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Oil shortages and environmental decline could create ‘global quagmire’: military report

Mike De Souza, Postmedia News via Vancouver Sun
KINGSTON, Ont. — The planet is running out of oil and heading toward a future that could trap Canada in a violent spiral of decline in the economy and the environment, a special research unit within the Canadian military is predicting.

This “global quagmire” is one of four possible future scenarios advanced by the six members of the team who are developing a plan for the army of tomorrow based on existing scientific research and analysis.

In a best-case scenario, they predict that Canada could be at the forefront of a prosperous green economy, in which clean energy and environmental protection are priorities and living standards improve around the world.

Two other scenarios fall in between, but all four alternatives conclude that energy security and global environmental change are the most serious and unpredictable factors that could radically alter society as well as the role of Canada’s army.
(17 April 2011)

Unsung bedrock of prosperity: phosphorus

Samuel Schläfli, ETH Zurich
Modern agriculture would be inconceivable without phosphate fertilisers – and it needs more and more of them. Experts warn of an imminent phosphorus shortage. But not Roland Scholz from the Institute of Environmental Decisions. For him, the main problems are the open phosphorus cycle and non-sustainable resource management.

… Most of the phosphorus for the production of fertilisers is mined. At today’s volumes, the known reserves will eventually run out, and so the term ‘peak phosphorus’ was coined in 2007. As with crude oil (peak oil), the experts suspect the maximum output has been reached; that the reserves can only decrease from now on. Calculations as to how long the global phosphorus reserves will last range between fifty and one hundred years, as the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative announced – an international union of researchers devoted to peak phosphorus.

Roland Scholz, a professor from the Institute for Environmental Decisions, however, does not believe a peak is on the horizon: ‘As it is, we know far too little about the natural reserves to be able to make a prediction like that.’ The global oil deposits are a different kettle of fish altogether; they have been researched thoroughly, so we can already make sound quantitative estimates. As far as the calculations of the phosphate reserves are concerned, however, we are reliant upon data from the industry. But mining is not the only way to obtain phosphorus; it exists in various forms and qualities. Scholz found an indication of just how uncertain today’s estimations really are in a recent publication on Morocco’s reserves: the authors concluded that they are actually twice as big as originally assumed.

A trained mathematician, Scholz especially criticises the type of the calculations used thus far. Like peak oil, peak phosphorus is calculated using the Hubbard curve. However, this only makes sense under certain conditions; the available resources have to be known and limited, and the demand function constant, for instance. According to Schulz, however, a model for calculating the phosphorus peak also needs to include possible technological innovations in mineral extraction. I
(11 April 2011)
A Swiss friend says that ETH is like the MIT of Switzerland.

The article also appears in German.. -BA

Era of ‘tough oil’ won’t deter drillers

Scott Tong, Marketplace, American Public Media
Nowadays, oil is tough to get, expensive and risky. Yet true believers in the oil sector say they’re up to the task — and have the track record to prove it.
Oil drilling rigs in Midland County, Texas

Oil drilling rigs in Midland County, Texas. (Mira Oberman/AFP/Getty Images)

Bob Moon: The worst oil spill in nation’s history started pouring into the Gulf of Mexico one year ago this week. The explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform killed 11 people. And, enough crude to fill maybe 10,000 or more average-size swimming pools gushed into the deep, dark sea.

This week, we’ll be heading down to Louisiana to check on life after the spill. And later in the week: The quest to replace oil in consumer products.

Today and tomorrow, we’re focusing on why BP was drilling two miles underwater in the first place. Seems all the easy stuff has been found, and the search for new oil is tough: Expensive and risky. Yet the true believers in the oil sector say they’re up to the task, and they’ve got the track record to prove it.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports now from one of our hydrocarbon capitals: West Texas.

… In the 1950s, the Peak Oil sirens went off again.

Mark Ellis heads the company Linn Energy.

Mark Ellis: The easy finds have been had. All those high-prolific reservoirs have already been discovered. They’re still producing, but on the tail end of their maturity. Is it tough oil? Yeah.

American production did finally peak in the 1970s. But Ellis says there’s still a lot down there.

Ellis: It’s harder and expensive to get, but if prices stays up, technology will provide. It always has.

… There are fears that fracking pollutes groundwater. And, once again, there are warnings the oil drillers’ luck will eventually catch up to them.

Steve Kopits is with consultancy Douglas Westwood.

Steve Kopits: Yes, you can increase production somewhat with better technology and high oil prices. But you can’t reverse geology forever.

The industry response: Yeah, we’ve heard this before — 1908, 1939, 1956. As long as the world wants it, and will pay for it, we’ll go to the ends of the earth — into rocks, three miles below the ocean, wherever. We’ll figure it out. Trust us.
(18 April 2011)
Journalist Scott Tong gets some nice color, but misses the point. US oil production DID peak in the 70s. Oil is going to be harder to find and more expensive. This isn’t a knock on the oil drillers, but all their ingenuity and risk-taking are not going to change the reality of peak oil. -BA

What happens when we run out of water?

Charles Fishman, Salon
Over the last century, H20 has become so convenient we take it for granted. That’s about to change

… Water is the secret ingredient of our fuel-hungry society. That new flat-screen TV, it turns out, needs not just a wall outlet and a cable connection but also its own water supply to get going. Who would have guessed?

Water is also the secret ingredient in the computer chips that make possible everything from MRI machines to Twitter accounts. Indeed, from blue jeans to iPhones, from Kleenex to basmati rice to the steel in your Toyota Prius, every product of modern life is awash in water.

… For Americans, flushing the toilet is the main way we use water. We use more water flushing toilets than bathing or cooking or washing our hands, our dishes, or our clothes. When we think about the big ways we use water, flushing the toilet doesn’t typically leap to mind. It’s one of those unnoticed parts of our daily water use — our daily water-mark — that turns out to be both startling and significant.

The largest single consumer of water in the United States, in fact, is virtually invisible. Every day, the nation’s power plants use 201 billion gallons of water in the course of generating electricity. That isn’t water used by hydroelectric plants — it’s the water used by coal, gas, and nuclear power plants for cooling and to make steam.

Toilets and electric outlets may be stealthy consumers of water, but they at least serve vital functions. One of the largest daily consumers of water isn’t a use at all. One of every six gallons of water pumped into water mains by U.S. utilities simply leaks away, back into the ground.

This article was adapted from Charles Fishman’s “The Big Thirst,” available April 12.
(10 April 2011)