a place to rant about energy, environment and all things John Howard

Friday, September 29, 2006

Sea level rise alarmism

The Sydney Morning Herald ran this alarming story today about sea level rise, along with this frightening picture...

The land down under going under

A satellite image of Australia if sea levels were to rise by 300 metres

Which got me thinking, do we really need to be that worried about sea level rise?

Climate change has many serious implications, particularly for Australia, but sea level rise isn't one of them, at least not in the short term. It seems to me Australians should be more worried about worsening droughts and bushfires, more intense cyclones and storms, reduced snowfall in the alps, and destruction of the Great Barrier Reef than being submerged anytime soon. That said, I wouldn't be rushing out and buying a low-lying beachfront property anytime soon, and there's always the possibilty of ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica melting ... but even this would take hundreds of years.

The story in the SMH says:
IT IS Australia as we have never seen it before - a dry brown land transformed into an archipelago of disparate islands.

The six images, a fusion of art and science, portray what would happen if sea levels rose by up to 500 metres and the waters inundated the lower-lying regions.

And continues:
Extreme global warming might eventually lead to another rise of 100 metres, he said. "And on a longer geological time scale the indundations shown are not out of the realm of possibility."
"Extreme global warming" eh? You can say that again!

A 100m sea level rise is way beyond the most catastrophic forecasts for climate change. According the the IPCC the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) has enough ice to raise the sea level by 6 metres, Greenland by 7.2 metres, and even if the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted into the ocean, the sea level would rise by 'just' 61.1 metres.

So even if both polar icecaps melted completely the sea level rise would be well short of the 100m rise that would supposedly result from 'extreme global warming' and a fraction of the 300m rise depicted the picture above. Quite frankly I don't know where the extra ~230m would come from. That's an awful lot of thermal expansion.

Putting this alarmist nonsense aside, what does the IPCC really say about sea level rise?

For the 35 SRES scenarios, we project a sea level rise of 0.09 to 0.88 m for 1990 to 2100, with a central value of 0.48 m. The central value gives an average rate of 2.2 to 4.4 times the rate over the 20th century. If terrestrial storage continued at its present rates, the projections could be changed by –0.21 to +0.11 m. For an average AOGCM, the SRES scenarios give results which differ by 0.02 m or less for the first half of the 21st century. By 2100, they vary over a range amounting to about 50% of the central value. Beyond the 21st century, sea level rise will depend strongly on the emissions scenario.

The West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) has attracted special attention because it contains enough ice to raise sea level by 6 m and because of suggestions that instabilities associated with its being grounded below sea level may result in rapid ice discharge when the surrounding ice shelves are weakened. The range of projections given above makes no allowance for ice-dynamic instability of the WAIS. It is now widely agreed that major loss of grounded ice and accelerated sea level rise are very unlikely during the 21st century.

In other words, the IPCC's best guess is a 48cm rise over the next 94 years. No need to have the tinnie moored to the house for a while yet.
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Thursday, September 28, 2006

It's clean and it's green, but Howard isn't interested in it

Suzy Freeman-Greene writes in The Age about the pitiful state of solar power in Australia, despite being blessed with more sun than just about anywhere:
IN MAY, John Howard called for a "full-blooded debate" on nuclear power. When the Prime Minister asks for debate, we oblige, and the issue has attracted headlines since. But while nuclear, wind power and even carbon geosequestration are the subject of spirited discussion as we grapple with global warming, there's a clean, green power source that barely seems to rate a mention. It's solar power.
Freeman-Greene continues...
Australia is one of the world's sunniest countries and an innovator in solar research. "We used to be a world leader in solar power," says the Australian Conservation Foundation's Erwin Jackson. "Now we're falling abysmally behind countries like Japan."

For more than a decade, according to the New Internationalist, the Japanese Government has paid subsidies to householders who install photovoltaic panels on their roofs. The subsidies are being phased out but capacity is still expected to grow by 20 per cent a year.

Germany, meanwhile, has installed more than 100 times Australia's grid-connected solar capacity. "Yet if you put the same panel on a roof in Australia (where it's sunnier) it would produce twice as much capacity," says Jackson.

But in Australia, the Federal Government is quietly phasing out the rebates available to homeowners who install panels. The rebate has been replaced by the $75 million Solar Cities project, in which four locations will be used to demonstrate and trial solar technology. In North Adelaide, the first "solar city", panels and "smart meters" will be installed in 1700 homes.

The project will run until 2012-13. While worthy, it will be limited to just a few locations and seems small fry compared with what's going on elsewhere. In Spain, the Government has legislated to require solar panels in all new and renovated shopping centres, offices, hotels or warehouses. Jackson says about 70 per cent of the panels made at BP Solar's Sydney manufacturing plant are sold overseas.

It costs about $10,000 to $15,000 to put panels on your roof. We have the technology. We just need to make it cheaper. Says Haydn Fletcher from Melbourne firm Going Solar: "We already know how to become solar cities … What we need is policy change." He says the past 10 months have been the quietest he's seen.

No single power source can replace our reliance on coal; we need diversity. Solar is not the panacea. But there's so much more we could do to foster an affordable, large-scale industry. Far from a fringe affair, the foundation says solar PV is the fastest-growing energy technology in the world, with growth rates of 60 per cent annually over the past five years.

One effective way to encourage investment in solar power is to reward panel owners for the unused power they can feed into the electricity grid. Many in the local solar industry are calling for the introduction of a "feed-in tariff", where a small levy is added to all power bills. The money is then used to pay households or businesses for their excess solar power at a higher rate than that paid to dirtier sources.

Governments in Germany, Italy, China, Indonesia, Spain, South Korea and Switzerland have kick-started their industry with such a tariff. A draft proposal prepared by BP Solar and Conergy, says a feed-in tariff would cost the typical power consumer the equivalent of one cup of coffee a year (presumably about $3).

Things are happening slowly here. Melbourne firm Solar Systems has proposed a $420 million solar power station in north-western Victoria that could power 40,000 homes. Solar Systems and Boeing have developed the project using PV technology designed for satellites. They have applied for federal funding from the low emission technologies fund.

The State Government has legislated to require electricity retailers to meet 10 per cent of their energy needs through renewable sources by 2016. But the Victorian Opposition has pledged to scrap the scheme.

When the Prime Minister spoke in May, he described nuclear power, which produces radioactive waste, as "cleaner and greener than other forms of power".

Whose debate do we want to have? The one framed by politicians in thrall to the mining lobby or a discussion about genuinely clean forms of power? Clearly the Government wants to boost our coal and uranium industries, but in 100 years' time will there even be an economy around to protect?
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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Al Gore in Sydney today and tomorrow

Al Gore watch:
In tonight's Enough Rope we learn that Al Gore considers John Howard a friend (?!) and that he has spoken to Howard while he's been in Australia, but that he would prefer to keep the conversation private.
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Friday, September 08, 2006

The biggest oil discovery in 38 years

Earlier this week a group of oil companies led by Chevron made a big oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico called 'Jack'. The media has generally reported the new discovery very favourably. According to most reports, 'Jack' could...
  • produce up to 400,000 barrels of crude oil per day
  • hold up to 15 billion barrels, and boost US oil reserves by 50%
  • be the biggest US oil discovery in 38 years, bigger than Prudhoe Bay in Alaska
Does this mean the end of America's dependence on foreign oil?

Think again. Lets look at 'Jack' in context of the USA's current oil requirements.
There are other reasons to be skeptical about Jack:
  • The field is in 7,000 feet of water and a further 20,000 feet below the sea floor. Jack is pushing the outer limits of deep sea oil technology.
    "More than half a dozen world records for test equipment pressure, depth and duration in deep water were set during the Jack well test," Chevron said in a statement.
  • Estimates of the size of the oil field range from 3 billion to 15 billion barrels -- a huge range.
  • All estimates are in BOE or Barrels of Oil Equivalent, which means some (or most) of the 'oil' may in fact be natural gas.
  • It is comprised of several smaller fields dispersed over a 300 square mile area, with no single field larger than 300 million barrels.
  • The wells cannot be served by underground pipelines because of the depth of water. Rather, the oil will be pumped directly to tankers. Pipelines are faster and more efficient, and tankers will put a higher price and limit the amount of oil pumped out.
  • Production will not start (at the very earliest) until 2010.
  • Full production (at the very earliest) in 2013.
And remember this is the biggest oil discovery in 38 years! Don't buy that SUV just yet.

More references:
New oil find tests drilling's watery limits
Black gold in the Gulf
'Huge oil find' in Gulf of Mexico
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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ian Macfarlane denies connection between emissions and climate change

Originally posted Tuesday, August 22, 2006:

Minister for Coal Ian Macfarlane was interviewed by the sphere-of-influence on the weekend and asked about his views on climate change and carbon trading:
LAURIE OAKES: OK. Climate change, you are a climate change sceptic, aren't you?

IAN McFARLANE: Well I am a sceptic of the connection between emissions and climate change. No-one would deny that the world's climate is changing. We don't know exactly what the factors are that are driving that. There appears to be evidence connecting emissions to climate change. But whether or not that can be proved absolutely is not the issue. What we need to do, and everyone accepts that, and I am certainly dealing with that through my portfolio, we need to lower our emissions. I think the key issue is, though, Laurie, how do you do that? How do you actually achieve lower global emissions and we're very much committed to achieving that through low emissions technologies and a spread of energy sources? So the technical solution will in fact lower greenhouse gas emissions. As we have seen, Kyoto is failing to do that.

LAURIE OAKES: You and the Prime Minister dumped on the states for proposed a carbon trading system. As a result of your dumping, I think, Peter Beattie then chickened out of it, but, how else except through an emissions trading scheme can price signals be used to cut emissions?

IAN McFARLANE: Well there are ways to get companies to adopt new technologies and not only did Peter Beattie pull out of it but so did Alan Carpenter so you have Western Australia and Queensland opting out of a what is a scheme that, by their own analysis and ABARE's analysis, will see a doubling in electricity prices and petrol prices over the next 30 odd years.

LAURIE OAKES: But, how else do you give a price signal?

IAN McFARLANE: Well, you don't necessarily need to give a price signal, you can say that it is up to the companies to ensure they're employing the latest technology in terms of emission reduction. That technology at this stage is still being proven. We're combining with the companies and they will invest more than $1 billion with the Australian Government to ensure that we pilot these technologies of lower emissions, but you've got to have the technologies in place before you can lower emissions globally and that's the challenge.

LAURIE OAKES: You say you don't need a price signal, even the Australian Coal Association says we're going to need a price signal, to compliment your cleaner coal program.

IAN McFARLANE: The Australian Coal Association actually withdrew that statement on the basis that they were taken out of context and their statement on Friday said they do not support that position but can I give you an example. The aluminium industry continues to lower its own emissions both in terms of Co2 but general emissions through their striving for efficiency and also the triple bottom line to satisfy the community that they are an industry that is sustainable in the long term. They've done that in Australia without a price signal.

LAURIE OAKES: But you're one out on this, the Australian Business Round Table earlier this year said there needed to be a pricing signal built in and it needed to be done sooner rather than later. The Reserve Bank board member, Professor Warwick McGibon says a carbon price signal is needed for the uptake of all low emissions technologies, I mean, the evidence is overwhelming?

IAN McFARLANE: There's certainly views that say that but they're not overwhelming views and the reality is, you cannot lower emissions until you have the technology to do it. Once you have the technology to do then there is a question about adoption and I'm confident, based on the track record of industry to date, that they will adopt the technology once it's available. The challenge at the moment over the next 10 years is to prove up the technology that produces zero emission coal fired electricity, that allows us to expand the renewable energy base into things like rot rocks, to look at options in terms of how we produce electricity by lowering emissions in a whole range of ways and that really is where the challenge is at the moment. The carbon trading schemes that are in place at the moment, including the one under Kyoto, are absolute failures and we've seen the carbon price in Europe move all over the place while at the same time the countries participating are actually going to miss their targets by miles. In fact, some of them will exceed Australia's growth in emissions, bearing in mind that our target was a growth of 8% from 1990 and we're one of the few countries at the moment who are on target to reach that.

LAURIE OAKES: Minister, even your Environment Minister has said the Government will have to investigate price signals coming from energy to deal with emissions.

IAN McFARLANE: Well, all I can say Laurie is that at the moment what we as a Government are focusing on, is making sure that we have the technology to reduce emissions.

LAURIE OAKES: But you're one out in saying....

IAN McFARLANE: I'm not one out actually, I have a strong band of supporters and it is the Government's position that we proceed down the track to use technology and the innovation and inventiveness of Australians in co-operation with other countries like America and Japan and China et cetera through the AP6 Network.

LAURIE OAKES: And price signals are not necessary?

IAN McFARLANE: Well, at this stage they're not.

LAURIE OAKES: Treasurer, Peter Costello, has said that.

IAN McFARLANE: I'm not sure that's exactly what Peter said, but the reality is that at the moment we need to develop that technology. We're doing that the Government is spending half a billion dollars in that area alone and companies will spend far in excess of that.

Ian Macfarlane, Renaissance man.
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Monday, September 04, 2006

Peak Oil Primer

I used to think of people who believed in Peak Oil as nutcases who stockpiled food in backyard bunkers and were a little too interested in guns. But after following the debate for a few months, I'm beginning to believe Peak Oil may happen in the next 5-10 years. This is what I have learned...

What is the theory Peak Oil?
Its not the world running out of oil (as many people think) its the point at which oil reaches its maximum rate of production after which production goes into a decline and never recovers.

Why is this significant?
World demand for oil is growing at ~2% p.a. Much of the recent growth in oil consumption has come from the rapidly industrialising economies of China and India. If production cannot be increased to meet demand the price of oil will increase very rapidly. There are obviously many possible consequences of extremely high oil prices and ever-shrinking supply, but this is pure conjecture best left to the Peak Oil 'doomer' sites.

Oil Demand

Why can't oil production be increased?
Most of the world's oilfields that are older than ~50 years have peaked and declined. The 'lower 48 states' of the USA peaked in 1970. The North Sea peaked in 1999. The Cantarell oilfield in Mexico (the 2nd largest in the world) peaked in 2005. There are rumours that Saudi Arabia has recently peaked or will peak soon. Despite all their modern technology, the Americans have not been able to increase oil production in the lower 48 states, and neither have the Brits in the North Sea. I don't pretend to understand the geology, but it seems to be accepted as fact by both sides of the Peak Oil debate that all oil fields peak and eventually decline.

Oil Production

Yes, but they're discovering lots of new oil fields aren't they?
No. The peak year of oil discovery was 1965 (around 60 billion barrels). In recent years they have been discovering around 10 billion barrels per year. For comparison, the world consumes 30 billion barrels per year (~84 million barrels/day).

The gap between oil production and discovery

Yes, but aren't world oil reserves enormous?
Yes they are. 2-3 trillion barrels of oil, enough to keep us going for 100 years at the current rate of consumption. The problem is, once the rate of production goes into decline it cannot be increased (according to the theory of Peak Oil). So we have lots of oil, but it might take 500 years to extract all of it.

Yes, but aren't there alternatives to oil?
Yes. Oil from tar sands, oil from coal, oil from gas, oil shale, biofuels etc. Problem is, none of these technologies can be ramped up fast enough to compensate for reduced rate of production from conventional oil fields. Canada has vast reserves of a bitumen-like substance called 'tar sands'. Billions of dollars are currently being invested in the Canadian tar sands, but even with all this investment the most optimistic estimate is they will be producing 4 million barrels/day by 2010. (Remember, the world uses ~84M barrels/day). In addition, all so-called 'non-conventional' sources of oil are extremely energy intensive. You might have have to burn 2 barrels of oil to make 3. Suffice to say, non-conventional oil on a large scale has disastrous implications for climate change.

What is the mainstream view of Peak Oil?
Most governments and oil companies do not see any problem with oil production until 2020-2030. The mainstream view is that as oil becomes more scarce the market will solve the problem. i.e. Much higher oil prices will drive innovation in fuel efficiency and alternative means of transportation. As the head of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) said recently "If the price of eggs is high enough even the roosters will start laying". Most governments see current high oil prices as a consequence of lack of refining capacity and underinvestment in oil exploration during the 1980s-1990s when oil prices were very low.

Nothing to worry about here

If this is such a serious issue, why isn't it front page news?
Global warming isn't front page news every day either and it probably should be. I suspect governments have been assuaged by the enormous size of global reserves without understanding that (if the peak oil theory is correct) the rate of production must fall even though reserves are huge. Its also a case of the "boy crying wolf" too many times. The doomsayers said oil was going to run out during the oil shocks of the 1970s but everything was fine for 30 years, so it must be fine this time.

Who does take Peak Oil seriously?
Peak Oil is not taken seriously by most governments, oil companies and oil industry analysts, but here are some that do:

Bill Clinton:
Clinton raises alarm about oil depletion

The Prime Minister of Sweden:
Swedish government embraces peak oil and looks towards biofuels

The New York Times:
The end of oil (front page story March 1st 2006)

If you're still unconvinced this is something you should give serious consideration watch this interview with Dr Robert Hirsch on 4 Corners (click the interview box third from left). Who the hell is Robert Hirsch? He was commissioned by the US Department of Energy to write a report on Peak Oil in 2005. This guy just doesn't strike me as a some kind of apocalyptic nutcase.

Still unconvinced? Watch this presentation by Chris Skrebowski, editor of the London Energy Institute's Petroleum Review magazine. Skrebowski is a Peak Oil convert who initially argued against supporters of the Peak Oil theory.

I dunno, I've tried hard to poke holes in the idea, but I can't find too many.
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