May 31, 2011

Ice Loss in Canadian Arctic Archipeligo

From the NASA Earth Observatory: 
Though much attention has been focused in recent years on the melting of ice from Greenland and Antarctica, nearly half of the ice volume currently being lost to the ocean is actually coming from other mountain glaciers and ice caps. Ice loss from a group of islands in northern Canada accounts for much of that volume.
In a study published in April 2011 in the journal Nature, a team of researchers led by Alex Gardner of the University of Michigan found that land ice in both the northern and southern Canadian Arctic Archipelago has declined sharply. The maps above show ice loss from surface melting for the northern portion of the archipelago from 2004–2006 (left) and 2007–2009 (right). Blue indicates ice gain, and red indicates ice loss.
In the six years studied, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago lost an average of approximately 61 gigatons of ice per year. (A gigaton is a billion tons of ice.) The research team also found the rate of ice loss was accelerating. From 2004 to 2006, the average mass loss was roughly 31 gigatons per year; from 2007 to 2009, the loss increased to 92 gigatons per year. . . .During the 2004 to 2009 study period, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago experienced four of its five warmest years since 1960, likely fueling the melting.
Gardner notes that from 2001 to 2004, the sum of melting from all mountain glaciers and ice caps around the world (but not the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets) contributed an estimated 1 millimeter per year to global sea level rise. Recent estimates suggest the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets add another 1.3 millimeters per year to sea level. “This means 1 percent of the land ice volume—mountain glaciers and ice caps—account for about half of all ice loss to the world’s oceans,” Gardner said. “Most of the ice loss is coming from the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Alaska, Patagonia, the Himalayas, and the smaller ice masses surrounding the main Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.”

Drought in Northern Europe: Impacts on Food, Rivers, and Energy

From John Vidal of the UK Guardian:
One of the driest springs ever recorded in northern Europe could lead to power blackouts this summer, with nuclear reactors going offline because of low river levels. The exceptionally dry weather will also raise food prices and has already forced water restrictions on millions of people, say governments, farm groups and meteorological organisations across the continent.
Large parts of southern Britain, northern France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other northern and eastern European countries have had their driest three-month spells in more than 50 years, receiving just 25-60% of their long-term average rainfall since February. This has led to parched soils and difficult growing conditions for farmers, as well as to river levels that are dangerously low for wildlife. . .
Last week the European Union warned that soils were now "critically dry" in six countries. The French wheat harvest is now expected to be 11.5%-13% down on average despite an increase in the area planted this year and German output is expected to fall 7-9%. In south-east England, many farmers expect crops to fail dramatically unless steady rains come soon.
Dry weather may cut grain and oilseed yields by as much as 20%, said Allan Wilkinson, head of agriculture for HSBC Bank. "The cost of commodities is going to generally be higher, and this weather issue is going to exaggerate that," he said. Last week wheat prices rose in Chicago for two days running on the expectation that dry weather has hurt crops in France, Germany and the UK, and the UN warned that rising food prices risked riots in developing countries. On Monday, Oxfam said the average price of staple foods would more than double in the next 20 years.
France, the EU's biggest wheat producer, has made £90m available to drought-hit farmers and applied for advance financial help from the EU. More than half the country's regional departments have imposed restrictions on extracting water which has led to roads being blockaded by farmers.
Christiane Lambert, president of the largest French farm union, the Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles (FNSEA), said: "The situation is deteriorating. Temperatures are rising and we are still only getting sporadic rain. The biggest problem is with cattle. There is no grass for them and the price of hay has risen dramatically. Farmers are beginning to sell their cattle to avoid paying for their food. Now the vegetable and fruit crops have come a month early which means that they coincide with harvests from Spain and north Africa so the price is very low. This is a major crisis. People are very worried. If there is no decent rain now the situation will be dramatic by the end of the summer".
"We are already in a crisis situation. It is like what we would expect in July for groundwater levels, river flows and snow melting," said French environment minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, who set up a high-level group this month to assess the damage from the driest spring on record.
In Britain, where some reservoirs are now down to 40% of their capacity and rivers in south-east England have been at historically low levels, water companies are preparing to impose hosepipe bans and other restrictions if heavy rains do not occur in the next few weeks. Across the UK, April had just 52% of the average rainfall for the month , while many areas experienced their driest springs for over 50 years.
The drought has led to some of Europe's lowest river levels recorded in more than 100 years. According to the German Federal Hydrological Agency, ships on Europe's two biggest rivers, the Rhine and Danube, are being forced to sail 50-80% empty because they are having problems navigating such low rivers. The Danube's water levels sunk to a 100- year low for the month of May in Austria. Similar problems have been reported in Germany. Car maker Ford said last week that it would cut down on using ships to transport its products, if the river levels continue to fall.
Concern is now mounting that some of Europe's nuclear reactors may be forced to temporarily close within months if there is not substantially increased rainfall. Most of France's nuclear stations rely on river water to cool them and falling rivers could force closure. EDF, which operates 58 reactors, has said it will delay maintenance work on its reactors near the Channel and Atlantic Ocean this summer to ensure electricity in case its riverside plants have to shut as they did in 2003 during a heatwave.
"EDF remains vigilant. France is undergoing an exceptional drought which has led us to reinforce surveillance in particular of its nuclear, thermal and hydropower plants", said an EDF spokesman. The situation could be made worse if Switzerland tries to maintain the water level of Lake Geneva by adjusting flows into the Rhone River, as this would reduce flows in France and affect reactors.
So far the dry conditions have not caused blackouts, but EDF has said that it lost 2.1 terawat (trillion) -hours of hydro electric power in the past three months because of low water levels. Water reservoirs for electricity production are now 54% full, 10 percentage points below the same week last year and nine points lower than in 2009. France gets about 20% of its power capacity from running water through turbines. . . .
George Combeau, Angoulême, France: "I have 100ha of maize, wheat and barley. The ground is like iron and the drought is biting hard. We have had our second-hottest April since 1900 and the driest spring since 1953 with just 15mm of rain in the past two months. Usually we would get four times that amount in just a month. Now the temperatures are increasing fast and it is very serious. The local authority imposed water restrictions on us one month ago. The maize has germinated but it is very thirsty. It can be saved if it rains for a long while, but I think the wheat crop is very badly damaged and we will be lucky to get half what we would expect. The farmers who have cattle are in a desperate situation. They cannot afford hay and they have started to sell their cattle. We are told we can expect only irregular rain. I fear it will be catastrophic".
George Dunn, Winchester, England: "I am a tenant farmer of 600 acres near Winchester, growing wheat, barley and oats and have some cattle and sheep. There's been a bit of rain recently but not nearly enough. It's too late now for many crops. Some farmers have destroyed their spring barley crop and replanted. We can expect the wheat harvest to be 10-20% down and the barley to be 30% down. It will get very serious soon for livestock farmers. They have nothing to fall back on. We're starting to see farmers selling their cattle so they don't have to feed them. The numbers of animals going to abattoirs is increasing. The price of wheat is going up but most farmers have already sold a lot of their harvest [on the future markets] in advance for a low price".

May 30, 2011

The Great North African Solar Saga

From Spiegel Online International:
The Desertec project first got energy experts and the public buzzing back in 2009, when the plans were announced. The grand -- some would say grandiose -- idea is to construct a network of concentrating solar-thermal power systems in North African deserts to produce green electricity that can be used at the local level -- and ultimately exported to European countries.
Proponents of the project argue that the amount of solar energy falling on the Sahara is so enormous that plants covering 90,000 square kilometers of the desert -- a tiny fraction of its total area of 9 million square kilometers -- could meet the energy needs of the entire world. Desertec hopes that the project will cover a significant amount of North African and Middle Eastern electricity demand by 2050, as well as providing at least 15 percent of Europe's electricity.
The project, which is expected to cost around €400 billion ($566 billion) and which is still at the planning stage, is being pushed forward by the nonprofit Desertec Foundation together with the Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII). The latter is an industrial consortium that includes such major German players as Deutsche Bank, Siemens, E.on and Munich Re. It aims to create the "legal, regulatory, economic and technical framework" that will allow the Desertec vision to become reality.
The DII plan has been met with enthusiasm by some, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But others have derided the project as unrealistic, arguing that it is too expensive or too challenging technically. Others point out the political problems associated with carrying out a huge multinational project in such an unstable part of the world.
Indeed, participants in the Berlin conference argued that, given the current upheaval in the region, a certain level of stability is needed before Desertec can act on its plans. "I cannot put 1,000 men on duty to guard every solar panel," said Abdelaziz Bennouna, formerly of the National Center for Science and Technology in Morocco. "Social peace is a must."
Unrest in the region also has the drawback of scaring off investors, points out Greenpeace Germany's Andree Böhling. Nevertheless, Böhling believes that democratization is still a step in the right direction, both for the people of the region and for Desertec. . . .
Kirsten Westphal of the SWP feels that it is essential to have an open discussion on the issue of neo-colonialism. "The common opinion coming out of (the Middle East and North Africa) is that Desertec has a hidden agenda rather than producing a win-win situation," she says. Greenpeace's Andree Böhling also pointed to the need to confront fears of neocolonial motives head-on, through open dialogue. . . .

Perverse Accounting: Phantom Efficiencies in Energy Per Unit of GDP

From Gregor McDonald: 
The US economy is consuming 2.00% less energy than its five year average seen prior to the 2008 financial crisis. Some will be cheered by this data, and indeed there are small nuggets of good news here. First, US consumption of oil—which turned flattish after the 2004 repricing—is down significantly, by over 10% since 2007. Also, as America turns increasingly to the power grid, consuming more natural gas and coal, the addition of renewable power from solar and wind is growing strongly. Eventually, these nascent trends will convert to larger structural changes. So let there be no doubt that energy transition is underway in the United States.
The problem remains, however, that in order to carry debt loads both public and private the US is still very dependent on strong industrial growth to generate revenues, and support wages. . .
Now, there is a popular myth that has grown up in the past two decades [that] the US economy already transformed itself. This received wisdom holds that GDP rose while energy consumption per unit of GDP fell. That is certainly true in the narrow sense. But, not true in the broader sense. Here’s why: US domestic energy consumption which at one time was devoted to industrial production here in the US, is now simply offshored to Asia. The US economy still demands large units of energy which we simply import through manufactured goods. Worse, US GDP accounting still overweights consumption. This makes for a perverse, energy-accounting outcome: the more we offshore energy-consuming manufacturing to other countries, the more distorted our energy efficiency claims become, against GDP.
The notion that the US economy therefore is much less sensitive to energy shocks is also, therefore, a myth. We simply take the shock globally now, instead of acutely through our domestic manufacturing base (or what’s left of it.). Now that China has certainly passed through its first Lewis Turning Point, the Asian giant’s ability to combine cheap labor with cheap energy to produce its beloved and ruthlessly competitive manufacturing arbitrage is going to dissipate. . . .

April's Tornados

An amazing time-release portrait of a month of tornados from NOAA (click picture for video):

From Paul Kedrosky

"Bringing Nature Back In" to Social Science

The influence of nature on society was once a subject of detailed investigation by philosophers, social scientists, and historians, but it was almost entirely displaced in post World War II social science. Social outcomes had social causes, the received wisdom went. These were the only independent variables that theory need consider. The effect, as Daniel Deudney has argued, was to denature social science, leading to “the expulsion of nature from social science in general, and from political science in particular.”[i]   

Surprisingly, notes Deudney, the history profession moved in a direction opposite to political science. There were two notable developments. One was the partial displacement of “actor-centered history as the narrative of leaders, great events, and peoples” by “bottom-up history.” A second was the tendency of historians of “wide ranges of space and time,” such as Fernand Braudel, William McNeill, and Geoffrey Barraclough, to emphasize the role of material variables in historical change. The central theme in such historiography, Barraclough observed, “is man’s conflict with his environment.” History, too, readily accommodated the work of environmental historians, like the superbly accomplished (but recently victimized) William Cronon.[ii]

Deudney identifies climate, arable land, mineral resources, population, and topography as the top five “natural independent variables” explored by Aristotle, Montesquieu, and other thinkers in this tradition. “To bring nature back in” to social science theories means to be alive to the ways in which such factors, and their modern equivalents, influence social outcomes. “While it is not determined that people will make a particular response or adaptation to a particular material environment, it is inevitable that they will bear the consequences of not making an appropriate response. Human institutions are not passive before nature, the puppets of nature, or parts of nature, but it is nature and not humanity that significantly determines whether human actions achieve their goals.” Nature is permissive, it would appear, but seeks retribution. [iii]

There are various ways in which nature can figure in social science explanations, which Deudney investigates in detail. He rejects “analogic naturalisms,” which hold “that the logic of human social systems can be understood as analogous to the operation of natural ones. . . . The biological sciences have a rich language and diverse set of examples, but biological analogies can never be more than interesting suggestions for understanding politics.” Instead, he calls for a return to “functional-materialist” theory, which sees political institutions as “congealed functional practices—solution sets” to meet recurring needs in the context imposed by geography, climate, and technology. 

Whereas there is a lot of precedent for a “natural social science” (that is, one which identifies natural causes for social outcomes), there is little precedent for a "social natural science" (that is, one that makes human activity central to earth processes). Yet such is the extraordinary novelty in the idea of an Anthropocene, of "human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth." It would not have occurred to Aristotle or Montesequieu, but it is one of the central propositions on the table today. Notes the Economist: "The term paradigm shift is bandied around with promiscuous ease. But for the natural sciences to make human activity central to its conception of the world, rather than a distraction, would mark such a shift for real. For centuries, science has progressed by making people peripheral. In the 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus moved the Earth from its privileged position at the centre of the universe. In the 18th James Hutton opened up depths of geological time that dwarf the narrow now. In the 19th Charles Darwin fitted humans onto a single twig of the evolving tree of life. As Simon Lewis, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, points out, embracing the Anthropocene as an idea means reversing this trend. It means treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings, elemental in their force."

The specter of technology that is of human invention but that has essentially escaped human control, to be sure, is not a new one; the environmental fear of today is similar in that respect to the antinuclear fear of the Cold War, or even to the Erasmian revulsion to war in early modern Europe. In all there is the vision of human technology run amok, of human prowess inventing the instruments of its own destruction. Apparently, we have a lot to be thankful for, and a lot to be fearful of--only more so.

The energy problem shows an intensive interaction between natural constraints and social objectives. The nub of the “peak oil” case, as of other pleas for depletion, is that natural geologic restraints will press upon even the most enterprising and efficient; we will “hit the wall” after having digested the low hanging fruit. The opposing view, favored by neoclassical economics, is that with the right social arrangements (a free market that rewards ingenuity and responds to price signals) such constraints will be readily overcome.This in turn is met by the environmentalist objection that the higher we fly, the harder we will fall, as the consequences in nature of our very success at resource extraction become apparent.

Liberalism started out, whether in Hugo Grotius or John Locke, postulating an economy of abundance. The “Promethean ambition” of harnessing the forces of nature “for the relief of man’s estate,” in Francis Bacon’s phrase, is a defining aspect of modernity. Whether anything resembling the old liberalism can survive an age of energy scarcity is an important question. In the 1970s, Malthusian projections of immense scarcity in food or fuel were invariably paired with predictions that it would encourage political despotism.

One of Deudney's key points in his 1999 essay is to show the limitations of social constructivism. He offered, in contrast, a non-Marxist New Materialism. He gives a concise statement of the imperious forces of nature as against these "worlds of our own making":  

[S]ocial practices rise and fall and are valued or rejected not solely—or even primarily—because of socially constructed criteria, but rather because of their ability to function successfully in meeting enduring human needs in material contexts that are both diverse and shifting. Social constructions inevitably shape how nature is perceived and acted upon, but nature itself is not socially constructed, and any social science that assumes so will inevitably be blind to important aspects of human life. Nature constitutes a structuring reality for human beings that is not socially constructed.


[i]  Daniel H. Deudney, “Bringing Nature Back In : Geopolitical Theory from the Greeks to the Global Era,” in Deudney and Richard A. Matthew, eds., Contested Grounds: Security and Conflict in the New Environmental Politics (1999).  Among post World War II writers, Raymond Aron gave these questions extensive examination in his Peace and War: A Theory of International Relations (New York, 1966).  Aron, however, was definitely an exception; such approaches were peripheral to, if not nonexistent in, the leading U.S. thinkers. (Aron’s treatment of these factors in Part III of Peace and War was taken out in the abridged American edition published later.) Deudney explores these issues further in Bounding Power: Republican Security Theory from the Polis to the Global Village (Princeton, 2007).

[ii] In re William Cronon: The State demands to see all of your emails because you wrote an article critical of us!

Cronon's "Seasons of Want and Plenty" (1983), whose principal theme is the shifting relation of New England Indians with their environment, revolving around the wheel of the seasons, is reprinted in Bill McKibben, ed., American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (Library of America, 2008). Cronon does not neglect the importance of social practices, as the following anecdote well illustrates:
To the colonists, only Indian women appeared to do legitimate work; the men idled away their time in hunting, fishing, and wantonly burning the woods, none of which seemed like genuinely productive activities to Europeans. English observers often commented about how hard Indian women worked. "It is almost incredible," Williams wrote, "what burthens the poore women carry of Corne, of Fish, of Beans, of Mats, and a child besides." The criticism of Indian males in such remarks was usually explicit. "Their wives are their slaves," wrote Christopher Levett, "and do all the work; the men will do nothing but kill beasts, fish, etc." For their part, Indian men seemed to acknowledge that their wives were a principal source of wealth and mocked Englishmen for not working their wives harder. According to the lawyer Thomas Lechford, "They say, Englishman much foole, for spoiling good working creatures, meaning women: And when they see any of our English women sewing with their needles, or working coifes, or such things, they will cry out, Lazie squaes."
[iii] Recalling Dickson G. Watts: "Don't fool with Nature: she 'strikes back.'"

China's Electricity Shortages Due to Price Controls

Gordon Chang, writing in Forbes, notes the existence of widespread power shortages in China and fingers government mispricing of energy as the basic cause.
Last Monday, the State Grid Corp. of China predicted this summer’s power shortage—a shortfall larger than the total installed capacity of Argentina—will be the worst ever, even more serious than the one in 2004. 
We have not even reached the peak season, and already power is in short supply.  In Zhejiang province, a center of small industry, factories are getting power only three days a week, and limits have been imposed since the end of February.  There is also power rationing for Zhejiang homes and office buildings. 
The situation in the Pearl River Delta, sometimes called the world’s factory floor, is only slightly better.  In Shenzhen, the booming city across the border from Hong Kong, manufacturers receive electricity four days a week.  Nearby Dongguan factories are unusually fortunate: they get juice five days out of seven.
This year the coastal region will be hit hardest, but there will be shortages in 26 of the 31 provinces and provincial-level cities in the People’s Republic.  The most affected areas will be the provincial-level cities of Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin plus Hebei, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang provinces.
In 2004, the shortage was primarily the result of not enough rail lines, so coal was not getting to generating stations.  Moreover, there were too few power plants as well. 
This year, there are trains galore, and installed capacity is not the problem. 
So why is there a severe shortage at this moment?  First, the ongoing drought is the worst in a half century, maybe longer.  Water levels in rivers are low, with the result that hydroelectric plants are generating about a fifth less electricity than normal. 
Scare water is not the primary problem, however.  Hydro stations normally produce only about 22% of the nation’s power.  Most of the remainder—73%—comes from coal. 
The more important factor is that the cost of this commodity has been soaring.  Spot coal is up 20% this year, in part because Japan is buying more of it to replace the output of nuclear power stations that have recently gone offline.  Yet China’s electricity tariffs have risen only 2.5% this spring. 
This mismatch has also been evident for the last half decade when coal prices have more than doubled while Chinese electricity charges have increased by only a third.  As a result, electricity producers have been squeezed hard.  Coal-fired plants lost 10 billion yuan during the first four months of the year.  The chairwoman of China Power International, a utility, recently warned that a fifth of China’s 436 coal plants could go bankrupt. 
Beijing created this crisis by fixing the price of electricity.  At a time when inflation would be out of control were it not for price controls—formal and informal—Chinese leaders are especially determined to hold the line on power charges. 
Technocrats can tell producers what they can charge, but they cannot prevent the inevitable.  Because power companies are losing money generating each kilowatt of electricity, they have acted to minimize losses.  They are not going ahead with expansion plans, they are not running at full capacity, and some of them are not running their plants at all.  Many generating stations—an abnormally large number of them—are now closed for maintenance despite the desperate need for electricity. 
Which businesses are getting juice?  Technocrats in the Chinese capital can’t help but meddle, and they are favoring state-owned energy-intensive industries—chemicals, construction materials, iron and steel, and non-ferrous metals, for instance—over others—private businesses, exporters, and service industries.  The result is that the economy is becoming even more dominated by the state. 
We should not be surprised that Beijing’s mispricing of electricity is causing problems throughout the economy and creating unintended consequences.  A tactic intended to help manufacturing—by keeping the price of inputs low—is ultimately reducing manufacturing output.  Analysts say the power shortage could knock 0.2% to 0.5% off GDP growth this quarter.  Next quarter, the effect will be much greater. 
The fact that there is any power shortage this year—after all the railroad building and power plant construction since 2004—undercuts the message that China is reforming its economy and seeking to rebalance it.  And the shortfall punctures the belief, now an article of faith, that China’s technocrats can solve economic problems through their brilliant management.  The electricity shortage is almost entirely the product of bad economic planning in the Chinese capital. . . .
Chang's point about the mispricing of electricity is undoubtedly well taken, but I would insert a note of caution with regard to his argument that the shortage is "almost entirely the product of bad economic planning." The Chinese are in a serious bind, for which there is no readily available solution. Adjusting to world energy prices, and to commodity prices in general, requires a revaluation of the yuan; yet that would crater China's export industries.

The basic question is whether the gigantic building program launched by China in response to the Great Recession will appear, in retrospect, as a temporary palliative to the contradictions of its overall model as vendor capitalist to the United States.

May 29, 2011

Africa's Climate Conflicts

From Yale Environment 360:

“When the Water Ends” . . . tells the story of . . .the increasingly dire drought conditions facing parts of East Africa. To report this video, Evan Abramson, a 32-year-old photographer and videographer, spent two months in the region early this year, living among the herding communities. He returned with a tale that many climate scientists say will be increasingly common in the 21st century and beyond — how worsening drought in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere will pit group against group, nation against nation. As one UN official told Abramson, the clashes between Kenyan and Ethiopian pastoralists represent “some of the world’s first climate-change conflicts.” 
But the story recounted in “When the Water Ends” is not only about climate change. It’s also about how deforestation and land degradation — due in large part to population pressures — are exacting a toll on impoverished farmers and nomads as the earth grows ever more barren.

The video focuses on four groups of pastoralists — the Turkana of Kenya and the Dassanech, Nyangatom, and Mursi of Ethiopia — who are among the more than two dozen tribes whose lives and culture depend on the waters of the Omo River and the body of water into which it flows, Lake Turkana. For the past 40 years at least, Lake Turkana has steadily shrunk because of increased evaporation from higher temperatures and a steady reduction in the flow of the Omo due to less rainfall, increased diversion of water for irrigation, and upstream dam projects. As the lake has diminished, it has disappeared altogether from Ethiopian territory and retreated south into Kenya. The Dassanech people have followed the water, and in doing so have come into direct conflict with the Turkana of Kenya.

The result has been cross-border raids in which members of both groups kill each other, raid livestock, and torch huts. Many people in both tribes have been left without their traditional livelihoods and survive thanks to food aid from nonprofit organizations and the UN.

The future for the tribes of the Omo-Turkana basin looks bleak. Temperatures in the region have risen by about 2 degrees F since 1960. Droughts are occurring with a frequency and intensity not seen in recent memory. Areas once prone to drought every ten or eleven years are now experiencing a drought every two or three. Scientists say temperatures could well rise an additional 2 to 5 degrees F by 2060, which will almost certainly lead to even drier conditions in large parts of East Africa.

In addition, the Ethiopian government is building a dam on the upper Omo River — the largest hydropower project in sub-Saharan Africa — that will hold back water and prevent the river’s annual flood cycles, upon which more than 500,000 tribesmen in Ethiopia and 300,000 in Kenya depend for cultivation, grazing, and fishing. . . .

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Increase by 5.5% in 2010

From the Guardian:
Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency
The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially "dangerous climate change" – is likely to be just "a nice Utopia", according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions. 
Last year, a record 30.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere, mainly from burning fossil fuel – a rise of 1.6Gt on 2009, according to estimates from the IEA regarded as the gold standard for emissions data.
"I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions," Birol told the Guardian. "It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say." . . . 
Emissions from energy fell slightly between 2008 and 2009, from 29.3Gt to 29Gt, due to the financial crisis. A small rise was predicted for 2010 as economies recovered, but the scale of the increase has shocked the IEA. "I was expecting a rebound, but not such a strong one," said Birol, who is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost experts on emissions. . . . 
Most of the rise – about three-quarters – has come from developing countries, as rapidly emerging economies have weathered the financial crisis and the recession that has gripped most of the developed world. . . . 
[O]ther factors that made it even less likely that the world would meet its greenhouse gas targets: 
• About 80% of the power stations likely to be in use in 2020 are either already built or under construction, the IEA found. Most of these are fossil fuel power stations unlikely to be taken out of service early, so they will continue to pour out carbon – possibly into the mid-century. The emissions from these stations amount to about 11.2Gt, out of a total of 13.7Gt from the electricity sector. These "locked-in" emissions mean savings must be found elsewhere. . . . 
• Another factor that suggests emissions will continue their climb is the crisis in the nuclear power industry. Following the tsunami damage at Fukushima, Japan and Germany have called a halt to their reactor programmes, and other countries are reconsidering nuclear power. 
"People may not like nuclear, but it is one of the major technologies for generating electricity without carbon dioxide," said Birol. The gap left by scaling back the world's nuclear ambitions is unlikely to be filled entirely by renewable energy, meaning an increased reliance on fossil fuels. 
• Added to that, the United Nations-led negotiations on a new global treaty on climate change have stalled. "The significance of climate change in international policy debates is much less pronounced than it was a few years ago," said Birol. . . .

Resource Conflict in South China Sea

From the Financial Times:
Tensions between China and Vietnam escalated over the weekend as each nation accused the other of violating its sovereignty in the oil-rich South China Sea. 
PetroVietnam, the state-owned oil and gas monopoly, said on Sunday that China had sabotaged Vietnamese oil exploration vessels, the latest accusation between the countries over the disputed waters. . . . 
The renewed tensions come as Liang Guanglie, the Chinese defence minister, and Robert Gates, his US counterpart, prepare to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-profile annual Asia defence forum in Singapore next weekend. Mr Liang’s appearance will mark the first time a Chinese defence minister has participated in the meeting. 
The Vietnamese harassment claims will put the South China Sea issue back in focus ahead of the regional security meeting, which in recent years has increasingly focused on Chinese maritime behaviour in the disputed waters. South-east Asian countries are concerned about what they perceive to be Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour in regional waters.  
The rising tensions have also attracted the attention of Washington. Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state, angered Beijing last July by insisting that the South China Sea was of strategic importance to the US and offering to act as a mediator.
In addition to China and Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan all claim part or all of the South China Sea, which is believed to contain vast oil and gas reserves and incorporates key trade routes and abundant fish stocks. 
PetroVietnam is working with a number of large international oil companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, to explore and develop oil and gas assets in South China Sea waters claimed by Vietnam. Mr Hau said that this latest incident “will impact on the attitudes of foreign investors”. . . .
The encounter took place 120 nautical miles off the coast of Phu Yen province in south-central Vietnam, in waters that are claimed by both China and Vietnam. . . . 
The clash comes just a week after China and the Philippines pledged “responsible behaviour” in the disputed areas and repeated their commitment to a peaceful resolution of conflicting territorial claims. During a visit of Liang Guanglie, China’s minister of defence, to Manila last Monday, officials from both governments pledged to avoid unilateral moves which could raise tension. 
Philippine President Benigno Aquino said after the visit incidents in disputed areas could trigger a regional arms race, and force the Philippines to strengthen its military capabilities. 
Security experts have said that such an arms race is under way already. Several south-east Asian countries are beefing up their air and sea defences – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand have all acquired or placed orders for frigates, fighter aircraft and submarines.
This has it all: the continued salience of nationalist claims and aspirations, the existence of resource conflict as a basic factor in fueling competition, invocations of the primacy of peaceful settlement alongside actual uses of force, arms races, the demonstrated incapacity of the United States to stay out of any foreign quarrel.

Location of Phu Yen province from Wikipedia:

May 28, 2011

Shale Oil Boom to Boost US Output by 25% In Decade?

From Clifford Krauss of the New York Times:
More than a dozen companies plan to drill up to 3,000 wells around here in the next 12 months.The Texas field, known as the Eagle Ford, is just one of about 20 new onshore oil fields that advocates say could collectively increase the nation’s oil output by 25 percent within a decade — without the dangers of drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the delicate coastal areas off Alaska.
There is only one catch: the oil from the Eagle Ford and similar fields of tightly packed rock can be extracted only by using hydraulic fracturing, a method that uses a high-pressure mix of water, sand and hazardous chemicals to blast through the rocks to release the oil inside.
The technique, also called fracking, has been widely used in the last decade to unlock vast new fields of natural gas, but drillers only recently figured out how to release large quantities of oil, which flows less easily through rock than gas. As evidence mounts that fracking poses risks to water supplies, the federal government and regulators in various states are considering tighter regulations on it.
The oil industry says any environmental concerns are far outweighed by the economic benefits of pumping previously inaccessible oil from fields that could collectively hold two or three times as much oil as Prudhoe Bay, the Alaskan field that was the last great onshore discovery. The companies estimate that the boom will create more than two million new jobs, directly or indirectly, and bring tens of billions of dollars to the states where the fields are located, which include traditional oil sites like Texas and Oklahoma, industrial stalwarts like Ohio and Michigan and even farm states like Kansas.
“It’s the one thing we have seen in our adult lives that could take us away from imported oil,” said Aubrey McClendon, chief executive of Chesapeake Energy, one of the most aggressive drillers. “What if we have found three of the world’s biggest oil fields in the last three years right here in the U.S.? How transformative could that be for the U.S. economy?” . . .
Based on the industry’s plans, shale and other “tight rock” fields that now produce about half a million barrels of oil a day will produce up to three million barrels daily by 2020, according to IHS CERA, an energy research firm. Oil companies are investing an estimated $25 billion this year to drill 5,000 new oil wells in tight rock fields, according to Raoul LeBlanc, a senior director at PFC Energy, a consulting firm.
This is very big and it’s coming on very fast,” said Daniel Yergin, the chairman of IHS CERA. “This is like adding another Venezuela or Kuwait by 2020, except these tight oil fields are in the United States.”
In the most developed shale field, the Bakken field in North Dakota, production has leaped to 400,000 barrels a day today from a trickle four years ago. Experts say it could produce as much as a million barrels a day by the end of the decade.
The Eagle Ford, where the first well was drilled only three years ago, is already producing more than 100,000 barrels a day and could reach 420,000 by 2015, almost as much as Ecuador, according to Bentek Energy, a consultancy.. . .
What makes the new fields more remarkable is that they were thought to be virtually valueless only five years ago. “Everyone said the oil molecules are too large to flow in commercial quantities through these low-quality rocks,” said Mark G. Papa, chief executive of EOG Resources.. . .
The new drilling makes economic sense as long as oil prices remain above $60 a barrel, according to oil companies. At current oil prices of about $100 a barrel, shale wells can typically turn a profit within eight months — three times faster than many traditional wells.
But water remains a key issue. In addition to possible contamination of surface and underground water from fracking fluids, the sheer volume of water required poses challenges, especially in South Texas, which faces a severe drought and rapidly diminishing water levels in the local aquifer.
At the rate wells are being drilled, “there’s definitely going to be a problem,” said Bay Laxson, a local water official.
Dave Thompson, regional production superintendent for the oil company SM Energy said the industry knew that water issues were “an Achilles heel.” He said his company was building a system to reuse water in the field.
Be it noted that the projections in the article regarding oil are contradicted by the projections in the article regarding water.  The problem illustrates Stephen Solomon's point that the "unconventional and renewable domestic alternatives" being developed to ensure energy security are "several orders of magnitude more water intensive than the conventional sources they are supplanting."

Update, June13, 2011: Bloomberg has a story ("Drought Threatens Texas Oil Boom") emphasizing the severe water restrictions in Texas brought on by the drought, and notes that the Eagle Ford play is especially voracious in its water needs:
The Eagle Ford’s peculiar geology means it takes three to four times as much water to fracture as the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, said [Robert] Mace, of the state water board. Fracking a single Eagle Ford well requires as much as 13 million gallons of water, enough to supply the cooking, washing and drinking needs of 40 adults for an entire year, he said.

“This is not the drilling your grandparents knew in west Texas,” said Sharon Wilson, an organizer for Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which lobbies for tougher government regulation of oil drillers. “It’s a heavy industrial activity with massive amounts of water and chemicals.”

About 94 percent of Texas was in a state of severe, extreme or exceptional drought as of June 7, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor compiled by the U.S. Agriculture Department and the National Drought Mitigation Center. The October-through-May period was the state’s driest since record-keeping began in 1895, said Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

Municipal water departments, farmers, ranchers and oil drillers near Laredo are relying on water from two reservoirs and underground aquifers filled by last summer’s tropical storm season, said Yarrito, whose job title is Rio Grande Watermaster.

Unless storms bring more rain soon, “we’ll be in trouble,” said Sonny Hinojosa, general manager of Hidalgo Irrigation District No. 2 in San Juan, Texas. The drought has decimated crops, with about 79 percent of the state’s winter wheat, 72 percent of its oats and 36 percent of its corn classified as poor or very poor as of June 6, according to the Agriculture Department in Washington.

The Edwards Aquifer Authority, which oversees underground water supplies around San Antonio and along the northern edge of the Eagle Ford Shale, on June 2 declared a Stage 2 emergency requiring a 30 percent cut in water usage. Other water districts have imposed similar restrictions.

Water consumption by Eagle Ford Shale drillers is forecast to explode during the next 25 years, Mace said. A study to be released later this summer by the Texas Water Development Board and the University of Texas’s Bureau of Economic Geology estimates fracking-water demand in the area will jump 10-fold by 2020, and double again by 2030, he said.

May 27, 2011

Greens for Nuclear Power

George Monbiot, of the UK Guardian, does not think the world of nuclear power, but he thinks it's a damn sight better than the available fossil fuel alternatives (coal and natural gas). Abandoning nuclear power, he argues, would place an insupportable burden on renewables. He has had a bitter row with Helen Caldicott and other anti-nuclear campaigners over the risks posed by nuclear power. He begins the piece below by defending himself against a range of misrepresentations, but then goes on the attack by identifying seven double standards that anti-nuclear campaigners have used in making their case:
Double standard one: deaths and injuries

We rightly lament the horrible consequences of industrial exposure to radiation. Two workers at Fukushima have so far received radiation burns and 17 have been exposed to levels of radiation considered unsafe. This is and should be a cause for serious concern. It is also worth remembering that no one has yet received a dose of radiation that is known to be lethal as a result of the Fukushima disaster. But if we are concerned about industrial injuries, why do we say nothing about the deaths and injuries in the industry most likely to replace nuclear power?
In China alone, the government estimates that 2,433 people died in coal-mining accidents last year. That's not injuries or exposures. It's deaths. Human rights activists believe that official figures might have been underestimated by a factor of four.

What this means is that, in the normal course of operations, at least six people are killed in Chinese coal mines every day. Even if you accept the official figure, Chinese coal mining alone kills as many people every week as the worst nuclear power accident in history – the Chernobyl explosion – has done in 25 years.

And this is to say nothing of the far larger number of injuries that coal mining inflicts, in particular the hideous lung diseases which plague so many miners and cause long, lingering and terrible deaths. When was the last time you heard an anti-nuclear campaigner drawing attention to this daily carnage?

Double standard two: the science

We emphasise, when debating climate change, the importance of the scientific consensus, and reliance on solid, peer-reviewed studies. But as soon as we start discussing the dangers of low-level radiation, we abandon that and endorse the pseudo-scientific gibberish of a motley collection of cranks and quacks, who appear to have begun with the assumption that it must be killing thousands of people every year, and retrofitted the evidence to match it.

Such people exist in every field, especially those that are politically contentious. We should, by now, have learned to be wary of them. But it seems that the temptation, for people hoping to make the case against nuclear power, is overwhelming.

For a good summary of the scientific consensus on the effects of exposure to both high and low levels of radiation, see the new post by Chris Goodall and Mark Lynas: two environmentalists who have kept their heads in this crisis.

Double standard three: radioactive pollution

If low-level radiation really was the problem that some environmentalists say it is, the focus of their campaign should be coal plants, not nuclear power. As Scientific American notes:
"The fly ash emitted by a power plant – a by-product from burning coal for electricity – carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy."
This is because coal contains trace amounts of uranium and thorium, which are concentrated in the ash. Not only does this expose people living around coal plants to higher doses of radiation than people living around nuclear plants; but the regulations for disposing of fly ash are far weaker than the regulations for disposing of low-level nuclear waste. You may remember the controversy about RWE npower's plan to dump the fly ash from Didcot power station into a lake between the villages of Radley and Abingdon. Where were the anti-nuclear campaigners then? Can you imagine what the outcry would have been if a corporation had planned to fill it with low-level waste from a nuclear plant?

Double standard four: mining impact

Anti-nuclear campaigners emphasise the damage and pollution inflicted by uranium mines. They are right to do so. Some of these mines are hideous, and they are one of the many reasons why we should urgently develop new reactor technologies which sharply reduce the need for fresh supplies. But the impacts of coal mining are massively greater. There are hundreds of times more coal mines than uranium mines, including opencast sites, and a lot of them of them are many times bigger and more destructive than the largest uranium operations. This doesn't make uranium mining right, but it makes the likely switch to coal even more wrong.

Double standard five: costs

One of the most frequent arguments against nuclear power is that it costs too much. Many environmentalists claim that, when all the hidden costs, especially the massive decommissioning liabilities, are taken into account, electricity from atomic plants could cost as much as 5p per kilowatt hour or even more. The highest figure I have come across was the top end of the range of estimates produced by the New Economics Foundation – 8.3p. If this is correct – and I should emphasise that it's an extreme outlier – it suggests that nuclear is an extravagant means of generating low-carbon electricity.

So why do the same people support a feed-in tariff scheme under which we pay 41p per kilowatt hour for rooftop solar electricity?

Double standard six: research

Last week I argued about these issues with Caroline Lucas. She is one of my heroes, and the best thing to have happened to parliament since time immemorial. But this doesn't mean that she can't be wildly illogical when she chooses. When I raised the issue of the feed-in tariff, she pointed out that the difference between subsidising nuclear power and subsidising solar power is that nuclear is a mature technology and solar is not. In that case, I asked, would she support research into thorium reactors, which could provide a much safer and cheaper means of producing nuclear power? No, she told me, because thorium reactors are not a proven technology. Words fail me.

Double standard seven: timing

Anti-nuclear campaigners point out that it takes 10 years or so to build a new nuclear power station, and we haven't got that long, if we are serious about preventing climate breakdown. They are of course quite right: it's too little, too late. But the same problem affects every significant move to decarbonise the energy supply. By the time it has gone through the planning process, a major new grid connection to support an offshore windfarm will take roughly as long to develop as a new nuclear power station. The same goes for the pumped storage facilities required to support a largely renewable power system and for the carbon capture and storage required to reduce the impacts of fossil fuels. As for growing trees …

My point is that we have to take responsibility for every component of our energy supply and the consequences it carries; not just the section of it that's produced by nuclear reactors. And we should apply the same standards to all generating technologies. Otherwise, in the name of reducing risks to people and the planet, we will unwittingly increase them.

May 24, 2011

Energy Return on Energy Invested (Heavy Oil)

This piece from the Wall Street Journal ("The End of Easy Oil") discusses the development by Chevron of the Wafra heavy oil field straddling the border between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The big oil companies, having lost their reserves to nationalization, are forced to engage in high risk projects in exchange for gaining access to oil. On the one hand, the piece suggests that a lot more oil is out there so long as the price is right--Chevron estimates it can make a profit at $60 to $70 a barrel. However, the "energy return on energy invested" for a project like this is low, as this depiction of the process suggests, and the implications for carbon emissions are especially grim.
To get to Wafra's thick oil, workers are injecting steam into the ground to heat the oil and make it less viscous, allowing it to flow to the surface. The technique is tricky, expensive and unproven in the type of rock that holds Wafra's oil.. . . .
Chevron is conducting what amounts to a four-year, $340 million test in a small corner of Wafra. Oil, like molasses, thins when heated. Large silver pipes carry 600-degree-Fahrenheit steam underground, flooding the oil-rich rock. Nearby, a grid of pumps pulls up the oil.
So far, the results have been encouraging. As of November, the wells were producing 1,500 barrels per day, seven times what they produced before steam injection began in 2009. . . .
Using steam to extract oil isn't a new idea. Chevron has been using the method to recover heavy oil at its Kern River field in Bakersfield, Calif., since the 1960s. That field yielded less than 10% of its oil using traditional methods. Using steam injection, Chevron is now on its way to pumping as much as 80% of the crude.
The Wafra project, however, is far more of a challenge than traditional steam projects. As in most of the Middle East, the oil at Wafra is trapped in a thick layer of limestone that also contains minerals that can build up inside pipes and corrode equipment.
An even bigger challenge is getting the two crucial elements for generating steam: water and a source of energy to boil it. Most successful steam projects are in places with easy access to relatively pure water and a cheap fuel source, usually natural gas. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have little of either.
With no fresh-water sources in the Arabian desert, Chevron has been forced to use salt water found in the same underground reservoirs as the oil. That water is full of contaminants that must be removed before it can be boiled and injected into the ground.
Finding the energy to boil the water will be even tougher. Chevron could use oil instead of natural gas—literally burning oil to produce oil—but that would burn profits, too. So the company likely will be forced to import natural gas from overseas, an expensive process that involves chilling it to turn it into a liquid, then shipping it thousands of miles.
Some experts are shaking their heads.
"They're in trouble," says Robert Toronyi, a retired Chevron engineer who now serves as chief operating officer for Quantum Reservoir Impact, a Houston-based consulting firm. He says the project is so challenging that it will be hard for Chevron to turn much of a profit.
Expectations that "peak oil" would be beneficial because the scarcity of energy would reduce carbon emissions seem clearly misguided from this example. The scarcer that ready-to-access oil becomes, the greater the incentive to expend energy to get energy. The consequence is a lower net return on energy invested and a greater impact on emissions for every barrel of oil consumed.

The essential points were made in a paper by Alex Farrell and A.R. Brandt in 2006 (cited the other day by Climate Progress). There were two basic propositions:
[T]he oil transition is not a shift from abundance to scarcity: fossil fuel resources abound. Rather, the oil transition is a shift from high quality resources to lower quality resources that have increased risks of environmental damage, as well as other risks.

[T]he oil transition brings more long-term environmental concerns than long-term economic or security threats because tradeoffs have strong potential to be resolved by accepting increased environmental damage in order to avoid economic or security risks. The global petroleum industry has begun to recognize this interaction, but strategies to deal with them have not yet emerged.

Solar Sags

247 Wall Street is a good source to keep up with the the doings of the solar sector. Here's a snippet from a recent report:
While some of these solar players are not changing their forecasts on shipments, all have seen gross margin declines since last year, and the capacity expansion that is taking place this year will only make matters worse for margins. Capacity is expected to grow by 9,500 megawatts in 2011, to a worldwide total of 41,500 megawatts, while global demand for solar panels is forecast for around 28,000 megawatts.. . .

The second weight on share prices is a fuller understanding of just how much many of the solar makers depend on European sales, particularly Germany, Italy, and Spain. With that understanding comes the realization that both Italy and Spain are suffering from bigger problems than continuing solar subsidies, and that German sales will not be robust as before.

May 23, 2011

Electropolis: US Atlantic Seaboard At Night

From NASA Earth Observatory, May 22, 2011

Agricultural Policies: Bill Clinton Recants on the Washington Consensus

From Democracy Now and Haitian journalist Kim Ives, an interview with Bill Clinton in 2010 in which he laments the role his administration played in forcing down rice tariffs in Haiti--a step that, according to Democracy Now, "wiped out Haitian rice farming and seriously damaged Haiti's ability to be self-sufficient."

At a donors conference the month before the interview, Clinton said the following:
Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so . . . they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. . . .
Clinton subsequently said that Robert Zoellick, the head of the World Bank, also saw the folly of the agricultural policies foisted on poor nations in the name of free trade: "it’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. And you just can’t take the food chain out of production. And it also undermines a lot of the culture, the fabric of life, the sense of self-determination. And I have been involved for several years in agricultural products, principally in Rwanda, Malawi, other places in Africa, and now increasingly in Latin America, and I see this. . . .[W]e made this devil’s bargain on rice. And it wasn’t the right thing to do. We should have continued to work to help them be self-sufficient in agriculture."

May 22, 2011

Al-Qaeda Threat to Energy Infrastructure

The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI have warned police across the United States that al Qaeda has a "continuing interest" in attacking oil and natural gas targets, a department spokesman said Friday.
The warning issued Thursday came as a result of information seized during the May 2 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a U.S. official said.
"We are not aware of indications of any specific or imminent terrorist attack plotting against the oil and natural gas sector overseas or in the United States," Homeland Security spokesman Matthew Chandler said.
"However, in 2010 there was continuing interest by members of al Qaeda in targeting oil tankers and commercial oil infrastructure at sea."
It is "unclear if any further planning has been conducted" since the middle of last year, Chandler said.
CNN obtained a copy of a DHS/FBI intelligence bulletin that says al Qaeda has been interested in "targeting unspecified oil tankers abroad" as a means to "draw the West into an extreme economic crisis" by disrupting a significant portion of the oil supply for several years.
The advisory says al Qaeda wanted to target oil tankers in the Indian and Atlantic oceans, as well as the Arabian Sea, but the terrorist group "was opposed to targeting tankers in coastal areas with large Muslim populations."
The warning says al Qaeda "believed an effective method for sinking oil tankers was to hijack them and then detonate explosives from the inside." The group thought it would be more difficult to stage an attack from outside a ship, as it could "require several explosive charges since tankers are divided internally into multiple watertight sections." . . .

More on the same subject in an essay by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at Foreign Policy, which traces the evolution of al-Qaeda's attitudes: 
The threat that keeps counterterrorism officials up at night is a massive strike on Saudi oil installations, taking advantage of the limited number of production hubs to knock a significant amount of oil off the world market. The kingdom relies on its Abqaiq facility to process two-thirds of its crude oil, and on two primary terminals (Ras Tanura and Ras al-Ju'aymah) to export its oil to the world. The economic impact of a successful attack on one of these targets would be tremendous: Gal Luft and Anne Korin of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security estimate that, if a terrorist cell hijacked a plane and crashed it into either the Abqaiq or Ras Tanura facilities in a 9/11-style attack, it could "take up to 50% of Saudi oil off the market for at least six months and with it most of the world's spare capacity, sending oil prices through the ceiling."

Former CIA case officer Robert Baer agrees, writing his 2004 book Sleeping with the Devil, "A single jumbo jet with a suicide bomber at the controls, hijacked during takeoff from Dubai and crashed into the heart of Ras Tanura, would be enough to bring the world's oil-addicted economies to their knees, America's along with them." . . .
Bin Laden didn't always see attacks on oil as a part of his fight against the United States. When he first declared war against America in 1996, he specified that oil was not one of al Qaeda's targets because the resource was "a large economical power essential for the soon to be established Islamic state." In other words, when al Qaeda's ultimate goal of re-establishing the caliphate was satisfied, bin Laden thought the new state would benefit economically and strategically from its control over a significant portion of the world's oil supply -- and for that reason, al Qaeda would not jeopardize that future wealth by targeting oil infrastructure.

One early indication of a shift in jihadist thinking on attacking oil facilities was Rashid al-Anzi's The Laws of Targeting Petroleum-Related Interests and a Review of the Laws Pertaining to the Economic Jihad, a treatise posted online in March 2004. Anzi, a noted jihadist thinker, called the widespread availability of oil the factor that "enabled America to dominate the world," and explained how attacks on the oil supply could harm the jihadists' foes. He claimed that rising oil prices hurt industrialized countries more than others, and that they were particularly devastating to the United States, the world's largest consumer.. . .

Recognizing their shared vulnerability, the United States and Saudi Arabia embarked on an unprecedented expansion of their security cooperation beginning in 2008. The two countries are developing an elite security force tasked with protecting this infrastructure from attack. It will eventually have at least 35,000 members, the Associated Press reports.. . .


Arms Sales and Promoting Democracy in Arabia

From Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe:

ON THE same day President Obama pressed again for peace in the Middle East, the Associated Press reminded us that the United States cannot help itself from flooding the region with the instruments of war, reporting that the nation is “quietly expanding defense ties on a vast scale’’ with Saudi Arabia.
How vast? The part that has been highly publicized is the new $60 billion arms sale made to the Saudis because of the ongoing threat of Iran. The deal sends Saudi Arabia 84 new F-15s and upgrades to 70 F-15s. It also sends them about 180 Apache, Black Hawk, and Little Bird helicopters, as well as anti-ship and anti-radar missiles. In officially announcing the sale last fall, Andrew Shapiro, the US assistant secretary of state for political affairs, said the sales were part of “deepening our security relationship with a key partner with whom we’ve enjoyed a solid security relationship for nearly 70 years.’’
But there are other emerging aspects of the security relationship the Obama administration is not so candid about. The AP also reported on an obscure project to create a special elite security force that would fall under the US Central Command. The force would have up to 35,000 members “to protect the kingdom’s oil riches and future nuclear sites.’’ It would be separate from Saudi Arabia’s military and its national guard and would involve tens of billions of dollars in additional military contracts. But no official of the Pentagon, the State Department, or the Saudi embassy would go on the record to discuss the program.
The sheepishness of the Pentagon was mirrored by Obama’s failure to mention Saudi Arabia once in his speech Thursday at the State Department. Obama urged fresh Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, praised the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, harshly denounced Libya and Syria, and cajoled Yemen and Bahrain to loosen up on their people. Obama criticized in general the “corruption of elites’’ and pushed for women’s rights in health, business, and politics. He said, “the region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.’’. . .
Most experts assume that Obama remains mute on Saudi Arabia because it has the largest oil production capacity in the world and its strategic importance against Iran. But these arms deals, public and secret, up the ante on Obama to be far more transparent about what our relationship is to a nation that is assisting the Bahrain government in its crackdown on freedom protesters. Even as Obama praised the people of North Africa who have risen up for human rights “in the face of batons and sometimes bullets,’’ he is sending yet more bullets, planes, and missiles to nations that fall far too short on human rights.