Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Occupy sustainability: the 1% is blocking the transition to a renewable energy economy

Occupy sustainability: The 1% is blocking the transition to a renewable energy economy

Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC

In order to make our society sustainable, we have to deal not just with environmental issues and climate change, but with the economic crisis and the depletion of natural resources. The most effective responses will deal with all four at once. While climate change response has mostly been blocked, the Occupy movement is rapidly emerging as a major political force.

Occupiers are planning next steps for 2012, looking at new ways to get the public involved, and refining their visions for a more just society.  We need to protest and withdraw from corrupt, unsustainable systems and simultaneously create new systems that are both equitable and sustainable.  The transition to a sustainable, renewable energy economy can be a valuable addition to this discussion, since it addresses environmental issues and climate change, slows depletion of natural resources, and builds an economic infrastructure not controlled by the financial elites. 

The 1% absolutely does not want us to realize how urgently this transition to a renewable energy economy is needed. Their power and profits depend on keeping the unsustainable fossil fuel economy running as long as possible.

They’re heavily invested in it.
Of the 10 largest global corporations, 6 are oil companies. The International Forum on Globalization has identified the world’s top 50 individuals whose investments benefit from climate change and whose influence networks block efforts to phase out pollution from fossil fuels.  To continue making as much money as they can, they would have us wait until it’s too late to make a successful transition.

The consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels include the terrible pollution associated with fracking, tar sands development, offshore drilling spills, and coal-fired power plants, and vulnerability to volatile fuel prices and unstable foreign energy supplies.  Perhaps we could tolerate those costs of the energy status quo, but we can’t live with the catastrophic climate change it will surely trigger. The pushers of fossil fuels, the world’s largest corporations and their allies, don’t want us to know another world is possible. 

Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine, says that climate change response requires immediate adoption of policies hated by the free market right: reversing privatization; relocalizing much of the economy; scaling back overconsumption; bringing back long-term planning; heavily regulating, taxing and even nationalizing corporations; and cutting military spending. As she says, “Climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.” Right wing activists understand that climate change response and the abuses of unchecked free market capitalism are just not compatible. 

But climate change response of the scale needed to work will only take place if there is a massive, popular effort to get corporations out of politics.   The 1% is opposing this.  It is lobbying to reduce regulation and oversight on fossil fuels, which will make these pollution problems and climate change worse.

The 1% also doesn’t want us to know that getting off fossil fuels is inevitable, and that a successful transition to a renewable energy economy is not guaranteed.  It’s only possible if we stop the 1% from blocking the transition, and start building it now, while we still can. 
World crude oil production has been on a plateau since 2006, despite efforts to find more. Discovery of new oil fields peaked in the 1960s. Many analysts – including the US military – predict that in the next few years oil supply will fall short of demand and go into permanent decline. This will lead to shortages and high prices, which will continue the economic slowdown, and high unemployment. Of course, this is on top of whatever financial crises are already waiting in the wings. The longer we wait to get the transition started, the more difficult and costly it will be. 

Climate change and the limits to fuel supplies and natural resources may be abstract, but lead to very material consequences including food shortages, natural disasters and wars.   The world’s largest corporations have calculated that they profit more from maintaining their monopolies on the world’s food, commerce and transportation systems than from preventing human suffering and death.  Blowing the whistle on the financial elites blocking the renewable energy transition is one place to start. Another is by organizing to create the renewable energy economy at the local level.  

Further collaboration between the Occupy and sustainability movements

To respond to climate change, resource depletion and economic injustice our society has to be transformed from top to bottom: from energy, housing, food and agriculture, transportation, urban planning, and local economic development, to industry and manufacturing.

Although transformative federal action in these areas may be blocked, organizers may find opportunities to address these matters locally with little resistance. Projects can benefit the 99% by offering relief from continuing economic turmoil, encouraging production of local goods and services, lowering bills, redirecting the flow of money from large corporations to small businesses, and laying the groundwork for more democratic and just communities. Such projects would be natural ways to extend the values central to the Occupy movement, get more citizens involved, and pressure elected officials to do their parts. They might look less like protests, and more like other parts of the alternative economy now getting underway - consumer and worker cooperatives, barter networks and credit unions.

Two areas to explore for potential projects are energy use and the food system. Residential energy conservation retrofits still offer low hanging fruit. They reduce energy bills, reduce fuel use, reduce pollution and carbon emissions, improve health and can create vast numbers of weatherization jobs.   Unlike the rest of the NYC manufacturing sector, food production is steadily growing. The thriving local food movement and city officials are working together to create a regional food system, which can employ many more area residents in all phases of agriculture and food production.  

Projects that enable people to benefit from accelerating the renewable energy transition locally could appeal to broader audiences than the sustainability and social justice movements have activated so far.  We need to connect the dots between the many such projects already out there and the broader context of why they’re needed.  Sharing the stories of these projects widely will help them get replicated, and catalyze the creation of new projects.  With a world to be transformed, we’ve got all the motivation we need.

Read the full version of this article.

Please post your suggestions and comments below, or contact beyondoilnyc@yahoo.com.  


Full spectrum sustainability: bringing together the climate change and economic justice movements
Dan Miner, Beyond Oil NYC

A sustainable world that works for the 99% is possible, if we can respond to climate change, economic injustice and resource depletion at the same time. The transition to a renewable energy economy can be a valuable frame for that discussion.  Just as the financial elites brought about the economic crisis, they are blocking the renewable energy transition to reap more profit from their fossil fuel investments. Because of fuel depletion as well as climate change, further delay may prevent a successful transition. Social justice and sustainability advocates can blow the whistle on the 1% for this issue too, and collaborate to speed up the transition locally.   Read full article

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables - Kurt Cobb

Fossil Fuels vs. Renewables: The Key Argument that Environmentalists are Missing

By Kurt Cobb

Which of the following can we count on to act as a “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy economy?

A. Oil
B. Natural Gas
C. Coal
D. None of the above

The correct answer is: D. None of the above.

Mark Twain is reported to have said: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." What most environmentalists think they know for sure is that oil, coal and natural gas are all abundant--so abundant, in fact, that many environmentalists believe they are forced to make a Hobson's choice of natural gas as a so-called "bridge fuel" to a renewable energy future.

Though natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy than coal or oil, it still contributes mightily to climate change. And, natural gas drilling in the country's vast shale formations pollutes the air and surface waters surrounding drill sites and threatens the groundwater with toxic chemicals used in fracturing operations needed to free the gas.

It turns out, however, that what most environmentalists know about the future supply of fossil fuels is based more on industry hype than on actual data. And, that means that they are missing a key argument in their discussions about renewable energy, one that could be used to persuade those less concerned about pollution and climate change and more concerned about energy security: There is increasing evidence that no fossil fuel will continue to see its rate of production climb significantly in the decades ahead and so none of them is a viable "bridge fuel," not natural gas, not oil, not coal. This means that global society must leap over fossil fuels and move directly to renewables as quickly as possible. In advanced economies this leap must be combined with a program of radical reductions in energy use, reductions which are achievable using known technologies and practices.

Okay, perhaps you are wondering about the data. Let's discuss each fossil fuel separately:


The first thing you should know about oil is that worldwide production has been on a plateau since 2005. This is despite record high prices and furious exploration and drilling efforts. There have been well-publicized finds here and there that may seem large. However, at the current worldwide rate of consumption, one billion barrels of oil lasts only 12 days. Thus, the multi-billion barrel finds announced in the last decade or so will have little impact on the longevity of world supplies.

Another key issue is one that oil companies do not want to emphasize: depletion. The worldwide average for production declines in existing oilfields has been estimated to be about 4 percent per year. That means that each year just to stay even, the industry must develop new oil production capacity equivalent to the current capacity of the North Sea, one of the world's largest fields. To grow production, it must, of course, exceed this amount, and that hasn't been happening.

When you mention these hard facts in polite company, you will undoubtedly be met with skepticism. But the data are available to the public from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) website. The agency is the statistical arm of the U.S. Department of Energy and is widely considered the gold standard of energy information in the world.

Now, don't be deceived by shifting definitions of oil. When the petroleum glut long predicted by the optimists failed to appear, they started lumping in ethanol, biodiesel and natural gas liquids with petroleum and calling them all "oil." These other products are useful, but they are not as energy-rich, versatile or easily transported as oil. Our current infrastructure is heavily dependent on oil inputs with no real substitutes available in the quantities required.

You will also likely be met with protestations that we still have lots of oil: tar sands in Canada, heavy oil in Venezuela and even oil shale in the American West, primarily Colorado. Well, this represents the difficult-to-get oil. We extracted the easy stuff in the first 150 years of the oil age. And, while it is true that these resources and others like them represent an immense store of hydrocarbons, what matters is the rate at which we can produce them.

Because of the high-cost, capital-intensive nature of such production, the rate of production will be slow to ramp up and difficult to maintain. The hydrocarbons locked in the tar sands and the Orinoco oil belt in Venezuela aren't what we call oil and must be heavily processed at high cost using enormous amounts of energy. As for the oil shale in the America West, the amount of commercially produced oil we are currently getting from that oil shale is zero. No one has figured out how to extract it profitably. Partly this is because oil shale contains no oil. Instead, it contains a hydrocarbon-rich waxy substance called kerogen which must be heavily processed to turn it into oil.

An analogy might be useful: If you inherit a million dollars with the stipulation that you can only take out $500 a month, you may be a millionaire, but you will never live like one. Increasingly, this is the situation we will find ourselves in when it comes to oil. The key issue is the rate of production, not the size of the resource. The hard-to-get oil resources are large, but they take a long time to develop and require strenuous, expensive and energy-intensive methods to extract. All this, when combined with the relentless depletion of existing fields, spells little or no growth in the worldwide rate of oil production in the coming years.

Natural Gas

By now you've been told so many times in television ads and news articles that we have a 100-year supply of natural gas in the United States, that you assume it must be true. While the claim itself is suspect, even if we accept it, there is a very serious omission. The claim in its entirety reads: a 100-year supply of natural gas at current rates of consumption. If natural gas is to be used as a so-called "bridge fuel"--a fuel that will power society with the least environmental cost while we deploy nonpolluting, renewable energy--then its rate of production will have to grow considerably if it we expect it to displace coal and oil.

Simple spreadsheet calculations will tell you what happens to such long-term supply claims under the pressure of a little exponential growth. At just 2 percent per year growth, the 100-year U.S. domestic natural gas supply is exhausted in 56 years. If we assume that production peaks when about 50 percent of the resource is exhausted, this puts the peak within 35 years. Think about it. Even if the optimists are correct, with a production growth rate of just 2 percent per year, the country reaches a peak within 35 years! What will we do after that?

The picture gets acutely worse as the rate of production growth rises. A 3 percent growth rate implies exhaustion in 47 years and peak in 31 years. A 5 percent growth rates means exhaustion in 37 years and a peak in just 26 years.

As it turns out, the EIA projects a growth rate of just 0.4 percent per year in U.S. natural gas supplies through 2035 with production jumping from about 24 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2010 to about 26.5 tcf in 2035, hardly a bonanza.

Beyond this consider that the vast resources of natural gas from deep shale layers, commonly called shale gas, may not be so vast. A U.S. Geological Survey assessment pared the EIA's original estimate of "technically recoverable" natural gas in the largest of the shale deposits, the Marcellus Shale, from 410 tcf to just 84 tcf, an 80 percent reduction. And, this says nothing about whether the gas will be economically recoverable.

The 100-year figure was based on inflated estimates of recoverable natural gas and on ignoring the fact that the rate of natural gas consumption would have to rise exponentially to displace other fossil fuels. These two facts suggest that natural gas will not be the bridge fuel environmentalists are looking for.


Among the environmental community, the big fear is that coal will displace clean natural gas and even become a source for liquid fuels as oil supplies wane. That fear is founded on industry claims of vast coal supplies in the United States and elsewhere. But four studies suggest that coal may not be nearly as abundant as once believed.

A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report concluded that claims of 250 years of coal reserves in the United States at current rates of consumption could not be supported. The number was more likely to be 100 years. However, it said that a comprehensive survey was necessary to determine a more accurate figure.

But if coal consumption were to grow beyond the current rate, then the 100 years of supply would quickly shrink as in the case of natural gas. And, data from EIA shows that the total heat content of coal mined in the United States has been declining since 1998 despite roughly level production. This means that coal grades are dropping and that the actual energy the United States gets from domestic coal peaked in that year.

A second study by David Rutledge at the California Institute of Technology concluded that worldwide reserves are probably half of those currently stated. Rutledge noted that unlike oil reserves, coal reserve estimates have been steadily dropping over time as unwarranted assumptions were stripped away and the focus was put on what is actually minable.

A third study in 2007 by an independent group of analysts in Germany, the Energy Watch Group, suggests a worldwide peak in the rate of coal production as early as 2025. The authors noted that poor quality data hampered their efforts. One of the troubling gaps was China, a country thought to have some of the largest coal resources in the world. Chinese coal data, however, have not been updated since 1992, and 20 percent of China's reserves have supposedly been mined since that date.

A fourth study published in the international journal Energy last year came to the shocking conclusion that the rate of worldwide coal production from existing fields would peak in 2011. The authors did acknowledge that vast coal fields in Alaska and Siberia remained to be developed, but doubted that these difficult-to-extract and therefore expensive reserves would be developed in time to forestall a decline. They also wrote that production from existing mines is expected to fall by 50 percent over the next 40 years.

The researchers explained that this has serious policy implications. One such implication was that money currently being spent on carbon capture and sequestration technology—a technology that assumes vast additional supplies of coal—would be better spent on outfitting existing coal-fired power stations with supercritical steam turbines, lifting efficiency from 35 percent to 50 percent. This would reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions while stretching out the available coal supplies so as to aid an energy transition.


No one knows the future. But making public policy based on industry hype could turn out to be disastrous. Keep in mind that it is the job of fossil fuel industry executives to make sure they can sell their in-ground inventories. And, of course, it's not their job to make good public policy. Our current energy policy, which I refer to as the Good-To-The-Last-Drop Policy, has already meant a huge windfall for oil producers and to a certain extent coal producers. And yet, both regale us with tales of plenty even as constrained supplies send prices skyward.

It is certainly possible that yet-to-be-invented technologies will extend the life of fossil fuel supplies. The question is whether such technologies can be deployed before overall rates of production for oil, natural gas and coal begin to decline. Modern industrial society depends for its proper functioning on the continuous input of high-grade energy resources. If those inputs start to decline or even fail to grow, the system will falter. Some believe we are already seeing the effects of constrained oil supplies on the economy as record high prices suppress economic activity and pressure an already fragile financial system.

It seems doubtful at this time that future technologies for exploiting fossil fuels will be able to do much beyond softening the inevitable declines. And, given the known trends and data, it seems foolish to wait for these yet-to-be-invented technologies to appear. That means that leapfrogging now past fossil fuels to renewable energy is not just desirable but probably inescapable. The only question is whether we as a society will do it with a focused plan for a rapid transition or whether the transition will be chaotic and marked by violent swings in the economy as the world lurches from one energy-induced crisis to another.

Kurt Cobb is a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen and author of the peak-oil-themed thriller Prelude. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights