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Energy round-up

Jason Bradford of The Reality Report and Bart Anderson of Energy Bulletin discussed the stories here on Jason's radio show for February 7, 2007.

Today we will have a news round-up and discuss how the press is dealing with issues such as peak oil, climate change and the social ramifications.

We are going to review events of the past few months, but THE BIG STORY is also one of the most recent:

IPCC report says global warming "unequivocal", 90% certain that humans are responsible
Thomas H. Maugh II and Karen Kaplan, LA Times, Feb. 3, 2007

A U.N. report released Friday that blames humans for the "runaway train" of global warming has shifted the international debate from "Are humans to blame?" to "What are we going to do about it?"

"The world's scientists have spoken," said Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation. "It is time now to hear from the world's policymakers. The so-called and long-overstated 'debate' about global warming is now over."

The report, released in Paris by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, said it is "unequivocal" that global warming is occurring and at least 90 percent certain that humans are responsible. It predicted that temperatures will rise from 3.2 to 7.8 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100 and that sea level will rise by 7 to 23 inches, and perhaps even more.

If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt completely, it would lead to a 21-foot increase in sea level, forcing the relocation of more than 300 million people living in low-lying areas worldwide.

Even Exxon Mobil is changing its stance on climate change:

Exxon Mobil conference calls
Stuart Staniford, The Oil Drum, Feb. 3, 2007

As part of a public relations outreach effort to improve their image on climate change, Exxon Mobil invited a half-dozen or so green-shaded bloggers to a conference call with Ken Cohen, their Vice President of Public Affairs.

In essence, they are saying that they now agree that climate change is really happening, the debate on the science is over, and the right question now is what is the proper policy response. They didn't propose a specific policy response, even when invited in questions, but said that the "devil is in the details" and discussed in generalities some of the trade-offs with carbon taxes, downstream cap-and-trade, upstream cap-and-trade, etc.

One seemingly popular policy response is to support biofuels. This was discussed in the State of the Union:

US corn exports to fall as ethanol use rise
Reuters, Jan 27, 2007

Most analysts do not foresee such a drastic shift. But calls by President George W. Bush to use 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2017 have many pondering how the country will achieve such a goal. ..

US ethanol production was about 5 billion gallons in 2006. Producing 35 billion gallons of ethanol solely from corn would consume the entire US corn crop at the level currently produced each year about 11 billion bushels. ..

However, many doubt this policy makes any sense:

Top energy scientists agree, Bush wrong on alternative fuels
Richard Bell, Global Public Media, Feb. 1, 2007

Washington, DC--At an all-day Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee conference on “renewable biofuels,” witnesses from three of America’s premier energy research institutions cast grave doubt on the feasibility of reaching President Bush’s State of the Union goal of manufacturing 35 billion gallons a year of alternative fuels by 2017.

The witnesses agreed that DOE’s spending on alternative fuels was far, far below what was necessary to meet the president’s goal, much less the more critical goals of increasing the country’s energy security while decreasing carbon emissions.

Increase in biofuels as well as lower crop yields are already leading to higher grain prices. Social ramifications include:

Thousands march over tortilla crisis
Melbourne’s Herald Sun, Feb. 1, 2007

TENS of thousands of demonstrators have marched through Mexico's capital to protest a surge in tortilla prices that has put President Felipe Calderon under intense pressure.

Soaring US demand for ethanol has sent corn prices to their highest level in a decade, pulling up prices of Mexico's national food staple.

Meanwhile, Mexico is also in the news because it has the world’s second largest oil field:

Mexico's Oil Output Cools
by David Luhnow, Wall Street Journal, Jan. 30, 2007

Daily output at Mexico's biggest oil field tumbled by half a million barrels last year, according to figures released Friday by the Mexican government. The ongoing decline at the Cantarell field could pressure prices on the global oil market, complicate U.S. efforts to diversify its oil imports away from the Middle East, and threaten Mexico's financial stability.

The virtual collapse at Cantarell -- the world's second-biggest oil field in terms of output at the start of last year -- is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.

The condition of Cantarell is bringing global peak oil back into the mainstream news:

Simmons says global oil supply has peaked
by Rhonda Schaffler, Bloomberg, Feb. 1, 2007

Q: Tell me how you draw your conclusion that at this point we've hit Peak Oil.
A: If you look at the numbers and you follow what's going on starting with Mexico's giant Cantarell field which is now in a very serious state of decline and then you look at the North Sea and you see just the UK and Norway, it's pretty obvious to me that those three areas alone could actually decline by between 800,000 and 1 million barrels a day in 2007.

That pretty well wipes out almost all the production gains coming onstream and in implicit in that it assumes that everyone else is flat.

So I think basically too many of our oil fields are too old. Too many now are in decline. The Middle East is basically out of capacity. they're some projects that are being worked upon, but most don't hit the market until 2008, 2009 and we're running out of time.

... I am firmly of the belief that over the course of the next year or two, this issue of peak oil will replace global warming as an issue that we're all worrying, debating and talking about.

While grains for fuel is competing with grains for food, at least some farmers are considering the impact of peak oil on food production:

Agriculture Meets Peak Oil: Soil Association Conference
Chris Vernon, The Oil Drum, Feb. 1, 2007

The Soil Association is a 60 year old UK organisation responsible for setting standards in organic farming. They describe themselves as "UK's leading environmental charity promoting sustainable, organic farming and championing human health." Their logo is the UK's most recognisable trademark for organic produce. It is found on more than 70% of all UK organic produce.

Last summer they launched a major peak oil initiative going by the name of Food and Farming – Post Peak Oil. This theme was the focus of their 26-27th Jan 2007 annual conference, subtitled “Preparing for a post-peak oil food and farming future”.

With over 800 delegates and the peak oil educator stalwarts of Campbell, Heinberg and Leggett amongst the speakers this was the largest and potentially most significant peak oil communication event yet.

...It was the first time (that I’m aware of) the peak oil message – as delivered by Campbell and Heinberg et al – was core to the annual conference of a major organisation.

9:30 You are listening to KZYX, Philo, KZYZ, Willits and Ukiah, this is Reality Report and I am your host Jason Bradford. Our guest today is: Bart Anderson a co-editor of Energy Bulletin, an on-line source for news and commentary related to energy, society and the environment. Bart is a trained journalist now specializing in media coverage and the cultural response to peak oil and global warming. Today we will have a news round-up and discuss how the press is dealing with issues such as peak oil, climate change and the social ramifications. www.energybulletin.net

This comes at a time when world grain reserves are the lowest in decades:

Exploding U.S. Grain Demand for Automotive Fuel Threatens World Food Security and Political Stability
Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute, Nov. 3, 2006

Now that the year’s grain harvest is safely in the bin, it is time to take stock and look ahead. This year’s harvest of 1,967 million tons is falling short of the estimated consumption of 2,040 million tons by some 73 million tons. This shortfall of nearly 4 percent is one of the largest on record.

Even more sobering, in six of the last seven years world grain production has fallen short of use. As a result, world carryover stocks of grain have been drawn down to 57 days of consumption, the lowest level in 34 years. The last time they were this low wheat and rice prices doubled. (See data.)

The growth in world grain consumption during the six years since 2000 averaged roughly 31 million tons per year. Of this growth, close to 24 million tons were consumed as food or feed. The annual growth in grain used to produce fuel ethanol for cars in the United States alone averaged nearly 7 million tons per year, climbing from 2 million tons in 2001 to 14 million tons in 2006.

Part of the reason for lower grain production is bad weather, which is being blamed on climate change in many parts of the world, such as Australia, a major exporter of wheat:

Drought drag on Australian growth
BBC News, Jan. 20, 2007

The Australian government has reduced its economic growth forecast after the worst drought in a century caused a 20% drop in farm output.

Agricultural scientists are getting together to figure out ways around these problems:

Search for crops that can survive global warming
David Adam, The Guardian, Dec. 4, 2006

An unprecedented effort to protect the world's food supplies from the ravages of climate change will be launched today by an international consortium of scientists. The move marks a growing recognition that serious changes in weather patterns are inevitable over the coming decades, and that society must begin to adapt.

Even though Democrats are grabbing the headlines with their takeover of the U.S. Congress, and they certainly are talking about climate change, there appears to be only one elected official in the United States telling the truth about our energy situation, Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett:

Energy resources and our future
by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, US Congress

Good energy education. He has been trying to bring the message to Congress. Very informative talks, but to a largely empty chamber.

He quotes
"Energy resources and our future" - remarks by Admiral Hyman Rickover delivered in 1957
by Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, U.S. Navy

The earth is finite. Fossil fuels are not renewable. In this respect our energy base differs from that of all earlier civilizations. They could have maintained their energy supply by careful cultivation. We cannot. Fuel that has been burned is gone forever. Fuel is even more evanescent than metals. Metals, too, are non-renewable resources threatened with ultimate extinction, but something can be salvaged from scrap. Fuel leaves no scrap and there is nothing man can do to rebuild exhausted fossil fuel reserves. They were created by solar energy 500 million years ago and took eons to grow to their present volume.

In the face of the basic fact that fossil fuel reserves are finite, the exact length of time these reserves will last is important in only one respect: the longer they last, the more time do we have, to invent ways of living off renewable or substitute energy sources and to adjust our economy to the vast changes which we can expect from such a shift.

Perhaps that will soon change, apparently the Government Accountability Office and the National Petroleum Council are preparing studies to be released soon:

The Peak Oil Crisis: The Studies
By Tom Whipple, Falls Church News-Press

...Of more long-term significance, however, two major studies of the prospects for world energy supplies are currently underway in Washington. The first of these is being done by the Government Accountability Office and is to be released on February 28. This study will actually deal with the prospects for "peak oil" -- when it will come and what can be done to mitigate the consequences. The GAO was asked by the House of Representatives Science Committee to undertake this study that has been underway for over a year.

The second and what on the surface sounds the most in-depth study of world energy resources ever undertaken is being done under the auspices of the National Petroleum Council (NPC). This council, a federally chartered and privately funded advisory committee to the Secretary of Energy, was established by President Truman in 1946. Its purpose is to represent the views of the oil and natural gas industries with respect to any matter relating to oil and natural gas. Note the words "the views of the oil and natural gas industries" as they just may come back to haunt us after the two studies are released.

... The GAO effort will almost certainly be the straightforward professional exercise we have come to expect from this organization. The study will probably acknowledge that world oil production will peak someday and the researchers, who work for the Congress, will do their best to give a balanced answer to questions of when production will peak and what might we do about it.

Editorial Notes: Jan Lundberg of Culture Change has been suggesting a round-up like this, to cope with the gush in the flow of energy news. Perhaps we can do more round-ups in the future. -BA

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