September 29, 2011

Golden Age of Garbage

So says the New York Times Green blog, reporting the development by a company in Oregon of a system designed to convert discarded plastic into oil. The company hopes to have commercial versions available in eighteen months.  

The system, an assembly of pipes and vessels that will cost around $5 million, essentially cooks plastics into a gas and then condenses the vapor into a soup of long-chain hydrocarbons that can subsequently be converted into diesel, jet fuel or other substances. 

One factory module can turn 40,000 pounds of plastic into 130 barrels of oil a day, and larger modules are on the way. . . . 

While refiners would process landfill oil into final products, trash companies would largely own and operate the machinery to make the basic feedstock. Many systems would by default probably wind up on landfills near large cities. . . .

Investors and large corporations are increasingly turning their attention toward technologies for recycling and “resource recovery” to capitalize on the growing tide of waste and rising prices for raw materials. Some describe it as a nascent golden age of garbage. . . .

Other novel start-ups in resource recovery include Modular Carpet Recycling, which can extract commercially viable nylon from old carpet, and Lehigh Technologies, which has retrofitted a mill for grinding expired pharmaceuticals to recycle rubber.

Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, meanwhile, makes Crystal Green. It’s not a powdered drink mix, but a fertilizer produced with phosphorus extracted from municipal sewage streams. . . .

Only a fraction of the plastic in landfills is easily recycled. In some nations, “recycling” plastic actually means burning it for fuel, which creates an even bigger environmental hazard, said Kevin O’Connor, a researcher at University College in Dublin who has created a genetically modified organism that can recycle plastic. . . .

Conventional crude sells for $85 to $95 a barrel; other company executives have suggested in recent months that the system could produce crude for around $52 a barrel and even less over time.

Michaele Kanellos, "Reaping Oil from Discarded Plastic," September 29, 2011

September 25, 2011

Iraqi Date Palms Beset by Salinity and Water Shortage

A story by the Associated Press on Iraq’s plans to encourage the production of date palms shows Iraqi targets beset by severe natural constraints, primarily salinity and the dearth of water.

During its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, Iraq was the world’s No. 1 date producer and exporter and boasted 32 million date palms, more than any other nation in the world. At that time, Iraq produced about 1 million tons of dates annually, said Kamil Mikhlif al-Dulaimi, head of the Agriculture Ministry’s Date Palm Board.

But by 2003, there were only half that number of trees and production fell to 200,000 tons. The southern province of Basra was the worst hit by the slump, with only about a quarter of the 12 million date trees it once had. “That prompts only deep sadness,” al-Dulaimai said in an interview. . . .

Now, with the worst years of violence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion over and oil revenues bubbling on the horizon, Iraq has focused on the date industry as one of several sectors — including oil, agriculture and infrastructure — it wants to develop.

The government has begun supporting date farmers with soft loans to plant new orchards and subsidized fertilizers and insecticides. It established the Date Palm Board in 2005 with a mission to more than double to number of trees nationwide to 40 million by 2021.

The board has built 30 nurseries around the country to produce new varieties and it has launched programs to rehabilitate old orchards and build processing and storage facilities. It is aiming to develop tree varieties that produce fruit in two years rather than the four or five it usually takes. The push has brought some progress. The number of trees has risen to 21 million trees, producing 420,000 tons last year, al-Dulaimi said. “This is a major leap forward,” al-Dulaimi said proudly. “We are reaping the fruits of these efforts.”

Marhon Abid Falih, a date farmer south of Basra, would like to reap some of those profits. But he’s not sure the government can help. Iraq’s chronic problems over the decades — lacking of water, electricity, fuel, and storage — have forced many farmers to abandon cultivation and find another jobs like in the army or police.

In 2002, Falih’s orchard in the Abu al-Khasib area south of Basra boasted as many as 200 date palm trees. He grew fruits and vegetables in their shade, and hired dozens of workers to help him during harvest. The farm made enough money to meet all his family’s daily needs. But a year later, his farm was hit by drought and its soil grew bitter. Only about 50 trees survived.

“There is no motive to cultivate anymore,” said Falih, 52. “It’s not a matter of planting new trees or taking loans,” he said. “There is no longer a benefit from agriculture because of the salinity and dearth of water. All attempts are in vain.”

h/t Desdemona Despair, via The Washington Post, "Iraq struggles to revive date palm sector, eager to retrieve past glory," September 25, 2011

September 24, 2011

Greenland Melt Controversy

The two maps above are snapshots taken by The Guardian from The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World. The one on the left is from the 1999 10th edition; on the right is the 2011 13th edition, just published by HarperCollins (whose owner is the Fox-laden and scandal-ridden News Corporation, headed by Rupert Murdoch). The new map shows Greenland having lost around 15% of its ice cover since 1999. The claims have caused an uproar among climate scientists, who insist that the actual loss of ice cover is much less than 1%.

From John Vidal of The Guardian:

[S]even researchers at Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute backed by glaciologists in the US, Europe and elsewhere, have said that both the maps and the figure of 15% are wrong.

In a letter to the editors of the Times Atlas they agree that the Greenland ice cover is reducing but at nowhere near the extent claimed in the book. "A 15% decrease in permanent ice cover since the publication of the previous atlas 12 years ago is both incorrect and misleading.

"Numerous glaciers have retreated over the last decade. Because of this retreat, many glaciers are now flowing faster and terrain previously ice-covered is emerging along the coast – but not at the rate suggested. Recent satellite images of Greenland make it clear that there are in fact still numerous glaciers and permanent ice cover where the new Times Atlas shows ice-free conditions and the emergence of new lands."

According to the researchers, the volume of ice contained in the Greenland ice sheet is approximately 2.9m cubic kilometres and the current rate whereby ice is lost is roughly 200 cubic kilometres per year – a decrease of about 0.1% by volume over 12 years.

Other researchers backed the Scott team. "Although many of these regions have decreased in area and thickness over the past decade(s), reported in many recent scientific papers, the misinterpretation of enormous losses of glacierised area from these maps is far off the range in measured losses," said Hester Jiskoot, a glaciologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

"A number like 15% ice loss used for advertising the book is simply a killer mistake that cannot be winked away," said Jeffrey Kargel, a senior researcher at the University of Arizona.

Several researchers said the atlas's authors may have confused ice thickness with ice extent, defining the ice sheet margin at 500m high (the contour) and colouring brown and pink anything below 500m. "They [seem to] show the contour as ice thickness, colouring in everything white that is above 500m. They appear to have missed out the edge of the ice sheet," said Ian Willis, researcher at the Scott institute.

A spokeswoman for Times Atlas defended the 15% figure and the new map. "We are the best there is. We are confident of the data we have used and of the cartography. We use data supplied by the US Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado. They use radar techniques to measure the permanent ice. We have compared the extent of the ice surface in 1999 with that of 2011. Our data shows that it has reduced by 15%. That's categorical," she said.

The amusing feature of this controversy is how it makes a hash of the broader ideological alignments, with an arm of the climate-change-denying News Corp making wild claims that would make Al Gore blush. In this vein, one recalls that the first great world leader to draw attention to the danger of global warming was none other than Ronald Reagan's best friend, Margaret Thatcher, who was not renowned as a statist. In a speech in 1988 to the Royal Society, at Fishmonger's Hall in London, the then Prime Minister declared:

For generations, we have assumed that the efforts of mankind would leave the fundamental equilibrium of the world's systems and atmosphere stable. But it is possible that with all these enormous changes (population, agricultural, use of fossil fuels) concentrated into such a short period of time, we have unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of this planet itself. 

Recently three changes in atmospheric chemistry have become familiar subjects of concern. The first is the increase in the greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons—which has led some to fear that we are creating a global heat trap which could lead to climatic instability. We are told that a warming effect of 1°C per decade would greatly exceed the capacity of our natural habitat to cope. Such warming could cause accelerated melting of glacial ice and a consequent increase in the sea level of several feet over the next century.

Mrs. Thatcher subsequently recanted her views and threw in with the climate skeptics. One admirer of Thatcher asks, not unreasonably, whether her fuss about global warming was "really just a cynical ploy . . . to help crush Britain's coal miners while bigging up the nuclear power industry in order to bolster her Trident programme?" Among the handful of climate skeptics on Britain's left, such as Alexander Cockburn, such was always the great suspicion.

Obama Sent Bunker-Busters to Israel in 2009

As I see it, there are at least five good reasons to support President Obama in his bid for re-election next year. They are: 1. Bachman; 2. Perry; 3. Gingrich; 4. Romney; and 5. Palin (you never know). If pressed, I might be able to think of a few more. However, it's this sort of story that makes me want to sit the whole thing out (or go all-in for Ron Paul or Gary Johnson). According to Eli Lake at The Daily Beast:

U.S. and Israeli officials tell Newsweek that [55] GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators—potentially useful in any future military strike against Iranian nuclear sites—were delivered to Israel in 2009, just several months after Obama took office.

The military sale was arranged behind the scenes as Obama’s demands for Israel to stop building settlements in disputed territories were fraying political relations between the two countries in public.

The Israelis first requested the bunker busters in 2005, only to be rebuffed by the Bush administration. At the time, the Pentagon had frozen almost all U.S.-Israeli joint defense projects out of concern that Israel was transferring advanced military technology to China.

In 2007, Bush informed Ehud Olmert, then prime minister, that he would order the bunker busters for delivery in 2009 or 2010. The Israelis wanted them in 2007. Obama finally released the weapons in 2009, according to officials familiar with the still-secret decision.

James Cartwright, the Marine Corps general who served until August as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Newsweek the military chiefs had no objections to the sale. Rather, Cartwright said, there was a concern about “how the Iranians would perceive it,” and “how the Israelis might perceive it.” In other words, would the sale be seen as a green light for Israel to attack Iran’s secret nuclear sites one day? . . .

Obama’s security cooperation extended beyond bunker busters. According to Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ), who serves on the committees that fund both the U.S. military and foreign aid, Obama gave “orders to the military to ratchet up the cooperation at every level with Israel.”

September 23, 2011

Retreat of the Arctic Sea Ice

Arctic Sea Ice in September 2011 was only four percent shy of the minimum record set in 2007. This map from the Economist compares the average summer sea ice extent from 1979 to 2000 (the red-dotted line) with the recent September reading (the light blue line). It also shows the two shipping lines (one hugging the coast of Russia, the other through Canada’s northern waters) that will revolutionize sea transport if the melting continues. This very cool animation takes the map a step further, showing in rapid sequence the September readings over the last thirty-two years, enabling you to visualize how the red-dotted line got formed.

The Economist (“Beating a Retreat”) notes that the Arctic sea is melting far faster than climate models have predicted. Because “Arctic air is warming twice as fast as the atmosphere as a whole,” an ice free summer Arctic is likely to happen sometime between 2020 and 2050 rather than the end of 21st century—the date predicted by most climate models. Why that high rate of warming? Here is the explanation from The Economist:

Some of the causes of this are understood, but some are not. The darkness of land and water compared with the reflectiveness of snow and ice means that when the latter melt to reveal the former, the area exposed absorbs more heat from the sun and reflects less of it back into space. The result is a feedback loop that accelerates local warming. Such feedback, though, does not completely explain what is happening. Hence the search for other things that might assist the ice’s rapid disappearance.

One is physical change in the ice itself. Formerly a solid mass that melted and refroze at its edges, it is now thinner, more fractured, and so more liable to melt. But that is (literally and figuratively) a marginal effect. Filling the gap between model and reality may need something besides this.

The latest candidates are “short-term climate forcings”. These are pollutants, particularly ozone and soot, that do not hang around in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide does, but have to be renewed continually if they are to have a lasting effect. If they are so renewed, though, their impact may be as big as CO2’s.

At the moment, most eyes are on soot (or “black carbon”, as jargon-loving researchers refer to it). In the Arctic, soot is a double whammy. First, when released into the air as a result of incomplete combustion (from sources as varied as badly serviced diesel engines and forest fires), soot particles absorb sunlight, and so warm up the atmosphere. Then, when snow or rain wash them onto an ice floe, they darken its surface and thus cause it to melt faster.

Reducing soot (and also ozone, an industrial pollutant that acts as a greenhouse gas) would not stop the summer sea ice disappearing, but it might delay the process by a decade or two. According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme, reducing black carbon and ozone in the lower part of the atmosphere, especially in the Arctic countries of America, Canada, Russia and Scandinavia, could cut warming in the Arctic by two-thirds over the next three decades. Indeed, the report suggests, if such measures—preventing crop burning and forest fires, cleaning up diesel engines and wood stoves, and so on—were adopted everywhere they could halve the wider rate of warming by 2050.

Without corresponding measures to cut CO2 emissions, this would be but a temporary fix. Nonetheless, it is an attractive idea because it would have other benefits (soot is bad for people’s lungs) and would not require the wholesale rejigging of energy production which reducing CO2 emissions implies. Not everyone agrees it would work, though. Gunnar Myhre of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo, for example, notes that the amount of black carbon in the Arctic is small and has been falling in recent decades. He does not believe it is the missing factor in the models. Carbon dioxide, in his view, is the main culprit. Black carbon deposited on the Arctic snow and ice, he says, will have only a minimal effect on its reflectivity.

The rapid melting of the Arctic sea ice, then, illuminates the difficulty of modelling the climate—but not in a way that brings much comfort to those who hope that fears about the future climate might prove exaggerated. When reality is changing faster than theory suggests it should, a certain amount of nervousness is a reasonable response.

The direct consequences of changes in the Arctic are mixed. They should not bring much rise in the sea level, since floating ice obeys Archimedes’s principle and displaces its own mass of water. A darker—and so more heat-absorbent—Arctic, though, will surely accelerate global warming and may thus encourage melting of the land-bound Greenland ice sheet. That certainly would raise sea levels (though not as quickly as News Corporation’s cartographers suggest in the latest edition of the best-selling “Times Atlas”, which claims that 15% of the Greenland sheet has melted in the past 12 years; the true figure is more like 0.05%). Wildlife will also suffer. Polar bears, which hunt for seals along the ice’s edge, and walruses, which fish there, will both be hard-hit.

The effects on the wider climate are tricky to assess. Some meteorologists suspect unseasonal snow storms off the east coast of America in 2010 were partly caused by Arctic warming shifting wind patterns. One feedback loop that does seems certain, though, is that the melting Arctic will enable the extraction of more fossil fuel, with all that that implies for greenhouse-gas emissions. . . .

The strategic implications of the change in shipping routes is emphasized by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who at a recent conference claimed that the northern route will soon rival the Suez Canal in importance. From Yale Environment 360:
"The shortest route between Europe’s largest markets and the Asia-Pacific region lies across the Arctic,” Putin told the Arctic Forum, a conference meeting in the White Sea port of Arkhangelsk. “I want to stress the importance of the Northern Sea Route as an international transport artery that will rival traditional trade lanes.” Putin noted that with the northern trade route now largely ice-free in summer, the number of test runs along the route is increasing. . . .  “I have no doubt this is just the beginning,” said Putin, noting that a voyage across the Northern Sea Route from Europe to Asia is a third shorter than traveling through the Suez Canal. But environmentalists warn that a shipping rush in pristine Arctic waters poses serious environmental threats, and that Russia and other Arctic nations must vastly upgrade their ability to react to oil spills and other maritime accidents.

September 18, 2011

China's Rare Earth Monopoly

This chart of the production in metric tons of rare earth metals since the 1950s shows China's contemporary dominance of the sector, vital for a range of green energy technologies. The US mine at Mountain Pass, California, was closed in 2002 because of environmental concerns, as production of the rare earths is remarkably toxic. Due to the same concerns, China has also begun closing some of its mines, as reported by the New York Times, "China Consolidates Grip on Rare Earths."
By closing or nationalizing dozens of the producers of rare earth metals — which are used in energy-efficient bulbs and many other green-energy products — China is temporarily shutting down most of the industry and crimping the global supply of the vital resources.

China produces nearly 95 percent of the world’s rare earth materials, and it is taking the steps to improve pollution controls in a notoriously toxic mining and processing industry. But the moves also have potential international trade implications and have started yet another round of price increases for rare earths, which are vital for green-energy products including giant wind turbines, hybrid gasoline-electric cars and compact fluorescent bulbs.

General Electric, facing complaints in the United States about rising prices for its compact fluorescent bulbs, recently noted in a statement that if the rate of inflation over the last 12 months on the rare earth element europium oxide had been applied to a $2 cup of coffee, that coffee would now cost $24.55. . . .

China says it has largely shut down its rare earth industry for three months to address pollution problems. By invoking environmental concerns, China could potentially try to circumvent international trade rules that are supposed to prohibit export restrictions of vital materials.

Brad Plumer (from whom the USGS chart above is taken) reviews the history of rare earth mining,  the closure of the U.S. Mountain Pass facility in 2002, the U.S. corporation Molycorp's purchase of the mine in 2008, and the possibility that it might be reopened under safeguards that would limit the production of toxic wastewater. Plumer notes that there is some hope for a technological breakthrough that would decrease the need for rare earths in magnet technologies. In any case, he writes, this is an "underrated environmental story."
Many types of solar modules are made with rare earths. Electric cars and hybrids such as the Toyota Prius rely on powerful magnets that charge the battery and allow the motor to turn the wheels — magnets that depend on rare earths such as neodymium and terbium. A large wind turbine can use as much as a ton and a half of rare-earth magnets. Older, traditional magnets using iron alloy won’t cut it.
In other words, there's not going to be a clean-energy revolution unless we solve our rare-earth woes.

September 17, 2011

War for Oil?

Don't be silly, writes Tom Englehart.  In March 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq War,
everyone who mattered knew that whatever the invasion of Iraq was about -- freedom, possible mushroom clouds rising over U.S. cities or biological and chemical attacks on them, the felling of a monster dictator -- it certainly wasn’t about oil. An oil war? How crude (so to speak), even if Iraq, by utter coincidence, happened to be located in the oil heartlands of the planet.

And it wasn’t just the Bush administration. You wouldn’t have found the New York Times speaking about oil wars either. Not much has changed, actually. As in last weekend's eight-year-late modified mea culpa for the Iraq war that former liberal war hawks conducted in that paper’s magazine section, you could find some breast-beating, testosterone-dissing, and even regret for past positions, but not a mention of oil. And -- who would expect anything else -- never a mention either of the ignorant hoi polloi who carried such oily signs, demonstrated against war, and are best forgotten, or any stray experts who genuinely opposed Bush’s wars before they were launched. . . .
As for our most recent (definitely not oil) war in Libya, . . . the explanations in the news pages have generally focused on preventing massacres, “humanitarian intervention,” and the felling of evil dictators. For oil, you have to head for section D (the business pages) where, under the headline “The Scramble for Access to Libya’s Oil Wealth Begins,” you could indeed finally read a comment like this: “The resumption of Libyan production would help drive down oil prices in Europe, and indirectly, gasoline prices on the East Coast of the United States. Western nations -- especially the NATO countries that provided crucial air support to the rebels -- want to make sure their companies are in prime position to pump the Libyan crude.”

Of course, despite the best attempts of Bush’s men in Baghdad, we never did get Iraq’s oil. But that’s the lumps you take when, as an imperial power, you don’t actually win your oil war. . . .
Right on cue, Daniel Yergin's much-touted new book, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, sets the record straight on the role of oil in the Iraq War:
Iraq was an oil country. Its only export was oil. It was a nation defined by oil, and as such was a country of great significance to the global energy markets. But the ensuing war was not about oil [p. 142].


September 10, 2011

Exxon in Exploration Deal for Russian Arctic

The New York Times reports on the deal Exxon Mobil signed in late August with the Russian company Rosneft to explore for oil in the Russian Arctic Ocean. The companies are swapping assets, including Exxon claims in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico, but the overall size of the potential investments at stake is uncertain. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested that the amounts could be as high as $500 billion; Exxon said the initial investments would likely be in the tens of billions; and the fact sheet announcing the deal put the initial commitment at $3.2 billion for exploration in the Kara Sea.

For Exxon, which is America’s largest company and is a spinoff of the original Standard Oil, the deal means wading deeper into Russia’s risky business environment. As a result of the agreement, which is almost certain to require a review in Washington, more of the company’s investments and future earnings will partly hinge on policies set in the Kremlin.

Russia has reneged on deals with Western oil companies before. In 2006, for example, it compelled Royal Dutch Shell to sell 50 percent of a Sakhalin offshore development to Gazprom, a state company — after Shell spent a decade and more than $20 billion of its own money and that of other investors to build the project’s infrastructure. . . .

Under the new agreement, the state-owned Rosneft could become a part-owner of drilling operations in the United States. Those operations could include two of the industry’s most contentious oil extraction methods — drilling for oil in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and using the so-called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technique on land. The Russians want to learn about both types of drilling for use at home.

The Rosneft deal would also be among the most significant attempts by a company from a country that is not an American ally to acquire United States oil fields since Cnooc, the large Chinese oil company, tried to buy the California oil company Unocal. Although it was not formally banned, that deal fell apart in 2005 after members of Congress criticized the potential Chinese ownership of American oil assets. . . .

Russia’s economy is dependent on petroleum for about 60 percent of its export revenue. Policies here are also important for world oil supplies, as Russia now pumps more oil than Saudi Arabia. Yet Russia’s onshore fields in Siberia are in decline, threatening the prosperity and geopolitical clout that has come with oil wealth in the last decade. . . .

Once seen as a useless, ice-clogged backwater, the Kara Sea now has the attention of oil companies. That is partly because the sea ice is apparently receding — possibly a result of global warming — which would ease exploration and drilling. . . .

In the waters off Alaska, drilling has remained largely off limits because of environmental restrictions and lawsuits by conservation organizations.

Rosneft’s attempt to strike a similar pact with BP this year fell apart because the British company had a joint venture with a separate group of private Russian investors, who blocked the Rosneft deal in an international court. The collapse was an embarrassment for Mr. Putin, who had endorsed the BP-Rosneft deal. After the failure of that deal, the onus fell on Russia to demonstrate it could uphold an agreement, Mr. Kupchan, the analyst, said. “They got away with BP, because the deal was seen as BP having two Russian wives,” he said. Exxon, in contrast, has no exclusivity clause with a competitor in Russia that could come up in court.

Still, if Rosneft’s participation in American projects leads to objections in the United States, Exxon’s investment in Russia could also be vulnerable. Russian officials say reciprocity, or mutual dependence, is a condition for foreign investment in their petroleum fields. . . .

For Russia, the agreement is a result of a new openness to foreign investment in its oil industry that is meant to address the declining output in Siberia. The Kremlin opened discussions last year with Western oil companies whose prospects on the other side of the Arctic Ocean — above Alaska and Canada — had at least temporarily dimmed with the moratorium on offshore drilling in the aftermath of BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

This summer, the American Interior Department eased the restrictions somewhat by granting Royal Dutch Shell conditional approval to drill exploratory wells in the Arctic Ocean off Alaska’s coast starting next year.

But American and Canadian regulators worry about the special challenges in the Arctic. The ice pack and icebergs pose threats to drilling rigs and crews. And if oil were spilled in the winter, cleanup would take place in the total darkness that engulfs the region during those months.

Still, the United States Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds one-fifth of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable oil and natural gas.

Igor Sechin, Russia’s deputy prime minister responsible for energy, said that the agreement anticipated $200bn-$300bn in direct investment over ten years, according to the FT.

“One ice-proof platform costs $15bn minimum” he said. “For the Kara Sea, we require at least 10 platforms.” He declined to say when the first oil could be expected.

Rosneft shares rose 12.5% in the three trading days before the deal was announced, prompting an “investigation” by Russian authorities. 

Christopher Jones, at Climate Progress, notes the irony that Exxon, which has funded numerous climate skeptics, should make such a large foray in an area now "prospective" because of global warming.
Large deposits of gas and oil have been known to exist in the Arctic Ocean for decades. So why did they make this deal now? One key thing has changed: the arctic ice is melting rapidly. The Kara Sea has typically been covered by ice floes nine months of the year or more, making commercial development of its resources unprofitable. But for the last several years, the extent and duration of the arctic ice has been diminishing, a phenomenon the vast majority of scientists believe to be caused by climate change. Suddenly, oil and gas exploration in the Arctic Ocean is looking far more attractive. Exxon has realized that a warming planet offers some new opportunities for profit and is adjusting its strategic decisions accordingly.
The deal also illustrates the limitations of national legislation in restricting drilling in contested areas like the Arctic (or deep offshore). Faced with restrictions in one area, the oil companies just move elsewhere. The same phenomenon occurs with regard to consumption and takes the form of "outsourcing emissions" via "offshore manufacturing."

Both parties doubtless felt keenly the risks of defection from the other side, with the very real possibility that their partner might back out (or be forced to back out) at some point in the future. That's why they exchanged hostages. Five or ten years from now, however, the relative costs of such defection might look very different.


China's Solar Dominance

As the American companies Evergreen and Solyndra go bankrupt, China has asserted its dominance of the worldwide solar industry. Stephen Lacey of Climate Progress gives the lament of U.S. solar industry officials, who cannot complete with a massively subsidized Chinese sector. The scale of the subsidies is shown in the accompanying chart, comparing American and Chinese government subsidies for solar in 2010.

Explains Lacey:

Armed with tens of billions in loans from the Chinese government, Chinese solar companies have scaled at a rate unthinkable only a few years ago. At the end of this year, there will likely be 50,000 megawatts (MW) of manufacturing capacity in place around the world, with much of that new capacity being developed in China and other Asian countries. (In the year 2000, there were only 100 MW of production capacity worldwide.)

In four years, the solar manufacturing sector shifted from being led by a geographically dispersed number of companies to one dominated by Chinese companies. In 2006, there were two companies from China in the list of top ten cell producers. In 2010, there were six, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. There are currently only two non-Asian manufacturers in the top ten, and those companies -- First Solar and Q-Cells -- have shifted a lot of their production to Asia.

According to one U.S. company, the reason is predatory financing and “free money” from the Chinese Development Bank (CBD).

The CDB was originally set up as a "policy bank," to operate as an arm of the Chinese central government, doling out public funding to support central government development programs. Now it is a "joint stock company with limited liability" that often reports to China's national cabinet on certain policy issues. This allows the Chinese government to get involved in CDB activities and direct loans toward projects officials want to support.

Unlike most regular commercial banks, CDB raises most of its money via long-term bonds. Funders cannot take that money back out until the term is up, so the bank can make longer-term loans to Chinese companies. CDB also gives borrowers very low interest rates, and, if the borrower cannot pay back the loan, it may be back-stopped by the Chinese government.

This makes it easier, cheaper, and a lot less risky for solar companies to obtain financing.

In 2010 alone, the bank handed out $30 billion in low-cost loans to the top five manufacturers in the country. (See chart above.) This has enabled China's solar producers to grow to GW scale in a very short period of time, turning the country into a leading exporter of solar and pushing down prices dramatically. . . .

With Chinese producers in a far more dominant position than in 2009 and a slew of solar manufacturing facility closures announced in the U.S. in recent months, concerns about dumping have resurfaced. Just yesterday, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to President Obama asking him to investigate whether or not Chinese companies are selling product below cost in order to push American producers out of the market. He also called on the administration to implement a trade tariff on Chinese modules . . .

It will be difficult for the U.S. to compete with China at its own game -- namely, high-volume manufacturing of a commoditized product -- given the cost advantages available for Chinese manufacturing. However, the U.S. can and should continue to develop and commercialize innovative technologies that offer lower costs than traditional panels. These new technologies are generally proprietary, require a more skilled labor force, and are difficult to duplicate.

Suniva could be considered part of this category. Using a unique cell design, the company has created a high-efficiency mono-crystalline solar cell that could compete with SunPower. But with all the cheap debt that the Chinese government is throwing at domestic companies, Suniva is finding it increasingly tough to stay in the U.S.

"If something isn't done, no one will be making solar PV in the U.S.," said Ashley. . . .

9/23/11: A new report by Standard and Poor's, according to David Jones of Platts, also attributes the "shrinking profit margins and bulging warehouses" of the solar industry to Chinese policy, though it gives a figure for global solar capacity at 30 gigawatts, much lower than Lacey's estimate of 50 gigawatts:

"The primary source of these PV price declines [42% in the last year] has been Chinese manufacturers that have enormously expanded global capacity and that continue to fully utilize their plants despite lack of demand," said Standard and Poor's.

The result? Inventories among solar PV equipment producers, particularly in China, have swelled. Global production capacity of about 30 GW in 2011 will far outstrip expected demand of 15-20 GW, according to the study.

To date, China's banks have largely financed this buildup through almost-zero interest debt, which "is being used by Chinese solar companies to achieve economies of scale, to offer extended credit terms to customers to augment their already industry-leading cost positions, and to gain market share," the study said.

What's more, a new Chinese government policy will offer feed-in tariffs for PV power generation, which the nongovernmental organization The Climate Group called "a major step forward in accelerating development in China's domestic solar market". . . .

 * * *

The solar power exchange traded fund, TAN, whose comings and goings we have chronicled previously, broke beneath its March 2009 lows (4.63) in the recent market sell-off. The chart below shows the September 9 close. As of September 23, it had fallen to 3.65, down another 20%. 

First Solar, headquartered in Arizona, operates in the United States, Germany, France, Canada, and other countries. As the largest holding in TAN, at 20%, its price movement closely the follows that of the etf. The Chinese companies have also suffered big losses in the downturn. 

Here are the largest holdings of TAN:

September 3, 2011

Marx Makes a Comeback

The extract below from Charles Hugh Smith, a blogger at, applies Marxist analysis to the contemporary economic crisis. Everyone was taught back in the day (certainly I was taught and believed) that Marx got a lot wrong in his analysis. Capitalism did not collapse, but thrived. Socialism, the wave of the future, proved a moral and material dead-end. The masses were not increasingly impoverished but rather enjoyed rising standards of living. The emphasis on material forces ignored the independent role of ideas in shaping political and economic reality. Revolution, when it did occur, arose in the most economically backward states (Russia and China), not in the economically advanced West. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which Marx enthusiastically welcomed, ignored the necessity of constitutional checks on political power.

One could go on this vein, but the analysis that Smith sets forth below suggests that Marx also saw some important things. I resist Smith’s conclusion—“the final crisis of finance-based advanced Capitalism is finally at hand”—but the set of changes he takes note of fits within a Marxist framework and rings true in vital respects: the dominance of finance capital, eroding shares to labor of the fruits of economic output due to globalization and technology, the explosion of debt masking declines in real wealth, the exhaustion of conventional remedies in the form of economic stimulus and ever higher debt-to-GDP ratios.  (See Smith's original post and here for some supporting charts.)

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Marx predicted a crisis of advanced Capitalism based on the rising imbalance of capital and labor in finance-dominated Capitalism. The basic Marxist context is history, not morality, and so the Marxist critique is light on blaming the rich for Capitalism's core ills and heavy on the inevitability of larger historic forces.

In other words, what's wrong with advanced Capitalism cannot be fixed by taxing the super-wealthy at the same rate we self-employed pay (40% basic Federal rate), though that would certainly be a fair and just step in the right direction. Advanced Capitalism's ills run much deeper than superficial "class warfare" models in which the "solution" is to redistribute wealth from the top down the pyramid.

This redistributive "socialist" flavor of advanced Capitalism has bought time--the crisis of the 1930s was staved off for 70 years--but now redistribution as a saving strategy has reached its limits.

The other political-economic strategy that has been used to stave off the crisis is consumer credit: as labor's share of the economy shrank, the middle class workforce was given massive quantities of credit, based on their earnings and on the equity of the family home.

The credit model of boosting consumption has also run its course, though the Keynesian cargo cult is still busily painting radio dials on rocks and hectoring the Economic Gods to unleash their magic "animal spirits."

The third strategy to stave off advanced Capitalism's crisis was to greatly expand the workforce to compensate for labor's dwindling share of the economy. Simply put, Mom, Aunty and Sis entered the workforce en masse in the 1970s, and their earning power boosted household income enough to maintain consumption.

That gambit has run out of steam as the labor force is now shrinking for structural reasons. Though the system is eager to put Grandpa to work as a Wal-Mart greeter and Grandma to work as a retail clerk, the total number of jobs is declining, and so older workers are simply displacing younger workers. The gambit of expanding the workforce to keep finance-based Capitalism going has entered the final end-game. Moving the pawns of tax rates and fiscal stimulus around may be distracting, but neither will fix advanced finance-based Capitalism's basic ills.

The fourth and final strategy was to exploit speculation's ability to create phantom wealth. By unleashing the dogs of speculation via a vast expansion of credit, leverage and proxies for actual capital, i.e. derivatives, advanced finance-based Capitalism enabled the expansion of serial speculative bubbles, each of which created the illusion of systemically rising wealth, and each of which led to a rise in consumption as the "winners" in the speculative game spent some of their gains.

This strategy has also run its course, as the public at last grasps that bubbles must burst and the aftermath damages everyone, not just those who gambled and lost.

Two other essential conditions have also peaked: cheap energy and globalization, which opened vast new markets for both cheap labor and new consumption. As inflation explodes in China and its speculative credit-based bubbles burst, and as oil exporters increasingly consume their resources domestically, those drivers are now reversing.

Advanced Capitalism is broken for reasons conventional economics cannot dare recognize, because it would spell the end of its intellectual dominance and the end of the entire post-war political-economic paradigm that feeds it. . . .

Marx identified two critical drivers of advanced Capitalism's final crisis:

1. Global Capital has the means and incentive to keep labor in surplus and capital scarce, which means that capital has pricing power and labor has none. The inevitable result of this is that wages, as measured in purchasing power, fall while the returns earned on capital rise.

This establishes a self-reinforcing, inevitably destructive dynamic: once labor's share of the national income falls below a critical threshold, labor can no longer consume enough or borrow enough to keep the economy afloat with its cash and credit-based consumption.

We are at that point, but massive Federal borrowing and transfers are masking that reality for the time being.

2. The dual forces of competition and technology inevitably drive down the labor component of all manufactured goods and technology-based services. Mechanization, robotics and software have lowered the labor component of everything from running shoes to computer chips from $20 per item to $2 per item, and that process cannot be reversed. While the wage paid to the workforce designing and manufacturing the products and providing the services may actually rise, the slice of revenues given over to all labor continues shrinking.

This is what I have constantly referred to (using Jeremy Rifkin's excellent phrase) as "the end of work."

Put another way: the return on capital invested in technology greatly exceeds the return on labor. Industries and enterprises which fail to leverage capital invested in technology that lowers the labor component of their good/service eventually undergo rapid and inevitable creative destruction.

We are about to witness this creative destruction in the labor-heavy industries of government, education and healthcare.

Marx's genius was to recognize the historical inevitability of these internal forces within advanced Capitalism. He also recognized the inevitability of finance-capital's dominance of industrial capital--something we have witnessed in full flower over the past 30 years.

Finance capital now dominates not just industrial capital but the machinery of governance, rendering real reform impossible. Instead, the Status Quo delivers up simulacrum "reform" which change nothing but the packaging of the Central State/Cartel Capitalism's exploitation and predation.

Add all this up and you have to conclude the final crisis of finance-based advanced Capitalism is finally at hand. All the "fixes" that extended its run over the past 70 years have run their course. Life will go on, of course, after the Status Quo devolves, and in my view, ridding the globe of financial predation and parasitism will be a positive step forward.

September 1, 2011

Power Shortage in Pakistan

The valuable website Energy Shortage gathers daily stories on the chronic shortages of electrical power and other fuels in the world, mostly among the emerging economies. Such shortfalls are a big issue in a lot of places. This piece from the Los Angeles Times highlights the critical situation in Pakistan: 

One of Pakistan's biggest scourges has nothing to do with suicide bombers or militants wielding Kalashnikov assault rifles. Because the country cannot produce the electricity needed to support a population of 177 million, the government intentionally shuts down power in staggered intervals, often for hours at a time.

The rolling blackouts are most frequent during the summer, when the whir of air conditioners in 100-plus-degree heat boosts demand for power. Apart from districts with top government and military offices, virtually every neighborhood and village suffers.

The stopgap policy prevents the country's moribund economy from getting off the ground. And as long as the economy sputters, millions of Pakistanis remain mired in poverty and joblessness, leaving the country's disaffected youth vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist militant groups.

President Asif Ali Zardari's government has given Pakistanis little reason to hope for a solution anytime soon. This summer, government officials said that it would take at least seven years to build up the electricity generation capacity needed to eliminate the blackouts.

Various factors explain Pakistan's power woes. During Gen. Pervez Musharraf's rule from 1999 to 2008, strong economic growth fueled an upsurge in consumer spending that had Pakistanis flocking to stores to buy air conditioners, refrigerators and other appliances. But Musharraf failed to pump money into boosting generation capacity to keep up with demand and the country's booming population.

Zardari inherited the massive gap between supply and demand, but his cash-strapped administration hasn't moved fast enough on hydroelectric dam projects and has yet to shore up the country's aging distribution network.

Other factors make the situation even worse. About 15% of the electricity generated is lost to theft, says Ejaz Qureshi, a spokesman for the state-owned Pakistan Electric Power Co. In addition, the government often fails to pay its bills to private power producers, which means those companies can't buy sufficient fuel for their plants. At times, they cut off electricity to the offices of government agencies that owe them money.

The havoc wrought by the shortfall is particularly acute in the country's textile industry, a pillar of Pakistan's fragile economy.

Faisalabad, Pakistan's third-largest city and home to its textile sector, has seen 200 of its 4,000 textile plants close in the last three years because of the blackouts, says Wahid Raamay, chairman of the city's Council of Loom Owners and a plant owner.

During that period, 100,000 workers have been laid off, about 10% of the city's textile work force, Raamay says.

Plant owners forced out of business face a grim future. In a country where many people distrust banks, many plant owners sell their personal property — gold, jewelry, cars — to buy the machinery needed to start the business. If their plants close, they may find themselves at rock bottom. . . .

This summer, public anger over ceaseless power outages boiled over. In Mianwali, in Punjab province, throngs of demonstrators calling for a stop to the outages clashed with baton-wielding police in early July. Two people were killed and 22 were injured. In Karachi, four people were killed during protests and work stoppages in early June that brought sections of Pakistan's largest city to a standstill. . . .

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Alex Rodriguez, "Pakistan power shortages keep growth prospects dim," Los Angeles Times, August 31, 2011.