Friday, June 28, 2013

Peak Oil Misunderstandings

With all the focus surrounding our new era of energy abundance coming from hydraulic fracturing, shale oil and possible methane clathrates, we forget that oil isn't the only, or even the most important, thing that is running scarce. Let's not forget about water and topsoil.

I know there has been a lot of discussion out there about Charles Mann's piece in the Atlantic, "We Will Never Run Out of Oil," see this for example. That post makes some good points. I think confusion could have been avoided with a simple rephrasing as follows: "We Will Probably Come up with Enough Sources of Hydrocarbons to Keep Modern Industrial Society Going for Centuries." Not as punchy, I know. But it would clear up some essential points of confusion:

1.) Peak Oil typically refers to petroleum resources, (literally "rock oil"), that is, liquid trapped in underground deposits and can be extracted via wells. Neither methane hydrates, shale oil, or methane delivered through fracking is petroleum. The statements the Peak Oil community has made about petroleum stand - large fields are entering the depletion phase, the easiest-accessed sources have been used first, new sources are in difficult-to-access locations, older wells do not recharge themselves, discoveries of new fields have been on the decline, etc. The fact that these "new" sources of hydrocarbons loom so large and are getting so much attention is proof that these statements are, in fact, true.

2.) The terms petroleum, fossil fuels and hydrocarbons, are all being mixed up, jumbled  and obfuscated in all of these "energy independence" articles, whether deliberately or due to ignorance. Hydrocarbons are the main things modern industrial society runs on, and there are other sources besides oil. While these sources are fungible to an extent - you can liquefy coal, or run a car with methanol, or burn coal or natural gas for electricity, and this is causing additional confusion. However, there are definite consequences due to declining supplies of petroleum.

3.) The "new" sources of hydrocarbons are much more difficult to extract and process into usable form. This means that the net energy available to society will be lower and the corresponding costs will be higher - much higher. Because energy is the prime mover in the economy, this presents an economic problem as well that is not being addressed.

4.) The global economy requires ever more energy in order to grow, and growth must be exponential, meaning we will use more energy in the next period then all of the previous periods combined. Increasing growth without increasing energy is an economic sleight-of-hand - growth is measured using GDP, and all GDP measures is the amount of economic transactions. Yet people in emerging economies of billions of people are trying to grow with the Western industrial model (construction sprawl, automobile dependency, tourism, throw-away consumerism, office work, etc.)

5.) Finally, the issue the Mann article does address is the fact that if all of these potential hydrocarbons are burned, an already severe climate change problem might spiral out of control. The benefits of increasing emissions will probably be offset by the negative effects of rising seas, drought, hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters. And worse-case scenarios envision an uninhabitable planet.

Now, as for those other shortages:
Since 1900, the U.S. has pulled enough water from underground aquifers to fill two Lake Eries. And in just the first decade of the 21st century, we've extracted underground water sufficient to raise global sea level by more than 2 percent. We suck up 25 cubic kilometers of buried water per year.

That's the message from the U.S. Geological Survey's evaluation of how the U.S. is managing its aquifers. Or mismanaging. For example: water levels in the aquifer that underlies the nation's bread basket have dropped in some places by as much as 160 feet.

The rest of the world isn't doing any better. A conference of water scientists just issued the so-called Bonn Declaration, which declares that this lack of foresight will cause the majority of people alive in 2050 to face "severe" freshwater shortages.
Water Waste May Leave Us Thirsty (Scientific American)
Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains.

This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis — decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid stream beds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet.
Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust (NYT)
Residents of Auroville, a utopian international township of 2,000 people just north of Pondicherry, are hoping to free India from the whims of the monsoon and the uncertainties of global warming by experimenting with old-fashioned agricultural techniques to develop drought-resistant crops and underground water reservoirs.

“People have been handling climate change for so long. You think it hasn’t been changing in the past?” asked Deepika Kundaji, 50, who, along with her Belgium-born husband, Bernard Declercq, grows 90 varieties of vegetables for seed conservation on a seven-acre plot she named Pebble Garden. “Ten thousand years of agriculture has given us so many ranges of crops that can easily handle drought.”

The vegetable garden in Deepika Kundaji’s Pebble Garden in Auroville.Ms. Kundaji, a trained archaeologist who grew up in Karnataka, created Pebble Garden with her husband on an extremely degraded piece of land in 1994. They started by planting trees in five acres of the plot. In 2001, they set up a vegetable garden for seed conservation by creating fertile soil beds on the degraded land using layers of wet acacia leaves, soil and urine-soaked charcoal neatly stacked in patches.

A yellow eggplant growing in Deepika Kundaji’s Pebble Garden.She pointed to 15 varieties of eggplant that they have grown and found to be drought resistant. One of the eggplant varieties is a nearly 10-inch yellow zucchini lookalike hanging on a five-foot plant in the couple’s neat two-acre vegetable garden. The plant has survived two summers without irrigation, she said.
For Farmers Fearing Drought, Auroville Offers Some Lessons (NYT)
The dirt beneath our feet is a nearly magical world filled with tiny, wondrous creatures. A mere handful of soil might contain a half million different species including ants, earthworms, fungi, bacteria and other microorganisms. Soil provides nearly all of our food – only one percent of our calories come from the oceans, she said.

Soil also gives life to all of the world’s plants that supply us with much of our oxygen, another important ecosystem service. Soil cleans water, keeps contaminants out of streams and lakes, and prevents flooding. Soil can also absorb huge amounts of carbon, second only to the oceans.

“It takes half a millennia to build two centimetres of living soil and only seconds to destroy it,” Glover said.

Each year, 12 million hectares of land, where 20 million tonnes of grain could have been grown, are lost to land degradation. In the past 40 years, 30 percent of the planet’s arable (food-producing) land has become unproductive due to erosion. Unless this trend is reversed soon, feeding the world’s growing population will be impossible.
Peak Water, Peak Oil … Now, Peak Soil? (Inter Press Service)
Our changing of Earth’s climate has diminished snow cover and sea ice, intensified the water cycle, and altered patterns of rainfall and river flow.  Human actions have acidified the oceans, altered the nitrogen cycle, drained half the world’s wetlands, trapped behind dams 100 billion tons of sediment that would otherwise replenish coastlines, and diverted major rivers to the point where they no longer reach the sea.

Perhaps most importantly, biological extinction rates are now 100-1000 times background levels – due largely to habitat destruction, pollution and other human activities.
Water - and Us- in the Anthopocene (National Geographic Newswatch)
WASHINGTON — Millions of dollars in farm subsidies for irrigation equipment aimed at water conservation have led to more water use, not less, threatening vulnerable aquifers and streams.

From Wyoming to the Texas Panhandle, water tables have fallen 150 feet in some areas — ranging from 15 percent to 75 percent — since the 1950s, scientists say, because the subsidies give farmers the incentive to irrigate more acres of land. Other areas, including several Midwestern states, have also been affected.
Farm Subsidies Leading to More Water Use (NYT)

1 comment:

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