Thursday, February 07, 2013

The Cyanobacteria's Friend Publishes

Ray Pierrehumbert has a contribution at Slate which punctures the Saudi America balloon, that US unconventional oil is without practical limit.  Turns out

The market is not laying the foundations for an era of unending oil-based prosperity. The market is pushing inexorably toward investment in expensive technologies to extract the last drop of profit through faster depletion of a resource that's guaranteed to run out. If we're going to invest in expensive energy technologies, it would be better to pick long-term winners rather than guaranteed losers.

The flaws in the abundance narrative for fracked natural gas are much the same as for tight oil, so I won't belabor the point. Certainly, the current natural gas glut has played a welcome role in the reduced growth rate of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and the climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas are abundantly clear. But gas, too, is in a Red Queen's race, and it can't be counted on to last out the next few decades, let alone the century of abundance predicted by some boosters. Temporarily cheap and abundant gas buys us some respite—which we should be using to put decarbonized energy systems in place. It will only do us good if we use this transitional period wisely.
 There were a number of talks at EGU which make Ray look optimistic, but he also provides a link to another article which discusses the attitude shift at AGU that friend McIntyre missed.  The title of this talk being discussed was Brad Werner's Is Earth F*ucked
Why shout out the blunt question on everyone’s mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. “Not so much depressed about all the good science that’s being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds,” he clarified, “but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”

That’s probably an apt description of legions of scientists who have labored for years only to see their findings met with shrugs—or worse.
and the answer, as Eli and others are pointing out
Werner’s title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how f**ked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?
Many years ago, Eli recognized that the "Honest Broker" and "Proper Framing" were merely a strategies to prevent any meaningful action.  The threat is real, obvious and recognized by the people who study the science.
Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet's critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.  
It is not just the deniers, but the Kool Kidz, the churnalists and their friends that need to be called out.


Jeffrey Davis said...

I've never understood the reluctance of scientists -- who know the threat of AGW best -- to lay aside the lab coats and to call the deniers scoundrels. (Which is too mild a word: they're monsters.)

J Bowers said...

On the USGS slashing shale gas estimates to a fifth of industry estimates, there are some interesting ramifications.

* USGS Releases Damning EUR’s For Shale

I tend to refer to the shale gas boom as subprime energy.

Anonymous said...

on a somewhat related note, let me ask a question that has long interested me. In a battle between raypierre's beard and Tol's hair who would win?


WHT said...

I would bother McIntyre about once a year by asking him why he wasn't studying peak oil. After all, this is right up his alley, what with his beloved Canada and its tar sands essentially a mining operation. He would always get in a snit and say words to the effect, "I can do what I like".

Anonymous said...

"The Party's Over"
-- by Horatio Algeranon

The shills for shale
And Maugeris who fail
Have made a case
For endless oil

But "Saudi America"
Is overblown
By many times
So hold the phone

We're headed for
The Red Queen's Race:
Drilling and drilling
To keep in place.

It can't last long
And when it's done
The party cleanup
Won't be fun

Aaron said...

If you want to save reason, you need to save science.

If you want to save science, you need to save civilization. So put your shoulder to the wheel.

This is one case where only by acting with passion can one show careful rationality.

Miguelito said...

Frankly, the Maugauri report is so optimistic that not many analysts, even other optimists, believe it's possible. So it's hard to use as an example of why all peak-oil disbelievers are wrong.

But, that doesn't negate a whole bunch of other forecasts (the IEA or the EIA, for example), that demonstrate rising U.S. oil production for the next while at least. And new tight-oil prospects are coming out of the woodwork and proving quite profitable at today's prices (e.g. Permian Basin of west Texas).

What most analysts believe is that U.S. oil production will continue to rise and drive out imports other than Canadian and Mexican oil, and maybe some of those later on too. Not many really believe that the U.S. will truly be oil independent just because U.S. demand for oil is so high (something like 18 million barrels per day when production will have difficulty getting to 10 or 12 million barrels per day). Still, that's more than enough to prolong any addiction to oil and peak oil won't save us from further climate change.

That being said, you can make a good argument for the U.S. becoming gas independent. They're hardly drilling gas plays anymore and gas production is still rising (albeit much more slowly than before).

Russell Seitz said...

Stay tuned to see if Matt Ridley, having been OK'd to park his coronation chair in the Upper House. reverts to Economist form and starts saying things that are actually skeptical.

That would amount to Murdoch's worst nightmare, and enliven climate policy debate by providing Martin Rees with the unprecedented spectacle of facing a Tory who actually knows what he is talking about.

Steve Bloom said...

I'm confused, Russell. Exactly who would that Tory be?

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, here is a bedtime story for ya..

Andy S said...

I attended the same AGU session as Ray Pierrehumbert and I thought it was dreadful. There was nobody presenting the consensus view of petroleum geologists and economists that there are huge remaining resources of unconventional hydrocarbons. Anyone who dissented with the view presented at the session was labeled a cornucopian who denied depletion, a straw man strategy if I ever saw one.

Of course there are promoters and shills who, for their own purposes, hype the potential of Saudi America. But the speakers went too far when they dismissed the views of the EIA, IEA and USGS as if all of these organizations were involved in a massive conspiracy to deceive the public. They have learned a trick or two from the climate deniers, obviously.

Michael Levi has a good rebuttal to Pierrehumbert's article.

Anonymous said...

The question should not be "Can we squeeze every last drop of oil out of the ground?" (reservoirs, shale, sands etc) but

"Should we?"

The people who are talking about "Saudi America" obviously believe "we should" and don't give a damn about the cost -- to the environment (eg, from massive oil-shale mining), to human health or to the climate.

That's the real problem.

Indeed, folks like Maugeri -- and the oil, gas and coal extraction companies they work and speak for -- are the real problem.

And whatever else may be true, Maugeri is clueless. If you can't even do basic high school "business" math, you have no business pretending to do a scholarly assessment of anything.

It's actually an embarrassment to Harvard that he's a visiting "scholar" there (or whatever his title is)


MikeH said...

@Andy S

There may exist a good rebuttal to Pierrehumbert's article but Michael Levi does not have it.

That was five paragraphs of "I'm an economist and I'm OK".

Given that the argument is about numbers, Levi would have to advance some to rebut Pierrehumbert.

Russell Seitz said...

Steve :
While Ridley's award winning science writing in The Economist leaves him open to accusations of being a very high Whig, the fact remains that the Tories elected him in the face of some fairly serious competition.

Monckton, incidentally, was never in the running.

Anonymous said...

Stay tuned to see if Matt Ridley ... reverts to Economist form

Given that Ridley will be speaking at my institution next month and that his intro includes the passage:

"Lord Ridley will investigate whether it is necessary for an environmentalist to be a pessimist. He will explore the notion that many environmental trends are positive and that even climate change has so far been beneficial by causing the recent ‘greening’ of the planet whilst measures to combat it, such as renewable energies are inducing harmful effects on the globe. He will challenge the assumption that the impact of new technology, consuming mineral energy and economic growth comes at the expense of the environment."

...I think that it is much more likely that the ermine trim on the newly promoted Discount's robe will bear a completely predictable pattern of spots


Steve Bloom said...

I'm aware those seats are highly sought after, Russell. My point was about your overly-glowing description of a guy who needs to fake up graphs to win people over to his views, as demonstrated in Stoat's current post.

Between this and BoJo's recent stupidity, it's as if a good-sized chunk of the Tories have decided that the path to success is emulating the likes of Inhofe. Monckton was an early adopter, too early for his own good (albeit that Australian mining $ seem to be in the process of ensuring a plush retirement for him).

Anonymous said...

Those seats may be highly sought after, but the number of electors is remarkably small - 48 I believe. And we all thought Rotten Boroughs were a thing of the past.

Regards, Millicent

Russell Seitz said...


Look at Stoat again- I already took a swipe at Matt's dodgy graphics- the question is what impact his tenure has on his intellectual seriousness in future?

Anonymous said...

Andy S says : "There was nobody presenting the consensus view of petroleum geologists and economists that there are huge remaining resources of unconventional hydrocarbons"

This exemplifies a fundamental misunderstanding.

Hydrocarbon "resources" are not the same as "reserves". Not even close in some cases.

A good example is the Green River shale, which contains over an estimate trillion+ barrels of oil in the form of kerogen (a waxy substance embedded in the rock matrix, which, were it to be exploited to a significant degree, would require mining on a truly massive massive scale, pulverization and heating to 500C to extract the oil), but most of that can not be recovered economically -- not now or perhaps ever.

As the Oil Drum article linked to by Pierrehumbert points out:

"while the U.S. might indeed have greater oil resources than Saudi Arabia, U.S. oil reserves (per the BP Statistical Review of World Energy) are only about 1/10th those of Saudi Arabia. The distinction is important."

Summarizing the Definitions

To summarize, let's review the definitions for the important terms discussed here:

Oil resource -- the total amount of oil in place, most of which typically can't be recovered

Oil reserve -- the amount of oil that can be recovered economically with existing technology"

//end of Oil Drum quote

"you can make a good argument for the U.S. becoming gas independent"

For how long?

That's the critical point that Ray Pierrehumbert was making, that all of the stuff we are currently doing (fracking and all the rest) is (at best) simply putting off the inevitable.

We are eventually gonna have to face the music and the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

People really need to start approaching these issues with something less than "wild-eyed" (head in the tar sands) optimism.

I'd put my money with Pierrehumbert any day of the week over an idiot like Maugeri.


Anonymous said...

Russel Seitz

“the question is what impact his tenure has on his intellectual seriousness in future?”

assuming this isn’t a Poe, you’ve wildly misunderstood what this tenure means. The “election” consists of a vote of 46 “hereditary peers” choosing between two highly wealthy individuals who are part of the same social circle. One of these individuals was a disgraced financier who has a good claim to running the worst run financial institution in Britain in 2007 (quite claim to fame). The other was a disgraced former MP who cheated on his expenses. Neither would have the remotest chance of winning any real election.

The idea that “intellectual seriousness” has any part of this process is beyond ludicrous, it’s cronyism at it’s very worst with an extremely thin veneer of medieval feudalist flummery to mask the stench of corruption.

Ridley now has a platform for his mendacious self-publicity. Expect him to use it, don’t expect him to change.


Anonymous said...

I'm An Economist! Who are you?
-- by Horatio Algeranon
(patterned after "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" by Emily Dickinson)

I'm an economist! Who are you?
Are you – an economist – too?
Then there's a pair of clueless*!
Don't tell! they'd make fun – you know!

How dreary – to be – a scientist!
How physical – like a Newton –
To tell what's real – the livelong day –
Instead of eternal-growth tootin!

*At least on science

Miguelito said...

"That's the critical point that Ray Pierrehumbert was making, that all of the stuff we are currently doing (fracking and all the rest) is (at best) simply putting off the inevitable.

We are eventually gonna have to face the music and the longer we wait, the harder it will be.

People really need to start approaching these issues with something less than "wild-eyed" (head in the tar sands) optimism.

I'd put my money with Pierrehumbert any day of the week over an idiot like Maugeri."

And it's a point I've made: there's enough resource in coal and oil to put off the inevitable and that's not a good thing (at least natural gas, with proper regulations, can be leveraged to reduce carbon emissions over the next few decades until we get off of it completely).

But, in terms of energy availability, I'd rather listen to a qualified pool of experts in energy supply (like the IEA, USGS, EIA, and others) than a single climate scientist questioning their judgment as if his experience trumps them all (I greatly respect Ray-Pierre, but I'd hate for him to fall into the trap of physicist arrogance). It's a bad argument to assume that, just because Maugeri is very likely wrong, the entire pool of experts is.

Miguelito said...

Forgot to answer:

"For how long?"

How long will you need it?

Companies are already modifying pipelines in eastern Canada to prepare to import U.S. gas into southern Ontario. Some are already flowing backwards across the border. And the shale-gas resource is relatively early in its development.

Gas isn't oil, so I'm not as optimistic about U.S. oil production (certainly no Maugeri optimist), but the message is on the wall for gas and most experts in the field feel it wouldn't be a stretch for the U.S. to increase its gas production to become self sufficient.

Russell Seitz said...

With one of Matt Ridley's opponents offering as qualification being the last Etonian "Captain of Boats to win the Ladies Plate at Henley" and another, a Monckton schoolmate, confessing: ‘unfortunately I did not cover myself with academic glory’, Tall Guy should be relieved at the election's outcome.

Anonymous said...

It's not Ray's take on "energy availability" that I find convincing (or even really care about)

It's his reasoned -- and wise -- approach to the issue of energy use and climate.

Whether the US has reserves to rival Saudi Arabia is irrelevant (or at least should be) because if we utilize all of it (along with gas and coal), the climate is clearly screwed (and so are we).


Miguelito said...

"Whether the US has reserves to rival Saudi Arabia is irrelevant (or at least should be) because if we utilize all of it (along with gas and coal), the climate is clearly screwed (and so are we)."

Oh, it's very relevant.

How do policy makers price a carbon program (like a carbon tax) unless people know how much of the resource there is and how much it costs to exploit?

If the resource that can be produced between $80 and $100/barrel is plentiful (and it appears that it is), you make sure it's taxed high enough so that it's relatively unappealing compared to the green alternatives.

So yes, it matters, especially to policy makers, people who have to turn that wisdom into legislation and regulations.

david lewis said...

It doesn't matter how much fossil energy remains to be exploited at whatever cost, whether its cheap or expensive, in Anderson's view.

Anderson argues that if a mere engineer such as himself was to take what these august scientists such as Dr. Pierrehumbert or Dr. Rabett say seriously while keeping in mind what types like Lord Stern etc. deliberately avoided facing or ignored, we are committed, because of the sheer size of our fossil infrastructure and how difficult it appears to be to phase something that large out given uncertainties certain to be there if 100% low or zero carbon technology were aimed for, never mind we have an economic system that doesn't appear functional unless it is growing exponentially and no unity there is even a climate problem, etc.; committed he argues, to a level of warming that will test any credible scientist's notion of what dangerous is, if those scientists were at all serious all these years when they let people believe that 2 degrees C was a limit civilization should avoid, i.e. civilization is threatened as of now over what it has already done.

Eli and Pierre should tell us they were kidding. 2 degrees was just a suggestion. Whoever came up with it was joking. They really meant 6 degrees or 10 degrees.

You can't just blog on about there isn't enough of the global fossil resource left in the US for it to become Saudi America when the emission of GHG has gone too far already.

It sounds like an addict who has not understood he's just taken an overdose talking about how great it is he's just discovered where he can get more of what is killing him, cheaper.

Never mind that saying these things like all that new US shale gas that can be burned to emit even more CO2 "buys us some respite", i.e. commits the planetary system to even more likely instability and lack of ability to support anything like the current numbers of human beings never mind other species.

The gas producers can't be bothered and have not been forced to go after their methane leaks even though what is leaking is the product they are selling.

Anderson and Bows are making a case that whatever ship anyone is still thinking civilization was going to catch if it woke up in time "has sailed".

Anonymous said...

"Oh, it's very relevant.
How do policy makers price a carbon program (like a carbon tax) unless people know how much of the resource there is and how much it costs to exploit?"

Actually, when it comes right down to it, I doubt that ANYONE really "knows" what total WORLD reserves are.

But the advantage of a carbon tax (or "fee" as per Hansen) is that it's adjustable (Hansen and others tout that as a significant selling point) and pretty simple to change if you estimated "wrong" to begin with.

If Ray is "wrong" and folks like Maugeri "right" about US oil reserves (the oil price is actually determined by total WORLD reserves) , it will show up fairly quickly and the tax can be adjusted to reflect that.

In fact, you can adjust the tax as many times as you need as new information arrives.

I really fail to see how "getting the reserve estimate right on the money to begin with" is critical to a carbon taxation system.

And, when it comes right down to it, I doubt ANYONE really has the last word when it comes to world reserves. Given all the unknowns, I'd actually bet that everyone is wrong.


Miguelito said...

Okay, I'll buy it's so simple you don't need to know reserves. All you have to do is set an oil tax to keep the price of oil above a certain level to make it distasteful to refine to diesel or gasoline.

I still think it's necessary to know what you're up against, however (so you don't get lazy and start thinking peak oil will fix your problem for you, which it won't; when I see projections of oil supply and the carbon emissions that can result from that in a non-carbon constrained scenario, it just urges action to prevent it). It's also good know to know how much natural gas there is to rely on for the short term.

WHT said...

"Actually, when it comes right down to it, I doubt that ANYONE really "knows" what total WORLD reserves are."

One of the interesting bits of information is that no working oil industry petroleum engineer or geologist has ever written a book on the subject of future potential. Only retired geologists or those who have moved to academia have written anything close, Deffeyes for example.

It is a taboo subject.

Hank Roberts said...

> how much of the resource
> there is

Too much.

> and how much it costs
> to exploit?

It costs the Earth as we know it.

Andy S said...

Bunnies should know that the whole Peak Oil debate has been dominated by hedgehogs; people who know one big thing, either that production rates are determined by geological supply or, on the other side of the debate, are determined solely by consumer demand. They both see the world as simple place, with a future that will unfold predictably.

Foxes, who know many small things, know that oil production is determined by many not small things, geology, demand, economics, geopolitics, technology, government regulations, taxes and royalties. Nobunny knows enough about of any of these things, so smart foxes avoid making predictions and keep their heads down. Nevertheless, as Bill McKibben pointed out in Rolling Stone, we can't even burn what the companies have on the books without risking an ungodly climatic mess.

Petroleum economists don't know everything either, but it's unwise to dismiss them as corrupt, capitalist know-nothings. After all, some of the strongest calls for immediate action on climate change have come from the IEA and the World Bank, as well as, most recently, from Christine Lagarde at the IMF.

As for the spectre of EROEI, I'm not very worried how many BTU's of gas it takes to produce a BTU of oil. We'll get a strong signal from the prices before the thermodynamics kick in.

What does keeps me awake at night is, as David Archer pointed out in The Long Thaw, the immediate energy return for burning a gallon of gasoline will be multiplied by a factor of 40 million during the lifetime of the resulting CO2 in the atmosphere. The good energy we use in our vehicles will return a shed load more of bad energy for our descendants.