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Energy - March 24

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage.


Peak Oil Production May Already Be Here

Richard A. Kerr, Science
Five years ago, many oil experts saw trouble looming. In 10 years or so, they said, oil producers outside the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would likely be unable to pump oil any faster and OPEC would gain an even stronger hand among the world's oil producers.

Five years on, it appears those experts may have been unduly optimistic—non-OPEC oil production may have been peaking as they spoke. Despite a near tripling of world oil prices, non-OPEC production, which accounts for 60% of world output, hasn't increased significantly since 2004. And many of those same experts, as well as some major oil companies, don't see it increasing again—ever.

Optimists remain. Some experts still see production from new frontiers, such as Kazakhstan, the deep waters off Brazil, and the oil sands of Canada, pushing production above the current plateau in the next few years. But time's running out to prove that newly discovered fields and new technology can more than compensate for flagging production from the rapidly aging fields beyond OPEC.

Science 25 March 2011:
Vol. 331 no. 6024 pp. 1510-1511
DOI: 10.1126/science.331.6024.1510

(25 March 2011)
Just posted on the web. Only the summary (above) is available to the public. The text is behind a paywall. -BA



Japan's nuclear crisis has silver lining

Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
The March 11 quake and tsunami left much of Japan with a shortage of electricity and fuel. But the dark age has also inspired creative ways to make do and save energy.
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... Tokyo's iconic electronic billboards have been switched off. Trash is piling up in many northern Japanese cities because garbage trucks don't have gasoline. Public buildings go unheated. Factories are closed, in large part because of rolling blackouts and because employees can't drive to work with empty tanks.

This what happens when a 21st century country runs critically low on energy. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami have thrust much of Japan into an unaccustomed dark age that could drag on for up to a year.

... Japan's energy crisis is taking place on two fronts: The explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear compound and the shutdown of other nuclear plants owned by Tokyo Electric Power Co. have reduced the supply of electricity to the capital by nearly 30%.

Nine oil refineries also were damaged, including one in Chiba, near Tokyo, which burned spectacularly on television, creating shortages of gasoline and heating oil. Gasoline lines in the northern part of Honshu, Japan's main island, extend for miles. About 30% of the gas stations in the Tokyo area are closed because they have nothing to sell.

Economists say it is difficult to parse out how much is the result of actual scarcity and how much comes from hoarding.

... "You can't buy anything, you can't go anywhere, you can't do anything. We're basically hanging out at home," said Megumi Fukatsu, an accounting student in Akita.
(24 March 2011)



In this nuclear world, what is the meaning of 'safe'?

Barbara Rose Johnston, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
In a nuclear crisis, life becomes a nightmare for those people trying to make sense of the uncertainties. Imaginably, the questions are endless.

Radiation is invisible, how do you know when you are in danger? How long will this danger persist? How can you reduce the hazard to yourself and family? What level of exposure is safe? How do you get access to vital information in time to prevent or minimize exposure? What are the potential risks of acute and chronic exposures? What are the related consequential damages of exposure? Whose information do you trust? How do you rebuild a healthy way of life in the aftermath of nuclear disaster?

And the list of unknowns goes on.

These questions are difficult to answer in the chaos and context of an ongoing disaster, and they become even more complicated by the fact that governments and the nuclear industry maintain tight control of information, operations, scientific research, and the biomedical lessons that shape public-health response.

This regulation of information has been the case since the nuclear age began, and understanding this helps to illuminate why there is no clear consensus on what Japan's nuclear disaster means in terms of local and global human health.

Nuclear secrecy in context. In the initial hours after the earthquake and tsunami, the Japanese government and Tokyo Electrical Power Company issued statements reporting minor damage at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In the days that followed, government and industry officials reported the "venting of hydrogen gas", but that there was "no threat to health." This reassurance of health safety was echoed when hydrogen gas explosions occurred at the power plant.

In fact, the hydrogen released is tritium water vapor, a low-level emitter that can be absorbed in a human body through simply breathing, or by drinking contaminated water. Tritium decays by beta emission and has a radioactive half-life of about 12.3 years. As it undergoes radioactive decay, this isotope emits a very low-energy beta particle and transforms to stable, nonradioactive helium. Once tritium enters the body, it disperses quickly, is uniformly distributed, and is excreted through urine within a month or so after ingestion. It produces a low-level exposure and may result in toxic effects to the kidney. As with all ionizing radiation, exposure to tritium increases the risk of developing cancer.

So, then, why no mention of tritium in the government or industry statements? Relatively speaking, the health effects of a low-level emitter like tritium are minor when compared to the other radiogenic and toxic hazards in this nuclear catastrophe. Such omission is a standard industry practice, designed to reassure the public that the normal operating procedures of a nuclear power plant represent no significant threat to human health.

The assertion that low-level exposure to radiation represents no human threat is an artifact of Cold War-era science that was shaped to meet government and industry needs.

During the Cold War, scientific findings on health effects to nuclear fallout that contradicted the official narrative were typically censored. Scientists were not only punished for their work, they were also blacklisted ...
(28 March 2011)



A global energy war looms

Jeremy Warner, Telegraph/UK
Here’s an alarming chart to ponder. HSBC has calculated what would happen to energy consumption by 2050 given plausible forecasts for economic growth and assuming no constraint on resources, or that humans carry on using energy in the “taken for granted” way they do at the moment.

As you can see, demand in China, India and other emerging markets soars, but there is also quite considerable growth from advanced economies too. The big picture is that with an additional one billion cars on the road, demand for oil would grow 110pc to more than 190 million barrels per day. Total demand for energy would rise by a similar order of magnitude, doubling the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to more than three and a half times the amount climate change scientists think would keep temperatures at safe levels.

It scarcely needs saying that regardless of the environmental consequences, energy industries would struggle to cope, and more likely would find it impossible. We may or may not already be perilously close to peak oil – or maximum productive capacity – but nobody believes the industry could produce double what it does at the moment, however clever it becomes in tapping previously uncommercial or inaccessible reserves.

If something can’t happen, then it won’t, so is all that forecast growth in the developing world just a question of wishful thinking that will soon be dashed by the constraints of finite energy?
(22 March 2011)



International Crises Boost Russia's Energy Posture

Gregory Feifer, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
With U.S.-led fighter jets pounding military assets in oil-rich Libya, and Japan still struggling to contain radiation at its stricken Fukushima nuclear plant, concerns are rising around the world about the future of energy supplies. But not in Russia.

As the unrest in the Middle East bites into supplies, prices for crude approached $105 a barrel this week. That's helping drive windfall profits that are enabling the world's biggest energy exporter to finally emerge from recession triggered by the global financial crisis in 2008.

But while that's good news for Russia's economy, Kremlin critics say rising energy prices are again shoring up the country's authoritarian government -- and that's bad for politics.

Energy Savior

Russia is using the crises in the Middle East and Japan to burnish its image as the world's energy superpower. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- who has predicted that Russia's GDP will equal its precrisis level by next year -- exchanged his usually stern demeanor for an uncharacteristically friendly manner last week and promised to help Japan, where the nuclear crisis has forced electricity blackouts. He predicted the effects of the earthquake and tsunami to energy supplies there will be long-term.

"In that regard, we have to think of accelerating our plans to develop hydrocarbon-extraction projects -- particularly gas extraction -- in the Far East," he said.

Putin offered to pump more gas to Europe by pipeline, freeing shipments of liquefied natural gas for Japan. He also proposed laying an electricity cable to Japan and offered Japanese companies stakes in Siberian gas fields. Moscow has issued more offers since, including encouragement for Japanese companies to invest in Russia's coal industry.

But some analysts are warning Russia's heightened focus on its global energy role is eroding any -- already distant -- hopes the government would enact economic reform. The Kremlin vowed to diversify the country's economy after plummeting oil prices dealt the economy a body blow during the global financial crisis.
(24 March 2011)

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