Why Natural Gas isn’t Likely to be the World’s Energy Savior

We keep hearing about the many benefits of natural gas–how burning it releases less CO2 than oil or coal, and how it burns with few impurities, so does not have the pollution problems of coal. We also hear about the possibilities of releasing huge amounts of new natural gas supplies, through the fracking of shale gas. Reported reserves for natural gas also seem to be quite high, especially in the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union.

But I think that people who are counting on natural gas to solve the world’s energy problems are “counting their chickens before they are hatched”. Natural gas is a fuel that requires a lot of infrastructure in order for anything to “happen”. As a result, it needs a lot of up-front investment, and several years time delay. It also needs changes on the consumption side (requiring further investment) that will allow this natural gas to be used. If the cost is higher than competing fuels, this becomes a problem as well.

In many ways, natural gas consumption is captive to other things that are happening in the economy: an economy that is industrializing rapidly will easily be able to consume more natural gas, but an economy in decline will find it hard to scrape together funds for new ways of doing what was done previously, now with natural gas. Increased use of renewables seems to call for additional use of natural gas for balancing, but even this is not certain, because in many parts of the world, natural gas is a high-priced imported fuel.  Political instability, often linked to high oil and food prices, creates a poor atmosphere for new Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) facilities, no matter how attractive the pricing may seem to be.

In the US, we have already “hit the wall” on how much natural gas can be absorbed into the system or used to offset imports. US natural gas production has been flat since November 2011, based on EIA data (Figure 1, below).

Figure 1. US Dry Natural Gas Production, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

Even with this level of production, and a large shift in electricity production from coal to natural gas,  natural gas is still on the edge of “maxing out” its storage system before winter hits (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. US natural gas in storage, compared to five-year average. Figure prepared by US Energy Information Administration, Weekly Natural Gas Storage Report as of October 5, 2012.

World Natural Gas Production

The past isn’t the future, but it does give a little bit of understanding regarding what the underlying trends are.

Figure 3. World natural gas production, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

World natural gas production/consumption (Figure 3) has been increasing, recently averaging about 2.7% a year. If we compare natural gas to other energy sources, it has been second to coal in terms of the amount by which it has contributed to the total increase in world energy supplies in the last five years (Figure 4). This comparison is made by converting all amounts to “barrels of oil equivalent”, and computing the increase between 2006 and 2011.

Figure 4. Increase in energy supplied for the year 2011, compared to the year 2006, for various fuels, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

In order for natural gas to be an energy savior for the world, natural gas consumption would need to increase far more than 2.7% per year, and outdistance the increase in coal consumption each year. While a modest increase from past patterns is quite possible, I don’t expect a miracle from natural gas.

Natural Gas: What Has Changed?

The basic thing that has changed is that fracking now permits extraction of shale gas (in addition to other types of gas), if other conditions are met as well:

  1. Selling price is high enough (probably higher than for other types of natural gas produced)
  2. Water is available for fracking
  3. Governments permit fracking
  4. Infrastructure is available to handle the fracked gas

Even before the discovery of shale gas, reported world natural gas reserves were quite high relative to natural gas production (63.6 times 2011 production, according to BP). Reserves might theoretically be even higher, with additional shale gas discoveries.

In addition, the use of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) for export is also increasing, making it possible to ship previously “stranded” natural gas, such as that in Alaska. This further increases the amount of natural gas available to world markets.

What Stands in the Way of Greater Natural Gas Usage?

1. Price competition from coal. One major use for natural gas is making electricity. If locally produced coal is available, it likely will produce electricity more cheaply than natural gas. The reason shale gas recently could be sold for electricity production in the United States is because the selling price for natural gas dropped below the equivalent price for coal. The “catch” was that shale gas producers were losing money at this price (and have since dropped back their production). If the natural gas price increases enough for shale gas to be profitable, electricity production will again move back toward coal.

Many other parts of the world also have coal available, acting as a cap on the amount of fracked natural gas likely to be produced. A carbon tax might change this within an individual country, but those without such a tax will continue to prefer the lower-price product.

2. Growing internal natural gas use cuts into exports. This is basically the Exportland model issue, raised by Jeffrey Brown with respect to oil, but for natural gas. If we look at Africa’s natural gas production, consumption, and exports, this is what we see:

Figure 5. Africa natural gas production, consumption, and exports, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In Africa, (mostly northern Africa, which exports to Europe and Israel), consumption has been rising fast enough that exports have leveled off and show signs of declining.

3. Political instability. Often, countries with large natural gas resources are ones with large oil resources as well. If oil production starts to drop off, and as a result oil export revenue drops off, a country is likely to experience political instability. A good example of this is Egypt.

Figure 6. Egypt’s oil production and consumption, based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

No matter how much natural gas Egypt may have, it would not make sense for a company to put in an LNG train or more pipeline export capability, because the political situation is not stable enough. Egypt needs oil exports to fund its social programs. The smaller funding amount available from natural gas exports is not enough to make up that gap, so it is hard to see natural gas making up the gap, even if it were available in significant quantity.

Iran is a country with large natural gas reserves. It is reportedly looking into extracting natural gas for export. Again, we have a political stability issue. Here we have an international sanctions issue as well.

4. “Need the natural gas for myself later” view. A country (such as Egypt or the United States or Britain) that has been “burned” by declining oil production may think twice about exporting natural gas. Even if the country doesn’t need it now, there is a possibility that vehicles using natural gas could be implemented later, in their own country, thus helping to alleviate the oil shortage. Also, there are risks and costs involved with fracking, that they may not choose to incur, if the benefit is to go to exporters.

5. Cost of investment for additional natural gas consumption. In order to use more natural gas, considerable investment is needed. New pipelines likely need to be added. Homeowners and businesses may need to purchase gas-fired furnaces to raise demand. If it is decided to use natural gas vehicles, there is a need for the new vehicles themselves, plus service stations and people trained to fix the new vehicles. Additional natural gas storage may be needed as well. Additional industrial production is difficult to add, unless wages are low enough that the product being sold will be competitive on the world market.

Existing “pushes” toward better insulation have the effect of reducing the amount of natural gas used for heating homes and businesses, so work in the opposite direction. So do new techniques for making nitrogen-based fertilizer using coal, rather than using natural gas.

6. Touchy balance between supply and consumption. If additional production is added, but additional uses are not, we have already seen what happens in the United States. Storage facilities get overly full, the price of natural gas drops to unacceptably low levels, and operators scramble to cut back production.

The required balance between production and consumption is very “touchy”. It can be thrown off by only a few percent change in production or consumption. Thus an unusually warm winter, as the United States experienced last year, played a role in the overly full storage problem. A ramp up of production of only a few percent can also cause an out of balance situation. Unless a developer has multiple buyers for its gas, or a “take or pay” long-term contract, it risks the possibility that the gas that is has developed will not be wanted at an adequate price.

7. Huge upfront investment requirements. There are multiple requirements for investing in new shale gas developments. Each individual well costs literally millions of dollars to drill and frack. The cost will not be paid back for several years (or perhaps ever, if the selling price is not high enough), so debt financing is generally needed. If fracking is done, a good supply of water is needed. This is likely to be a problem in dry countries such as China. There is a need for trained personnel, drilling rigs of the right type, and adequate pipelines to put the new gas into. While these things are available in the United States, it likely will take years to develop adequate supplies of them elsewhere. All of the legislation that regulates drilling and enables pipeline building, needs to be in place as well. Laws need to be friendly to fracking, as well.

Growth in Exports to Date

Exports grew as a percentage of natural gas use through about 2007 or 2008.

Figure 7. World natural gas exports as percentage of total natural gas produced, by year, based on EIA data (older years) and BP’s 2102 Statistical Review of World Energy for 2010 and 2011.

In recent years, natural gas exports have fallen slightly as a percentage of total gas extracted. Thus, if world natural gas supplies have risen by an average of 2.7% per year for the past five years, exports available for import have risen a little less rapidly than the 2.7% per year increase. A major ramp-up in export capability would be needed to change this trend.

While we hear a lot about the rise in exports using LNG, its use does not seem to be adding to the overall percentage of natural gas exported. Instead, there has been a shift in the type of export capacity being added. There are still a few pipelines being added (such as the Nord Stream pipline, from Russia to Germany), but these are increasingly the exception.

The Shale Gas Pricing Debate

Exactly what price is needed for shale gas to be profitable is subject to debate. Shale gas requires the payment of huge up-front costs. Once they are drilled and “fracked,” they will produce for a long period. Company models assume that they will last as long as 40 years, but geologist Arthur Berman of The Oil Drum claims substantial numbers are closed down in as few as six years, because they are not producing enough natural gas to justify their ongoing costs. There is also a question as to whether the best locations are drilled first.

Logically a person would expect shale-gas to be quite a bit more expensive to produce than other natural gas because it is trapped in much smaller pores, and much more force is required to extracted it. In terms of the resource triangle that I sometimes show (Figure 8, below), it epitomizes the low quality, hard to extract resource near the bottom of the triangle that is available in abundance. We usually start at the top of the resource triangle, and extract the easiest and cheapest to extract first.

Figure 8. Author’s illustration of impacts of declining resource quality.

Berman claims that prices $8.68 or higher per million Btu are needed for profitability of Haynesville Shale, and nearly as high prices are needed to justify drilling other US shale plays. The current US price is about $3.50 per million Btu, so to be profitable, the price would need to be more than double the current US price. Prices for natural gas in Europe are much higher, averaging $11.08 per million Btu in September 2012, but shale gas extraction costs may be higher there as well.

The US Energy Information Administration admits it doesn’t know how the economics will work out, and gives a range of projected prices. It is clear from the actions of the natural gas industry that current prices are a problem. According to Baker Hughes, the number of drilling rigs engaged in natural gas drilling has dropped from 936 one year ago to 422, for the week ended October 12, 2012.

Backup for Renewables

One area where natural gas excels is as a back up for intermittent renewable energy, since it can ramp up and down quickly. So this is one area where a person might expect growth. Such a possibility is not certain, though:

1. How much will intermittent renewables continue to ramp up? Governments are getting poorer, and have less funds available to subsidize them. They do not compete well on when they go head to head with fossil fuels, nuclear, and hydroelectric.

2. When intermittent renewables are subsidized with feed in tariffs, and requirements that wind power be given priority over fossil fuels, it can provide such an unlevel playing field that it is difficult for natural gas to be profitable. This is especially the case in locations where natural gas is already higher-priced than coal.

The Societal “Recipe” Problem

Our economy is built of many interdependent parts. Each business is added, taking into account what businesses already are in place, and what laws are in effect. Because of the way the economy currently operates, it uses a certain proportion of oil, a certain proportion of natural gas, and more or less fixed proportions of other types of energy. The number of people employed tends to vary, too, with the size of the economy, with a larger economy demanding more employees.

Proportions of businesses and energy use can of course change over time. In fact, there is some flexibility built in. In particular, in the US, we have a surplus of natural gas electricity generating units, installed in the hope that they would be used more than they really are, and the energy traded long distance. But there is less flexibility elsewhere. The cars most people drive use gasoline, and the only way to cut back is to drive less. Our furnaces use a particular fuel, and apart from adjusting the temperature setting, or adding insulation, it is hard to make a change in this. We only make major changes when it comes time to sell a car, replace a furnace, or add a new factory.

In my view, the major issue the world has been dealing with in recent years is an inadequate supply of cheap oil. High priced oil tends to constrict the economy, because it causes consumers to cut back on discretionary spending. People in discretionary industries are laid off, and they tend to also spend less, and sometimes default on their loans. Governments find themselves in financial difficulty when they collect fewer taxes and need to pay out more in benefits. While this issue is still a problem in the US, the government has been able to cover up this effect up in several ways (ultra low interest rates, a huge amount of deficit spending, and “quantitive easing”). The effect is still there, and pushing us toward the “fiscal cliff.”

The one sure way to ramp up natural gas usage is for the economy as a whole to grow. If this happens, natural gas usage will grow for two reasons: (1) The larger economy will use more gas, and (2) the growth in the economy will add more opportunities for new businesses, and these new businesses will have the opportunity to utilize more natural gas, if the price is competitive.

I have compared the situation with respect to limited oil supply as being similar to that of a baker, who is trying to bake a batch of cookies that calls for two cups of flour, but who has only one cup of flour. The baker is able to make only half a batch. Half of the other ingredients will go unused as well, because the batch is small.

To me, discovering that we have more natural gas than we had before, is analogous to the baker discovering that instead of having a dozen eggs in his refrigerator, there are actually two dozen in his refrigerator. In fact, he finds he can even go and buy more eggs, if he is willing to pay double the price he is accustomed to paying. But the eggs really do not fix the missing cup of flour problem, unless someone can find a way to change eggs into flour very cheaply.

Basic Energy Types

To me, the most basic forms of energy resources are (1) coal and (2) oil. Both can be transported easily, if it is possible to extract them. Natural gas is very much harder to transport and store, so it is in many ways less useful. It can be made work in combination with oil and coal, because the use of coal and oil make it possible to build pipelines and make devices to provide compression to the gas. With coal and oil, it is also possible to make and maintain electric transmission lines to transport electricity made with natural gas.

I sometimes talk about renewable energy being a “fossil fuel extender,” because they hopefully make fossil fuels “go farther”. In some ways, I think natural gas is an extender for oil and coal. It is hard to imagine a society powered only by natural gas, because of the difficulties in using it, and the major changes required to use it exclusively.

In the earliest days, natural gas was simply a “waste product” of oil extraction. It was “flared” to get rid of it. In many parts of the world, natural gas is still flared, because the effort it takes to collect it, transport it, and make it into a useful product is still too high.

The hope that natural gas will be the world’s energy savior depends on our ability to make this former waste product into a product that will replace oil and coal. But unless we can put together an economy that needs and uses it, most of it probably will be left in the ground. The supposedly very high reserves will do us no good.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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91 Responses to Why Natural Gas isn’t Likely to be the World’s Energy Savior

  1. Thank you for explaining the demerits of natural gas with graphical presentation. It is really an useful information.

  2. Southerness says:

    Overall, I found this “an essay in search of a thesis”. Based on the commentary, somehow a still fairly thoughtful overview of natural gas in the oil and gas complex became a paean to the survivalist movement.

    Let’s keep it simple:

    a) The btu relationship between oil and gas is 5.8/1 (usually rounded up to 6/1). Even if gas needs $8/mcf to make money (which I highly doubt) that means gas wherever substitutable is a positive deal when oil costs more than $46.40/b. Infrastructure cost to develop some switching capability is real, but with WTI no lower than $75/b since 10/09 this is a no-brainer. It is the core reason you are hearing and reading about efforts to increase the use of natural gas throughout our economy, all ancillary issues ignored. This is the reason LNG for heavy truck transportation is growing rapidly on a percentage basis (from a tiny base) and will become significant over the next five years.

    b) I’m quite familiar with Berman’s work. I think his survivorship bias argument is silly: after enough wells are drilled the better ones lift the average overall. Of course, that is what statistical averages are all about! However, I do agree with him that exponential versus hyperbolic curves are likely more accurate, and EUR’s may well be overstated on that basis. The thing is–who cares? EUR is a metric for Wall Street’s financial tenderfeet. The wells are largely done in 4-5 years. A well that plods along at 7% of original production for 20 years has almost zero present value. From an economic point of view this is a result without an argument. I assure you if you corner a real gasman and offer some good whiskey, he will tell you that investment in drilling is made based on availability of funds for drilling; their read of the market’s enthusiasm for production growth; and the future’s forward curve a couple of years out. NGL content is also important, and gas associated with oil production is considered free.

    The one assertion in the article that I most strongly agree with is the idea that nat gas is an oil extender. Vehicles can be operated on natural gas, and in some parts of the world nat gas is actually the dominant transportation fuel.

    Gas is not a coal extender. Coal and gas are mortal enemies as coal is primarily used to generate electricity. Coal is itself a mature fuel (not unlike oil) and the age of “cheap coal” is rapidly declining. And while the article asserts that coal is easy to transport that does not mean cheap. A significant portion of the cost of Powder River Basin coal is the cost to rail it to end markets.

    Regarding Chinese shale, let’s remember the majority of gas supply growth in China piped gas from Central Asia (not cheap) and LNG (more expensive still). Indigenous shale has a very low hurdle to climb to be economically viable on that basis. It can be quite expensive to extract and still be a very attractive energy source to the Chinese.

    Finally, the most important point in all of the article and follow-on commentary is Gail’s last post. Climate change; big enviro’s; sustainable energy; all of this stuff avoids the nasty truth: there are too many people around and their numbers continue to grow. The natural resource problem is a population problem. Thing is, if you were a professional environmental fund raiser would you be smart to tell people to give you money so you could spread the word about how people should use contraception and plan to have one or even better no children? If you did, you would have a very short fund-raising career. Much better to demonize oil and gas companies and sell pie-in-the-sky fantasies about how “technology” will save us all if we only “force greedy companies to do what’s right” usually with the cudgel of government.

    We have just experienced 4 years of the most liberal administration in recent memory without much to show on this front. In fact, the Obama administration began as sworn enemies of both oil and gas and have had to back down on gas because of the jobs it has generated while little else from the government’s initiatives has produced similar results.

    • You are right about the fact that the issue is ultimately a population problem. We can argue about whether or not natural gas will hold things together are little longer, but as long as population keeps rising, and oil and coal production are constrained, we have a big problem.

  3. Ikonoclast says:

    “If you can make renewable energy work, be my guest. No one else ever has.” – Leo Smith.

    Historically, you are incorrect.

    Before the advent of fossil fuel use (coal, oil, natural gas), mankind lived entirely on renewable energy. It’s difficult to put a start point on this process, but before the year 1601 the use of coal was fairly minimal and the use of mineral oil (in lamps) was vanishingly small. Most energy for human life came from sunlight and wind. (Sound familiar?) Sunliight grew crops (and grasses). Humans, food animals and draught animals ate these plant foods. Humans also ate food animals. Wind power (and hydro power) turned mills and wind power moved sea transport.

    It is estimated that the world population in 1600 was 700 million to 800 million. Hence it is proven that this number can live on renweable energy at a 1600 technology level. Now, we face a situation where our technology level is much greater but much more of the earth’s store of natural capital (forests, wild populations, soils etc.) has been depleted by unsustainable practices since about 1600. To drive this technology takes far more energy. All these facts must be admitted and the overall situation or predicament of mankind is enormously complex.

    The situation we face now is that the world population must be stabilised and probably even reduced. If we do not do it advertantly then inadvertant human reactions and natural processes will do it for us. These are any and all of war, famine, pestilence and natural catastrophe like climate change.

    It might be possible to transition to renewable energy and retain some parts of modern civilization and society. It will be possible, barring total catatastrophe, to transition to renewable energy and go back to about the early middle ages but no better given that we have denuded much of the world’s natural capital.

    The assumption that a renewable energy transition cannot occur is false in my view. It can occur with modern technology and give us a significant and workable energy profit to run a leaner, meaner electrical economy (not an IC engine economy). However, Gail and Leo will never agree this is possible so we might as well give up arguing on that score.

    The only possible solution I can see for humanity, given our current economic and political systems is as follows.

    1. Agree on the peak fossils and peak fission fuels case. Agree on AGW dangers.
    2. Come to an agreement on how to cost negative externalities like CO2 emissions.
    3. Price energy without subsidies and with agreed negative externality costs.
    4. Make all energy production forms pay adequate market determined insurance.
    5. The allow the market to determine which energy is produced.

    If we follow those 5 points, we are likely to come to the best possible outcome even if that “best” merely turns out to be “least worst” or even an ultimately unavoidable disaster. This points program is the best we can do given that we have ratcheted our way up to precarious heights of population, resource exploitation and dependence on high production.

    I hope that Gail and Leo would at least agree with those 5 points.

    • The thing I would point out is that we use renewable energy in an unsustainable way, cutting down forests and badly depleting the soils. There was huge population pressure to get “more”. Our population is even higher today, so such pressure would still be the case.

  4. Don Stewart says:

    In this little essay I will try to explain what I think is wrong with much of the thinking about conventional energy and renewable energy. ‘What I think is wrong’ depends, of course, very much upon the broad parameters of the future that I see in store for us over the next couple of decades. Let’s say that I tend to agree with Chris Martenson’s assessment a couple of days ago–‘If We’re Ever Going to Take Control of Our Destiny, the Time is Now” Chris foresees worsening financial and material conditions (including energy).

    Gene Logsdon writes about his wind and solar powered corncrib:

    Take a good look at the picture. This is an exceptionally high tech device invented a very long time ago which serves its purpose admirably and cheaply. No multinational corporations were involved in making it (if you are clever, you can put it together with wooden pegs). No government programs subsidized it.

    Then, to my way of thinking, Gene makes a wrong turn when he seems to admire the ‘first solar powered flour mill’. Why do I think that is a wrong turn. If you click on the link in Gene’s article you will get the numbers on the energy economics from the guy who built the mill. I must say I am not very impressed. This mill would never have been built without subsidies. From a material standpoint, we are taking something which stores exceptionally well (a wheat seed) and turning it into something which stores poorly (ground flour). The purpose, of course, is light and fluffy bread. And in order to get the light and fluffy bread, we have continuously bred more gluten into the wheat. And now we have an epidemic of gluten intolerance such that some diet doctors recommend against the consumption of wheat altogether.

    What is the alternative? Check out

    How to Make Sprouted Grain Bread: The Essene Whole Grain Bread Recipe

    Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/essene-bread-sprouted-grain.aspx#ixzz2AEdWYkre

    Most diet doctors will agree that sprouted grains are better for us than ground grains. The bread recipe is ancient–long predating electricity from coal or nukes or wind or solar. In the modern version, I can see this bread baked in a solar oven. Can you bake it at midnight? Of course not. What if the sun isn’t shining today? Eat some of yesterday’s leftovers. You didn’t make two loaves yesterday? Well…now you are older and wiser.

    I don’t wish to come across as some sort of monastic. I will continue to use my rice cooker on a timer to perfectly cook all kinds of unground grain just in time for me when I get up in the morning…so long as the infrastructure which makes that possible still functions. But if that infrastructure stops functioning, then I know perfectly well how to make a sprouted loaf. If necessary, I know that I can get along well just eating the sprouts.

    Some will complain that ‘industrial civilization would have crashed’. Well…there isn’t much I can personally do about that, is there? What I CAN do is explore solutions which are high in technology and low in industrial components to make the transition as painless as possible. E.g., corncribs and sprouted bread.

    I want to add that these ‘old fashioned’ solutions only work with a robust Home Economy. If both members of a two person household are working in cubicles 16 hours per day, these sorts of solutions just won’t get done. But what I see around me is that cubicle serfs are becoming fewer and more people are being forced into some version of the Household Economy.

    Don Stewart

  5. Pingback: Gas Bubble Leaking, About to Burst (via Rich Heinberg, Post-Carbon Institute) | UnFuckOurEconomy: How do We, the People, Unfuck our Fucked Economy?

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  7. Leo Smith says:

    Lot of people worrying about finance:

    Two parties can shake hands and alter the numbers on a balance sheet.
    Two parties can’t shake hands and put oil in the ground where there is none left.

  8. Bicycle Dave says:

    Hi Gail and Ikonoclast,

    I’ve not had the time to follow Gail’s blog as much lately, but I do generally read Gail’s main post and cherry-pick some comments – I definitely look for comments by Ikonoclast.

    I always find Gail’s technical analysis of energy supply-demand issues to be very valuable – and I’m sure she welcomes debate about many of the conclusions she draws. From my POV, Ikonoclast provides very valuable counter points in this debate.

    Ikonoclast puts forth a compelling argument for both renewables and also some good societal recommendations for how to create a culture that is more supportive of renewable energy development. My addition to Ikonoclast’s thesis would be a much more aggressive stance on humane ways to get control of human population growth.

    My struggle is not with the viability of Ikonoclast’s recommendations but rather the potential for implementing those recommendations in any kind of meaningful time frame. Without any real, broad based, understanding of the underlying problems (as Gail addresses) or the collective will to address those issues, then Gail’s pessimism may be justified.

    I’ve tried to suggest that the real challenge is to find ways to attack and change the political, religious and economic memes that support the cultural delusions that cripple our ability to take someone like Ikonoclast seriously. However, any criticism (no matter how diplomatically stated) of the sacred cows in this mix seems to draw instant cannon fire. I find it odd that there does not seem to be any kind of movement (at least that I can find) that pulls together the whole overshoot issue (population, consumption, resources, biosphere damage, etc) with the cultural memes that support this overshoot. There are fragmented movements that link a few components but I’ve not found a movement that really gets at the core issues as I perceive them. Of course, I could just be the odd-man-out.

    Gail states: ” We are not smart enough to fix the system as a whole to our liking, though. ” OOH, I totally disagree – any species that can put robots on Mars is clearly smart enough to understand the overshoot issue and craft appropriate solutions. OTOH, Gail may be right if our delusions prevent us from even seeing the problem. In this old quote:

    “It is a well-known phenomenon that we do not notice anything happening in our surroundings while being absorbed in the inspection of something; focusing our attention on a certain object may happen to such an extent that we cannot perceive other objects placed in the peripheral parts of our visual field, although the light rays they emit arrive completely at the visual sphere of the cerebral cortex.” Rezso Balint 1907 (translated in Husain and Stein 1988, page 91)

    Perhaps we are so absorbed-focused on our BAU paradigm, that we simply can’t see the most obvious problems caused by this paradigm. So, is there any other alternative to catastrophe that will get our undivided attention?

    • Leo Smith says:

      I haven’t seen a single argument from Ikonoklast at all, let alone a compelling one.
      It seems to ne te same renewable energy PR and recycled press releases and the same old moral stance that one has come to expect.

    • At one point humans thought the sun revolved around the earth. Now we seem to think that the purpose of nature is to fulfill human needs. This may be one of the self-absorbed views that completely misses the point.

      • David Harney says:

        we seem to think that the purpose of nature is to fulfill human needs

        A deeply profound statement. So, what are the cultural memes that support this obviously dumb belief by a specifies that is otherwise pretty intelligent?

  9. Ikonoclast says:

    “There is enough fossil left to build it. It won’t collapse instantly, but the first pre-requisite is that expectations are radically changed. Deliberate or serendipitous the current global; ‘financial’ crisis is achieving this.” – Leo Smith.

    This is true though we could argue about what “it” is. Leo Smith says that “it” is a more electrical economy, a much more frugal economy and a much more nuclear powered economy. This may well be so. However, the blind, across the board rejection of renewable energy viability by Gail and Leo is certainly incorrect. Wind and Solar are very viable. But I will get nowhere arguing this with Gail and Leo as their minds are totally and prejudicially closed on the topic relying on fallacious studies by climate change deniers and the fossil fuel lobby.

    Progress in renewables and demonstration of their inherent viability will confound Leo and Gail within this decade (by 2020).

    Leo’s rejection of social democracy is also fallacious. The idea that an entirely free market and neocon capitalism can solve these issues is failing right now. However, a regulated free market within a mixed economy social democracy can do so. A regulated free market can price negative externalities (by government regualtion) and then operate freely within those parameters. Free market and neoconservative fundamentalism of the Leo Smith brand will fail, in fact is failing, dismally. It’s the system the US and Europe are using now. It must be reformed to give us any hope.

    It’s amusing that Leo rails about Islamic and Green fundamentalism but then pushes his own brand of neoconservative fundamentalism, the very type which gave us the financial crisis of 2008 and Europe’s continuing woes.

    Unfortunately this blog has become a hotbed of AGW denialism and unjustified Renewables scepticism. It is functioning to further the fossil fuel and nuclear power agendas to the exclusion of all else especially viable Green solutions. This stance is faith based, anti-intellectual, delusional and politically reactionary.

    • Leo Smith says:

      “But I will get nowhere arguing this with Gail and Leo as their minds are totally and prejudicially closed on the topic relying on fallacious studies by climate change deniers and the fossil fuel lobby”


      I am a simple engineer. I know what can be built and what cannot.

      You still cling to dreams of things you want, like a baby in a toyshop, when Daddy simply hasn’t got the cash, and anyway, the picture on the box is better than the reality inside. Which is not surprising since more time has been spent on the box than the contents, because people always buy the green box, and never test what’s inside.

      If you can make renewable energy work, be my guest. No one else ever has.
      And my views on renewable energy are totally irrespective of any belief or otherwise in climate change. I have stated many many times if you want cheap and you don’t dare about CO2, build coal. We have plenty of it. If you are concerned about carbon emissions, at double the cost the next most reliable and useful technology for basic energy production is nuclear power. End of story. There is no real argument about that except from the real deniers who won’t face facts.

      Now far be it for me to pour scorn on anther man’s religion and fondly held faiths and beliefs, but common humanity necessitates that the simple errors in logic and reason be indicated where they occur.

      I have produced a detailed quantitative analysis of why renewable energy is a busted flush. All you have brought to the party in response is hand waving emotional narratives that depend on subjective and qualitative attacks on me as a person, rather than the substance of the facts I have tried to bring to your attention.

      Why you feel the need to do this is interesting. It resembles religion in its vehemence. And it also explains why you have confused what to me are dispassionate observations on what I know will work, and what may in fact happen, with what ideally I would *like* to happen.

      Perhaps its an unusually European perspective that some of us based in this corner of the world have seen what ideology pursued to the limit has done, in terms of the destruction of life and property and the eradication of dissent by the jack boot of the totalitarian thought police. Who now seek to impose their beliefs on others by calling the ‘deniers’ – possibly the most cynical and ironic activity that someone who *believes* in his cause so much, that all dissent must be crushed…Never mind ikconoclast, you will be able to send all ‘deniers’ to the gas chambers of your choice and generate LOTS of renewable energy.

      No one particularly wants coal or nuclear power. Its a wonderful dream that we will all be able to run a post modern society of a few shiny windmills and solar panels. Set up and governed by a totally benign dictatorship of green ecologists and technologists. And any who mutter that it can’t work get sent to the Siberian ‘re-education;’ centres to cure them, of the mental illness of daring to exercise fact based rational analysis. Or if that fails to work, to be sterilised less their terrible denialist genes infect the rest of society, as every communist regime has done with its intellectuals, for exactly the same reason.

      And then too late one finds out that the apparent saviours are no saviours after all. Democracy it turns out is one man, one vote, and that man then suspends democracy and uses the excuses of ‘national security’ or ‘global crisis’ and the perceived combating of some dire externalised evil to smother dissent – as you are attempting to do right here, and impose a dictatorship of belief on a society that always seems to be totally equal (and miserable) apart from those doing the imposition.

      Well, we will see these forces of base human nature play out, as we have seen them play out before. Many people today express surprise at how a whole nation managed to embrace a false ideology that enabled a small cadre of people to take control and steer it into total utter continental disaster and a massive world war. It is no surprise to me. It was comprised – then as now – by people such as yourself, who see nothing but what they want to see. The story that flatters them, the creation of a demonised section against whom total war with no moral scruples must be waged.

      Be careful. History shows where that leads.

  10. PeteTheBee says:

    It’s funny an article like this appears on this very day.


    Gail keeps posting that the economy isn’t growing. In fact, US GDP is growing, as is global GDP.

    • Mark N says:

      Keep on shilling Pete! I bet you your comments have steered a few weak minded folks away from Gail’s blog; that is what they pay you for right?

      GDP is growing slowly but pay no attention to the massive unsustainable debt that industrial countries are taking on to achieve the modest growth.

    • PeteTheBee says:

      not paid at all, just having fun

      some countries have large debts, others have little to no debt problems

      I agree that writing less about energy and more about debt would be a good shift for Gail, as this shale energy phenomena is just too powerful for the “peak energy” story to have much traction anymore.

      So, if one is wishing to say “the end is coming” (which appears to be the goal here), yes, talk about debt not energy. The energy problem has effectively been solved by fracking.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        I don’t believe Pete is a shill. He is right that debt is a distraction and energy availability is the main game. Energy is real, debt is unreal or notional. However, Pete is on the wrong track to think that the finite fossil reserves problem is solved by fracking. It delays the day of reckoning that is all. It also contributes more greenhouse gases when that is the last thing we need. Only a full transition to renewable energy will save us (or most of us).

        Wind and solar power are viable in the long term without fossil fuel energy inputs. The propaganda war against this possibility is being waged by fossil fuel interests. They don’t want to see a timely switch to renewable power and the banning of most CO2 emissions which is needed to save the climate. They don’t want this because they don’t want to be left with stranded assets. It’s all about the money and short-termism on their part.

        • PeteTheBee says:

          Sure, fracking will delay the eventual depletion of fossil fuels.

          My point is that it will be a long delay – at least 5 to 10 years of the world’s largest economy enjoying reasonably priced energy.

          During this the whole “world is coming to an end due to peak energy” story will become seriously discredited.

          Hence, Gail might need a new schtick for the next decade. I agree, debt is a much bigger problem then energy right now. But I also agree, the debt is somewhat notional (i.e. medicare + military could be significantly cut back in the US)

          • Leo Smith says:

            Fortthe USA, fracking and gas will do nicely for a decade four, for primary energy: It wont create diesel or gasoline directly, but if that gets scarce its enough to drive a synthetic fuel economy, albeit at a very high price. Coal will take the USA another 50-60 years if needs be.

            After that its nuclear.

            ‘Renewable’ energy can be discounted completely as already indicated its no solution to anything. Its just another catechism from the Green Faith.

            Europe and Japan need to move away from fossil quicker as they have no significant resource of either left, and the middle east is running out.

            We can see a fairly smooth progressions away from things the depend on oil – cars and aircraft mainly – towards an more electric age powered by coal or nuclear.

            There is enough fossil left to build it. It won’t collapse instantly, but the first pre-requisite is that expectations are radically changed. Deliberate or serendipitous the current global; ‘financial’ crisis is achieving this.

            The second casualty beyond standard of living, and the collapse of a consumer society will be egalitarianism and possibly democracy. In a resource stripped world, you can’t afford to give candy to the kids, even if they have a vote: resources will have to go on those who can and will build the necessary infrastructure. That means a total retrenchment of the socialist state as a paternalistic protector and provider to the masses.

            If these measures fail to occur, and weakness in central government leads to a form of neo communism disguised as paternalistic egalitarianism, then the transition to a post industrial situation will not occur and the natural regression will be back to a neo feudalism, with local warlords controlling what amounts to a localised suite of more or less self sufficient principalities under effective martial law by a landed and martial elite. This will result in something like 75%-95% population loss. It seems to be the direction the Green Faithful want to take things, and also the Islamic fundamentalists. It was essentially technology and access to it that eventually de-emphasised the land and warriors castes in favour of a skilled artisan and merchant class in Europe: strip energy away from this and it must revert back to feudalism, with massive loss of life, especially in the now irrelevant industrial cities.

            In short any society that accepts that it needs a technocratic elite and nuclear power or coal to preserve what can be preserved and transform what must be transformed, will survive. Right now that looks like India and China. Whose populations have far lower expectations and far more respect for science technology and intelligence.

            Western socialism will die completely – as it depends on the support of a class that is now supremely irrelevant.

          • PeteTheBee says:

            I don’t think Americans are really all that bothered by gasoline at 3.50, 4 bucks a gallon, so long as electricity and home heating are cheap (as they are now, and will remain).

            The US actually has a lot of low hanging fruit left with re: to oil. Switch a lot of long haul truckers to natural gas, switch a lot of SUVs for Prius, etc.

            I suppose if oil spikes much higher there could be problems, but that just isn’t happening, oil is at a nice price that keeps demand and supply growing. And the current oil price pays for a lot of cheap American natural gas, as they frack for oil and get gas to boot.

            Coal is the wild-card – invent a superior coal extraction and liquification technology, and the US really takes off. I suspect this will be in the cards within the next 10 years.

        • Mark N says:

          Debt is no distraction and the current levels industrial countries take on debt is completely unsustainable. The financial and economic systems will fail before we run out of energy; destroyed by the industrial systems need for constant growth supplied by cheap energy.

          • PeteTheBee says:

            See, Mark N is closer to the mark.

            Problem is, if you look at natural gas and coal, the USA sort of has cheap energy. The rest of the world, not so much, but the USA (and Canada, and I believe MX as well) for sure cheap energy.

            Not cheap oil, but cheap energy, because if you add coal, natural gas, nuclear and hyrdo together then you significantly outweigh oil.

            So that’s the challenge for the USA – switch away from oil. They certainly seem to be doing it, but the fun thing is, you can always say “it’s not going to happen”, even while it continues to happen.

            Don’t tell someone they can’t do something while they are in the middle of doing it. Because if you do, he might make fun of you.

          • PeteTheBee says:

            “The fiscal cliff awaits us. ”

            Exactly, stick to that storyline.

            The future of energy prices (outside of oil) will be cheap-to-reasonable in the US for many years into the future. But there will always be some sort of financial story to spin, that stuff is harder to debunk.

  11. Don Stewart says:

    Also, for Gail
    A couple of days ago we traded comments about terracing and water management. You will note on this poster that the big increase in yields is claimed for ‘hillside farms’. Those are precisely the places where water management becomes most crucial.

    Don Stewart

  12. Ikonoclast says:

    Some US people talk about a transition to farming, hunting and survivalism. Given the high level of small arms ownership in the US, the large stocks of ammunition and the unfortunate prediliction of a proportion of the US population (both elites and commoners) to see violence as the solution to all problems, I think we can see how farming, hunting and survivalism will work out. It would turn into anarchy and warlordism.

    Some level of national civilization and Federal government control and coordination must be maintained as the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. Some way to de-power in a controlled manner into renewables must be found. There needs to be a plan to do it. A controlled crash landing of the economy is better than a stall followed by vertical dive into oblivion. Continuing to burn all fossil fuels at a high rate without planning and executing a transition is the worst thing you can do. Yet this blog now seems to advocate exactly that or at least take it for hopelessly inevitable.

    This blog has got to the point where it seems to be advocating and legitimising the complete burning of all fossil fuels without any constructive thought about what might come after. I find this capitulation to the very forces this blog should be fighting to be very disappointing indeed.

    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Ikonoklast
      I agree there is some risk that those practicing agriculture could become the victims of thugs. But so can anyone become the victim of a thug–even today. I console myself with the knowledge that a vanishingly small number of Americans actually know what to do with a raw agricultural product–so I imagine they will be rampaging around looking for Twinkies.

      What we need is anarchy in the way Dmitry Orlov is describing it. As it turns out, Albert Bates blog currently has a very nice poster comparing sustainable agriculture with industrial agriculture:
      (Click to enlarge)
      In my opinion, this vision of agriculture is most likely to be attained in an anarchic environment. Some people have called for a Fifty Year Farm Bill to achieve this or similar goals. In our chaotic political system, I just don’t foresee that. I think the best we can do is get the government (and the corporations it supports) out of the way. I don’t foresee any sudden outburst of rationality in DC.

      Don Stewart
      PS Note that this INCREASES production while reducing fossil fuel use and sequestering carbon. It is like pulling teeth to get people to understand that.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        That sort of scenario (agroecology) will certainly be required, along with renewable power, populations stabilised or even lowered and populations partly moved back to rural areas. However, some city life, industry, technology, civic culture and central government will still be required. Otherwise, expect widespread warlordism and banditry. Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” shows the general model. Productive rural villages hire protection against the bandits and pay for the protection in food which is a rare and valuable commodity by that point.

        • Don Stewart says:

          In Seven Samurai, the loss of Entropy in the society was not quite so advanced. The bandits knew what to do with rice. I saw some statistics a day or two ago that half of one percent of children’s food budget is spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. So a farm my be a pretty safe place in zombieland.

          I am not arguing for the total absence of police, as I doubt that Dmitry is arguing for the total absence of police. The problem, in a nutshell:
          No intelligent farm policy will come out of Washington so long as it has to pass through the needle eye of corporate profits

          That statement was made by a local sustainable agriculture guy after his vain trips to DC in connection with the last farm bill.

          So how do we get the corporate power out of the government? Nothing short of collapse seems possible to me. Then we reconstruct a sensible government doing things like police power. Do you see any realistic alternative?

          Don Stewart

          • Ikonoclast says:

            Starving people can rapidly learn how to cook rice, make a basic flour and a basic bread. Starving city people will use remnant vehicles and fuels to fan out into every nook of the country and strip all the food.

            To get corporate and oligarchic (rich, well-connected) powers out of government will take a legal and democratic revolution; preferably a peaceful one. The US needs to;

            1. Raise taxes on rich people.
            2. Remove fossil fuel subsidies and all other corporate subsidies.
            3. Implement proper welfare and a jobs guarantee.
            4. Run Keynesian counter-cyclical budgets and target stimulus money to the poor.
            5. Repair and extend national infrastructure.
            6. Reduce military spending and overseas deployments.
            7. Remove the treatment of corporations as “persons” in the law.
            8. Amend the US constitution to make the US a full democracy and not a republic governed by and for rich people only.
            9. Ban political campaign contributions by businesses and corporations.
            10. Limit personal political campaign contributions to $100 per adult person.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Ikonoklast
              I can agree with most of what you say, but also think that the chances of achieving it are just about zero. Maybe I am wrong.

              I have been thinking about Lincoln and Douglas lately. Lincoln ran against Douglas for the Illinois Senate seat and lost. He argued that slavery was morally reprehensible. A couple of years later at Cooper Union in NYC he gave a speech in which he argued a meticulously researched position that the framers of the constitution thought that the federal government should control the expansion of slavery into the western territories. At that time the Supreme Court looked a lot like the Supreme Court does now. In the Dred Scott decision, they decided that black people were not humans. So if slaves are not humans, but simply property, what legal basis is there for the prohibition of slavery in Kansas or Nebraska?

              This makes a big difference to free white farmers. They do not want to compete with plantations based on slavery. So the free white farmers favor a ‘free state’. And the Supreme Court is their enemy. Another enemy was the southern aristocracy which wanted the western lands to be sold to the highest bidder. And who do you think the highest bidder would have been? The southern aristocracy had been blocking homesteading for years. Lincoln put these facts together in the minds of his audience. The aristocratically controlled South seceded, the war happened, and in 1863 the Republicans, freed from the southern aristocracy, passed the homestead act which made free land available to poor farmers.

              It COULD happen again. Ordinary people MIGHT begin to see the source of the chains which bind them. But I don’t see any evidence that Democrats or Republicans are going to be vehicles for that. Ron Paul is probably the closest–and he has other problems. So while I accept that something could happen, I just don’t think it is likely. At this point, I see governments as being a huge millstone around everyone’s necks–and those governments have no way to reform themselves.

              I was watching a movie about Bali a few evenings ago–shot in 1935. A young girl was threshing rice. She was pounding the rice by rhythmically bouncing a pole on the rice. I ask you how many city people would figure that out before they starved. City people in the US are so disconnected from reality that I think there would be a massive die off well before organized bands could figure out how to steal and use grains in the fields.

              Again, I admit I could be wrong. I don’t think anyone knows for sure. To me, the best bet is to try to starve the government of funding so they cannot carry out counterproductive programs and then those who can will get about organizing themselves to do what needs to be done. But everything has risks.

              Don Stewart

    • I don’t think we will be burning very much more fossil fuels, because the system will crash, because of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum (probably with respect to oil, but perhaps with respect to the financial system). Without the system we have in place today, most fossil fuels will be too difficult to extract. There may be a relatively small amount of coal that people will be able to extract without international trade and today’s high tech devices, that can continue to be extracted. But even doing this will be on a relatively small scale, unless people in the area figure out how to quickly to go back to a mostly coal economy. The amount of fossil fuels burned will be far less than the most optimistic scenario that climate change scientists have come up with.

      Any kind of renewable economy we go back to will be a renewable economy without today’s modern renewables (except for the few that have already been built, and are hooked up to backup batteries; they will continue to work for a while, probably as long as the batteries continue to work). We are kidding ourselves if we think that they are a society-wide solution. At best, they provide a temporary lifeboat for a few people working to transition to very much lower level society. Even if we devoted huge resources to making solar panels, only a tiny proportion of humans could have their own.

      As much as we would like to think we can control the forces of nature, I am doubtful that we can. Nature is in charge. In this particular “age,” humans have managed to take over the world. Humans did this by subverting natural forces such as survival of the fittest, through medicine, sanitation, and growing much more food. We are not smart enough to fix the system as a whole to our liking, though. At best, a remnant can learn to adapt to nature’s system. Nature’s system will not be dominated by all kinds of high-tech renewable energy. It will be dominated by natural chemical and biological mechanisms.

      The dominant species in the next age will quite likely not be humans. We had our “two minutes of fame”. It may very well be some species of plants that can use the higher level of CO2, that dominates the next age. While from our perspective, this is all an unmitigated disaster, from nature’s point of view, it is just moving from cycle to cycle, as always has been the case. We have only looked at things from our perspective, not from nature’s.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        It sounds like you have already given up Gail. There is a line between hard nosed realism and utter defeatism. It is a fine line but it is rea nonetheless.

        There is a need to combine hard nosed realism (which is much needed) with the will to battle for a solution. We must battle for a solution or even a semi-solution if that is at all possible. Giving up entirely and giving up on renewables and sustainability just cedes the world to the climate wreckers and environment wreckers. Views as defeatist as this inadvetrantly make people holding such views a fifth column for the capitalist, fossil-fueled wreckers of our world.

        I don’t accept that power down and transition to a renewables civilization is impossible. I used to think so but a thorough investigation of renewables power (esp. wind and solar) has shown me that a considerable civilization is still possible. Your decrying of renewables is based on the propoaganda of the fossil fuel lobby who wish to avoid having stranded assets. Your recent emphasis on financial limits (which are not real) demonstrates a move away from analysis of physical limits (which are real) and also a move away from attempts to quantify what renewables can actually achieve.

        Your statement that renewables will not work is a faith based statement, though why on earth you would want to have faith in a hopeless, subjectively derived proposition is beyond me. Quantitative analysis shows that renewables will work. Energy efficiency will work. An electrical economy will work. Etc. Etc. They will work enough to keep civilization going at a more energy frugal level. That is if we have not already damaged the climate and environment too much.

        My beliefs used to be closer to yours but as I say proper quantitative analysis shows that renewables will work and can keep a more energy efficient civilization going. Please cease with this dead-end defeatism. You are going nowhere now and just repeating yourself. If you are not willing to expand your analysis to find solutions or part solutions then this blog is just unhelpful noise.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Gail and All
        Just on the outside chance that Gail might be exactly right, perhaps it is a good time to read Sharon Astyk’s blog for today. One quote:
        ‘Again, if the values of our culture don’t serve the poorest people, they don’t serve the potentially poor either – that would be you and me. ‘

        Her point is that the values that poverty stricken people have are the same values that billionaires and the middle class have. But when poverty stricken people make poor choices, it shows and it hurts. When Donald Trump makes poor choices, it provides a little comic relief. If we are all going to slide toward poverty, it may make some sense to take a careful look at our values–because our behavior is going to hurt a lot more if our values are those of society.

        Don Stewart

        • Leo Smith says:

          Its being carefully arranged so that all will not get poor equally. Why else pursue renewable energy except as a way to tax the citizen into spending money and giving it to an elite? They know the crisis is coming, and money and wealth and decision making can no longer be left in the hands of the masses.

          That is an inevitability. The choice is between the elites who have some compassion for the people en bloc, and those who regard them as simple cannon fodder to be used whilst they establish their own positions. And then dumped. And you wont find the choice an easy one to make, except that the more they say they are really on your side, the less likley they are to be.

          The only way you can make the choices you need to make is to learn to think for yourself. And watch out for people who come bringing ‘solutions’…

          If it were that easy we would already have done it. Real life is comprised of difficult compromises. The cat-bellers of this world who think for thirty years and declare ‘the answer is whatever gives the greatest good, to the greatest number’ are in the majority. For sure developing a safe reliable cheap limitless source of energy is to completely hang the bell around the neck of the energy and climate change cat. Big deal.

          The problems is:

          Who will bell the cat?

          And how?

        • Don Stewart says:

          And if you don’t know what values society promulgates, then just by luck Charles Hugh Smith has a wonderful essay today. A quote:
          ‘Health is horribly unprofitable; illness, anxiety and alienation are highly profitable. That is the destructive essence of our sociopathological “engine of growth,” narcissistic consumerism.’

          One editorial on my part. The emphasis they put on microbes is directly on target. The mainstream culture thinks that we need ‘sanitized’ everything and mainstream agriculture tries to kill everything except the crop we want to grow. Both efforts are equally stupid. Plants and humans are designed to live in a complex ecosystem where there are plenty of friendly microbes and a few not so friendly microbes. If we and the plants are healthy, then dealing with the unfriendly microbes is really not a big issue. In other words, health is a result of a robust ecosystem. That is the message of Teaming With Microbes, it is the message of Albert Bates’ poster, and it is the message Smith delivers today.

          If your values remain those of the currently dominant human society, then you are going to suffer mightily if Gail’s expectations are realized. Actually, you are going to suffer anyway and probably have several distinct chronic diseases when you become eligible for Medicare.

          Charles extends his analysis in all sorts of ways, which I will leave the pleasure of exploring to you.

          Don Stewart

        • Sharon has worthwhile things to say. It seems like we all have instincts–to show off, for example–and it is hard to overcome these.

  13. yt75 says:

    Don’t think one can say coal is easier to transport than natural gas, tough to do a coal pipeline.
    Would be interesting to have actual figures though.

    • Let’s put it this way. It is possible to put coal on a barge or boat, or on a railroad, or in a truck. Oil can be handled by any of these modes as well. This means that it is not absolutely necessary to build new infrastructure to handle it.

      Natural gas requires pipelines, all of the way to the end user (and from where the gas is originally produced). Since natural gas is a gas, it is not very compact, so the pipelines have to be larger in diameter than for oil with a given number of Btus. Gas per Btu sells for less than (or occasionally equal to ) the price of oil. Thus the cost of the pipeline, relative to the worth of the gas, is quite a bit higher than the cost of the oil pipelines relative to the value of the oil. In poor countries, oil pipelines are above ground, and there are often problems with people tapping into them. I can’t quite imagine what would happen if natural gas pipelines were above ground. I suspect this is a reason poor countries don’t have natural gas piped to users.

      • yt75 says:

        Yes but trucks or train are much more expensive (per energy transported) in terms of operational cost compared to a gas pipeline I think. But yes natural gas often requires major investment, reason why it is often handled through long term contracts.

  14. Gail I just read your article on the csmonitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Energy-Voices/2012/1017/Why-natural-gas-isn-t-likely-to-solve-our-energy-woes and want to thank you for your work. I also want to share what I’ve learned. I have a degree in business and have only recently cared about where my electricity comes from….

    I live in Arlington TX and when I found out this drilling was to be by my family, I studied the process full time for a good two years and in a nutshell, the technology is not there yet to do this safely by people. Even if they use electric instead of diesel rigs to drill, the diesel compressors and generators spew VOC’s. During fracturing, the sand catching pillow case/socks fail to mitigate toxic, silica dust exposing workers and residents/students into the neighborhoods/schools. And during flowback, even if they use Green Completions equipment (separator/pipeline), the topflow at the beginning stages of flowback allow hydrocarbons to escape from the OPEN HATCH flowback tanks. They need to use gas buster (degasser) equipment, but it is not mandated by any local,state or federal laws so even the EPA missed that one, so the un-sale-able/dirty gas is being vented into our airshed. There aren’t any rules either to mandate that the wells get flowed back right away after fracturing. The 3 wells frac’d by my house last month by the Cowboy Stadium will not be flowed back this year until the pipeline is in place, and so stale flowback (sour well) with dangerous sulfides emissions are very likely. This happened once before at another Chesapeake (Lynn Smith) drill site last March where 911 had to dispatch paramedics for Jean Stephens who was stricken in her own parking lot.

    • Thanks for your insights. This adds to the reasons why we shouldn’t be counting on shale gas. As we move down the “resource triangle,” there seems to be more and more opportunity for pollution, as greater and greater steps need to be taken for extraction. Arguably, this pollution is worth the cost, in an area which is essentially unpopulated, but there are real problems, as you point out, when it is being done when people are close by. Of course, workers need to be protected where ever extraction occurs, and this is a problem as well.

  15. Don Stewart says:

    You recently noted the attachment people have to ‘stuff’, but comment that poor people probably can’t afford it. (I can’t seem to find that thread in this bin full of worms). When I work at the farm, I drive through a trailer park where I can assure you most of the people are pretty poor. Over the last couple of years I have noticed that the cars parked outside the trailers are getting fancier and fancier. I can assure you that the value of what most of these people are driving is higher than the value of what I drive. Zero Hedge has been beating regularly on the idea that car sales in the US are propped up by sub-prime loans which are essentially guaranteed by the US Government (meaning the taxpayer). Based on my small sample, that looks to be true.

    Now put that observation together with your dire predictions on the Fiscal Cliff facing the US. If the US Government (taxpayers) can no longer afford to guarantee subprime auto loans, then there will be very wide ramifications. Someone recently quoted a statistic that almost half of Americans are now ‘poor’–making less than twice the poverty level.

    Charles Hugh Smith has an interesting post today on the gaudy consumerism on display in Japan. He attributes the displays to the fact that the displays can be done cheaply and that they are a substitute for actual adult accomplishment. Since many young people cannot get purchase on the traditional ladders of success in Japan, they substitute gaudy displays to ‘make their statement’. Smith thinks the same thing is beginning to happen in the US and Europe.

    Again, I can only go by my small samples. The happiest poor people I know work at the same farm I do. There is real accomplishment at the end of the day–just not a lot of money. The social bonds are amazingly strong. The interns work six months and then leave. Yet everyone who has ever interned at the farm seems to know where all the others are.

    They don’t have much interest in gaudy consumerism such as that Smith describes in Japan. Socialization seems to consist of things like getting together with some home brewed beer and food from the farm. A social event is even going to happen this Sunday at the farm–a crop mob. A pretty large group of young people will get together and harvest sweet potatoes and sun chokes and peanuts and have a feast. Nobody gets paid, except with food.

    My point is that if we begin with some fundamentals of human flourishing rather than by counting money, we may come out with very different answers.

    Don Stewart

    • The one thing I have found about having a garden in a very public place (along the edge of the street, not in a back yard) is that a whole lot of people stop by and talk to me. Gardens really don’t “work” very well in Atlanta, because of the hilliness, many trees, and poor soil conditions. This makes my garden somewhat of a novelty. I think having a garden is great. It provides a sense of accomplishment, and a person can see how the environmental system is intended to work. And it leads to new friendships.

      The issue with a garden like mine is that it takes a lot of fossil fuel energy to make it “work”. As an example, in order to have an area that was at least partly unshaded, I needed to take out a fairly big pine tree. I got several cost estimates, and the lowest was $550. At least part of this cost was the big truck and equipment needed for the project. I am sure insurance against damage was part of the cost as well. When a person has to deal with this issue, plus the poor soil issue, it is really difficult to do very much, very quickly. If I wanted to terrace an area, this would require more fossil fuel, or a huge amount of backbreaking labor.

      In an area that is adapted to gardens, they work pretty well. But if a person is trying to adapt an ill-adapted area, it takes fossil fuel energy, and quite a bit of perseverance.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I agree that some places are not suited to gardening or farming. That is one of the reasons why formulas don’t work–every single situation is different. So people need to understand the principles. If you were in the country rather than a suburb, mushroom logs might make more sense.

        Another obstacle is suburban expectations and, quite frequently, laws. For example, in earlier times the big tree would have been girdled to kill it. Then probably branches would have been harvested as needed (probably with one of those flexible saws that are made to be thrown over high limbs). Finally, the tree would have been much reduced in size. If still too big to fell, some young guy who needed badly to impress a girl would be sent to climb it and cut the top off. Or perhaps someone in the neighborhood specialized in such work.

        I agree with you about the terracing. In my opinion, one of the best uses for our remaining fossil fuels is terracing and water management in general.

        Finally, your point about people stopping to talk about your garden is excellent. A local college professor who practices and teaches Permaculture made a point of putting a sort of gazebo in his front yard. He will sit out there with a pitcher of cold beer on hot summer afternoons and wait for the neighbors to show up. It’s just as much a part of his design as the chicken coop in the back yard garden. (If he were richer, he might have a big front porch.) So many of these worthwhile things can’t be evaluated with money.

        Don Stewart

        • That is a good point about neighbors’ expectations. I don’t think they would have looked kindly on my girdling the tree, and allowing it to die. In fact, in a more affluent neighborhood, my garden by the road edge of the road would be looked down on or forbidden. (My neighborhood is on the edge of the university where my husband teaches. It is an older neighborhood that includes quite a few houses that are rented by student groups.) I just had the tree sawed off fairly low. If I had tried to be fancy about it, I would have paid to have the stump “ground” so that it wouldn’t be visible.

        • Good example of the young person. Back in the 80s I did a form of that, I precisely dropped trees for the older people of my community. What I got was cookies, and cakes, for use of my chain saw, and I got to take the firewood home. Back in pre ww2 America, people belonged to various communities from church to masons, to odd fellows, many things were solved there.

    • Andrew of the Bay Area says:


      The life you are talking about is the one I am trying to transition too. I have already purchased 80 acres in Shasta County, CA (far North in CA) and am now saving to build the modest house, barns, outbuilding, purchase a herd and get going. It will mostly be for raising goats and sheep but we will have raised beds for subsistence growing. Goal is to become as self sufficient as possible within the local community. I live in the Bay Area now and just about everything about it is offensive to me. I 100% agree with your statements about the quality of the life, the feeling of true accomplishment and the social cohesion being MUCH more valuable than money. We all need to produce something and have some money but it is becoming increasingly less important as the world consolidates and it does not make people happy.

      I work in high finance and I am saying this. I’ve never fit in within this world but I have done it as I use to focus so much on money. Now I have seen the light. I want to LIVE my life free of the excessive costs of the industrialized cities which I doubt I’ll be able to afford anyhow. I want the humbleness and decency of people who raise food and animals for a living. Your life sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing. It gives me HOPE.

  16. Ikonoclast says:

    It is axiomatic that no fossil fuel can be our energy saviour because;

    (1) Fossil fuels are finite stocks and will eventually substantially deplete.
    (2) If we burn most of our fossil fuel endowment then we wreck the planet’s climate.

    This being the case, there are only two choices left. These are nuclear energy (fission or fusion) and/or renewable energy (mainly wind and solar). The only choice is to phase out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible and phase in nuclear and/or renewable energy. My personal bias is against nuclear energy. However, with suitable and substantively equivalent environmental, safety and insurance requirements mandated up front, we should let nuclear power and renewables compete in a free market. Even this almost probably will not save us. But it’s likely our best bet.

  17. The link from Gidon seems not to work. There is an 8 minute video on YouTube which explains quite well the complexity of the matter. All the concerns of Gail are adressed and some more, leading to a quite different conclusion http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25bmXpEPosc&feature=colike.

  18. phil harris says:

    I like your point, and your phrase, that NG is captive to the rest of the economy.
    The massive amount of flared NG, and ‘stranded’ NG in some places, e.g. Russia lends weight to your argument.
    Oil and coal can be put on a boat. NG in the form of ocean transported LNG only makes economic sense if it can be fed directly into a highly developed retail market, for example in the UK. We have a legacy retail NG grid that goes back even beyond North Sea NG to the old coal-gas retail layout. Britain can even re-export LNG some of the time using pipeline connectors to the continental grid.
    Otherwise, negotiating international pipelines of NG across continents has a host of difficulties and risks, not least there being the certainty of a developed market. We see that across the Eurasian continent just now.
    Thanks again.

    • Leo Smith says:

      LNG on a boat? Probably the most dangerous form of energy transport ever designed


      I’d rather have a Fukshima event. 🙂

      • philsharris says:

        A bit late to worry too much.
        Do you not see those big boats carrying even bigger ‘golfballs’ in the adverts on TV? The rest of the world sees them.
        In Britain last year we imported LNG worth 270,000 GWh of energy at 4 coastal terminals.
        You could check your own location regarding existing USA LNG import/export terminals on this very clear map here:
        So goes the world …

        • philsharris says:

          Numbers don’t mean much on their own.
          That 270,000 GWh I just quoted works out at about 4300 KWh per person per year in the UK. For comparison, we average about 5800 KWh per person just in electricity consumption (all uses, not just in the home) each year, but the large majority of our home heating is by direct burning of NG. Our total energy use in the average home is about 18, 600 KWh / year and we average about 2.4 persons per home.
          I am not sure these days what we would do without those LNG imports.

          • Leo Smith says:

            A man who can Do Sums.! What a pleasure.
            Yes, Those who advocate ‘storage’ as a way to ‘make renewable energy work’ should do some sums on just how MUCH energy is needful, and what it means in terms of numbers of Hiroshima sized events if it all let’s go at once.

            Personally coal and uranium are the safest. They are very hard to make a bang with.

            Flixborough, Buncefield…Cleveland East (Ohio) . The damage and death toll from these hydrocarbon bangs way exceeds anything nuclear power has EVER managed to do.
            And bursting dams take the credit for the greatest ever loss of life in a power generation related accident.

            I’d someone said that wanted to store a year and a halfs gas for a power station near me, I’d scream blue murder. No problem with 100 years of plutonium though.

    • Thanks! I think people get bogged down in the technical details, and don’t see the big picture.

  19. Leo Smith says:

    As Usual Gail, pretty much on the button.

    What you are saying throughout the blog seems to boil down to the following propositions (I will leave all considerations of climate change out)
    1/. We have a civilisation and a population density that depends and is founded on access to massive supplies of cheap (= low labour content and energy of extraction) energy sources,.
    2/. We are reaching the limit of at least the cheap sources of fossil hydrocarbons.
    3/. The means we either have to
    (a) Lose the population or
    (b) Lose the civilisation or
    (c) Find some other source.
    (or some combination of the three)
    Focussing on option (c) we have shown that
    (i) Gas ain’t the answer (this post)
    (ii) Renewables ain’t the answer (my paper*).

    Realistically the only way to preserve civilisation in a form even remotely familiar and at a level of population remotely like the one we have, is nuclear power.

    To do anything else is to either mean there are no future generations, or they are condemned to a life of grinding rural poverty with so little surplus that they are unlikely to ever pull themselves out by capital investment in anything. Until and unless we get a global event like the Black Death which allowed the ‘renewable’ wealth of Europe to be shared amongst less people and, with the technology of the time, allowed us to construct what we now call Western industrial civilisation.

    Some people have the impression I am emotionally – or even financially biased towards nuclear power. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is far from an ideal solution. However in the clear absence of any other viable solution at all, it remains the only game in town capable of – with appropriate development – allowing most of the worlds populations to actually survive in the next 1-300 years.

    It is possible perhaps that subatomic energy of the sort that might have created the Big Bang itself might be accessible in that time frame, and its extremely likely that some kind of fusion power could be developed in that timeframe which gives a time-scale of fusion atomic energy of the same sort of length as the current iron age..and maybe the age of civilisation itself.

    What is for sure is that renewable energy gas oil and coal will not.


    • Gidon Gerber says:

      I appreciate the clear explanation of dispatch, spinning reserve and capacity factor in your paper. VDE has interesting information about the “50.2 Hertz problem” (http://www.vde.com/en/fnn/pages/50-2-hz-study.aspx). Fortunately, this one appears to be solvable by German engineers (or indeed competent engineers of any nationality).

      • Leo Smith says:

        The arguments against renewables don’t become overwhelming because of any single issue, which is why the fraud has continued so long: Its only when you look at all the ‘solutions’ to the problems, that all add cost and complexity, and environmental damage (not born by renewable companies) , and show how each one in turn just compounds the overall problem that you reach a position of saying ‘this is far far worse than nuclear energy, so why not have nuclear instead?’ – (if carbon emissions are perceived to be a problem that has to be addressed).

        High power slew rates on-grid are easily soluble by holding either more spinning reserve or more fast acting hydro in reserve. My point has never been to say that this couldn’t be done, but to show that the cost of doing it starts to spiral uncontrollably if you do. As does excess fuel burn.

        In a rational analysis, policies should be compared using pure cost-benefit analysis and by ascribing sensible costs to externalities – that is costs of negative environmental impact, costs of decommissioning, costs of dealing with waste, cost of lost business hours due to blackout, costs of deaths from hypothermia and even costs of climate change that COULD be addressed by policy (which in the UK case is zero, because nothing the UK does in isolation will make a blind bit of difference anyway).

        What you find is that renewable energy solutions are costed with absolutely no externalised costs whatsoever, whilst the renewable lobby is massively quick to point out all and every externality associated with coal, oil, gas or nuclear.

        To the unsophisticated electorate, ‘impossible’ is a very different thing from ‘possible if many hugely unlikely things were to happen, and more money than exists were spent on it’.

        In reality however. whilst its possible I could buy Microsoft tomorrow, its highly unlikely anyone would or could lend me the money ……..

        I prefer therefore to say despite protestations, the simpler statement that renewable energy has not, will not, and can not be an effective way of generating large scale energy for use in an industrial society.

        Some people seem to accept that, but want to proceed anyway in denial of the vast amount of human suffering and death that will involve. Which is strange because their overt motivation is to ‘save the planet for future generations’. Presumably their descendants, but no one else’s.

        It is an expensive and dangerous distraction. There is considerable doubt about climate change. There is almost no doubt that energy is getting more and more expensive and we are gradually running out of hydrocarbon fossil sources – easy ones, anyway.

        Ergo we need a proper debate about coal/oil/gas/nuclear power. Without the insanity of renewable energy being interjected to muddy the waters.

        Your paper is just one more detailed and expensive answer to a problem created by renewable energy, and like many such papers it assumes automatically that renewable energy has to be made to work, irrespective of cost, or social and environmental impact.

        The renewable emperor has no clothes. If there is no solar PV or wind on the grid, you don’t need to solve this problem at all. In fact there is no need for massive re-cabling of the nation, for smart grids, for plant paid to do nothing except for 5 days a year, for any of the expensive measures Germany and other nations are having to undertake to somehow ‘make renewables work’ , including the emergency construction of coal – or rather LIGNITE – the dirtiest most polluting coal there is – power stations, to stand in reserve for when all the renewable energy is essentially producing nothing.

        But politically no one dares stand up and say it – that they were bloody fools to ever get involved with renewable energy and the time is coming when the truth will come out, in terms of grid instability, rolling blackouts and spiralling consumer prices and knock on effects into lowering GDP, rising unemployment and widespread bankruptcies.

        Our industrial economies are a train we cannot get off. If they are running out of coal gas and oil to run them, then they are going to stop. Sticking a few sails or solar panels on the roof will not make them run. Sticking a reactor in the locomotive is not ideal but it will keep large PARTS of them running.

        I understand there are those who feel emotionally attracted to a sort of Luddite return to a pre-industrial Amish style existence. I do too. But the numbers don’t add up to make that viable for more than perhaps 5-10% of existing world population, and I am not so cruel as to condemn the other 90%-95% to a ghastly death from cold, starvation, massacre or disease, just because I personally feel I would survive with a solar panel stuck on my roof. And a vegetable garden .

        Those find imaginings are just that – fond imaginings. The reality would be more like a Mel Gibson Mad Max movie. It may well come to that. But I can’t in all conscience stand by and let it happen without at least trying to outline what few alternatives we have left.

        • sponia says:

          Intermittent Power, such as that produced by current ‘renewable’ technology is indeed not a workable way to supply Industrial Civilization. The Machine was designed for, and therefore requires, a constant and continuous energy supply. Agrarian civilization is and always was based on an intermittent supply – the sun – as stated in the expression ‘Make hay while the sun shines’. What is never considered in this discussion is the necessity of changing the way we do ‘Civilization’ in a way so fundamental that it conforms once again to the normal functioning of the natural world, Instead of imposing our will on the universe we will have to go back to cooperating with it first before we will find a way out of the trap we discover ourselves in. Renewable energy is not the answer to the oil shortage. But it is not completely useless either. What we need first is an adjustment of our expectations, and an adaptation to a more practical and realistic way of life.

          • Leo Smith says:

            I will simply say that the planet cannot support more than 10% of its current population living what you quaintly call ‘the natural life’.
            That may be your choice: Its not mine.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Hear! Hear!
            Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Sponia
            Beyond Hear! Hear!, I would like to recount a little movie plot from the 1930s. Fritz Lang made The Testament of Dr. Mabuse around 1934. The plot involves an insane but hyper-logical criminal named Dr. Mabuse, who is confined in an asylum. He spends his time writing perfect crime plans on pieces of paper. His final grand plan involves putting an end to the whole, sick world. Part of the plan involves detonating explosives in a chemical plant in the northern part of Berlin to release toxic gases. Dr. Mabuse’s partners in crime know that the plant will be closed at night and only have two guards who will probably be playing cards.

            So…in 1935 something as big as a chemical plant closed at night. What we have done in the intervening years is run everything around the clock in order to make more money (or reduce the unit cost, if you prefer). Suppose that going back to daytime only operation cost us two thirds of our income. Can anyone truly claim that we would all be devastated? We would still have vastly more than most of the great names in history.

            Many things would actually get better. The thing that would get much, much worse would be the ability to pay debts. But since those aren’t going to be repaid anyway (most likely), we wouldn’t actually be giving up anything on that score. Those who think they are very wealthy would find out that they are not as wealthy as they thought they were.

            The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that we have the debt tail wagging the whole dog.

            Don Stewart

    • The species we now call humans have had three big “miracles” help them:

      1. The discovery of the controlled use of fire. We don’t know the date for sure, but it was likely at least 1,000,000 years ago. It allowed humans a wider range of food sources, allowed humans to live in parts of the world they weren’t previously adapted to, contributed to deforestation and kill off of animal species as soon as humans migrated to new areas, and likely contributed to climate change at a very early date. It also allowed the first ramp up of human population above the rate they would have had as a species similar to chimpanzees, say 1,000,000 individuals worldwide. It may very well have contributed to the evolution of humans’ intelligence, since less energy was required for digestive processes, and could be used to build up the size of the brain.

      2. THe discovery of agriculture, starting before 10,000 years ago, but expanding about that date. With the agriculture, the amount of food energy that could be harvested each year went up greatly, allowing population to grow further. Health outcomes were not as good as during the hunter-gatherer period, however.

      3. The discovery of fossil fuels, gradually, but especially ramping up after 1800. The use of fossil fuels allowed far fewer people to be employed in agriculture. It allowed much greater use of metals, glass, concrete, and other substances we take for granted. It permitted modern hydroelectric plants, electric transmission lines, and train systems, among other things.

      Now we are hitting limits on what all three of these can provide. In fact, since fossil fuels are a finite resource, we are starting to hit physical limits on how much we can extract each year. In fact, we are hitting limits in other areas as well–fresh water resources, and top soil for example.

      We do need a miracle. In a finite world, I am not sure we can really expect anything to work. Nuclear (or at least the uranium or thorium used to power reactors) does have the advantage over natural gas of being reasonably transportable, without a huge investment in LNG or pipelines. I expect that even if nuclear could be made safe, there would still be a front-end cost problem, especially in countries that are not expanding. It also wouldn’t directly fix our problems with fresh water resources, exhausted topsoil, and decaying infrastructure. While theoretically, with enough nuclear electricity, it could be used to make fossil fuel substitutes, this would require a lot more investment, and the timing would be many years away.

      • Leo Smith says:

        Absolutely Gail. Energy is just one of the problems. But a lot of other problems are much less if we have access to lots of energy. And energy really is NOT a problem if a proper rational approach is taken.

        Ergo my thesis is we should simply accept that there is one medium to longish term solution to energy , that is not too expensive or massive in its impact, implement it and move on to look at the other problems you mention.

        MOST of which can be solved by managing populations down a bit more kindly than Nature would.

        In the end the problems of ‘not enough of the right chemical compounds’ can be solved by using energy to make them. We cant solve ‘not enough elements’ that way, so we will have to recycle elements.

        Its definitely an end to ‘growth’ but it may not be a collapse back to pre-industrial sorts of societies.

        Perhaps I am way ahead of you. I fully accept we have to change: My position is to seek out the least amount of disruptive changes we have to come to terms with.

        When I visited the Yucatan, I gazed at the remains of Chichen Itza and wondered ‘where did the Mayans go?’ and then I realised they didn’t go anywhere: The survivors were sitting clipping the hedges in the luxury hotel I was staying at…..and glad of the job too. The priest caste and the warrior caste and the bureaucrats were probably ripped to shreds by the peasant class, who melted back into the jungle and went on growing maize and beans and the odd pig.

        Seen Libya lately? Syria? Iran? Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Greece? Spain? Somalia? Metro Goldwynn Meyer presents “The Collapse of Civilisation”, coming to a small town near you..shortly. 🙂

      • Michael Lloyd says:


        Your comment here is just about spot on.

        My query is how you define ‘safe’ for a nuclear reactor. In my opinion, nothing can be described as absolutely ‘safe’.

        As you say, we need energy to survive. Indeed, we need oxygen as part of the energy providing system in our bodies, but oxygen is the ultimate killer for us.

        Therefore any definition of ‘safe’ is going to be relative to the conditions prevailing at any one time.

        Not sure whether you are aware of natural nuclear reactors (in Gabon).
        see http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/07/13/natures-nuclear-reactors-the-2-billion-year-old-natural-fission-reactors-in-gabon-western-africa/

        Incidentally, I note your comment about front-end costs, which apply to nuclear and renewables as well as other examples. So, if we cannot find the investment needed, it won’t happen regardless of how desirable it may appear to be. This seems analogous to the study of reactions and kinetics versus thermodynamics.

        This is a short summary,


        Note the kinetics buzzwords.


        • Leo Smith says:

          Nice analogy Mike! Being electronics based I think of this like ‘threshold’ energy. How far you need to go before ANYTHING happens.

          “Therefore any definition of ‘safe’ is going to be relative to the conditions prevailing at any one time.”

          And the correct way to assess that relatively is to try and fix all the costs at a holistic social level, of any given policy. I.e. even down to loss of life times value of life times probability of losing it.

          I can never actually understand Gails contention that ‘the money isn’t there’ There is lots of money there, but its not interested in subsidising lifestyles. It might well be interested in building 60 year infrastructure that is guaranteed a reasonable return. In fact that is what is happening with renewable energy right now,. If you offer a guaranteed income 3-10 times the going rate for energy, the investors pile in!

          So there is no problem with e.g. financing new nuclear. Guarantee it’s profits!

          (and put your hands over your ears at the howls of protest and streams of invective from the renewable/green lobby).

          Of course if we leave it too long so the infrastructure totally collapses then its a real problem. Making a reactor on a charcoal powered blacksmiths forge is…a challenge!

          • The inability to finance nuclear is related to the total amount of fossil fuels in the world in a given year available to use for all purposes, and the ability of a particular economy to produce adequate goods and services to lay claim to a sufficiently large share of these fossil fuel to use for its required purposes. There is also the issue of competing needs for these fossil fuels, such as repairing current infrastructure.

            THe post I mentioned in another comment seems to suggest that the US now needs 1005 of what it can lay claim to, just to repair existing infrastructure.

        • Thanks! I wrote a post a while ago about the problem of investment funds. It was called Can we invest our way out of an energy shortfall? I should probably revisit the issue and think about what other aspects are involved, as well.

          • Michael Lloyd says:

            I am familiar with Tom Murphy’s article on the Energy Trap and I think you are too.


            • Thanks for reminding me of this one. His calculations relate to the huge up-front costs of adding new intermittent power. If we also added a way to store that energy or other ways of mitigating the adverse impact on the grid, the effect on the economy would be even worse.

              Even farcked natural gas has more of this investment pattern–huge up front costs. It makes it hard to add much capacity.

  20. robert wilson says:

    Marketed natural gas production in the US has only increased moderately since the early 70’s. Per capita production has actually decreased. Recession and outsourcing have decreased consumption but we still continue to import natural gas from Canada. When Romney mentions energy independence the phrase North America is generally included. This suggests a fair understanding of the true situation in the US. http://www.eia.gov/dnav/ng/hist/n9010us2a.htm

    • I agree. I know that at one time, Matt Simons was Mitt Romney’s energy advisor. That also suggest a fairly good understanding of the energy situation.

  21. Vali Tralov says:

    Too many and too deep ideas mentioned for such a simple conclusion.
    Great approach, need to think over later.
    Thank You!

    • We seem to have a lot of people who come to an equally simple conclusion (regarding natural gas, wind, solar PV, electric cars, etc.): If it is there, we will have the financial where with all to use it to replace oil, in a fairly short timeframe. It is a faith-based assumption, however. The world economy does not seem to be generating a huge amount of energy profit even now. Instead, we seem to need to keep adding debt, to finance any new change. This is not sustainable. Moving to energy processes that require more and more upfront funding pushes us toward the need for more and more up front debt, all at a time the world economy is not growing as rapidly (and certainly the rich world economies are not growing much). This is a major limiting factor on adding more uses for natural gas, and any other substitute. I didn’t have space to talk about this issue, but it is part of the problem.

  22. Gidon Gerber says:

    Proponents of natural gas expect that its lower CO2 emissions can make a contribution to solving the climate change problem. However, Caldeira and Myhrvold’s 2011 paper (http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/7/1/014019) argues that this is not the case, and that only conservation, renewables and CCS can have an impact.
    Concerning backup for intermittend renewables, there is a new interesting German study (http://goo.gl/PxZTC) which caculates how much backup capacity and how much storage is needed under different scenarios. Interesting result: 3 times as much storage is needed for 100% renewables than for 80% renewables in electricity generation, and going from 80% to 100% renewables would cost more than going from 17% to 80%.

      • Leo Smith says:

        Of course the staggering thing is that this is a NEW study.
        No one has actually bothered to calculate either the costs or the effects of ‘going renewable’ until now. Or to calculate the staggering storage requirements needed.

        • Well, this one is new, but not the FIRST. Many bright people around the world are working continously on that topic, in Germany since the early 70’s of the last century, just as one example from the english speaking world (1983) http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0360319983901131. Germany is already producing 20% of it’s electricity by renewables … and counting.
          Next year you’ll see another NEW study, I think they call it progress 😉

          • I think we need to wait a year or two, and look at what the total economic effects are. There is a long way to go toward proper integration, as I understand the situation. Depending on neighbors to “help” is pushing the limits of friendship. The higher costs have yet to spill through the system. So you really can’t evaluate the change right now.

    • Thanks for the links! A person really needs to understand German for the second one.

      One issue with LNG that I don’t think the Caldeira and Myhrvold paper looks at is the increasing role LNG would need to play. LNG seems to have a problem with methane boiling off and contributing to global warming. So increased use of LNG would tend to make the situation worse than they suggest, I would assume.

      I can believe the issue of higher cost to back up renewables going from 80% to 100% than 17% to 80%. I am not sure we really understand the 17% to 80% factor at this point in time, though, since we really haven’t accomplished it anywhere. For example, I doubt that the study would consider all of the follow-on financial impacts, and costs to mitigate these, if it is necessary to subsidize wind, and as a result it is not possible for natural gas to be provided competitively. There is a problem with the involvement of multiple systems, and no way to evaluate the impact on the less directly related systems. As a result, calculations of the cost of backup will tend to be understated, both going from 17% to 80%, and going from 80% to 100%.

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