Archive for the ‘Energy sources’ Category

China in the Arctic

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

The Arctic is a tantalizing target for exploitation, even among non-Arctic nations. Not surprisingly, none have greater plans than China, even though its ports are a long way from the Arctic.

The Arctic Council seems to have the power to negotiate how the Arctic will be developed, and China wishes to be included. Voting members of the Council are the circumpolar nations: Canada, US, Russia, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Denmark (via Greenland). But twelve other non-polar nations have now received observer status, six of them added at the recent May meeting, and among these are India, Japan, and China. Polar Aboriginal groups also have observer status, but no votes – unfortunate, but also hardly surprising.

China of course has a growing interest in the issues the Arctic Council is discussing. Shipping, for instance. The distance from Europe to China is far shorter through the Arctic Northeast Passage than any alternatives, and there is no threat of piracy en route as there has been around horn of Africa. The Northeast Passage is already open for months each summer, and an enticing seven month season is now likely.

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (france24.com)

The Northeast Passage, now open, is a shorter route for China to reach Arctic Russia and ports in Europe (france24.com)

And then the gas and oil. Russia has access to huge natural gas sources close to shore along its central Arctic coast, where it is building new liquid natural gas facilities, along with associated port services. With the Northeast Passage open seven months a year, it need not build pipelines south but instead can fill Chinese tankers directly. China has invested deeply in the operation, intent on getting most of the available LNG.

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (novatek.com)

Russian energy company Novatek is building LNG facilities on the coast of Arctic Russia (novatek.com)

Meanwhile, in northern Greenland, near Nuuk, China has arranged to develop an extensive iron mine, planning to send about 3000 Chinese miners in to do the work. When the coasts open in summer, it will transport the iron ore to China.

What’s left? Oh yes: fishing. The international waters of the Arctic, the so-called Arctic donut hole, are likely to be a rich and irresistible source of fish. Though that’s 4000 km from Shanghai, China already sends trawlers 7500 km to the Antarctic to fish for krill, so the Arctic is well in range. Its trawlers will be there, as soon as possible.

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (oceansnorth.org)

Arctic International waters (the donut hole) will soon be ice free in summer, but as yet no fisheries regulations exist to protect it (oceansnorth.org)

In late April, the circumpolar nations also met to try to agree on how to protect and regulate the Arctic fisheries. Prohibiting fishing there would be reasonable, for it will take decades, or longer, for the ecosystem to stabilize as it adapts to the prolonged open water, the warmer temperatures, the increasing acidification, the invasion of Subarctic species particularly through the Bering Strait, and the probable loss of some Arctic species.

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (apl.washington.edu)

Arctic Sea ice is not just shrinking in area, it is thinning rapidly (apl.washington.edu)

Will the international community agree wait to start fishing, or to exploit other resources? If so, that will be a first. What will stop them? The words of the recommendations of the Arctic Council read well. But what is the reality going to be?

International interest and pressure to develop the Arctic is immense. China of course is not the only major player – but it is new to this particular region, and it has become insatiable.

The outcome is increasingly clear. Without its ice, the Arctic has few defenses against ‘business-as-usual’ exploitation.

We’ll see what the Arctic Council will do under its new chair, the Canadian Indigenous politician Leona Aglukkaq. A political pragmatist and realist, Aglukkaq endorses the economic development of the Arctic.

China will be pleased.

The Niger Delta

Monday, November 19th, 2012

There are a lot of environmentally wrecked places around the planet, sites we have known about for years. Generally they involve our efforts to extract stuff.

Of course environmentalists are frustrated that evidence – the photographs, videos and data on contamination and destruction – is largely ignored, but we shouldn’t be surprised. These are not rational times.

Another approach is through fiction, and a new and award-winning book, ‘419‘ by Will Ferguson, does it really very well.

Winner of Canada’s 2012 Giller Prize, this is an outstanding story.

The book is about Nigeria, framed by the emailed money-requesting scams we are so familiar with. (419 refers to the Nigerian law that prohibits such fraud). It is a terrific book, a tight and evocative tale of the harsh scramble that is life in Nigeria and how it can reach out to naive North Americans – well, in this case Canadians.

The oil fields along the coast of the Niger Delta are rich, exploited by many oil companies, subjected to minimal regulations (i-er.com)

A lot of the book takes place in the Niger Delta in Nigeria in west Africa, once home to many tribes living on the fishing the delta once provided. The destruction of the delta by the oil companies has involved mangrove destruction, air and water contamination, eliminated fisheries, militancy and the ‘Mosquito’ resistance and kidnappings for ransom, impressive levels of graft, and the complicity of the Nigerian government. As a result the history is one of destroyed cultures, far too familiar and horrible, and should never have occurred.

Natural gas is burned off as ‘flares’ wherever oil is drilled – but existing regulations on flaring are rarely enforced in Nigeria. The CO2 emitted by flaring in the Niger Delta is about equal to the CO2 emissions of Italy (nair aland.com)

If improvements can occur, if the destruction is to be successfully reduced and even perhaps reversed, the spotlight on the Delta needs to be a bright and strong one. ‘419’ will be read for its absorbing plot of relationships, manipulation, scams and life-and-death events. But as well it evokes an environmental hell, one for which we are all to blame.

Many very fine non-fiction books have been written by fluent and lucid environmentalists. Books that should have influenced the political leaders of the world, books that should have scared them into action. They obviously didn’t. Probably they didn’t get read by the people who most needed to read them.

So let’s see where good fiction takes us.

The Niger Delta is a reasonable target – if it can be in part recovered, probably anywhere can. Responsible drilling, gas flares eliminated, contamination cleaned up, communities made part of the solution, government laws concerning environmental and cultural protection not just passed but actually implemented: is this too much to strive for?

It can’t be – though in his book Ferguson offers only the very slimmest of hopes.

ExxonMobil The Evil Empire

Saturday, September 29th, 2012

After waiting years to get permission, Royal Dutch Shell finally began drilling its first exploration well in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaskan coast this past summer. Tests of its safety equipment have not gone well, and wind-driven sea ice has threatened the operation. Any further drilling of the exploration well has now been postponed until next summer.

Shell’s Noble Discoverer drilling rig on the Chukchi Sea, seen from the deck of the Tor Viking icebreaker. (Royal Dutch Shell, latimes.com))

This has been a benign season in the Arctic, and still the result is failure. This does not bode well for Arctic drilling, but if we can be sure of anything in this uncertain world, we can expect Shell, and BP, and Chevron, and the biggest of them all, ExxonMobil – as well as the Norwegian and Russian oil companies – to explore the Arctic and then to drill it over the next decades.

A recent book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll tells the tale of ExxonMobil from the catastrophic spill by the Exxon Valdez in 1989, through its rise in reach, power and wealth to become the most profitable of global corporations, to its present belated enthusiasm for fracking. It is an extraordinary tale of bald self-interest and cynicism.

Steve Coll’s book, published in 2012, is long, detailed, short on reflection, and frightening (nytimes.com)

Over the past 20 years, ExxonMobil has moved slowly and reluctantly through a series of attitudes about climate change. Of course it denied the reality of global warming for as long as possible, and funded the research of the skeptics. Then, eventually, it agreed that burning carbon-based fuels was in fact warming the planet – but its own analysis determined that the global demand for energy is growing so fast that even if alternate sources are available, they will only fill a small part of the need. We will remain dependent on ExxonMobil and the other oil companies for oil and natural gas for the next decades.

Seeing how the wind is now blowing in the US, ExxonMobil now supports the call for energy independence and even says that it could tolerate a carbon tax – but it believes in neither taxes nor the need for US energy independence.

ExxonMobil is a huge global corporation whose products are natural gas and oil, and whose sole motive is profit. It is present in 200 countries, extracting oil and gas from dozens of them. It is resistant to any action that might decrease its global access and profit. Its influence in US flows through through the efforts of lobbyists working on congressmen, cabinet members, and presidents. Access is never denied.

No government can resist the oil companies, not even the US. Coll’s book is very sobering.

Meanwhile, despite the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, offshore exploration and drilling is expanding around the world. Taking the risks, especially in the Arctic, is madness. Unfortunately, the oil companies, in their endless quest for more profits from more exploitable oil and gas deposits, remain indifferent to the long-term impact of what they do.

ExxonMobil has drilled a well offshore California that extends more than six miles horizontally and more than 7,000 ft below sea level. It was drilled from the Heritage platform using the company’s Fast Drill technology. (drillingcontractor.org)

The only concern ExxonMobil and the other oil companies express is that at some point the nations of the planet finally will become really afraid of the effects of global warming and agree to take concerted, major action.

Our challenge then is to bring that about now, not decades from now. We can start with the current US election – although neither party talks about climate change, at least President Obama understands that it exists and that it poses great dangers. In Canada we can try to constrain the development of the Alberta oil sands and the exploration for oil and gas in Canada’s Arctic.

And we can push back against the oil companies. They need our encouragement to do the right thing.

As do our governments.

Fundy Tidal Power

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

When the first tide-driven turbines were placed in Minas Basin, the tides basically ripped them up within a few weeks. At the north end of the Bay of Fundy, tidal amplitude in the Basin reaches about 15 meters, and the sea moves in and out with the tide at up to 12 knots. These really are astonishing numbers, and you have to see them to believe them.

The Bay of Fundy funnels the tide to ever greater amplitude, reaching 15 meters or more in Minas Basin (yellowmaps.com)

At the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, though, the tides are less, about 6 meters, or 20 feet, and run at only about 4-6 knots, still impressive if you happen to try to navigate the area in a small boat. And there, near Eastport and Lubec, the first commercial-scale tidal-power generator in the US is now being placed.

This one ought to work. The turbine is about 100 feet long, 15 feet high, with long curved foils. Ocean Renewable Power Company is in charge, and a lot of outside investment has made the event happen.

The 98ft turbine sits on the bottom, fastened to a tide resistant supporting framework (pressherald.com)

There are a few ways to bring something new, like a wind farm, or a fish farm, or in this case underwater turbines into a coastal community. The method makes all the difference. It can be done secretly and aggressively, without concern for buy-in from the local community, and most likely it will fail. If it fails, nobody in the community cares.

Or it can be done with the extensive involvement of the local community.

The Eastport community has certainly been involved in the tidal power initiative there. Fishermen have advised on the best sites for placement of the turbines. Local conservationists have been consulted. Where possible, local contractors have been employed. Community officials have been included in making decisions. Restaurants and B&Bs have remained open beyond the usual three month tourist season.

The town of Eastport, Maine is as far east as you can go in the US, lying at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy just across the border from New Brunswick (treehugger.com)

The turbines at Eastport will start to generate power in October. Not much at first, but it’s a start. Over the next few years, more turbines will be added. In time, they should serve the needs of most of the town.

What works for Eastport should work for the many other coastal communities along the Bay of Fundy, and elsewhere around the world where tidal currents run fast enough.

This is not large-scale power generation. But it is community-based, and the community appears to be strongly supportive. It should succeed.

Where coastal communities are involved in all aspects of an initiative, whether it is a fish farm, wind farm, coastal fishery, or tidal-power generation, conflicts are reduced, and success is more likely.

Consultation, inclusion, integrity and transparency are all essential components.

Interesting, isn’t it, that we seem to have learn this lesson over and over again?

The Open Arctic

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Everyone is preparing for an Arctic Ocean open for business at least through the summer months.

Seasonal shipping is increasing, and ports are growing, especially along the Russian coast.

The North Pole, April 2004: HMS Tireless, a nuclear sub, measured sea ice thickness of the melting ice cap (seaice.org.uk)

The Arctic rim countries – Canada, Norway, Denmark, Russia and the US – are under some pressure to agree to a moratorium on exploiting the Arctic fisheries at least until enough is known about the ecosystem to do so sustainably.

Beluga whales feed on a school of Arctic cod (the dark streak), a species of potential commercial value but about which we know very little (arkive.org)

The tension over who if anyone owns any of the international waters in the huge center of the Arctic continue to grow, with Russia planning to reopen long closed Soviet bases, Canada considering using drones to monitor the region, and the US getting increasingly nervous about not having a vote in the UN negotiations concerning international boundaries.

The international water of the Arctic Ocean (red lin e)(oceansnorth.org)

Meanwhile China and South Korea are building icebreakers and intend to be players in the search for Arctic fish and other resources.

And then there are the oil companies.

The huge BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 is largely forgotten. Canada, the US and Norway are all inviting oil companies to bid for licenses to explore for oil and natural gas along their Arctic coastlines from Alaska and the Beaufort Sea to the Barents Sea. After a relentless, seven year campaign, Shell begins to drill on the Alaskan North Slope this summer, with Greenpeace watching closely. All the companies are eager to drill in international waters when that becomes possible.

Canada opens the Beaufort Sea for bids for drilling licenses

They are preparing to work in the cold, in darkness, in sea ice a long way from any supportive infrastructure. Still they claim development can be done sustainably.

In fact, nine of the major oil companies, including Statoil, Total, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and Shell, have launched a research program where they will assess how spills flow in the Arctic, how to track them remotely, and how to recovery spilled oil. They will do this with ‘controlled’ spills.

Missing from this initiative are the Russian companies, Gazprom and Rosneft. No one seems confident that they will comply with regulations that the others accept. The Gazprom rig that capsized off Sakhalin last December, killing 50, is not reassuring.

Actually, no company is ready for offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean, for no proven method for clean-up there exists.

Resistance to drilling has failed. The US sees the Arctic resources as part of its route to energy independence. Norway needs to replace its lucrative but depleted offshore southern oil fields with new northern ones. Canada wants to sell its resources to anyone who will buy them. Russia is Russia.

We hoped the rules of the game might be different in the Arctic as it opens up, based on all that we have learned over the past few decades. In fact they look exactly like they always have: power wins; the idea of endless economic growth remains unchallenged; resources exist to be exploited; environmental concerns are recognized and then largely ignored.

As elsewhere in our modern world, our response has become not to stop it, but at best to try to make it less bad.

At the least, a vigilant and activist press is increasingly critical – reminding us of past initiatives and failures, of the importance of evidence and precaution, and of the fragility and vulnerability of our natural world.

Walruses meet to debate the future of the Arctic Ocean (washingtonpost.com)

Unlimited Gas.

Monday, May 28th, 2012

Burning methane hydrate ice (blogs.plos.org)

People are getting quite excited.

With methane hydrates now a possible source of natural gas, we may never run out of carbon-based fuels. Well, never is a reach, but a thousand or so years might be the reality.

Methane seeps up from the Earth’s interior, and in the cold and pressurized sandstones of the world’s continental shelves, it is captured by water molecules and frozen in ice lattices, forming methane hydrates.

Methane hydrate ice: under pressure, water crystal lattice forms around methane molecules (giss.nana.gov)

A single methane molecule (CH4) is trapped insdide the lattice of water molecules (records.viu.ca)

Now it has become extractable. This past winter, on the north slope off of Alaska, the US Dept of Energy along with Japan’s Oil Gas and Metals National Corporation, and Conoco-Phillips Oil, successfully drilled for the trapped methane for 30 days.

They used two methods, both releasing the methane by decreasing the pressure on the hydrates.

One method was to pump CO2 down the drill hole to the hydrates in the sandstone, where CO2 then replaced the methane molecules. This sounds very enticing – a way to dispose of the CO2 from oil refinement by pumping it into deep-water, sub-surface sandstone. Win-win.

The second was to pump water under pressure down into the sandstone, releasing pressure on the trapped gas. Feasible, apparently, but environmentally embarrassing, It’s uncertain how well it works – at least no-one is saying much about it.

Now we’re heading into a decade or so of experimental drilling, somewhat like the days of initial exploration for natural gas in the 1970s.

But this is different. Gas hydrates occur everywhere on the slopes of the continental shelves. The US Gulf Coast alone has enough to make the US energy independent for the foreseeable future – it doesn’t have to come from just the offshore slopes under the frozen Arctic.

Methane hydrate deposits occur abundantly in the sediment in the deeper of the world's continental slopes (globalcarbonproject.org)

The US plans much more extensive experimental drilling. So too do Japan and China, who haven’t dared dream of energy independence until now.

What’s the reality here? We don’t know, but the source looks almost unlimited, and the experimental drilling and CO2 injection worked – methane was captured.

What if water injection is a more effective method? Perhaps public scrutiny and the increasing value of clean water will push the technology to CO2 injection in any case. Perhaps it is safer and kinder to the Earth than the fracking for natural gas that is sweeping the world.

What lies ahead should worry us all.

But then what?
Exxon-Mobile and all the other oil companies that appear to govern the world are probably ecstatic.
This is not the way to keep the planet from becoming than a hothouse.
This is the way to ensure it happens.

This is not good news.

Pipelines to the Coasts

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The arguments over two new North American pipelines out of the Alberta oil sands – the Keystone XL Pipeline to the Texas coast, and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline to Kitimat on the coast of British Columbia – get ever shriller. The Harper Government, once known as the Conservative Party of Canada, is committed to both pipelines. Now hearings have begun on the Northern Gateway Pipeline, and they should be particularly worth watching.

The proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Kitimat on the Douglas Channel (investnorthwestbc.ca)

The Northern Gateway pipeline would be aimed west from the Alberta oil sands, through the mountains to the BC coast. The coast is remote, wet, indented by deep fjords, and sparsely populated by both indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Douglas Channel, near Kitimat, one of the world's most extensive and beautiful fjords (telus.net)

The Northern Gateway pipeline would end at Kitimat, 90 km from open coastal waters (bcwaters.org)

The Douglas Channel is one of the very deepest, longest and most spectacular fjords on the planet, 90 km from Kitimat to the coast.
Kitimat is a town of about 12,000 that was carefully designed and built in the 1950s to serve as an aluminum refinery by Alcan – bauxite is shipped in, and refined into aluminum. The process requires a lot of energy, and at Kitimat it comes from a huge hydro dam built especially for this purpose.

Kitimat, at the eastern end of the fjord, combines natural beauty, and golf course, with industrial development along the shore. (tourismkitimat.ca)

A little later LNG built a natural gas pipeline from the Alberta gas fields, to take advantage of the port built for the aluminum tankers, and ship liquid natural gas, at -160 degrees C, across the Pacific to Asian buyers.

Now, the same logic has brought Enbridge to Kitimat. The closest tanker port to the oil fields of Alberta, with a short route to Asia, looks irresistible, and so the Northern Gateway proposal is now before us. Actually, the proposal is for two pipelines, for a condensate is added to the oil sludge in Alberta so that the oil will actually flow, and the condensate would then be removed at Kitimat and pumped back in a smaller pipeline to Alberta.

There is no quicker way to get Alberta oil to Asia than through a BC tanker port (investnorthwestbc.ca)

This time is different though. No matter the extensive precautions that Enbridge proposes to take, spills and leaks are likely. The crude oil pipeline would pass through 800 km of land of many First Nations, and then supertankers would carry it out Douglas Channel, through the territory of the Haisla First Nation.

The Haisla do reject industrial development – they have at least tolerated and benefited from the aluminum and natural gas initiatives. Perhaps they may yet approve the Enbridge proposal. But they are smart and experienced, and the land and the fjord are theirs to protect.

Super-tankers are huge. The route down the fjord is long. High winds and extreme fogs are not uncommon. Tankers have accidents despite highly trained pilots, reinforced hulls, and escort tugs. And the impact of a spill of any magnitude would be horrendous. Yet despite the obvious risks, Transport Canada has now approved supertanker traffic to Kitimat.

A black bear fishes on the shore of Douglas channel(markhobson.ca)

An alternative exists: build the pipeline to Prince Rupert instead. Prince Rupert lies on the coast, not at the end of a long fjord. It is already an industrialized port, handling tankers. A natural gas pipeline has been in place since 1968. There are some steeper parts to traverse or tunnel through near the coast, and avalanche risk is greater there. But it avoids the greatest risk, the long tanker trip through Douglas Channel to transport the oil.

Hearings on the Northern Gateway Pipeline have only just begun, and will last a couple of years. If approved, the pipeline could be commissioned in 2017 – though legal challenges could delay it far longer. There is time, and reason, to explore the Prince Rupert option.

Until alternative energy is truly available, we are stuck with making the best of bad deals. We should not stress the Douglas Channel any more than it is at present, for it is irreplaceable.

Huge halibut are still caught in Douglas Channel (bcadventure.com)

At the same time, we can work to make the whole process of oil and gas recovery less horrible, less destructive of the only natural world we will ever have.

The Arctic Ocean and the Rule of Law

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

On several occasions recently Canada has scrambled some jets to make sure Russian bombers do not penetrate its airspace in the Arctic. This sounds ominous. What gives?

It is all about the central international seas of the Arctic Ocean, about the size of the Mediterranean. With the summer melting of the Arctic ice, the matter of ownership of the extensive oil, gas and minerals of the seabed there is of increasing interest. Is it really an international region, or do coastal Arctic nations have legitimate claims to parts of it, beyond the current 200 miles of their EEZs? The stakes are high.

The Lomonosov Ridge extends underwater between the continental shelves of Canada and Russia (casr.ca)

The question itself is simple enough. The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the Siberian coast of Russia, more or less through the North Pole, to the coast of Canada and Greenland. If the Ridge is an extension of the Russian continental shelf, then Russia can claim a greater portion of the Arctic Ocean as part of its EEZ. If the Ridge is an extension of the Canadian shelf, then Canada can do the same. On the other hand, if the Ridge isn’t attached to either continent, then it is an oceanic ridge, and the Canadian and Russian claims won’t hold up.

In 2001, Russia submitted its claim to the Lomonosov Ridge to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and was told to resubmit when they had some better evidence. Now Russia has announced it will submit a new claim by 2013.

Russia's aggressive claim to a large part of the Arctic Ocean, beyond the 200 mile limits of its EEZ (globelaw.com)

For the past several summers, Russia has sent its nuclear powered research vessel, the Akademik Fyodorov, into the Arctic to examine and map the Ridge in detail. Last summer it carried about 70 researchers, along with its small submarine, and spent almost three months at work. Evidence is certainly accumulating.

The Russian research vessel Akademik Fyordorov in the Arctic in 2010 (reutersmedia.net)

Meanwhile, Canada intends to submit a claim to the UN at about the same time, hoping to convince the same Commission that the Lomonosov Ridge is really an extension of Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

Not surprisingly, things are heating up politically. Russia plans to send a couple of brigades into the region. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, who seems to have a special interest in the Arctic, has said “Canada is an Arctic power, and will continue to exercise our sovereignty”. NATO is showing interest, expecting warships will come from different sources once the ice melts sufficiently in summer, and that NATO ought to be there to defuse tensions.

A Russian sub planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007, but planting a US flag on the moon in 1969 did not make the moon American (barentsobservor.com)

Canada and Russia do in fact agree on one thing: NATO has no reason to be in the Arctic. Since, almost alone in the world, the US still hasn’t ratified the UN Law of the Sea, it is uncertain what role, if any, it can have in the upcoming sovereignty decisions – perhaps NATO is its proxy.

Russia emphasizes it is adhering to the rule of law. Last September, Norway and Russia resolved their dispute over 176,000 km2 of Arctic Ocean that straddles their EEZs, agreeing to joint development of straddling deposits of oil and natural gas.

Anton Vasilev, Russian ambassador at large for the Arctic, referring to its recent agreement with Norway as a useful precedent, said “All problems will be resolved the same way. No blood, no conflict. Professionals quietly at work on the basis of international law. Full stop. And we shall do it.”

Russia is acting, and sounding, relatively rational. It is time for Canada – and its Prime Minister – to do the same.

Prime Minister Harper at work protecting Canadian Arctic sovereignty (byers.typepad.com)

And yet we once had a dream that the development of the Arctic would be different, that we had learned so much about how not to develop marine ecosystems that the Arctic would be treated as the sanctuary it deserves to be, that its obvious fragility would protect it from ‘business-as-usual’ development.

We can now only hope that cooperation and the Rule of Law truly are sufficient to prevent the Arctic Ocean going the route of pretty well every other piece of the world’s seas.

There still remains the opportunity to do better this time, and not continue to be forced to try to make the best of bad times.

Oil from Bacteria

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

There is new player in town, and it is a very interesting one.

Joule Unlimited is engineering bacteria species, including E.coli and species of cyanobacteria, to produce liquid hydrocarbons such as diesel fuel and ethanol. The bacteria utilize only CO2 and sunlight, and excrete hydrocarbons, so the process is a modified photosynthesis.

The entire process – from bacterial engineering to engineering the exposure to CO2, providing the water, collecting the hydrocarbons and separating them from the water, and then delivering the hydrocarbons – all remains very secret. What does it actually look like? The few pictures offered suggest an automated process that involves panels exposed to the sun, where the bacteria are exposed to high levels of CO2 and bathed in water.

The one picture available of the process reveals little (jouleunlimited.com)

Atmospheric levels of CO2 are too low as a carbon source for the bacteria, but waste levels produced at coal and natural gas power plants are just right. What else? Water is needed, and a lot of it. But apparently it need not just be fresh water – brackish and salt water will work as well.

Just as critically, the process is apparently efficient enough that the product should sell for about $30/barrel, competitive with the price of oil at the very best of times, let alone the $100 per barrel we now face.

Joule Unlimited, centered in Cambridge, Mass, describes what it has developed as a single step process to energy independence, unlimited fuel, total sustainability, all of it very scalable. Really quite an extraordinary claim. There is a growing sense that it may be real, and not just another fantasy.

The stakes are, of course, very high.

Sustainable oil production is the aim of other efforts to produce biofuels from corn and other crops, but this bacterial process involves no crops or cropland, leaving agricultural land available for growing food again instead. Using most, perhaps 90%, of the waste CO2 from power plants is obviously very attractive. Eliminating the need to explore for oil offshore oil and gas in increasingly risky deep water and Arctic regions would be an astounding development. It could even be an alternative in Canada to the environmental catastrophe of the Alberta tar sands exploitation – now there’s a dream worth dreaming.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, engineered to excrete hydrocarbons (jouleunlimited.com)

It still produces fuels whose burning returns CO2 to the atmosphere, and it doesn’t reduce our dependency on carbon-based fuels. It also doesn’t eliminate the need to exploit viable alternatives to carbon-based fuels, or to find more ways to conserve our use of energy. But it reduces some of the damage, and it buys us time.

Part of the excitement about this process is that it can be set up, at any scale, anywhere. This is, as they say, ‘game changing’.

A pilot effort is now underway in Leander,Texas, chosen for high levels of solar energy and a suitable source of CO2, and built on non-agricultural land. The first commercial product should be available in 2012, so we’ll know soon.

Can it all really be true? It sounds so good.

Search the Internet, see what you can find – I haven’t found anything yet that indicates that this is just another fantasy. Of course there are the usual skeptics, but their skepticism is as yet uninformed.

We can use some hope just now, in these fraught times.

Damage Control

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

In the Northern Gulf of Mexico, BP tries everything its engineers can think of to reduce the extent of the damage from the Deepwater Horizon ‘spill’, a catastrophe that just keeps on growing. Oil has reached the vulnerable Gulf Coast, tar balls are turning up on the Florida keys, and who really knows what is going on under the surface of the sea.

One method to reduce the damage is to dump immense amounts of a dispersant into the water. It is intended to emulsify the oil and render it biogegradable by bacteria.

The oil spill will expand in the Gulf, and may drift around Florida, and then on north along the Atlantic coast (noaa)

The dispersant of choice until now has been Nalco’s product Corexit. How it acts in such a deep water situation is unknown – practically every effort that BP is making is experimental – but what little we do know indicates that it is relatively toxic (lethal) to anything exposed to it for very long, and that about half of it is likely to settle to the bottom substrate and accumulate there. Trawlers in the northen Gulf are understandably very worried about its impact on the bottom dwelling shrimp.

Current oil rigs along the northern Gulf coast

Because of concerns about the damage Corexit may do, on top of, or instead of, the damage caused by the oil itself, the EPA wants it replaced by another apparently less toxic dispersant. Probably this is PolyChem’s Dispersit. Much less seems to be known about Dispersit, but it identifies itself on its labels as user-friendly and environmentally safe. Since labels never lie, no doubt we would be in safer hands.

The widely admired but largely ignored Precautionary Approach is lying in shambles. The PA proposes that we do the least environemental damage possible when deciding among alternative actions, that we plan for catastrophes, and that in fact we hold off on taking very risky actions. Obviously precaution was ignored by all those companies and regulatory agencies whose comfort with taking major environmental risks resulted in the wreck of the oil rig and the awful disaster that is occurring.

The only tenet of the Precautionary Approach that will be met successfully is that the polluter pays. BP and its partners will be made to suffer financially, many lawyers will again make their fortunes, but the damage will not be lessened.

President Obama admonishes BP

Applying massive amounts of dispersants is yet another major environmental risk. Again it is hardly precautionary. Just as the oil drillers relied on hope that a spill would not occur, we can now only hope that the dispersants will somehow help. Since there is no doubt that disperants will be used, we can only hope that the new dispersant, if it is used, will be less harmful that the previous one. But hope is rarely based on reliable science – I think that’s why we call it hope.

Clearly, controlling the damage caused by the oil has become a challenge that may overwhelm the coastal region of the northern Gulf. What recovery of habitats and fisheries will occur? How long will it take? What will happen to coastal communities while they wait? I have heard no reassuring answers.

Pandora, a world we'll never see.

These are anxious times – economically, politically, and of course environmentally. Not so long ago we used to include utopian environments in our dreams. Now they exist only as nostalgic science fiction fantasies. Now instead we struggle to reduce the environmental damage that we have inflicted on the planet.

Damage control – our 21st Century Dream.