April 28, 2012

Traditionalists v. Modernists in Green-Land

From Keith Kloor:

There is a battle underway for the soul of environmentalism. It is a battle between traditionalists and modernists. Who prevails is likely to be determined by whose vision for the future is chosen by a new generation of environmentalists.

The green traditionalist has never had a sunny outlook. Forty years ago, he warned about a plundered planet. Twenty years ago, he warned of a sixth extinction. In recent years, he has warned about a baked planet. Now he is warning of a planet under severe ecological pressure. Make no mistake: These are all warnings that deserve to be taken seriously. The green traditionalist, since he first became a career pessimist, has followed the lead of scientists.  Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come true.

The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action. Today, the green traditionalist is like a parent who incessantly yells at his child to behave–or else. The parent grows angrier and increasingly frustrated when the child inevitably tunes him out.

If there is a path to a more realistic, hopeful future, the green traditionalist has not advanced it. Getting back to the land was great hippy fun in the 1960s and 1970s. Inveighing against modern civilization and retreating into an artificial wilderness congealed in the 1980s and 1990s.  Since then, green chic has been riddled with contradictions and ascetic deprivation has still been found wanting. . . .

Enter  the post-environmental, green modernist. Pro-technology, pro-city, pro-growth, the green modernist has emerged in recent years to advance an alternative vision for the future. His mission is to remake environmentalism: Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace. It is about welcoming that world, not dreading it. It is about creating a future that environmentalists will help shape for the better. As the geographer Erle Ellis recently wrote:

Creating that future will mean going beyond fears of transgressing limits and nostalgic hopes of returning to some pastoral or pristine era.  Most of all, we must not see the Anthropocene as a crisis, but as the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human directed opportunity.

The green modernist recognizes that technology, as it has done all through human history, is a means to improve the human condition and reduce the worrisome ecological pressure on the planet. At the very least, as Mark Lynas writes in his new book:

We cannot afford to foreclose powerful technological options like nuclear, synthetic biology, and GE [genetic engineering] because of Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia.

The green modernist recognizes that conservation philosophy in the Anthropocene will have to change. But first it must stop worshiping at the wilderness cathedral and offer a world where nature and society can coexist harmoniously and productively. It must, as the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist Peter Kareiva (and co-authors) write in this essay, promise

a new vision of a planet in which nature — forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient ecosystems — exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes. For this to happen, conservationists will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness — ideas that have never been supported by good conservation science — and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision.

This means recognizing that cities, long the bane of green traditionalists, are places where humanity and nature can thrive together. The evidence for this is, in fact, piling up. Of course, this is not to suggest that protected ecological reserves are unnecessary.  As I said here, the existence of urban nature does not obviate the need for big tracts of unbroken habitat for animals to roam. “But,” I wrote, “the idea that ecosystems and wildlife can still flourish in big cities challenges some of our cherished notions of nature.” . . .

In a recent essay, the Breakthrough Institute’s Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argued that environmentalists should learn from the history of human progress. But they also acknowledge

the reality and risks of the ecological crises humans have created. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, and other human activities — if they don’t threaten our very existence — certainly offer the possibility of misery for many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of humans and are rapidly transforming nonhuman nature at a pace not seen for many hundreds of millions of years.

But the answer, they assert, is not to turn away from what we do best:

The solution to the unintended consequences of modernity is, and has always been, more modernity — just as the solution to the unintended consequences of our technologies has always been more technology. The Y2K computer bug was fixed by better computer programming, not by going back to typewriters. The ozone-hole crisis was averted not by an end to air conditioning but rather by more advanced, less environmentally harmful technologies.

Keith Kloor, “The Green Modernist Vision,” Collide-a-Scape, April 17, 2012.

* * *

Kloor’s post drew a sharp riposte from Joe Romm of Climate Progress, though Romm focuses most of his attention on the misguided ways of the New York Times, whose Andy Revkin posted the original link to the piece.  As Romm points out, “If you look at the major environmental groups — the ones with the power and money that this analysis purports to be about — they all work closely with industrial corporations, generally take lots of industry money, and they aggressively supported a climate bill that was absurdly pro-technology and pro-industry, that was business friendly and market oriented.”

Romm denies that the environmental movement is “pushing non-stop apocalyptic messages like a broken record” and in particular says that the recent report of the UK’s Royal Society (which Kloor compared to the 1972 “Limits to Growth” study by the Club of Rome) “is pretty darn mild given the dire nature of our situation” and “about as alarmist as a clock radio set to Muzak.”  However, in insisting that there is no apocalyptic vision in the Royal Society report, Romm neglects the following passage from its conclusion: “Over the next 30 – 40 years the confluence of the challenges described in this report provides the opportunity to move towards a sustainable economy and a better world for the majority of humanity, or alternatively the risk of social, economic and environmental failures and catastrophes on a scale never imagined.” That certainly looks like The Apocalypse to me.

Oddly, Kloor concedes that these apocalyptic warnings deserve to be taken seriously and that “Just because the eco-collapse narrative remains the same doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually come true.”  There is a curious tension in his piece between the idea that the kids (i.e., the public) are tuning out the message because they don’t want to hear it, even though it is true, and the notion that environmentalists are preternaturally hostile to technology and growth due to “Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia.”


Grand Renaissance for Ethiopia, Doom for Egypt

Conflict over water supplies between “upstream” and “downstream” states is emerging as a vital incubator of international conflict. Though control over water has long played an important role in domestic and international politics, increasing population pressures have made for growing conflicts over this vital resource, indispensable to agriculture, energy, and industry.

Turkey’s diversion of water from the tributaries of the Tigris and the Euphrates, at the expense of Syrians and Iraqis; Israel’s diversion of water to its West Bank settlers, and away from the Arab population; China’s increasing mobilization of the waters of the Tibetan plateau, to the detriment of downstream nations such as Vietnam and India—all these reflect intractable conflicts that seem likely to grow in importance in future years.  

Ethiopian’s announcement that it intended to build the “Grand Renaissance” dam on the waters of the Blue Nile is another illustration of these polarizing conflicts. The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, among other upstream states, is highlighted in a series of reports by Erin Cunningham of Reuters. It is difficult to see the dispute as anything other than a “zero sum” game, with one side losing what the other side gains; certainly that is how the parties themselves seem to see it. Also notable is how larger geopolitical changes are affecting this issue—Cunningham points especially to China’s willingness to finance Ethiopia’s new dam, shocking to Egypt, and Egypt’s loosening of ties with the United States and the international financial institutions. These external supports previously buttressed Egypt’s historic claims to the Nile.

Until now, Ethiopia has lacked both the technical capacity and the diplomatic support to trap its Blue Nile waters — which give Egypt’s Nile 86 percent of its own flow — for domestic use. A 1959 colonial-era treaty brokered by Great Britain gave Egypt, and to a lesser extent Sudan, unrivaled “historic rights” over nearly all of the Nile River’s resources.

But now all that could be changing as upstream states like Ethiopia and Burundi seize on Egypt’s post-revolution political uncertainty to finally wrest at least some control of the world’s longest river.

Just 16 days after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, Burundi reneged on its erstwhile promise to Egypt not to sign a new treaty that seeks to adjust water rights in the basin. If ratified by other basin states, the agreement would strip Egypt of its majority share of the river’s water.

The most serious threat, however, comes from Ethiopia, already Egypt’s regional rival. In May 2011, Ethiopia announced plans to build a massive, $4.8 billion hydropower dam — known as the Grand Renaissance Dam — along the stretch of river within its own borders, despite Egypt’s opposition to the project. “Most of us here are eager to use the Nile. But every farmer expects Egypt to be the enemy,” said Manichey Abey, a 33-year-old Ethiopian farmer.

While hydropower dams — used to generate electricity — in theory eventually allow the dammed water to flow through, Egyptian officials remain wary of Ethiopia’s intentions. They demanded in October of last year the creation of a tripartite committee, now at work, to study the new dam’s effects and are worried the project could set an unwelcome precedent for more ambitious schemes in the future.

At 6,000 megawatts, the dam would be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, with a reservoir capable of holding roughly 65 billion cubic meters of water. “It will be a renaissance for the Ethiopian system,” Abey said. “The Nile is the main source of Egypt’s economy, and if the amount of water they use is reduced, it will be a big problem. But we have the right to use it.”

Such ambitions by upstream states are contributing to the gradual loosening of Egypt’s 5,000-year grip on its nearly sole source of freshwater, threatening not only the desert nation’s ability to grow enough food for its expanding population, but also its political stability and regional hegemony.

Egypt’s uprising ushered in a period of political and monetary volatility, stalling the economy, shaking up relations with the US and kicking off a year of sporadic protests and clashes between protesters and Egyptian security forces.

All of this has diminished the Egyptian government’s traditional ability to stonewall both financing and diplomatic support for independent Nile Basin projects. “Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile. We depend on the Nile more than any other country,” said Hani Raslan, an expert on water politics at the government-affiliated Al-Ahram Center for Political Strategic Studies in Cairo. “But right now, the [Egyptian] government is only a transitional government,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the long-term plan for the Nile, and is only paying attention to our internal affairs.”

The importance of the Nile to Egypt is hard to exaggerate. Like a slender, green thread, the waterway fastens Upper Egypt in the south to Lower Egypt in the north, and has nurtured agricultural civilizations in its verdant Delta for millennia.

As a result, and also because of significant US financial and military patronage over the years, Egypt has long been able to dominate the terms of Nile basin negotiations, thwarting independent water projects by other countries and manipulating international customary water law to maintain the status quo, water experts said.

“Egypt did have, until fairly recently, some kind of ideological hegemony [in the Nile Basin],” said Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo, a research facility aimed at serving Egypt’s desert communities. “They were able to frame the entire issue of Nile waters in their own context, both within the basin, but more importantly outside the basin and in international forums and so forth,” he said.

For years, Egypt also skillfully influenced international financial institutions such as the African Development Bank and World Bank to sustain its outsized water quota, says Christine Anderson, former associate professor of international water law at the American University in Cairo. “The UN moved on to an international water law treaty standard incorporating equitable distribution [of water resources],” Anderson said. “But the IMF and World Bank … upheld their regional alliance structures in Egypt’s favor … thus preventing any forward movement for the rest of the Nile states.”

Since Egypt’s revolution, however, its new rulers have made decisions that run afoul of the organizations that once helped it maintain its control over the Nile. Last spring, for instance, Egypt’s headstrong military rulers scoffed at the International Monetary Fund’s offer of a $3.2 billion loan package — only to later backtrack and ask again for the funds. They also brazenly put American democracy activists and their Egyptian colleagues on trial for attempting to subvert the state, souring relations with the US, the IMF’s largest stakeholder.

Analysts say Western donors are wary, and that the Egyptian government’s erratic behavior may temper support for its Nile dominance in the future.

In addition, Anderson said, China’s willingness to finance a number of Ethiopia’s dams, including the new Grand Renaissance Dam, has startled Egyptian officials, and indicates a potential new regional order in which US largesse may no longer secure Egypt’s place as the Nile Basin’s most powerful state.

Egyptian officials, for their part, remain defiant.

“Egypt has been asking these countries to come together so we can reach an agreement on the Nile,” said Al Ahram’s Raslan, adding that because Egypt receives negligible rainfall, its water quota should remain the same under any new agreement. “But no one is responding to Egypt’s call. These countries, especially Ethiopia, are making a grave mistake,” he said. “Because Egypt is not a weak country. If it was ever in real peril, it won’t be silent.”

Erin Cunningham, “Egypt is Losing its Grip on the Nile,” Global Post, April 9, 2012. See also by Cunningham, “Could Egypt Run Out of Water by 2025?” Global Post, April 9, 2012.

* * *

A more hopeful analysis of the situation comes in this January 10, 2011 report from the Stimson Center, written just before the outbreak of the Egyptian Revolution (and before the May 2011 announcement that Ethiopia intended to build the Grand Renaissance Dam). It gives a good depiction of the legal regime surrounding the Nile and provides an interesting perspective on Egypt's water diplomacy before the fall of the Mubarak regime. Somewhat incongruously in light of Cunningham's report, however, it emphasizes the "cooperative dynamic between basin states" and argues that, "belligerent as the rhetoric can get, these states understand that water is a means for greater cooperation."
The famous Egyptian Nile only comprises the last stretch of an enormous, complex river system. 86% of the Nile's flows come from the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat rivers (these rivers primarily originate in Ethiopia, but also cover parts of Eritrea and Sudan), while the other 14% of the Nile's flows come from the White Nile, a sub-basin that includes Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. These rivers merge north of Khartoum to form the proper Nile River.

These ten countries rely significantly on Nile waters: 22 million people depend on fish protein from the source of the White Nile, Lake Victoria; half of the Nile's journey through the basin takes place in countries with no effective rainfall, making them overwhelmingly reliant on these rivers for every aspect of daily life; and Nile waters drive hydroelectricity for some of the poorest countries in the world.

Despite such wide-ranging dependence on Nile waters, only Egypt and Sudan are legally entitled to dam the rivers. This disparity stems from a series of agreements brokered by the British between 1929 and 1959: Egypt was allotted the annual use of 55.5 billion m3 of Nile waters while Sudan was given 18.5 billion m3. But these treaties have strained relations in the greater basin for over 50 years, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia (Ethiopia, a severely underdeveloped country, has enormous potential for generating hydropower). In 1994, when Ethiopia announced plans to build dams on the Blue Nile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak threatened to bomb Ethiopian dam infrastructure and in 1990 Egypt successfully blocked an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for dam construction on the Nile.

In response to increasing complaints of inequity, the World Bank in 1999 sponsored the creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), an effort to foster economic cooperation and establish a permanent governing body for the river. But discord over the Nile treaties has continued, and arguments peaked this past summer when the parties of the NBI met to discuss a draft version of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), a document intended to establish laws and infrastructure to govern the Nile. Negotiators could not agree on terminology that would both satisfy the Egyptians and Sudanese and placate the other states which seek greater use of the Nile. Sudanese and Egyptian spokesmen claimed their historical rights were being threatened and only five states ultimately signed the CFA.

NBI negotiations currently treat the basin as a single integrated whole, allowing Egypt to frame the dispute in zero-sum terms. But the NBI's need for basin-wide consensus and its failure to attain that consensus has given individual states free reign to undertake harmful unilateral projects. For example, due to a lack of coordination and monitoring in the basin, Uganda was allowed to mismanage Lake Victoria to the point where lake levels dropped dramatically and harmed fisheries vital to the livelihoods of millions of people.

So what is the best way forward? The NBI is set to expire in 2012, and basin states will reconvene later this year to re-try a settlement. But it seems unlikely that a deal that will be acceptable to all states will have much substance to it. Egypt is already scrambling to accommodate its ballooning population and resulting water scarcity. Northern Sudan is becoming a strong agricultural producer and hopes Nile water will help the country develop further. Meanwhile, the remaining basin states are some of the least-developed in the world and hope that using hydropower (and selling excess power that their grids can't handle) as well as reservoirs for irrigation will provide much-needed revenue.

Rather than treating the basin as a single, integrated system (which invites too much political deadlock), Nile states and donors should emphasize more smaller-scale, sub-basin approaches to river management. This way, states can improve information-sharing and allow scientific and technical issues to take precedent over political distractions.

Indeed, the NBI already separates basin states into two sub-basin programs-the Eastern and Nile Equatorial Lakes programs-and this approach can help to promote better technical coordination between states. In addition, sub-regional programs should be strengthened so that basin states and donors can more effectively monitor and prevent environmental catastrophes. The egregious mismanagement of Lake Victoria is less likely to happen again if Uganda believes it is accountable to (and can be punished by) neighbors in its sub-region-Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, and Rwanda-that would be the worst-affected by such mismanagement.

The NBI needs to effect these changes if it hopes to remain relevant. Egypt, knowing that it wouldn't be punished, worked hard in 2010 to circumvent the NBI altogether: it made bilateral agreements with individual states, including with Uganda and southern Sudan (which, should it secede, will have control over White Nile flows). Egyptian officials have also emphasized that their investments in Ethiopia surpassed $1 billion for 2010. Ethiopia in fact recently opened a $520 million hydroelectric plant that uses Lake Tana as a reservoir (and thus is not disrupting Abay/Blue Nile flows) and Ethiopia is reportedly in talks with Egypt and Sudan about building more dams.

These non-NBI agreements are both dispiriting and heartening. Dispiriting because Egypt has not only stymied progress on intra-basin cooperation, but is also content to ignore the spirit of the NBI by pushing for a strictly bilateral approach to the basin. But these developments are heartening, too, since they reveal a cooperative dynamic between basin states. Armed conflict has not arisen over the Nile in the modern era, and belligerent as the rhetoric can get, these states understand that water is a means for greater cooperation.

As basin representatives and NBI donors come together in 2011 to try and make real progress on Nile management, they will need to take a hard look at the current structure of the NBI. Improving information sharing and other forms of scientific and technical cooperation are crucial to the sustainability of the river, as is creating viable accountability mechanisms that favor long-term sustainability over short-term benefits. The disagreements of ten heads of state cannot compromise a resource that is crucial to 160 million people, and it is imperative that no more time is lost in finding better ways to protect the Nile.
Corey Sobel, "Negotiating the Nile: The NBI Impasse and Possible Ways Forward," Stimson Center, January 10, 2011


Hydrological Cycle Accelerates

 From the New York Times:

New research suggests that global warming is causing the cycle of evaporation and rainfall over the oceans to intensify more than scientists had expected, an ominous finding that may indicate a higher potential for extreme weather in coming decades.

By measuring changes in salinity on the ocean’s surface, the researchers inferred that the water cycle had accelerated by about 4 percent over the last half century. . . . If the estimate holds up, it implies that the water cycle could quicken by as much as 20 percent later in this century as the planet warms, potentially leading to more droughts and floods.

“This provides another piece of independent evidence that we need to start taking the problem of global warming seriously,” said Paul J. Durack, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the lead author of a paper being published Friday in the journal Science.

The researchers’ analysis found that over the half century that began in 1950, salty areas of the ocean became saltier, while fresh areas became fresher. That change was attributed to stronger patterns of evaporation and precipitation over the ocean.

The new paper is not the first to find an intensification of the water cycle, nor even the first to calculate that it might be fairly large. But the paper appears to marshal more scientific evidence than any paper to date in support of a high estimate. . . .

The paper is the latest installment in a long-running effort by scientists to solve one of the most vexing puzzles about global warming. While basic physics suggests that warming must accelerate the cycle of evaporation and rainfall, it has been difficult to get a handle on how much acceleration has already occurred, and thus to project the changes that are likely to result from continued planetary warming.

The fundamental problem is that measurements of evaporation and precipitation over the ocean — which covers 71 percent of the earth’s surface, holds 97 percent of its water and is where most evaporation and precipitation occurs — are spotty at best. To overcome that, scientists are trying to use the changing saltiness of the ocean’s surface as a kind of rain gauge. That works because, as rain falls on a patch of the ocean, it freshens the surface water. Conversely, in a region where evaporation exceeds rainfall, the surface becomes saltier.

The variations in salinity are large enough that they can be detected from space, and NASA recently sent up a new satellite, Aquarius, for that purpose. But it will take years to obtain results, and scientists like Dr. Durack are trying to get a jump on the problem by using older observations, including salinity measurements taken by ships as well as recent measurements from an army of robotic floats launched in an international program called Argo. . . .

Kevin E. Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said that Dr. Durack had produced intriguing evidence that global warming was already creating changes in the water cycle at a regional scale. But Dr. Trenberth added that he doubted that the global intensification could be as large as Dr. Durack’s group had found. “I think he might have gone a bit too far,” he said.

Assuming that the paper withstands scrutiny, it suggests that a global warming of about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past half century has been enough to intensify the water cycle by about 4 percent. That led Dr. Durack to project a possible intensification of about 20 percent as the planet warms by several degrees in the coming century.

That would be approximately twice the amplification shown by the computer programs used to project the climate, according to Dr. Durack’s calculations. Those programs are often criticized by climate-change skeptics who contend that they overestimate future changes, but Dr. Durack’s paper is the latest of several indications that the estimates may actually be conservative.

The new paper confirms a long-expected pattern for the ocean that also seems to apply over land: areas with a lot of rainfall in today’s climate are expected to become wetter, whereas dry areas are expected to become drier.

In the climate of the future, scientists fear, a large acceleration of the water cycle could feed greater weather extremes. Perhaps the greatest risk from global warming, they say, is that important agricultural areas could dry out, hurting the food supply, as other regions get more torrential rains and floods.

Justin Gillis, “Study Indicates a Greater Threat of Extreme Weather,” New York Times, April 26, 2012

April 23, 2012

Production Costs of Unconventional Oil

The cost of developing new types of unconventional oil, and the corresponding new floor for oil prices, is explored in this extract from Chris Nelder of SmartPlanet:
The new floor for oil prices is being set increasingly by the production cost of . . . unconventional liquids. A few decades ago, we could produce conventional oil profitably in the U.S. for under $15 a barrel. But those days are long gone for the U.S., and for most of the world (except a few old fields in places like Saudi Arabia). As every major oil company has admitted in the past few years, the age of easy and cheap oil has ended.
As the cheap oil from old mature fields is depleted, and we replace it with expensive new oil from unconventional sources, it forces the overall price of oil up. This is because oil prices are set at the margin, as are the prices of most commodities. The most expensive new barrel essentially sets the price for the lot.
Research by veteran petroleum economist Chris Skrebowski, along with analysts Steven Kopits and Robert Hirsch, details the new costs: $40 - $80 a barrel for a new barrel of production capacity in some OPEC countries; $70 - $90 a barrel for the Canadian tar sands and heavy oil from Venezuela’s Orinoco belt; and $70 - $80 a barrel for deepwater oil. Various sources suggest that a price of at least $80 is needed to sustain U.S. tight oil production.
Those are just the production costs, however. In order to pacify its population during the Arab Spring and pay for significant new infrastructure projects, Saudi Arabia has made enormous financial commitments in the past several years. The kingdom really needs $90 - $100 a barrel now to balance its budget. Other major exporters like Venezuela and Russia have similar budget-driven incentives to keep prices high.
Globally, Skrebowki estimates that it costs $80 - $110 to bring a new barrel of production capacity online. Research from IEA and others shows that the more marginal liquids like Arctic oil, gas-to-liquids, coal-to-liquids, and biofuels are toward the top end of that range.
[Nelder's] research suggests that $85 is really the comfortable global minimum. That’s the price now needed to break even in the Canadian tar sands, and it also seems to be roughly the level at which banks and major exploration companies are willing to commit the billions of dollars it takes to develop new projects.

Chris Nelder, "The Cost of New Oil Supply," SmartPlanet, April 18, 2002


See further Kate Mackenzie, "Marginal Oil Production Costs are Heading toward $100/barrel, Financial Times, May 2, 2012, quoting a report from Bernstein's energy analysts. 
Tracking data from the 50 largest listed oil and gas producing companies globally (ex FSU) indicates that cash, production and unit costs in 2011 grew at a rate significantly faster than the 10 year average. Last year production costs increased 26% y-o-y, while the unit cost of production increased by 21% y-o-y to US$35.88/bbl. This is significantly higher than the longer term cost growth rates, highlighting continued cost pressures faced by the E&P industry as the incremental barrel continues to become more expensive to produce. The marginal cost of the 50 largest oil and gas producers globally increased to US$92/bbl in 2011, an increase of 11% y-o-y and in-line with historical average CAGR growth [Compound Annual Growth Rate]. Assuming another double digit increase this year, marginal costs for the 50 largest oil and gas producers could reach close to US$100/bbl. While we see near term downside to oil prices on weaker demand growth, the longer term outlook for higher oil prices continues to be supported by the rising costs of production.

April 22, 2012

Dust-Bowlification = Food Insecurity

The above map comes from a 2010 study by Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “Drought Under Global Warming: A Review.” It shows projected changes fifty years from now in the PDSI (Palmer Drought Severity Index). The study notes that “a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.” Let us draw particular attention to extreme levels predicted for the area surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, roughly corresponding to the contours of the old Roman Empire. Decline and fall, indeed.

During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, according to Joe Romm, the PDSI reached -6 but rarely exceeded -3 for the decade. The projections on the map are far worse. Romm, the chief blogger at Climate Progress, argues that the food insecurity arising from extended drought is the consequence of anthropogenic global warming most likely to harm the largest number of people in coming decades--the greatest bad, as it were, for the greatest number. The following extract, which lays out the logic of this forecast, is from a comment by Romm that first appeared in Nature in 2011:
A basic prediction of climate science is that many parts of the world will experience longer and deeper droughts, thanks to the synergistic effects of drying, warming and the melting of snow and ice.
Precipitation patterns are expected to shift, expanding the dry subtropics. What precipitation there is will probably come in extreme deluges, resulting in runoff rather than drought alleviation. Warming causes greater evaporation and, once the ground is dry, the Sun’s energy goes into baking the soil, leading to a further increase in air temperature. That is why, for instance, so many temperature records were set for the United States in the 1930s Dust Bowl; and why, in 2011, drought-stricken Texas saw the hottest summer ever recorded for a US state. Finally, many regions are expected to see earlier snowmelt, so less water will be stored on mountain tops for the summer dry season. Added to natural climatic variation, such as the El Niño–La Niña cycle, these factors will intensify seasonal or decade-long droughts. Although the models don’t all agree on the specifics, the overall drying trends are clear.
I used to call the confluence of these processes ‘desertification’ on my blog, ClimateProgress.org, until some readers pointed out that many deserts are high in biodiversity, which isn’t where we’re heading. ‘Dust- bowlification’ is perhaps a more accurate and vivid term, particularly for Americans — many of whom still believe that climate change will only affect far-away places in far-distant times.
Prolonged drought will strike around the globe, but it is surprising to many that it would hit the US heartland so strongly and so soon.
The coming droughts ought to be a major driver — if not the major driver — of climate policies. Yet few policy-makers and journalists seem to be aware of dust-bowlification and its potentially devastating impact on food security. That’s partly understandable, because much of the key research cited in this article post-dates the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Raising public awareness of, and scientific focus on, the likelihood of severe effects of drought is the first step in prompting action.
I first heard of the risks in a 2005 talk by climatologist Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona in Tucson. He pointed to emerging evidence that temperature and annual precipitation were heading in opposite directions over many regions and raised the question of whether we are at the “dawn of the super-interglacial drought.” The idea wasn’t new. As far back as 1990, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York projected that severe to extreme drought in the United States, then occurring every 20 years or so, could become an every-other-year phenomenon by mid-century.
Events are starting to bear out these worrying predictions. Snowpack reduction, early snowmelt and a decrease in dry-season river flow in the American West, forecast more than two decades ago, have now been measured. In much of the northern Rockies, the peak of the annual stream runoff is up to three or four weeks earlier than it was half a century ago.  Heat and drought — coupled with the greater impact of destructive species, such as bark beetles, aided by warming — have increased forest die-off and the risk of wildfire.
The palaeoclimate record dating back to the medieval period reveals droughts lasting many decades. But the extreme droughts that the United States faces this century will be far hotter than the worst of those: recent decades have been warmer than the driest decade of the worst drought in the past 1,200 years.
And much warmer conditions are projected. According to a 2009 report of the US Global Change Research Program, warming over mid-latitude land masses, such as the continental United States, is predicted to be higher than the forecast average global warming: much of the inland United States faces a rise of between 5 °C and 6 °C on the current emissions path (that is, ‘business as usual’) by the century’s end, with a substantial fraction of that warming occurring by mid-century.
A 2007 analysis of 19 climate projections estimated that levels of aridity comparable to those in the Dust Bowl could stretch from Kansas to California by mid-century. To make matters worse, the regions at risk of reduced water supply, such as Nevada, have seen a massive population boom in the past decade. Overuse of water in these areas has long been rife, depleting groundwater stores.
Of course, the United States is not alone in facing such problems. Since 1950, the global percentage of dry areas has increased by about 1.74% of global land area per decade. Recent studies have projected ‘extreme drought’ conditions by mid-century over some of the most populated areas on Earth—southern Europe, south-east Asia, Brazil, the US Southwest, and large parts of Australia and Africa. These dust-bowl conditions are projected to worsen for many decades and be “largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stopped”….
In the past six years, the Amazon has seen two droughts of the sort expected once in 100 years, each of which may have released as much carbon dioxide from vegetation die-off as the United States emits from fossil-fuel combustion in a year. More frequent wildfires also threaten to increase carbon emissions. . . .
[W]hat will happen to global food security if dust-bowl conditions become the norm for both food-importing and food- exporting countries? Extreme, widespread droughts will be happening at the same time as sea level rise and salt-water intrusion threaten some of the richest agricultural deltas in the world, such as those of the Nile and the Ganges. Meanwhile, ocean acidification, warming and overfishing may severely deplete the food available from the sea….
Human adaptation to prolonged, extreme drought is difficult or impossible. Historically, the primary adaptation to dust-bowlification has been abandonment; the very word ‘desert’ comes from the Latin desertum for ‘an abandoned place’. During the relatively short-lived US Dust-Bowl era, hundreds of thousands of families fled the region. We need to plan how the world will deal with drought-spurred migrations and steadily growing areas of non- arable land in the heart of densely populated countries and global bread-baskets. Feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced.
These predictions are not worst-case scenarios: they assume business-as-usual greenhouse-gas emissions. We can hope that the models are too pessimistic, but some changes, such as the expansion of the subtropics, already seem to be occurring faster than models have projected. We clearly need to pursue the most aggressive greenhouse -gas mitigation policies promptly, and put dust-bowlification atop the world agenda.

April 19, 2012

Ecological Consequences of Dams on Amazon Tributaries

 From National Geographic:
Proposals to build more than 150 hydroelectric dams on Andean tributaries of the Amazon River could have catastrophic ecological impacts, causing the first major breaks between the tributaries and the Amazon and leading to widespread forest loss, according to a study published today in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

The study by researchers at the environmental advocacy group Save America’s Forests, the Center for International Environmental Law, and North Carolina State University found that 47 percent of dams planned for Amazon tributaries in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru would have a high environmental impact, suggesting the need for additional evaluation and increased regional planning.
Examples of high-impact dams, according to the study, include the AndaquĆ­ dam in Colombia, which would cause the first major break in connectivity for the Caqueta River and would flood a national park; and the Coca Codo Sinclair in Ecuador, which would disrupt downstream sediment flow for a major tributary of the Napo River and would require extensive construction in primary forest for roads and transmission lines.

“If there is continued business as usual, 20 years from now we could be looking at a catastrophic scenario where he have cut off the Andes from the Amazon,” said lead author Matt Finer, a staff ecologist at Save America’s Forests, who received a National Geographic Society grant to gather data on proposed dams and other environmental threats to the region. “The current lack of strategic planning has become an important issue.”

Proposals for hydropower dams are rapidly increasing in the region in response to intense and rising local demand for energy and the abundant untapped potential that fast-moving open tributaries present. Peru, for example, faces a projected 7 percent annual increase in domestic energy demand. In 2010, Peru signed a deal to provide additional energy to Brazil. The three other countries also face dire energy needs.

Regional governments have made dams the centerpiece of long-term plans to meet this demand. If built, the 151 planned dams the researchers studied would be a 300 percent increase over the number of existing dams in the region. Over half would be large dams over 100 megawatts, and 40 percent are already in the advanced planning stages.

Hydropower is often sold as a cleaner alternative to thermoelectric power, but Finer said dams would have their own ecological consequences in one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.
Rain and melted snow flows from the Andes Mountains foothills to the Amazon through six major tributaries—the Caqueta, Madeira, Napo, MaraƱon, Putumay, and Ucayali Rivers. The rivers wash into the Amazon, providing the vast majority of sediment, nutrients and organic matter important for the survival of birds, fish and other organisms. Many Amazonian fish species spawn in the tributaries, including a number that migrate all the way to the foothills of the Andes.

Any break in water flow would alter this dynamic. The study, however, found that 60 percent of dams planned across the six major tributaries would cause breaks in connectivity. More than 80 percent would lead to deforestation from flooding, road building, and power transmission lines, a consequence Finer said often escapes consideration by planners. “There is this whole other world of impact that few people are talking about because they are focused on the impacts to the river,” he said.

Beyond the environmental concerns, the study says the high impact dams would directly affect indigenous communities. People living upstream from new dams could be displaced by flooding, while those living downstream may suffer from disruption of the river’s flow. . . .
Joseph  Eaton, "Study Predicts Grim Ecological Effects for Proposed Amazon Dams," National Geographic, April 18, 2012

April 14, 2012

The Fracking Revolution

Randy Udall has a brilliant piece on the latest energy revolution, "What Hath Fracking Wrought," in Energy Bulletin:

New technologies are riderless horses. They have a mind of their own and go where they want.

Someone invents the personal computer and forty years later you spend hours each day surfing the Internet. Travel agents die like flies, software engineers are born. Some people become gamers, others invent avatars. Outside Las Vegas, soldiers sit in darkened rooms piloting drones with joysticks, raining hellfire down on Taliban fighters a world away.

Disruptive technologies don’t care what you think or who you are. They’ll sweep you up and drag you along, your foot trapped in the stirrup, your head banging the ground. Or, like a ghostly sniper, they’ll infiltrate the edges of your life, then take over the whole darn thing.

That’s where we are with hydraulic fracking, horizontal drilling, downhole telemetry, 3D seismic, and the host of related technologies that have unlocked shale gas and “tight” oil plays like North Dakota’s Bakken field, where more rigs are at work than in Saudi Arabia.

Recent history teaches that geology rocks and science rules. The sexy rocks in petroleum geology have always been porous sandstones and limestones—easy formations willing to surrender the goods. In contrast, black shales, the original wellspring of all petroleum wealth, have been overlooked, even though geologists knew them to be everywhere. Yes, you could drill them, and a few did, but generally you were pouring sand down a rat hole.

That world has been overthrown. If Prudhoe Bay’s startup in 1977 was the energy equivalent of a sugar high, sending two million barrels per day gushing south, the “shale gale” has been a hit on a crack pipe. Since 2000 the equivalent of four million barrels per day of new natural gas has hit the market. Two Prudhoes, and no one saw it coming!

Like all revolutions, this one has had unanticipated consequences. It’s crashed the price of natural gas, saving your family $200 this year alone. It’s idled 10,000 uneconomic coalbed methane wells in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. It’s triggered a leasing frenzy across Colorado’s Front Range, where the Niobrara play is the hot new ticket.

The blowback is everywhere. Cheap natural gas has enabled utilities to close dozens of sclerotic, polluting coal plants. In response, coal companies propose to export surplus coal to Asia, enabling the Chinese energy appetite to nibble on Wyoming and Montana. Fracking has put a dagger in the nuclear renaissance, and created headwinds for renewables. Fracking, in consort with weak regulations and gutless politicians, is the reason that Pinedale, Wyoming and Vernal, Utah now have worse wintertime smog than L.A., New York, or Houston. . . .

But there’s a key difference between the IT revolution, and these disruptive inventions in oil and gas. The former took over your brain, colonized your internal geography, left you with an iLife. The latter threatens your water, air, the land and wildlife you love, perhaps even your democracy.

Amid the hullabaloo, the larger story has gone missing. With little discussion and less thought, with barely a peep of civic protest, modern technology had married ancient geology. What a fateful union! For this power-struck duo has enshrined oil and gas extraction, harpooning the Earth, as the dominant land use on our continent.

Since year 2000, oil and gas companies have leased a staggering amount of land in the Rockies, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio. Add it all up, and the industry now holds drilling rights to at least ten percent of the Lower 48, more land than is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, more land than we will plant in corn, wheat, and soybeans, about ten times as much acreage as we’ve paved, given over to oil and gas for at least 50 years to come. In Colorado, for example, Encana, Exxon, and a company called Williams own a Yellowstone Park-sized chunk of land in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.

Nearly 50,000 oil and gas wells will be started in the U.S. this year, more than in all other nations combined. Roughly ninety percent of them wouldn’t be spudded unless their target zones could be fracked. Like it or not, and many of my friends seem not to, this technology has become one of the underpinnings of our civilization, as central to it as the cell phone or computer.

Tighter regulations of fracking and indeed the entire petroleum industry are both imminent and long overdue, but this particular horse is long gone from the barn, and rapidly galloping worldwide.

April 12, 2012

Nature's Big Idea

From an essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg, a member of the New York Times editorial board, on the folly of big agriculture:

Humans have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the big idea behind nature is. It’s hard to tell, because we live at nature’s pace and within the orb of human abstraction. We barely notice the large-scale differences from year to year, much less the minute ones. But if we could speed up time a little and become a lot more perceptive, we would see that nature’s big idea is to try out life wherever and however it can be tried, which means everywhere and anyhow. The result — over time and at this instant — is diversity, complexity, particularity, and inventiveness to an extent our minds are almost unfitted to conceive.

A reasonable agriculture would do its best to emulate nature. Rather than change the earth to suit a crop — which is what we do with corn and soybeans and a handful of other agricultural commodities — it would diversify its crops to suit the earth. This is not going to happen in big agriculture, because big agriculture is irrational. It’s where we expose — at unimaginable expense — our failure to grasp how nature works. It’s where uniformity is always defeated eventually by diversity and where big agriculture’s ideas of diversity are revealed to be as uniform as ever.

To a uniform crop like corn, farmers have been encouraged to apply a uniform herbicide to kill weeds. Modern corn is genetically engineered to not be killed by the herbicide in ubiquitous use. Mostly, that herbicide has been glyphosate, marketed under the Monsanto trade name Roundup. Farmers have sprayed and over-sprayed billions of gallons of Roundup thanks to an economic and moral premise: corn good, weeds bad. And yet you can’t help noticing that it has done nothing to stop the endless inventiveness of nature.

To broadleaf weeds and soil microorganisms, Roundup is not the apocalypse. It is simply a modest, temporal challenge, which is why, 15 years after genetically-engineered, Roundup-tolerant crops were widely introduced, it’s no longer working against spontaneous new generations of Roundup-tolerant weeds, especially in cotton fields. This is because research, in nature’s laboratory, never stops. It explores every possibility. It never lacks funding. It is never demoralized by failed experiments. It cannot be lobbied.

To fix the problem of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, Dow Chemical is hoping to introduce crop varieties that will withstand being sprayed with an herbicide called 2,4-D. When it was first released to farmers in 1946, 2,4-D was a breakthrough — a herbicide that killed only certain kinds of plants instead of killing them all. It’s less safe than glyphosate, especially because it’s sometimes contaminated with dioxin. But it’s not an indiscriminate, lethal killer, despite the fact that it was one of the chemicals in Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used during the Vietnam War. (The dioxin in Agent Orange came from another component chemical called 2,4,5-T.)

Still, this is backward-engineering of a sort, like trying to breed birds that will tolerate DDT. And while the USDA hasn’t decided whether to approve Dow’s 2,4-D-tolerant soybeans yet, it has decided to speed up the process of reviewing genetically-engineered crops, mainly to help deal with the spread of so-called superweeds caused by the nearly universal application of glyphosate for the last decade and a half. According to Dow’s numbers, superweeds affected some 60 million acres of crops last year. If things go right, bureaucratically, that is just so much cash in Dow’s pocket.

“Farmers need technology right now to help them with issues such as weed resistance,” a Dow official said last month. Translation? Farmers need technology right now to help them with issues created by right-now technology introduced 15 years ago. Instead of urging farmers away from uniformity and toward greater diversity, the USDA is helping them do the same old wrong thing faster. When an idea goes bad, the USDA seems to think, the way to fix it is to speed up the introduction of ideas that will go bad for exactly the same reason. And it’s always, somehow, the same bad idea: the uniform application of an anti-biological agent, whether it’s a pesticide in crops or an antibiotic on factory farms. The result is always the same. Nature finds a way around it, and quickly.

This is the irrationality of agriculture as it’s practiced in the United States and now all over the world. It has one big idea, and it will never give it up, because it has invested everything in that one big idea. Against uniformity and abstraction — embodied in millions of acres of genetically-modified crops — nature will always win. Whether it can ever win against the uniformity and abstraction embodied in the human brain is very much in doubt. 

Yale Environment 360: “The Folly of Big Agriculture: Why Nature Always Wins”, April 9, 2012


See also Brandon Klein, "New GM Crops Could Make Superweeds Even Stronger," Wired Science, May 1, 2012