Oil Spills, Here and There

We all, I would hope, have epiphanies when we realize certain undeniable facts about the world we live in that challenge or even shatter the comfort of previously held beliefs. I have often said and deeply hold that my world view has been largely shaped by my travels, much of was forced fed to me in the classroom was thankfully unlearned or tempered by experiences in both near and far flung points of this globe.

For example, I came to realize that something was seriously amiss with the American way of life on visits to Detroit and rural Cherokee county in southeastern Kansas. The former was once the world's fifth wealthiest city in 1950, but such is its fall from grace that the Motor City does not even rank in the top thousand today. After visiting Detroit but feeling I had been transported to bombed out Dresden circa 1945, the problems of urban America and the loss of its manufacturing base were all too painfully evident.

My visit to the land of Dorothy demonstrated the devastation of big box retailing upon the landscape of small town America. Hurricanes called Wal-Mart and Home Depot coupled with the rise of industrialized agribusiness have simply wiped out thousands of small businesses and family farms leaving ghost towns scattered across what is for many of us "fly-over" country. Across much of this country, Main Street has been replaced by strip malls anchored by big box retailers on the edge of town. To make the Walton and Tyson families billionaires several times over required the destruction of an entire way of life. And like Gertrude Stein once remarked of Oakland, there is no there there. Towns across America have simply been wiped from the map or are shells of their former selves.

Energy is something most of us simply take for granted. We flip a switch and the lights go on. Most of us are simply unaware of the vast infrastructure and the tremendous effort that goes into making such turning darkness into light an effortless flipping of a switch. But for much of humanity's time on this one Earth of ours, the fall of night has meant a plunge into the darkness and cold of space.

I can remember as a boy walking in the Andes on my grandfather's farm and seeing the night sky full of stars, a view that has bewitched generations of humanity but one that most of humanity is no longer afforded due to the effects of light pollution. Part of my rationale for travelling off the beaten path is simply to gaze up at the night sky to enjoy the spectacle of our universe and to connect with what has so captivated the human mind for millenia. This mania for the exotic less travelled path has taken me to places where by happenstance I also came to see first hand the devastation that my comfort and the ease with which I can turn darkness into light is having upon areas once pristine and though still remote now connected to the world economy and exploited for our benefit with generally deleterious effects for the native population. It was on a visit to the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1994 that I first discovered the dark side of oil, a fact which many Americans are now grasping for the first time but which Nigerians and Amazonians have long had to endure. It's touted as development but it's hard to countenance the destruction of entire ways of lives and the despoilment of wide swaths of the Earth as progress.

Look around you. Just about everything you see is made possible by our ability to exploit the energy that has laid trapped in the Earth's crust. Absent that energy, much of the civilization we have built simply disappears. We live in numbers, now fast approaching seven billion more than doubling in my lifetime alone, only made possible by that exploitation of hydrocarbon magic and its transformation into items we now depend on for our very survival. Ours is the Age of Oil.

We are but 150 years into this Age of Oil but it is increasingly evident that at the present rate of consumption and given present reserves that the Age of Oil is going to come to an end within the space of a human lifetime. The implications, thus, for a civilization built on oil are then dire. But even if we did possess a limitless supply of oil to fuel our growth to sustain the numbers we now total, it should be clear that our dependence on this elixir has had a cost in ways we are only now beginning to fully realize and never will be able to fully discount. Ours may be the last generation to enjoy a bite of tuna or to see a polar bear in the wild if you're so lucky to visit Churchill, Manitoba where they still congregate in numbers every November before heading to hunt on the Arctic ice pack. Eco-tourism is rapidly devolving into a see it before it's gone trade. Such is the world we will leave future generations and I suspect that we will be cursed by them for our improper avaricious stewardship of the planet's natural resources.

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Obama Announces a $2 Billion Investment in Solar Energy

President Obama used his weekly Saturday address to announce the awarding of nearly two billion dollars in Federal funds to two solar energy companies that have agreed to build new power plants in the United States. 

One of the companies, the Spanish firm Abengoa Solar S.A., has agreed to build one of the largest solar plants in the world in Arizona, which will create about 1,600 construction jobs. When completed, this plant will provide enough energy to power approximately 70,000 homes. The other company, Abound Solar Manufacturing of Longmont, Colorado, is building two new plants - one in Colorado and another in Indiana. Abound Solar is expected to receive approximately $400 million in Federal grants.The two projects are funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) approved by Congress in early 2009.

Together these two projects will create more than 2,000 temporary construction jobs, and over 1,500 permanent jobs. While the jobs are welcomed news, the numbers of jobs is effectively incidental given the depths of the unemployment crisis facing the country. More important is the fact the Obama Administration is making a demonstrable effort in creating a renewable energy infrastructure that moves us away from our hydrocarbon-based economy.

More at The Hill.

Senator Graham Pulls Support for Energy Bill

Apparently, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina can't walk and chew gum at the same time legislatively speaking. On Saturday, Senator Graham said that he would withdraw from the bipartisan effort to move a energy bill forward because of concerns that the Democrats would try to push forward with a debate on immigration reform, rather than the energy bill.

The story in the New York Times:

Mr. Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said in a sharply worded letter on Saturday that he would no longer participate in negotiations on the energy bill, throwing its already cloudy prospects deeper into doubt. He had been working for months with Senators John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, on the a legislation, which they were scheduled to announce with considerable fanfare on Monday morning. That announcement has been indefinitely postponed.

In his letter to his two colleagues, Mr. Graham said that he was troubled by reports that the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and the White House were planning to take up an immigration measure before the energy bill. Mr. Graham has worked with Democrats in the past on immigration matters and was expected to be an important bridge to Republicans on that issue, as well as on energy.

Mr. Graham said that any Senate debate on the highly charged subject of illegal immigration would make it impossible to deal with the difficult issues involved in national energy and global warming policy.

He said in his letter that energy must come first and that Democrats appeared to be rushing to take up immigration because of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, including a harsh new measure signed into law in Arizona on Friday.

“Moving forward on immigration — in this hurried, panicked manner — is nothing more than a cynical political ploy,” Mr. Graham said. “I know from my own personal experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy and effort that must be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress.”

I have to admit that I fail to understand Senator Graham's argument on this. Instead of throwing what amounts to a temper tantrum, Senator Graham would serve the nation well if he continued to show the leadership he has shown in trying to forge a consensus on a pressing issue of global importance. This bill is important not just because our economy must reoriented its energy production away from fossil fuels but in fact life as we know it on the planet depends on curbing our carbon footprint. While I share Senator Graham's view that this bill is priority one that shouldn't preclude the Senate from moving forward on multiple legislative priorities. If we can only tackle one issue at a time, our government is indeed dysfunctional.

The Empathic Civilization & The Limits of Globalization

In this talk from the @Google Authors Lecture Series, Dr. Jeremy Rifkin discusses the ideas in his new book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis. It's a massive work of over 600 pages that looks at the emerging view in the biological and cognitive science human nature is empathic based and then recasts human history in that light.

Dr. Rifkin begins his talk with this thesis, one which I largely share:

I believe that we may be at a seminal turning point in the history of our species on this planet. Sounds melodramatic and I won't be here to see it but many of the young people in this room may be a decisive generation. Species come and go. We had two events in the last eighteen months which signal the end game of a great industrial age propelled by fossil fuels that gave us one of the great short-lived civilizations in history.

July 2008, you recall that oil hit $147 dollars a barrel on world markets. Prices soared, inflation roared. Basic items became prohibitively expensive around the world from groceries to gasoline. There were food riots in 30 countries. Purchasing power plummeted at $147 dollars a barrel all over the world. The entire economic engine of the industrial revolution turned off at $147 a barrel. That was the economic meltdown. That was the earthquake.

The collapse of the financial markets sixty days later, that was the aftershock. G-20, G-8, G-2, our world leaders have not yet come to grips with what is really happening to the global economy.

Our fossil fuel energies are sunsetting. Their S-curve is exhausted and the entire infrastructure of this civilization is embedded in the carbon deposits of the Jurassic Age. Our agricultural food is grown in petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. Almost all of our pharmaceutical products are still fossil fuel based, most of our clothes, the entire construction infrastructure of our civilization is fossil fuel based, our power, transport, our heat, our light, our logistics, our supply chain.

What we are seeing is the sunsetting of these energies and the life-support of the infrastructure built on it. That's what we haven't yet come to grips with.

The reason that this is happening is what I call Peak Globalization [that occurred] at a $147 a barrel. There is something called peak oil per capita not to be confused with peak oil production. They are two different things.

Peak oil per capita actually occurred over thirty years ago in 1979 at the height of the second industrial revolution. In that year, if we had distributed all the oil reserves we knew had in to each person on the planet at that time fairly and equitably that would the most oil that each person could have. We have found more oil since then but population grows quicker so if we distribute all the oil we have there's less to go around per person.

There's a lot to chew on in those introductory remarks. I've started reading the book - I am only about a fifth of the way through - but it's clear that the book's clarion call that we must act now before we descend into a madness unlike any ever faced by humanity overwhelms us is a message that needs to get out.

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The Alexander-Webb Nuclear Initiative

GOP Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia unveiled bipartisan legislation aimed at doubling nuclear power in 20 years and increasing funding for research into low carbon sources of energy. Their bill, introduced on Monday, would provide $100 billion in loan guarantees for carbon-free electricity projects, adding to the existing $47 billion loan guarantee program. Although the additional loan guarantees would not be limited to nuclear power, the nuclear industry would likely be the major recipient of the extra money because it is one of the most established low carbon energy sources.

More from Reuters:

The legislation comes as Senate Democrats work to draw more support for controversial climate legislation by crafting measures that would increase support for nuclear power and offshore drilling.

This bill is separate from the climate legislation currently making its way through the Senate, said Alexander and Webb.

Alexander said senators working to advance the climate bill may try to incorporate some provisions from his legislation, but that was not his intention.

Alexander does not support establishing an economy-wide, cap-and-trade system to lower carbon emissions.

"I do believe that climate change is an issue and we need to deal with carbon in the air," Alexander told reporters at an American Nuclear Society conference.

"I think the most effective way to do it is to double nuclear production and to do heavy (research and development) on alternative energy," he added.

The lawmakers' energy bill would cost up to $20 billion over 10 years.

In addition to the loan guarantees, the bill would provide $750 million annually for 10 years to research and development of: carbon capture and storage, advanced biofuels, batteries for electric cars, solar power and recycling used nuclear fuel.

Comprehensive climate legislation that would limit greenhouse gas emissions has run into opposition in the Senate even from some moderate Democrats including Senator Webb who does not back the Senate bill in its current form.

"I have a lot of reservations about cap and trade as a concept," Webb said. "And I have very strong reservations about the notion that we should apply different standards to ourselves in terms of global warming than other countries such as China."

Nuclear energy has two main benefits: it does not emit greenhouse gases and it can be used to produce a great amount of energy. The drawbacks are plentiful. It is expensive; mining and processing uranium is costly, as is the building and operation of the power plants. The average lead time for building a nuclear power is ten years. Though nuclear fission does not release harmful greenhouse gases, the nuclear cycle does produce radioactive waste byproducts that need to be stored for thousands of years. Nuclear power plants also require immense amounts of water to cool the reactors and the industry suffers from a not in my backyard syndrome. Uranium itself is a non-renewable resource whose production is finite and subject to peak theory. In this sense, nuclear is at best a bridge technology, one that buys us time while we figure out and deploy other technologies. Lastly, nuclear power only generates electricity. Thus, it cannot solve all of our energy needs alone though if we concurrently reorient our transportation system off hydrocarbons and onto the electrical grid, nuclear might have a substantial impact in curbing greenhouse gases.

World-wide, nuclear power accounts for 16 percent of electricity. In the United States, nuclear energy provides 19 percent of our electrical needs though the last US nuclear plant was begun in the 1970s and completed in 1996. In the European Union, about a third of all electricity is from nuclear. The most reliant on nuclear energy is France which derives a whopping 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. China currently has plans to build more than a 100 nuclear plants.

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