Friday, May 17, 2013

Climate change and Peak Oil—the evidence is overwhelming

One of the main reasons why I have such a short fuse around folks who deny Climate Change or Peak Oil and then expect you to treat them seriously is that I never know whether they are just incredibly lazy or hopelessly ignorant—and neither trait is especially flattering.  The science that backs both concepts is not only overwhelming, but is especially easy to understand—we're not talking about the "holes" that migrate through semi-conductors or dark matter, after all.

I remember my first impressions of Marion King Hubbert and his descriptions of the life cycle of oil fields writ large he called Peak Oil.  I mean, not only did the guy have a name one could easily associate with the awl bidnuss, his descriptions of the yield curve sounded like the sort of thing all the oil guys I had ever known would say.  So I have been waiting for a real oil guy to come to Hubbert's defense.  Thanks to K. Fathi, I just read a good one.  It is a pretty clear description of the frustrations encountered by the Producer Class subset of the oil industry when trying to describe their reality to an "investment strategist."

Following that we have a study that counts up the percentage of peer-reviewed science papers on Climate Change.  Spoiler alert: Of more than 4,000 academic papers published over 20 years, 97.1% agreed that climate change is anthropogenic.  What makes this article especially interesting is that it speculates about a world where even 97% scientific agreement won't change a lot of minds—especially in the general public where the issues have become so muddied—and suggests that efforts be concentrated on working the decision-making elites.

What If There Is Peak Oil?

The Spring 2013 Semester has just ended and I am beginning to see light in the tunnel. So I can restart writing my long-neglected blog. Many things have happened in the four months since my last entry: Thousands upon thousands of innocent people have died in wars and ethnic/religious strife. Most of these wars have as background access to oil, gas, and drinking or irrigation water. More narrowly, Shell decided not to go back to the Arctic in 2013, and Statoil and ConocoPhillips are waiting on Shell to go to the Arctic. According to mass media, the world is awash in liquid hydrocarbons everywhere. Or is it? The question I have been asking myself repeatedly is: How do I explain things to people who in general are not interested in learning and understanding the things I am trying to explain?

I just checked Google to find out about "peak oil." Google reported that 58 million people posted something with this phrase. Then I googled the "peak oil myth." Among the mere one million entries, the most popular one was "Energy Independence and the Myth of Peak Oil," published on Nov 12th, 2012, by Louis Basenese, Chief Investment Strategist for The Wall Street Daily, and a Wall Street consultant and analyst. His blog was published under this auspicious heading: "In the world of liars the truth starts here."

If you can see through tears of despair, please try to read this gem of ignorance and nonchalant arrogance, summarized so well by Professor Harry Frankfurt in his brilliant book, On Bullshit. When you read the latter concise and funny philosophical treatise, you will learn how a bullshitter has a casual relationship with truth; sometimes what he says is true and often it is not, but no one knows which one is which and when.

Here is a typical example:

We have a career theorist (i.e. – a research geologist) to blame for Peak Oil. So we shouldn’t be surprised if reality doesn’t match his theory. His name is Marion King Hubbert. In the mid 1950s, he developed a quantitative technique that could be used to predict the remaining supplies of any finite resource – and the time of ultimate depletion. And Hubbert used it to predict that oil production would peak by the early 1970s. Nice try, Nostradamus. Thus, according to Mr. Basenese, Dr. M. King Hubbert, one of the top American scientists of all times, is a "career theorist" (note the populist anti-science tone of this phrase). Since no one needs to pay attention to what a career theorist says or writes, it apparently escaped Mr. Basenese that Dr. Hubbert correctly predicted in 1956 that the U.S. production would peak in the early 1970s. It did. And later, oil production peaked in the North Sea in Norway.

In addition, Dr. Hubbert predicted that the world production of petroleum would peak in the early 2000s.


At a risk of repeating myself, let me go again through how it works. So please listen up!

We will never run out of oil. In 1866 or so, William Stanley Jevons described the phenomenon of resource degradation and dilution as follows: "The expression "exhaustion of our coal mines," states the subject in the briefest form, but is sure to convey erroneous notions to those who do not reflect upon the long series of changes in our industrial condition which must result from the gradual deepening of our coal mines and the increased price of fuel. Many persons perhaps entertain a vague notion that some day our coal seams will be found emptied to the bottom, and swept clean like a coal-cellar. Our fires and furnaces, they think, will then be suddenly extinguished, and cold and darkness will be left to reign over a depopulated country. It is almost needless to say, however, that our mines are literally inexhaustible. We cannot get to the bottom of them; and though we may some day have to pay dear for fuel, it will never be positively wanting (The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines, Macmillan & Co., London, 1866, Preface, pp. vi-vii). "

Now substitute the words "crude oil" for "coal" and "deposits" for "mines," and you will have a similarly true statement. The crude oil deposits are huge and we will never run out of them. Period. But then it gets more confusing. In an Atlantic Monthly piece, What If We Never Run Out of Oil? the author eloquently restates this Javons' thesis, while commingling gas hydrates and natural gas with crude oil.

Energy supplies are infinite. In the same Atlantic Monthly article we find this quote: “When will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?” asked the MIT economist Morris Adelman, perhaps the most important exponent of this view [of inexhaustible resources, TWP] “The best one-word answer: never.” Effectively, energy supplies are infinite."

Was Hubbert wrong? So how does someone like me defend M. King Hubbert, when faced with such overwhelming evidence of the infinite nature of the Earth and her resources? First, let's try to understand Jevons, who was not an MIT or Harvard economist. Jevons simply stated that there is always some coal seam somewhere in the world that could be mined in principle. He did not say anything about the rate and cost. Confusion that ensued is now self-evident truth in the minds of Mr. Adelman and many others.

So here is the dirty little secret of our civilization: It runs on power, or energy per unit time, not on energy. The scientifically illiterate English majors, economists and politicians, simply cannot comprehend the fundamental difference between a quantity (here energy) and its time derivative (here power). This is how skipping algebra and Calculus I terminally confused leaders of an otherwise advanced nation.

In other words, having one billion dollars in your checking account does not help you with purchasing a Rolls Royce with cash if your daily withdrawal limit is 100 dollars. The huge checking account is a metaphor for the oil deposits or global resource, and the ATM card you use to tap into this account is the oil wells and installations that produce this resource. I have explained this apparently difficult subject elsewhere and do not want to repeat myself yet again.

It is the rate, stupid. In summary, for the U.S. and the world, it doesn't matter how huge a resource is, if it is used over one thousand years, drop-by-drop. We are interested in energy gushing at us at an incredibly high rate of 75 million barrels of crude oil per day. (One cubic mile of petroleum per year.)

This gigantic global rate of producing petroleum will not increase substantially from now on and - if anything - this rate has started declining. Hubbert was right because he was a genius scientist, who understood nature. The lay interpreters of Hubbert occasionally get his thinking wrong.

P.S. A MOOC on derivatives anyone?

To be clear, when I say "derivative," I mean that if y(t) is some nice, smooth function of time, t, its derivative, y'(t), is the limit as a time increment, delta t, goes to zero of the following expression:

[y(t+delta t)-y(t)]/delta t. I did not mean the trillions of dollars in imaginary bets on everything that are also called "derivatives."

P.S.P.S. More good news from Bloomberg about U.S. oil exports:

U.S. oil exports are poised to reach the highest level in 28 years as deliveries to Canada more than triple, helping bring down the price of the global benchmark Brent crude relative to U.S. grades. The shipments will rise to at least 200,000 barrels a day by the end of the year, according to Ed Morse, head of global commodities research at Citigroup Global Markets Inc. Exports were 59,600 in 2012 and haven’t averaged more than 200,000 since 1985.Brent Pressured by U.S. Tripling Crude to Canada: Energy Markets, by Dan Murtaugh - May 10, 2013 11:03 AM CT

Not a word there about the almost 3 million barrels per day of oil imports from Canada. That's 15 times more!

Here is what a factor of 15 means. Suppose that you run a comfortable mile in 10 minutes. Then in one hour you will cover 6 miles. That's U.S. oil exports to Canada. Now suppose that I barrel down an empty highway at 90 miles per hour. That's 15 times more, like U.S. oil imports from Canada. Would you want to run into me head-to-head on that freeway? more

Climate research nearly unanimous on human causes, survey finds

Of more than 4,000 academic papers published over 20 years, 97.1% agreed that climate change is anthropogenic

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Wednesday 15 May 2013

A survey of thousands of peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals has found 97.1% agreed that climate change is caused by human activity.

Authors of the survey, published on Thursday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, said the finding of near unanimity provided a powerful rebuttal to climate contrarians who insist the science of climate change remains unsettled.

The survey considered the work of some 29,000 scientists published in 11,994 academic papers. Of the 4,000-plus papers that took a position on the causes of climate change only 0.7% or 83 of those thousands of academic articles, disputed the scientific consensus that climate change is the result of human activity, with the view of the remaining 2.2% unclear.

The study described the dissent as a "vanishingly small proportion" of published research.

"Our findings prove that there is a strong scientific agreement about the cause of climate change, despite public perceptions to the contrary," said John Cook of the University of Queensland, who led the survey.

Public opinion continues to lag behind the science. Though a majority of Americans accept the climate is changing, just 42% believed human activity was the main driver, in a poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre last October.

"There is a gaping chasm between the actual consensus and the public perception," Cook said in a statement.Guardian partners Climate Desk interview John Cook on his new paper

The study blamed strenuous lobbying efforts by industry to undermine the science behind climate change for the gap in perception. The resulting confusion has blocked efforts to act on climate change.

The survey was the most ambitious effort to date to demonstrate the broad agreement on the causes of climate change, covering 20 years of academic publications from 1991-2011.

In 2004, Naomi Oreskes, an historian at the University of California, San Diego,surveyed published literature, releasing her results in the journal Science. She too came up with a similar finding that 97% of climate scientists agreed on the causes of climate change.

She wrote of the new survey in an email: "It is a nice, independent confirmation, using a somewhat different methodology than I used, that comes to the same result. It also refutes the claim, sometimes made by contrarians, that the consensus has broken down, much less 'shattered'."

The Cook survey was broader in its scope, deploying volunteers from the website to review scientific abstracts. The volunteers also asked authors to rate their own views on the causes of climate change, in another departure from Oreskes's methods.

The authors said the findings could help close the gap between scientific opinion and the public on the causes of climate change, or anthropogenic global warming, and so create favourable conditions for political action on climate.

"The public perception of a scientific consensus on AGW [anthropogenic, ie man-made, global warming] is a necessary element in public support for climate policy," the study said.

However, Prof Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University who studies the forces underlying attitudes towards climate change, disputed the idea that educating the public about the broad scientific agreement on the causes of climate change would have an effect on public opinion - or on the political conditions for climate action.

He said he was doubtful that convincing the public of a scientific consensus on climate change would help advance the prospects for political action. Having elite leaders call for climate action would be far more powerful, he said.

"I don't think people really want to come around to grips with the fact that climate change is a highly ideological issue and it is not amenable to the information deficit model," he said.

"The information deficit model, this idea that if you just pile on more information people will get convinced, is just completely inadequate, he said. "It strengthens the people who actually read and pay attention but it is certainly not going to change or shift the opinions of others."

Jon Krosnick, professor in humanities and social sciences at Stanford university and an expert on public opinion on climate change, said: "I assume that sceptics would say that there is bias in the editorial process so that the papers ultimately published are not an accurate reflection of the opinions of scientists." more 

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