Energy: August 2008 Archives

It's over, Darling.

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peakoilchart.jpgCommentary on Darling's Guardian interview has largely (and rightly) focused on his view that the economic times faced are "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years". Faced, note: he's not talking about the current economic situation, he's talking about where it's going. The current difficulties don't look worse than the early 80s or the early 90s yet. But where is it going?

While it's often said that the first responsibility of a Chancellor is to talk the economy up, when everyone knows better it just sounds Panglossian and out of touch. So I think he's right this time, albeit for the wrong reasons. 

It's not primarily about a credit crunch. Like the dot com bust before it, we're seeing the end of a bubble spun up by market players and governments to try and fend off something worse. Its symptoms are grim, sure, but the underlying problem is that we're well into the dying days of the cheap oil economy, more commonly known as globalisation. 

Oil prices have dipped again, but as the FT says, this is just a lull in the storm. Colin Campbell and the good people at ASPO told us a long time ago what would happen, and so far it's all following their predictions. 

As global oil output starts to plateau in 2007, they said, prices will spike. Given the total dependence of our economic model on cheap oil, we'll see a serious economic slowdown. This will lead to a drop in demand for oil, easing prices. Demand destruction, they call it. However, with maximum production matching supply so closely (i.e. in the absence of a swing producer), even small threats to production will cause significant price changes. 

So far, so recognisable. We can expect the easing of prices below $100 again to lead to a small economic rally, and thus an increase in demand. My guess is that's probably not due before the spring, although I'm reluctant to make predictions. 

As demand then picks up, and as oil output starts to drop properly, probably 12-18 months from now (click on the chart above for a bigger version), we'll see another spike, almost certainly higher than the $147 peak seen in July, although that partly depends on the strength of the dollar. Cue even greater demand destruction.

No-one in government in London or Edinburgh, nor amongst their main oppositions, has any idea about how to cope with this. They're just hoping it'll all go away, and dammit, it won't. The timescales above may be out, but sooner or later it's coming. 

Darling tells the story of a member of the public who said to him "I know it's to do with oil prices - but what are you going to do about it?". His response? "People think, well surely you can do something, you are responsible - so of course it reflects on me." 

The man at the pump knows more about the problem than Darling, because he knows Darling can do something about it, a fact that seems to escape the Chancellor. Perhaps this random member of the public should do the job instead. 

Of course Darling could do something about it: he could divert spending away from wasteful projects and wars and into renewables, R&D, public transport, etc. He could set an objective of energy independence. Any politician who doesn't tell you that getting off our fossil fuel addiction is their top priority doesn't deserve your vote.

The alternatives if we don't achieve that are likely to be dire. Coal's already back with a vengeance, and there's no dirtier fuel except old car tyres, so any idea that decreasing oil use will help climate change is a pure pipe-dream. The hard right and neo-Nazis may well start to do better as the economic situation worsens. They certainly think so: see point 4 on the top link here (that's a google link -  I'm not directly linking to the bloody BNP's site!).

A lot of the goods and services we take for granted will become incredibly expensive, and fuel poverty will hit levels last seen when Good King Wenceslas famously looked out. Poverty as a whole will rise. I wouldn't bet against more resource wars, either. 

There's no point worrying about it, though, when you can spend your time working to get more Greens elected instead. 

Back to Darling's interview. His economic warning has understandably overshadowed his line that "This coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour party has had in a generation." 

It's a pretty extreme prediction too, though. What, it'll be worse than the last 18 months where you lost every election going? Worse than a million people marching against a Labour-led imperial war? Worse, Darling, than any given part of 1978-1993?  

How has it come to this, for Labour to have no imagination whatsoever about how to use a working Parliamentary majority? Here's a tip: why don't you address the looming energy crisis with something more constructive than nuclear and coal? 

All Labour has left is angst about themselves, fear of being exiled into opposition, and fear of being shown up by the Tories. Their absence of vision is now absolute, and it does indeed sound as though Darling's had enough. Perhaps he, like his namesake from Blackadder Goes Forth, is about to go over the top

Storm clouds over McCain.

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deadendkatrinaorleans.jpgThe news that a category 3 hurricane called Gustav could hit New Orleans this week is alarming local residents

It's Republican convention week too, which is alarming McCain's team, and they say they'd postpone the balloon-drop if need be. 

Another hurricane hitting Louisiana wouldn't just remind Americans of the utter disgrace of Bush's response to Katrina: it might also close down oil extraction in the Gulf of Mexico, and remind them of how fragile and pointless a policy it is to try and drill your way out of peak oil.

Incidentally, I thought all hurricanes were female. Turns out they used to be, but since 1978 they alternate male/female each year, unless they get to Z

Brushing it under the carpet.

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kingsnorth.jpgIf there's one thing that Salmond, Brown and Cameron all agree on, it's carbon capture and storage (CCS), which allows the filthiest fossil fuel around to be rebranded "clean coal".

The theory is that you attach a big hose to a coal-fired power station's chimney, and pump the CO2 back into empty oilfields.

The Nats, Labour and the Tories think this is a magic bullet to allow business-as-usual power generation. Our position has always been "well, if you can prove it works and is more cost-effective than renewables, it's a possible transitional technology".

But the evidence is growing that CCS simply won't work. The reason is that the CO2 doesn't just magically get itself underground - it has to be pumped, and that takes more energy, specifically about 30% more coal power. 

Once you factor in the lifetime consequences of extracting, transporting and burning that extra coal, the nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide emissions are up to 40% worse (peer-reviewed actual science) than a standard coal plant. That means more acid rain, more ozone destruction, and more water pollution.

In short, Labour, the Nats, and the Tories are going down a dead end. Shouldn't the fact that Arthur Scargill's also on their side have been a bit of a give-away? It's not as if we don't have other perfectly good and genuinely clean technologies that we could be diverting the money towards instead.

Via the excellent Gristmill.

Give away or sell out?

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atomictree.jpgThe environment movement is still agitated about George Monbiot's article this week in the Guardian, in which he said:
"I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen - as long as.. <caveats>" 

Leaving those caveats to one side briefly, I do recommend watching Tuesday's Newsnight (YouTube). They brought Monbiot in to defend his article, and put him up against Brian Wilson (the one who's been bought and sold, not the good one), and Jonathan Porritt, formerly of this manor

I've long been concerned that Porritt had lost his way, even before he was co-opted by Blair. Conversely, I've always admired Monbiot, ever since he used to be a regular on Newsnight as the voice of the roads protesters. Disclosure: I first met him outside the Cakehole, where he was introduced to me as Moonboot. Last year he did a fundraiser for the Party ahead of the elections too.

But I cheered when Porritt told him he'd sold out (although obviously not in the same literal way that Wilson has). Porritt made comprehensive sense all the way through, and managed to keep himself civil even as he pointed out Monbiot's gargantuan blunder.

If you want to know whether Monbiot has helped or hindered campaigns for clean energy, just look at Wilson's smug face as he awards a "slow learner's prize" to the former lion of the campaigners.

Back to those caveats. He listed four, as follows:
1. ".. its total emissions are taken into account"
2. "we know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried," 
3. "how much this will cost and who will pay;"
4. "and there is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be used by the military."

First, "take total emissions into account" could hardly be more vague, while nuclear's carbon emissions are substantial and rising. Research shows that the the amount of CO2 emitted in the nuclear process is dependent on the grade of the ore. Current power stations emit 84-122 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, but the quality of the remaining uranium ore will drop (Storm & Smith 2008, 672K pdf), and as it does, nuclear's emissions will rise and overtake even gas. (Oxford Research Group paper, p.42, 1.3M pdf) 

It's not hard to see why: the processes behind the scenes are complex and energy-intensive, and so the costs will only rise as oil depletes. If you listen to the nuclear lobby, they never mention it being a finite resource, nor that it uses vast amounts of energy to extract, mill, and ship around the world. Those carbon consequences will rise even more rapidly if the world returns to nuclear, as the higher grades and softer ores deplete faster. Monbiot knows that nuclear can't wash its own face even in climate terms, so why imply it could?

Next, he doesn't insist on a safe and permanent solution to waste being developed. He just wants to know how and where it's going. A letter from Gordon Brown explaining that it's going to be three feet down in your garden in a MDF box would apparently suffice there. I know that seems unfair, but the article is exceptionally sloppy, especially given the importance of the issues. Presumably we should hear the implied word "safety" there, but how can we guarantee centuries of safety, no matter what the containment?

Third, it'll cost an absolute arm and a leg, and we're all paying, as usual, right to the death. Does that reassure you, George?

Finally, you'd trust some kind of written statement that "oh no, we won't use this for nuclear weapons, promise"? It's not like that would stop Brown/Cameron/Clegg pushing ahead with Trident renewal - the Americans would be more than happy to sell us what we need. After all, Britain was their third largest supplier of plutonium between 1967 and 1988. 

And not using our own waste would just push the prices up, surely? Trident replacement is already a tad expensive at £65 billion.

Overall, this is a weaker position on civil nuclear, let it be noted, than David Cameron's one. He said straight-out that "there shouldn't be subsidies", which effectively kills civil nuclear dead. According to the Nation, Darling apparently said the same thing in 2006, but that was then and this is now.

Also, it's not like we don't know what the answer is: 100% renewables and energy efficiency. Where nuclear already emits 84-122 grams of CO2 per kWh, wind is just 11-37g, and biomass just 29-62g (see the ORG report above). Coal, incidentally, emits around 850g, eight times more than nuclear, and thirty-five times more than wind, using the middle of those ranges. If America can go carbon-free, so can we.

Early in the debate, Monbiot says part of his solution would be to set a maximum amount of CO2 that could be emitted per kWh, and suggests "80, or perhaps 50". You do see, George, don't you, that even at the bottom end, nuclear doesn't meet that? Why have you ignored the numbers? 

Haven't you read your own articles? (that's a recommended link, though, as it does show a previous partial shift)?

I'm sure Monbiot thought he would impress onto people the urgency of stopping coal power stations with such a radical call. Perhaps he thought Wilson and Brown and the like would think "Woo, coal's so bad that even Monbiot's prepared to back nuclear - maybe we should think again about Kingsnorth?"

Pure naivety, if so. The toxic rabble in the Commons are just rubbing their hands and dreaming of nuclear directorships, present and future, where they can continue to fleece the public and pretend to fight climate change simultaneously. That's why Porritt said "sellout" directly to his face, the worst insult an environmentalist has for another, although it could be argued it was more of a giveaway than a sellout: I doubt he's actually taken the nuclear shilling.

In the interests of fairness, I'll give 2000-vintage Monbiot the last word. "It's time to shut nuclear power down, and begin the dangerous and expensive task of decommissioning Britain's most disastrous experiment."

Smog gets in your eyes.

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jetsmog.jpgSo it turns out that all that stuff we buy from China does have carbon consequences. And that - shock horror - those aeroplanes do too. If you ignore those two awkward facts you can indeed claim emissions have fallen, as Labour would like to do. 

The reality is (see that first link) that they've underestimated the carbon Britain's responsible for by a staggering 49%. 

Remember this next time you hear John Denham, David Miliband, Gordon Brown, or other Labour drones claiming that the Labour government is "leading the way on climate change". It's exactly the same sort of trick that the Tories used to pull on unemployment, and which Labour are also still doing. 

They're leading the way with fiddling the figures, that's all. And given Labour's determination to be outflanked on climate change even by the Tories, you can see why they've gone down this route. Tragic.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Energy category from August 2008.

Energy: July 2008 is the previous archive.

Energy: September 2008 is the next archive.