shortage? This appears to be the problem now, as these other factors are operating and – if anything – clouding the extent of the supply problems.

One factor is the dollar’s fall, and in particular Fed policy (in cutting interest rates) as it pertains to dollar debasement. As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal Editorial (‘Oil and the Fed’, May 23, p. A14):

“When the value of the greenback falls, and especially when speculators anticipate that it will fall further, oil sellers demand more dollars for their product. This was the experience of the 1970s, the last time the Fed lost its monetary moorings”.

The editorial notes also, in reference to another article on the Op-Ed page, that had the Fed merely kept the dollar stable against the euro, the price of oil would be closer to $80 a barrel. Thus, the Fed driving the dollar value downwards by it interest rate cuts (and cheap money infusion) are making the matter much worse. Indeed, their policy – as I noted in a previous blog entry- is ratcheting up inflation severely.

In the last year the wholesale inflation is up 6.5%, and the Fed’s contrived “core inflation” has rendered a negative real interest rate. Meanwhile, Univ. of Michigan Economist Michael Darda highlights a 5.2% rate in its year-ahead survey (cf. WSJ, ibid.)

All in all, one can surely assign much blame to the central bankers who are delivering pre-Peak Oil conditions before it has possibly even commenced.

Not mentioned yet, however, is the artificial demand (and hence price increases) contributed by commodities trading and speculation by the likes of pension funds, hedge funds etc. A disturbing report last week on CBS News noted that, in fact, the purchases by pension funds and their cohort are now nearly nine-tenths of the total purchases of oil by China and India combined.

From this vantage point, it makes sense that the regulatory bodies controlling commodities brokerages need to step in and put their foot down: NO more speculating by non-national entities, private traders or funds. If the stock market’s performance isn’t good enough for you right now, tough! Wait it out! But don’t try to wrest private gains while millions of others have to suffer for your folly! (Since spiking oil prices are also driving up the cost of food in the developing world)

Another reason offered, as per the Financial Times article cited in the earlier entry, is that oil companies are pulling back on production. They no longer wish to make the enormous investments in exploration, and this is creating an artificially low supply.

More likely, there exists an extraordinarily low “spare capacity” in all the oil-producing nations, as observed by Martin Wolf in a recent Financial Times article (‘The Market Sets High Oil Prices to Tell us What to Do’, May 24) This translates into ever increasing difficulty to enhance supply by the needed 1.4 m barrels a day to meet demand. As Wolf points out: “This means an extra Saudi Arabia ever seven years”.

Thus, we return again to the supply problem and the fact that even if many new fields and found and opened up, there will not be sufficient oil so long as the supply isn’t mitigated or controlled. A ‘Saudi Arabia’ every 7 years is indeed preposterous, and highlights why humanity got itself into such a predicament to begin with.

That is, an inability to control and curb its insatiable energy greed.

The U.S. is certainly one major culprit in this piece, retreating from enlightened fuel-efficiency standards imposed during the 70s, to a ‘devil may care’, greedaholic response by the 90s. By that time, SUVs were again in vogue, and in fact tax breaks were being given for certain models. This was pure, unadulterated lunacy. That and talk of opening up the ANWR while not aspiring to a single action on the conservation front.

The Senate and Congress critters themselves were obdurate about change. In a 2002 letter to my Senator, Wayne Allard, I implored him to get going on reinstating fuel efficiency standards – rather than trying to drill the ANWR. As I pointed out:

The bottom line is that – when the spin and hyperbole are removed- the ANWR is simply not worth the cost-benefit for the few months (to maybe a year’s) worth of petroleum it will produce. Indeed, the costs of transshipment to the lower 48 may well negate any ‘strategic benefits’ such as you portray in your letter. More than likely, this supply would have been traded to other countries on the open markets and never used at all in the U.S.

The fact is that an excellent opportunity recently presented itself in congress to consolidate the concept of foreign oil-independence (at least to make a good start) but you in congress dropped the ball. That is, the chance to mandate higher fuel efficiency with gas guzzling monstrosities such as SUVs. This was voted down, and then you all the nerve to shamelessly argue for ANWR!!?

There are an abundance of things which can be done to wean Americans from their foreign oil addiction, but I don’t see you in congress doing squat to address anything substantial. All you want is the ‘easy’ or expedient path – to wit, drilling in a protected preserve. That doesn’t convince me one single iota.

I would not seriously consider it until and unless the following measures are seriously considered and the requisite legislation passed:

i) Serious conservation. The fact is that in the last fifteen years fuel efficiency has plummeted an astounding 28% - primarily because of the idiotic marketing of SUVs and similar anachronistic gas guzzlers. We can in fact save more than five times what’s (maximally) projected in the ANWR by the simple act of legislating (mandating) higher fuel efficiency in SUVs – comparable to what is being obtained in much smaller cars. Yes, the auto-makers will belly-ache, but they did with legislation mandating clean air standards more than three decades ago. They’ll get over it.

ii) The serious development of alternative fuel-energy sources: solar, geothermal, and hydrogen fuel – as well as electric –solar combinations of fuel cells for motor vehicles. Whole nations – such as Israel- have largely converted to solar, reducing their oil dependence more than 50%. There’s no reason similar systems can’t be developed in the U.S. (particularly the southwest).

As I said, the Senate having dropped the ball on mandating higher fuel standards for gas-guzzlers, I cannot take seriously the desperate pleas for ANWR drilling. The chance was there to make a difference, but you all bungled it on Capitol Hill. Now, please try again – and do it this next time.

While I didn’t expect a whole lot to come of the letter (I never do when writing any of Washington’s minions, which is why I seldom do it anymore), Allard’s response to my letter was less than gratifying. He basically said that as Americans who live in a “free society” we have the right to purchase the products – including vehicles- we wish.\

Yep, just terrific, torch the planet to preserve our sovereign American right to squander finite resources at will and buy what we want!

Will today’s oil prices, however they are caused, help us to prepare for the real Peak Oil? That will be addressed in the conclusion.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Has Peak Oil arrived? (I)

As Americans prepare to launch their Memorial Day weekend travels, they are staring gas prices of $4 a gallon squarely in their collective face. Is it now the arrival of Peak Oil? That point, long predicted, where oil production peaks and it’s all downhill from now on?

The signs are not sanguine. T. Boone Pickens, quoted in The Financial Times - May 21, (‘Oil Futures Near $140 Amid fears of Shortage’) page 1A, asserts we are now at the point where demand for oil is 87 billion barrels a day, while only 85 billion can be produced. This is acknowledging Peak Oil by any other name. Meanwhile, in The Wall Street Journal of May 22, there appeared the article ‘Energy Watchdog Warns of Oil-Production Crunch’ (p. A1)

The piece noted that the world’s “premier energy monitor” is preparing a sharp downward revision of its oil supply forecasts. The full formal report will be ready by November, but already word is afoot that it will point to global oil supplies plateauing even as demand continues.

The article also notes (p. A12):

“A growing number of people in the industry are endorsing a version of the ‘peak oil’ theory: that oil production will plateau in coming years, as suppliers fail to replace depleted fields with enough fresh ones to boost overall output.”

The skinny right now is that the IEA will forecast as much as a 12.5 billion barrel a day shortfall by 2015. This will certainly surge oil prices to probably well over $600 a barrel and at least $8 per gallon (or what Europeans are now paying) at the pump. Most Peak Oil signifiers pitch its entry at $7 a gallon.

What does Peak Oil mean? And is there anything that can be done to mitigate it?

The problem is not that difficult to break down.

The planet was endowed with ~ 3,000 billion barrels of oil – of which we’ve consumed one third and another one sixth of relatively cheap oil remains, after there will reside another third of “break-even” oil (costs as much to access as it delivers), after which one -sixth of very expensive oil remains (costs much more to reach it than it deliver in energy).

At the heart of these considerations is the net energy eqn. (cf. Weisz, in Physics Today, July, 2004, p. 51)

Q (net) = Q (PR) – [Q (op) + E/T]

In effect, for break-even oil one would find Q(net) = 0

Thus, there is no net gain in energy given the quantity that must be used to obtain it.

For the last 700 billion barrels,

Q(net) = negative quantity = -Q

since the rate of energy production (Q (PR) must be debited by the energy consumed for its operation Q(op), and the energy E invested during its “lifetime” T

Thus its Q(PR) will be small in relation to the bracketed quantity.

In a similar vein, Robert Heinberg (‘The Party’s Over’) uses the quantity EROEI or ‘Energy returned on energy invested’ which for oil reached a high of 30 (ratio) in the 70s and is still the highest of all energy sources at around 22.

Thus, the problem in a nutshell is not “running out of oil’ but running out of CHEAP oil.

Bottom line, we need not run out of the stuff before the world economy runs into problems of untold, unspeakable proportions!

“Peak Oil’ is somewhat misleading a term, since it suggests a specific date of peak production. In the real world, the top part of the oil production curve is nearly flat (cf. A. Bartlett, Physics Today, op. cit. p. 54)

In more practical terms – what it means is that if 2008 is the year of peak oil production then the worldwide oil production in 2028 will be the SAME as in 1988, demanding that Q(net) > 0.

Also, it means that production in 2048 will be the same as 1968, and 2068 will be the same as 1948, and 2088 will be the same as 1928! All this while the population is expected to reach 9 billion or more in the SAME PERIOD! (cf. Bartlett, ibid.) In other words, as time goes on the available accessible oil constantly diminishes even as population constantly rises with the same demands.

Geologist Marion King Hubbert predicted U.S. oil production would peak around 1970 p which it did (at 2.2 liters per person per day). He also predicted world production would peak around 1995, which it would have – had the severe OPEC-induced oil crises not created an artificial supply problem in 1973, thereby pushing this critical peak back 10 years (to 2005, meaning we’d be three years past Peak oil by now).

Wildly optimistic dates have predicted that 2020-2035 will the “true” date, but as Matt Savinar points out (‘Life After the Oil Crash’ p. 7), these are all based on government agencies “that admit cooking their books” – just like they do the unemployment stats (by dropping all those off the unemployment rolls who’ve been out of work longer than six months)

Jon Thompson, company president for Exxon-Mobil, in a 2003 paper posted on the Exxon-Mobil Exploration website (ibid.) noted more realistically:

“By 2015 we will need to find, develop and produce a volume of new oil equal to EIGHT out of every TEN barrels produced today. In addition, the cost of this new oil is expected to be CONSIDERABLY more than is now spent.”

Thus, he acknowledges the global peak production would have to have taken place before 2015! In other words – a peak occurring either in 2005 or any year after, even now, is perfectly consistent with his projection.

Next: Are other factors operating to mimic Peak Oil?