Thursday, May 19, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (5/19/05)


The previous column in this series explored Hubbert's Peak, the point when the world's supply of available oil reaches the halfway point. This will occur when the diminishing oil supply meets the rapidly rising demand for oil. It is then that we shall be driving our SUVs to the poor house while we live in the greenhouse we have created.

Casual is the word that best describes this nation's attitude toward the looming energy problem. Experts, many with ties to the fuel industry, contend that the world has enough oil to last for many years. And when it runs out, they tell us, we can turn to other sources of carbon fuels. Natural gas can be compressed to run internal combustion engines--until the Hubbert's Peak of natural gas is reached. Sedimentary rocks of the Green River formation found in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, they assure us, contain more shale oil than all the conventional oil in the world.

The term "shale oil" is a misnomer coined to attract gullible investors. And it is not oil at all. It's kerogen, a waxy substance that can be converted into oil if the shale is mined, crushed and heated, an expensive process. Then there are the so-called tar sands and oil sands found in Alberta, Canada, which yield oil at high cost and with a high sulfur content. Coal, one of the dirtiest of fuels, exists in quantities sufficient to last hundreds of years and now produces about half the electricity generated in this country. Most of the mercury already in our atmosphere, oceans and the fish we eat is the result of coal burning.

If, after the supplies of oil and natural gas run out, we begin to burn even more coal, we could create an unstoppable runaway greenhouse effect. The planet Venus is an example of this: space probes have shown that its atmosphere is 96 percent carbon dioxide. Its surface temperature, 867 degrees Fahrenheit, is hot enough to melt lead.

Here on earth, there has always been a natural greenhouse effect, giving us a reasonably comfortable average global temperature of 57 degrees. Our atmosphere, made up mainly of nitrogen and oxygen, is transparent to sunlight, so that the Sun's radiation reaches the surface of the planet in the form of visible light. Other gases in the atmosphere--the so-called greenhouse gases--water vapor, the largest component, methane, carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrous oxides and chlorofluorocarbons absorb the infrared energy reflected from the earth's surface and radiates it back to the earth and into space.

What concerns scientists is that when James Watt's improved steam engine touched off the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere was 280 parts per million. This was roughly the same level it was at when civilization began in the Middle East. Today, it is 378 ppm, a rise of 35 percent. Increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the amount of infrared energy radiated back to the earth, warming the planet. This has caused glaciers and polar ice caps to shrink, generating further warming by reducing the radiation reflected by the ice. There is one possible brake on global warming: because warmer air can hold more moisture, increased moisture may create more clouds that will keep sunlight from reaching the earth, but that will also cut agricultural production.

Is the planet heating up? It would seem so. Climatologically speaking, for many years we have been in the warm period that has always followed each period of glaciation. Antarctic ice cores reveal that our planet is now as warm as it has been in the last 420,000 years. Climate is fundamentally variable, of course, but five of the past seven years have been the hottest years since instrument records were kept. Permafrost in the Arctic is melting, major glaciers are shrinking, the oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, and the range between planetary day and nighttime temperatures is growing smaller.

Little is being done in the United States, the largest emitter of carbon dioxide to reduce CO2 emissions. Moreover, forests, which turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, are being clear-cut at an unsupportable rate. We should create tax incentives for those who improve insulation of their homes or purchase more efficient motor cars. We should expand public transportation. And we must explore alternate sources of energy.

Water power has already peaked. Most stream valleys that could hold reservoirs have already been dammed. Interestingly, water power is not a renewable resource; reservoirs eventually silt up behind dams. Tidal power is untapped. In 1966, France constructed the world's only tidal power plant in the La Rance estuary on the Brittany coast. It generates enough electricity to supply a city of 300,000. Other tidal power plants were planned until the French opted for nuclear power. Geothermal energy using heat recovered from the earth's crust is in its infancy.Solar power, employing panels of solar cells on earth or in space, is a new frontier. Wind power produces less than one percent of U.S. electric power today. Thanks to improved technology and tax breaks, wind farms are now competitive with gas- and coal-fired plants. But even if all nonpolluting alternative power sources were exploited to the fullest, it is unlikely that they could directly replace oil and natural gas.

There are 441 nuclear power plants in the world, more than a hundred in the United States. Surprisingly, environmentalists are warming up to nuclear power, which adds no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as the only viable replacement for petroleum and natural gas. When the inevitable oil crisis occurs--and it will occur--fear of nuclear fission will be overcome by necessity--but concerns about waste disposal and safety will always remain. Nuclear power is not adaptable to vehicle propulsion, although it is fine for moving ocean vessels like aircraft carriers and submarines. Nuclear power can generate electricity to charge batteries for electric cars or make and compress hydrogen as an alternative automotive fuel. There are tradeoffs with every alternative. Although burning hydrogen or using it in fuel cells only produces water vapor as a byproduct, the inevitable release of hydrogen into the atmosphere would threaten the earth's protective ozone layer.

Another form of nuclear energy, nuclear fusion, if not standing in the wings, is hanging around the stage door. Its abundant raw materials are deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen and lithium. The process, which would also not create carbon dioxide, may one day be perfected; it is taking place right now--in the Sun.
Increasing demand for oil and diminishing supplies can only lead to higher and higher oil prices, galloping inflation and global depression. Add to these economic woes a planet made less livable for its growing population by more frequent and more severe droughts and heat waves, shifts in patterns of violent storms, an increase in insect-borne diseases, changes in crops, and inundations of coastal areas and low-lying islands.

A lot of people in their monster suburban McMansions who can't imagine the energy honeymoon going on forever will get hurt. The little people of the world, who have always managed to make do with less, will survive somehow. In the new energy-sparing society, we may see a return to self-sufficient small farms, the resurgence of farm animals, and even the horse and buggy. The Wal-Marts and huge shopping centers will disappear. Their places will be taken by a welcome revitalization of retail trade in small towns. Won't it be great to have an old-fashioned butcher in a white cap, white apron and straw cuffs who knows your name, and a friendly grocer who totals up your few purchases in pencil on the biodegradable paper bag in which you carry them away?


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