Thursday, May 21, 2015

Albert Einstein, Soil, Honey Bees and Biodiversity.

Among the manifold quotes that are attributed to Albert Einstein, are variants along the lines of:
"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
"If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live."
Whether it was in fact the author and originator of "Relativity" (both special and general) and the "Photoelectric Effect", the latter of which, from his annus mirablis, won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, is disputed, ", nonetheless, Einstein was a man of great awareness, as might be summarised by his more provenly attributable quote, to the effect that: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." The latter axiom is indeed true.

There is a tendency for humans to perceive ill occurrences as unconnected events, rather as the Biblical plagues of Egypt: water into blood, frogs, lice, wild animals or flies, deceased livestock, boils, storms of fire, locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn. Scientists now believe that these events really happened, but they were in fact all results of a single cause: not the wrath of a punitive God, but climate change Modern humans are aware of contemporary global menaces: a changing climate, peak oil, a dodgy economy that could collapse at any moment, and the extinction of honey bees, but relatively few of us know that the world’s productive soils are also under threat. What has been most noticeable is that the price of food and fuel has increased markedly over the past decade, during when we have also experienced an economic crash. We fear another such shock, even amid whispers of “growth”, which can only be expected to be of a slow stuttering kind, since we cannot significantly grow our rate of production of resources. Thus, the price of a barrel of crude oil had more than trebled since 2004, prior to the recent, but temporary, crash, while global production has practically flat-lined at around 75 million barrels a day over that same period, leading to the view that we have reached the ceiling of our oil supply

Given that all components of human civilization are inextricably linked to petroleum, either as a chemical feedstock or a fuel, if we cannot elevate our production rate of oil, nor can we grow the global economy. The troubles of the human condition, however, are more fundamental, since we are steadily using-up Mother Earth’s bestowal to us of fertile soil. This has been dubbed “peak soil” in analogy with “peak oil”, and while the two phenomena are not of the same kind, they are connected, as indeed are all the elements listed in the title of this article - soil, land, water, climate (change), bees, oil and food. Alice Friedmann wrote, in the context of the unsustainable nature of growing land-based crops and producing biofuels from them:

“Iowa has some of the best topsoil in the world, yet in the past century it’s eroded from an average of 18 inches to less than 10 inches (Pate 2004, Klee 1991). When topsoil reaches 6 inches or less (the average depth of the root zone in crops), productivity drops off sharply (Sundquist 2005). Soil erodes geologically at a rate of about 400 pounds of soil per acre per year (Troeh 2005). But on over half of America’s best crop land, the erosion rate is 11,000 pounds per acre, 27 times the natural rate, and double that on the worst 7% of cropland (NCRS 2006), partly because farmers aren’t paid to conserve their land, and partly because hired farmers wrench every penny of profit they can on behalf of short-sighted owners.”

This is deeply disturbing, all the more so because rates of erosion that are in excess of the natural rate of soil formation are not restricted to Iowa, but are a global feature According to a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI) some 20% of the world’s cultivated areas are afflicted by land degradation, and in order to feed Humankind over the next 40 years, food production must be increased by 60%. This conclusion is drawn, in part, from the expectation that another 2.5 billion people will be added to the current number of just over 7 billion of us, and that a rising middle class will have greater expectations of their diet, particularly in wanting to eat more meat. The amount of food that is wasted is another consideration, and combining this factor with population increase suggests a daily gap between the demand for food and what is likely to be available by 2050 of 900 calories (kilocalories) per capita.

Many of the limitations to meeting such a testing challenge are those of the modern industrialised agricultural system per se. The factors involved are complex and inseparable, and in short provide a critical nexus for survival, or demise should any of its elements fail. The impact of climate change adds further weight to the problem, and seven clear courses of action have been identified, by which we might adapt to ensure food security into the future 24% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are from agricultural activities, including methane from livestock, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, carbon dioxide from running tractors and combine harvesters etc. and from changes in land use. Furthermore, 70% of all human water consumption is claimed by agriculture. In the last 40 years, 20 million square kilometers of land have suffered degradation, which accounts for around 15% of the total land area of the Earth, while 30% of the originally available cropland is now unproductive. As noted for Iowa, the degradation of topsoil is occurring many times faster than the rate at which soil is generated by Nature, which can take longer than 500 years to form just an inch of it

There is an increasing pressure on water supplies too, which may begin to struggle in meeting demand in the food basket regions of the Americas, west and east Africa, central and eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and south and south-east Asia, within only 12 years As alluded earlier, the costs of both fuel and food have risen markedly over the past decade: food prices follow oil prices because oil and gas are involved at all principal stages in the food production and distribution chain. The World Bank has proposed restricting oil prices as a means to mitigating food price increases

There appears little doubt that future oil prices will be perpetually high, since the global oil supply will increasingly be provided from unconventional sources, e.g. producing shale oil by fracking, oil sands  and (ultra)deepwater drilling, all of which have poorer net energy returns than does conventional crude oil Indeed, had the price of oil not risen to $100 and more a barrel, prior to the recent price crash, no one would have bothered to produce it from such expensive and demanding sources. There is also the critical question of how high an oil price the economy can bear, before it falls into recession and finally collapses

Indeed, with the currently relatively diminished oil price, unconventional sources of "oil" such as oil sands (in reality tar sands, which contain bitumen not petroleum) are no longer viable, and investment in them is being pulled back In total, across the globe, some  $100 billion worth of investment, mainly in unconventional oil projects, is being curtailed

According to the U.S. National Agriculture Statistics there has been a decline from about 6 million bee-hives in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2008, representing a reduction by 60% Over the past 10 years, beekeepers in both the U.S. and Europe have reported annual hive losses of 30%, and last winter losses of 50% in the U.S. were not uncommon, with worst case examples of 80-90% Since one third of all food crops rely on bees to pollinate them, if this “bee-collapse” continues, the effect on world food production could be calamitous. To this phenomenon, we might afford the euphemism "Peak Bee", as a sibling of "Peak Oil" and "Peak Soil". Various causes have been brought culpable for killing the bees, including pesticides, parasitic mites, intensive monoculture farming methods and urban development. The nexus of components that we have identified is totally out of kilter with providing sufficient food for a population of 9.5 billion by 2050 and maybe 11 billion by 2100

The various ills we have described are outcomes of the industrial nature of monoculture farming, which frets the ecology and does not restore it, including the soil itself. Alternatively, methods of regenerative agriculture and permaculture have been advanced These help to rebuild the soil, making it more fertile through increasing its soil organic matter content (SOM), including establishing a healthy network of microbes and other creatures to live in it (the soil food web), thus securing fertility and crop productivity. Such methods of ecological food production can be done on a more local scale, and the food consumed closer to where it is grown, largely obviating the necessity for an extensive transportation/distribution system powered by oil-refined fuels. They are further less intensive in their demand for other inputs, such as water, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. By keeping the soil covered throughout the year, it is protected from erosion, and the SOM improves its structure so that it can absorb water more effectively and allow aquifers to recharge, thus mitigating both water shortages and flooding. It is likely that a reduced use of pesticides, through reintroducing biodiversity, might help to bring the bees back too.

I am scheduled to give a lecture on "The Global Oil Supply and Implications for Biodiversity" at the Linnean Society of London in September

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Chris Rhodes on "Why are Oil Prices so Low?" An interview by Rob Hopkins for the Transition Nework.

The following is a transcript of Rob Hopkins interviewing me for the Transition Network. Since this was prepared by me, any errors are mine alone.

CR. “I’m Chris Rhodes. I’m currently Chair/Coordinator of Transition Town Reading. I’m actually an independent consultant. I deal with energy issues, of various kinds. I’m a former academic, but I decided to branch out and do some other things with my life, including getting involved with Transition, prompted actually by some research I was doing into the origins of petroleum. And then I came across “peak oil” in the middle of all this, and that rather changed my thinking about a lot of things basically.”

RH. “It does tend to do that!”

CR. Laughter. “Yes indeed.”

RH. “You wrote a piece that was on Energy Bulletin recently, that came from your blog, reflecting on what seemed to you to be the causes behind the spectacular recent plummeting in the oil price, and something that you then wrote up under the guise of a “Transition Agony Aunt” recently . Could you just give us your thoughts on why we’ve seen a fall from a hundred and forty eight dollars a couple of years ago, down to less than fifty now?”

CR. “Mm. It’s been an astonishing journey really. The original hike up to practically a hundred and fifty dollars for Brent Crude was amazing. It was to do with a combination of factors, but really the demand was ahead of supply, and you don’t need much actually, of supply over demand or demand over supply. One percent either way can really shove the price up or down. And the U.S. dollar was in a certain situation too, it was weak at the time, and a combination of these factors shoved the price of oil right up. Then we had the economic catastrophe, and as always, when you have an economic problem, a great slowdown because everything that we do requires oil, and then that demand for oil falls, and the price plummets.

And then we had a recovery, the Chinese economy was ramping ahead, and a combination of various factors preserved the demand for oil, and that sort of drove the price up above a hundred dollars, and kept it going that way. Of course there was the fall in the output of oil from Libya, and that certainly had an impact on the whole equation. And things seemed to be trotting along quite happily. With a tight market, the oil was above a hundred... I think it was a hundred and fifteen dollars a barrel in June of last year. And then something really started to go pear-shaped, in terms of the oil price. And there are various conspiracy theories around, about people trying to destroy other people’s economies. I try and steer away from conspiracy theories, but the most sensible explanation I can come up with is that indeed, the world economy is slowing.

The Chinese economy has slowed considerably, and things aren’t so good in Europe, so the demand for oil has actually fallen, but yet supply is way up. The Oil has come back out of Iraq and out of Libya, the U.S. production of shale oil is about three and a half million barrels a day, and the Saudis, who produce a third of OPEC’s oil, have said “well no. Right, OPEC is not going to pull back on oil production", so we’ve got an oversupply against demand, and the force – the supply/demand force – has pushed the oil price way down. And it’s not until that glut has been absorbed that anything will happen. But I don’t believe that we’re going to have this situation for too much longer. Because the oil price is so low, this has caused a lot of oil companies to pull back on their investment in new production.

So if they’re not investing now – they’ve pulled back a hundred and fifty billion worth of production this year – then a year or so down the line, the overall global oil production is going to be decreased accordingly. And what we’ve got to look at is that the world existing oil production is falling by about three and a half million barrels a day, which means that we’ve got to find a new Saudi Arabia’s worth of production about every three or four years, and mostly from unconventional sources. So it really does have to absorb that glut, and fairly rapidly, so I would predict that the price of oil is going to go back up again. How high is hard to predict, probably impossible to predict, but I think this is a temporary situation. Peak oil is real, and the existing conventional production did peak probably the best part of ten years ago now, so I think that is where we are standing at the moment.”

RH. “So the fact that, um, oh what was he called, oh God my brain’s gone completely, Matthew – Simms?”

CR. “Simmons.”

RH. “Simmons, yes Simmons, who wrote his book about the Twilight of the oil in Saudi Arabia.”

CR. “That’s right.”

RH. “And the fact that production has been able to ramp up and they feel they have reserves to hold out as long as it takes, do you think that some of those forecasts in terms of peak oil and lack of availability of oil were maybe slightly overdone?”

CR. “It’s not played out exactly as was anticipated. I mean, the original idea was, of course, well, due to the difficulty increasingly in getting the stuff out of the ground it would peak, but it’s been more complex than that. I know the Saudis – I’ve forgotten the name of the field, but it’s a field that’s full of pretty filthy oil, which is full of metals and all kinds of stuff. This was mothballed - you know - decades back, but now they are producing from that, and I think a lot of production has been possible because the price of oil did go up so high, so what’s happening there, but also the whole of the fracking industry. If the price of oil hadn’t gone up to a hundred dollars and then more than that, then nobody would have invested money – no oil companies would have invested in production, because it would have been a money loser.

Now, apparently with the low oil price, so I read yesterday, 97% of all shale fracking projects are now basically money losers, so I can’t see that that’s going to continue for too much longer. And I think that what we can say is that we’ve seen the oil price plummet because of this oversupply against demand, but production costs are still high, and we’re not going to continue to produce oil until the price goes back up above the breakeven cost of production. And the unconventional oil sources tend to be more expensive to produce from. They cost more energy, they’re a lower net energy return, they’re more difficult, they require more advanced technology, and it’s overall a really less – I was going to say beneficial – it’s a poorer investment really than conventional oil. So we’re trying to fill up this great hole – as I say, one Saudi Arabia’s worth of production every three years, which would sound to me like five Saudi Arabias worth of production by 2030. Because time’s moving on. It’s 2015 already. 2030’s not so far away, is it, from as it seemed from not that long ago. And it’s going to be a more difficult and expensive procedure.

So we are using up, quite naturally, the easy to get stuff. The cheaper to produce stuff. And we’re trying to fill that hole with more difficult and more expensive stuff. I mean the Saudis can still produce oil for – oh, ten dollars a barrel, but of course they need it to be a hundred dollars to balance their national economy. And this is true of many countries, but Saudi at least has deep pockets, so they can actually weather this for some time. Whereas somewhere like Venezuela, they get about fifty percent of their GDP from selling oil, but of course they don’t have deep pickets, so their economy, I think, is likely to suffer... well, badly, and soon.

RH. You mentioned, when we’ve talked before, that you’ve been to some seminars around fracking over the last few weeks. I wonder what your sense, with the infrastructure bill having gone though, and the government talking about a green light, a go ahead for fracking, of the reality of whether we’ll see large scale fracking in this country.”

CR. “It’s a very interesting  question. I mean, the only place that fracking has been done on the grand scale so far is America. And really, however people may feel about hydrocarbons, what they’ve accomplished in terms of production is astonishing. Something like 30% of domestic oil production now comes out of shale. This is tight oil – shale oil produced by fracking shale. Not kerogen, that’s another story altogether. And about 45% of American domestic gas production also comes out of shale, at the moment. So, it’s astonishing. So, the only other place we can look to beyond America is Poland, where there’s been some significant attempt to produce gas, at least. And it’s really not played out as well as was hoped. Poland was looked at as something that was going to be the European giant, because they had apparently more reserves than anybody else did. And then the Polish Geological Institute revised those reserves down to about 10% of what they thought they had originally. Chevron and other majors have pulled out of Poland.

They’ve drilled 66 wells, and I don’t think any of them gave a decent production rate, the geology is more complex and more difficult in Europe from in America, and even in America, where – OK, naturally they’ve drilled into the sweet spots, where they’ve got the good production, both for oil and gas, for drilling elsewhere, it seems that the energy returns are becoming poorer, so I think that if we’re going to start doing this in Britain – ah well, it may not play out as well as hoped. People I was talking to, at some of these workshops, um, they were very interesting in what they said. These were people who were on the edge of the industry, at least, were saying that it was a great big gamble, but of course, if it comes off, then there is money to be made, but, again, nobody is going to seriously invest with very low oil and gas prices. Because the oil and gas prices tend to be connected. If one is low, so is the other, and vice versa. So, I think that unless the oil price goes back up again – and I think it has too, for the reasons I’ve said – supply and demand – then we’re not likely to get much serious investment.

But there was a report out – the parliamentary bill – the environmental audit, came out last Monday, and their conclusion – well, you’re probably well aware of it – but basically what fracking we do should be very limited, mostly because of the CO2 emissions aspect, but we’re not likely to have a U.K. shale industry for about ten to fifteen years. Now, by that stage, if that’s true, then we will be way down in the likely production of oil across the world. And people have various views as to - even in America - how long that production is going to play out for. Um, you know, there’s David Hugues, who came out with a report for the Post Carbon Institute, didn’t he, and he is somewhat less optimistic, shall we say than some of the other figures than have come out - for example, the U.S. Department of Energy... who are they? The Energy Information Administration. I always confuse them with the French counterpart. But, yeah, basically that there’s no guarantee that there will be sustained production out to 2040, because even that assumes there’s going to be better technology developed along the way, and the geology will be better understood. I found an interesting – I discovered quite recently – a presentation by Chevron for their investors. And basically they were saying that, well, we need to find another 200 billion barrels of oil by 2030.

Well, that’s interesting in itself, and then on a slide they show, as I say, the decline rate of production of conventional oil, which is this needing to find a new Saudi every 3 years worth of production. But, of course, it’s not only that they’ve got to find 200 billion barrels more oil, they’ve got to find more of it, and produce more of it, year on year. And then they go on, and they look at where that oil’s going to come from. Well, a little titsy-bit is going to come from conventional oil, they reckon about 40% is going to come from deepwater drilling, maybe 20% from shale fracking, and a few other things to make the whole lot up. Some tar sands increase, but if you look at the amount of oil that’s reckoned to be produced over time from fracking, even the EIA’s figures, there’s not as much oil to be had, so they reckon, as Chevron does. And you start to think, yep, there are a lot of uncertainties about how much of it there is to be had, and of course, what the production rate is likely to be. 

You don’t know what the production rate is going to be until you start drilling. Neither do you know the quality of the material that you’re going to recover. So, I think there’s a lot of uncertainty, and I do have my doubts that we’re going to have a massive scale shale industry in Britain any time soon. And what I fear is that if we really go out for this, and it doesn’t work, and we’ve ignored renewables, and other ways of doing things which, basically, involve cutting the amount of energy that we use, then we may have backed the wrong horse in the race.”

“Mm. Mm. And you wrote recently about the Ekins and McGlade study about keeping fossil fuels under the ground. What does that add and bring to these discussions, do you think?”

“Mm. It’s interesting. I mean, the discussions really, so far are right, OK, can we maintain oil production. If, yes, how can we do it? Then we start to see, yep, it’s going to have to be unconventional oil, it’s going to be expensive to do, difficult, maybe it’s not going to be possible to maintain overall production. Because it’s the old adage, isn’t it, that it’s the size of the tap, more than the size of the tank, that matters, and these are more difficult to produce from. And you’re trying to maintain or grow production from them, to maintain overall production, in the face of what you’re losing from conventional oil. But, of course, yeah, the paper in Nature that you refer to, concluded largely that we’ve got to stop burning about, um, well basically that we’ve got to leave about two thirds of our fossil fuels in the ground.

I looked at it in terms of production rate, but it seemed to me that we have to reduce our rate of burning coal by about two thirds, and the oil supply they reckoned would only need to go down by 5% or so, the production, but the gas supply, the gas supply would have to increase by maybe 60 or so percent. So, for that to work - the analysis they presented – it seemed that we would need to grow our gas supply, which sounds quite reasonable to me. Of course, where is the gas going to come from? Shale presumably, and coal bed methane, but again other unconventional sources which are more difficult to produce from.

So, we really are in the scales of a great balance, between what might be done in terms of production, and of course whether that actually is desirable to do – to grow that production, rather than reducing it anyway, because we are going to proverbially “fry the planet”, It’s interesting that if you look at the, uh, the B.P. Statistical Review, although they reckon that there will be some substitution of coal by gas, still, um, by 2035, we will have increased our carbon emissions by something like 30%. So that seems to be totally – diametrically - opposite to the proposals of what needs to be done, according to the analysis published in Nature.”

“And, uh, that gap that you mention, and the challenge that the paper presents, what is it that you think – I mean, you know, you’ve been involved in consulting around energy, and now you give some of your time to Transition Reading, as, you know, the Chair of the group. What’s your sense of what Transition brings to those conversations – to those discussions?”

“I think what Transition brings, among many things, to these discussions is that, while mostly, popular discourse centres around where are we going to get our energy from? How are we going to grow supply?, Transition starts to say, OK, well accepting that if we are going to grow any supply, but even to maintain what we have, we have to move over to lower carbon energy sources. But then Transition focuses on ways of reducing energy – focuses on localisation . I mean that really came in implicitly with looking hard and firmly in the face of peak oil, but there are so many other aspects. 

So, we have local community activities, producing more of what we need at the local level, establishing resilience, as we use the word, but really, it’s about, in a growing way, um, managing to use our resources more efficiently, and in fact, in terms of energy, it’s facing up to the fact that we are going to be in a situation where we will have less energy available to us, whether that may come from carbon-free or carbon-emitting sources. I think Transition is about a completely different paradigm, um, really, for how we go about our lives in the future. But, it’s also about drawing people together and finding the strengths that we have within communities, and at the local level.”

“And the last question I had was, as somebody who – you’ve been an academic for a long time, and a writer, and a researcher and a consultant, what has getting involved with Transition brought to your sense of your ability to affect these issues or respond to these issues, that might not have been there before? I’m wondering what that involvement has brought to you personally, either that the previous responses and approaches might not have done?”

“Well, I, for many years used to do terrible things. As you said, I was an academic, I used to fly around the world working on particle accelerators, and things like this, so my carbon footprint must have been – well, I wouldn’t like to think about it – but I really wasn’t thinking in these terms, and what really, uh, changed my attitude and my outlook, as I said, was in my researching into the origins of petroleum – biotic, abiotic etc. – coming across a page, um, on the internet – it might have been by Matt Simmons actually – but peak oil, and I was just transfixed as the implications slowly started to drop in my head, like the proverbial penny. 

And immediately it became obvious that we needed to relocalise, and then that naturally caused me to gravitate, um, beyond my writing on the subject etc, to getting involved with the local Transition group. But what Transition has given me is a sense of hope, actually. That by – I feel that we either all stand or all fall together, as a human society. And I think that from this grass roots, getting together and sharing skills and hope and resources, we may actually get through what is likely to be quite a testing time, however it unfolds.”